Interview with Jamie Stillman and Julie Robbins from Earthquaker Devices

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Jamie Stillman and Julie Robbins are respectively founder and CEO of Earthquaker Devices. I can imagine the suprise of the usual readers of this blog to see an interview of a guitar pedal maker leading team. Likewise, I can imagine the surpise of guitar gear geeks.

Two things to shed some light on this unlikely intersection. First, I am passionated about music and I am in love with electric guitars (I wrote a few articles on that topic already).

Second, the tagline of this blog is Organization cultures in the 21st century. Though not a startup “aiming at owning the world” (smile), Earthquaker Devices checks all the boxes of the 21st century dream company : a local shop building hand made products, immersed in its community ; looking and souding like a rock band ; creating quality jobs for the music/art industry based on craftsmanship and engineering ; with a very strong image in terms of “products with an opinion”, products employees can be proud of ; fostering online communities with a unique voice and aesthetic vision to distribute their products worldwide ; getting an award for best US exporter SMB in 2019 in the process.

What’s in it for you ?

If you’re a guitar nerd, you may find here some information on how to test your ideas as business hypothesis and organically grow your products international reputation on a niche market thanks to online marketing.

If you are interested in business and management, you may find here three types of insights. To start with, how to use your unique voice to be heard and to engage fans worldwide. Then how to investigate what counter-culture is in its expression and work values. In his essay The Rise Of The Creative Class, Richard Florida suggested that the digital culture is the intersection of Weber’s protestant work ethic and counter-culture, hence San Francisco as the ideal birth place in the late 60s : Earthquaker Devices is a great incarnation of that culture.

Lastly you can see how an agile spirit helps in scaling your business in a creative industry. EQD has naturally adopted many lean/agile pratices : short feedback loops in innovative product development ; flexible people trained to be able to build any type of products ; adjust every weeks the type and volume of products to build depending on customer demand ; close relationship with distributors worldwide to improve the whole value stream ; people and customer focus.

The essence of Counter-culture in a 2.87 x 5 inches colourful box

For the record, guitare pedal business is a US$200 Million market with 4 main brands (Boss, MXR, TC Electronic, Electro-Harmonix) getting 60% of the market.

Today’s teenagers have a far deeper knowledge of pedal brands, sounds and effects that I used to at their age thanks to the internet. Leveraging online communities, small brands can communicate and distribute their products world wide.

The nice paradox is that the advent of digital has somehow seen the death of digital EQD-Logo_czkye2sound technologies (rated too cold and lifeless) and revival of analog (vintage, and warm) “boutique” (hand made) guitar pedal shops : Zvex (whose story has been discussed on Basecamp blog), Catalinbread (whose 5F6 – analogic emulation of Fender Bassman amp – has been the corner stone of my pedal board), Old Blood Noise Endeavors, greek brand Jam, T-Rex from Denmark, french brand Jacques (you can tell from the terrible logo font type they are french – we have a very poor design culture) and Akron, Ohio based Earthquaker Devices.

Joining the EQD Army

I was first introduced to Earthquaker Devices by David, my brother in law and partner guitar player in our band Supernormal. David has a very thorough knowledge of guitar culture and alternative bands. He bought the Hoof Reaper V1 double fuzz pedal when he joined the band in 2014 and, to tell it bluntly : I was dead jalous.

Fuzz is way beyond guitar effect : it’s a myth. To start with it is VERY noisy and VERY loud. There is this primal propension in each guitar player limbic system to make a lot of noise. Second it is an effect not anly saturated with gain but also with historical references, from the I Can’t Get Know riff (initially it was supposed to sound like a horn section) to David Gilmour solo in Another Brick in the Wall, not to forget Smells Like Teen Spirit thunderous riff. I immediately fell in love with David’s rig tone but also with the look, the elaborated logo, the octopuss icon and the intriguing name of the brand.

From that point onwards, I only had one idea in mind : spangle my pedal board and the band sound with EQD effects. I have been investigating extensively their products and their history and I grew a real interest in the story of the founder of the company, Jamie Stillman.

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Chief Tinkering Officer

Jamie has been a guitar player in many noise / punk bands and a tour manager for The Black Keys the mythical band from the same hometown : Akron, Ohio. Still working as a graphist, Jamie started tinkering guitar effects in his basement in 2007, selling pedals via gear forums.

Dan Auerbach from the The Black Keys has been using the Hoof (first pedal made by Jamie) and this has given a major boost to his products. Since then, Earthquaker Devices has grew to a 50+ company (including Elsa the dog).

Fostering online communities for worldwide guitar gear fame

Online communities have been the bedrock of EQD marketing : this is where the brand with the octopuss took off. From selling pedals on guitar forums to running a very high quality blog : I could watch the #BoardtoDeath or #ShowUsYourJunk series all day long – the one with legend producer Steve Albini is a definite must see.

The pedal maker publishes video and interviews of artists using their products (and other brands as well, it’s OK). EQD also make minimalist no-nonsense handsome videos to promote their products, such as the one of the Depths that get me ordering it. Check out how uniquely intriguing yet fun the opening theme tune is : another artefact of the brand voice.

They also benefits from having their products visible (and audible) on Youtube famous shows such as JustNick (who rated Acapulco Gold as the lonely island pedal), That Pedal Show, Anderton’s Chappers and the Captain (who made a dedicated show), not to forget the demos by the online guitar hero Andy Martin with his unique finger picking technique. Andy has recorded more than 2000 pedal demos and has elevated the exercise to a genuine art form. Check-out the ones from Avalanche Run or Plumes, the latter have been released last year and has ranked in the top seller new pedals last year.

Now having the luck to interview the leadership team of a rather cult brand that I personnaly love is a huge honor. Ladies and gentlemen, please welome Jamie Stillman and Julie Robbins.

Founding an inspiring brand

Jamie, Julie, thank you so much for your time. It is a huge honor for this blog to share this interview. At what point did you become confident enough that your passion for guitar tones and electronic tinkering had become an actual business ?

Jamie : I would say around 2008, that’s when I was selling a pretty steady amount of pedals each week and had a good amount of dealers. That is also when we officially registered as a business.

What was your strategy to survive on such a saturated market with guitar tech giants such as Boss on one hand and all the other boutique makers ?

Jamie : As far as designing pedals goes, I always just make what I think is cool and don’t really worry too much about what other people are doing or where they think the industry is going. We are all in the same industry and we all have the same problems, we try to be friendly and supportive with everyone and I think that is key to maintaining the industry of guitar effects as a whole. Sticking together. There is more than enough for a million more pedal companies.

“We are all in the same industry and we all have the same problems, we try to be friendly and supportive with everyone and I think that is key to maintaining the industry of guitar effects as a whole. Sticking together. There is more than enough for a million more pedal companies.” (Jamie)

What did the prize for best SMB exporter of the year changed within the company ? What has been your strategy to become such a strong exporter ?

Julie : It was really nice to be recognized for our hard work! That is not why we do it, but it was a very nice feeling. We were all really proud to win an national award. We were nominated by our local Small Business Administration (SBA), who wrote a very strong application on behalf of our company. They highlighted the charitable work we do, the success we have seen, and our attempts to reach international markets in creative ways. They also recognized that we utilized a lot of the services they had to offer, such as export training, financing (to purchase our building), and grants to help with the expense of translations. Our strategy is to find good partners and find ways to localize our brand in international markets. We like to work with artists, translate manuals and marketing materials, and find events we can participate in. We work hard to be a good partner to our distributors and dealers, with fair practices and lots of individual attention.

“Our strategy is to find good partners and find ways to localize our brand in international markets. (…) We work hard to be a good partner to our distributors and dealers, with fair practices and lots of individual attention.” (Julie – CEO)

You have just accomplished with Earthquaker Devices what many entrepreneurs dream of : a local company immersed in its community ; creating quality jobs for the music/art industry based on craftsmanship ; with a very strong image in terms of “products with an opinion”, products people can be proud of ; getting awards for best exporter SMB. Was it something you ever dreamt of ? What was your “business plan” (sorry) for EQD when you started ? 

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Jamie : Thank you! I did not have a business plan when I started EQD, it was really just a hobby for me for the first year or so. I had no outside funding or anything like that either. I was self-employed with a couple good paying jobs and I just used whatever money I could to buy parts and keep building. I’ve always kind of been a more creative type than a business type but I’ve played a little of both as best I could with everything I’ve ever done.

There is a massive Youtube media scene around guitar pedals with online personalities such as Mick and Dan from That Pedal Show, Stephan from Pedal Zone, Just Nick and 21st century online guitar hero Andy Martin from Pro-Guitar-Shop and now Reverb. In what measure these new shows have helped the growth of the brand and the company ? When will you feature in That Pedal Show ?

Jamie : I think a lot of people look to the YouTube demo artists to find new sounds and settings. They are extremely helpful to us. We make our own demos and they really show the intentions we have with the pedals but it’s always nice to see what different players with vastly different styles will do with them. I think it helps customers make decisions, not everyone plays the same so it’s good to have the variety of styles. As for That Pedal Show, they have never asked but I’d gladly do it if they do.

Leading and managing

How easy is it to run a company completely immersed in counter-culture and, therefore, anti-corporate culture ? (corporate culture is not a guarantee of efficiency, rather the opposite actually – yet you see my point). How easy is it to tackle operational issues with the team ?

Julie : Most of us came up in a punk rock kind of way. Instead of taking a predetermined path laid out by business school, we learn our own way. We learn from our mistakes or problems and find ways to make things work better. Our staff is very dedicated and hard working! We live and breathe by our values, and make our work life pleasant. Everyone takes their responsibilities quite seriously, but we do like to laugh while we are doing it. Efficiency is very important, and we look at that closely. But we don’t worry about things that are not important to the function of our company or our customers. We don’t have anyone to answer to but ourselves, and we want to do the best we can – for our employees, customers and community.

“Instead of taking a predetermined path laid out by business school, we learn our own way. We learn from our mistakes or problems and find ways to make things work better. Our staff is very dedicated and hard working! We live and breathe by our value.” (Julie – CEO)

Have you been tinkering with your processes and operations just like you do with your pedals or did you have a clear idea of how things was supposed to run or do you let your teams organize ?

Julie : I can tell you that everything is a process that requires us to evolve. We have a clear idea of the way things should ideally run but you always have to make little tweaks on a daily basis to readjust and keep things on track. We do have departments and the department managers are responsible for keeping their areas on track. We are lucky to have so many smart and responsible people working with us.

How do you plan your weekly production ? From actual orders or from estimates ? Do you end up with stocks of built unsold products ?

Julie : We still build to order every week and we rarely have any stock on the shelves. Our sales and production managers get together on Fridays and look at the orders that came in and then decide what needs to be built and who does each task for the following week. We generally build and ship about 1500-2000 pedals per week and it involves about 30 builders so it’s a VERY involved process!

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How are you organized : are people flexible such as they can produce any pedals or do you have people experts in say Avalanche Run that won’t do Plumes for instance ? 

Julie : Everyone, even administrative staff,  is trained to do all the tasks on the production floor so they can move to where they are needed. That said, we generally keep the same people in the same areas though (PCB population, assembly, quality control etc.).

You went in a few years from self-employed to a 50+ company. What are the most complicated issues you have faced with such a growth ? How did you tackle them ?

Julie : As of today, we have 49 employees and a few job openings! One day in 2012 I hired 8 people the same day, and all but one is still with the company today. We were always willing to bring more people into the family, and not deterred by any administrative or financial burden that may come from hiring more people, such as the requirement to provide benefits. In fact, we offered benefits long before it was required of us.

We go through cycles of growth – demand grows, we hire more people and/or improve our efficiency, and catch up. But it doesn’t stay that way for long, and we are in the cycle again. We have made some improvements in our processes that allow us to be more efficient but still maintain our high standard of quality.

“We go through cycles of growth – demand grows, we hire more people and/or improve our efficiency, and catch up. But it doesn’t stay that way for long, and we are in the cycle again.” (Julie)

Designing Products

Your products are often rather avant-garde (Arpegiator, Rainbow Machine, Dirt Transmitter …). Why did you decide to explore the “middle of the road” TS-808 territory with the Plumes ? And how did you came up with such an awesome enhancement of the original product ? (it has replaced Catalinbread 5F6 after 6 years as the always on pedal for me)

Jamie : Thank you! While my musical tastes lean heavily toward experimental/noisy/heavy, I’m really just a rock guitarist when it comes down to it. My favorite effects are dirt pedals like the tone bender and fuzz face. The Plumes was an idea I had back during the development of the Palisades. Designing a TS808 based pedal was something I said I would never do back then, lol. I thought there were too many of them and I was more concerned with making new sounds but it turns out, people love the TS808 and there’s room for a billion variations on it! I chose to release the Palisades because it was a way more interesting take on the 808 with a ton of options. I kept coming back to the circuit that became the Plumes, there was something about it that I really liked and it was very simple. Hard, if not impossible, to dial in a bad sound. I started using it on my pedal board and after a few years of constant use, I finally decided that we should add it to the line.

I’ve read in one of your interviews that your main achievement has been to enter the digital technology landscape with Arpanoid. How an electronic “amateur engineer” as you define yourself, managed to enter this new territory ? What has been the most difficult in the DSP programming and integration ?

Jamie : It wasn’t really the engineering behind the Arpanoid that I view as an achievement, it was the effect itself. I just really wanted something like that for me to use, lol! As for learning DSP, I’m an amateur at best. I have worked with a couple really great engineers on pedals like Afterneath, Avalanche Run, Pyramids, Arpanoid, Pitch Bay, Dispatch Master and the Organizer. When I work with those engineers, I have a clear idea of how I want the pedal to sound and function and I work hand in hand with them to create the final products. In most cases, I designed all the analog circuitry in those effects. The pedals I did on my own were the Rainbow Machine, Spatial Delivery, Night Wire, Aqueduct, Transmisser and a few more that haven’t come out yet. I also hired an assistant, Matt Marton, a year or two ago and he has been helping move us forward with more advanced programming for future releases.

“When I work with those engineers, I have a clear idea of how I want the pedal to sound and function and I work hand in hand with them to create the final products.” (Jamie)

Last but probably the most important question : any reason why your lights are so flashy ? I have to cover them otherwise they are blinding me !

Jamie : They look good cutting through the fog! If your band doesn’t use fog, you’re doing it wrong.

Lol ! Awesome ! Thank you sooo much Jamie and Julie. Keep on rocking, we love your products and it makes our pedal boards proud !

See the video bellow telling the story of the company.

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