So I’m a musician, been playing the guitar for quite some time, and the culture pervades my Facebook feed as such. I always catch myself distracted by some finger pickin’ blues player and his axe, whatever it might be. I also constantly search on reverb.com (think eBay for new and used instruments/audio gear) for a nice new guitar – even if the pricy dream is far off.
But one day this semester I was prompted by Reverb’s Facebook to check out this funky looking guitar, and I became immersed and inspired for my final blog post. The company I stumbled upon is perhaps not a even a company, per se; it’s a classic example. A talented individual finds a niche market and follows up with an entrepreneurial venture of sorts. The twist here is how this guy discovered the opportunity and how he’s chosen to exploit it.
Tony Cochran is someone you might not expect to make custom guitars. His audience knows him as the syndicated cartoonist behind the comic strip “Agnes,” but he is additionally a formally trained artist and body shop expert. One day in 2011, he found himself working on one of his brother’s motorcycles, making it unique, adorning it with “brass and rivets instead of flames and chrome like other bikes.” His brother must have felt inspired because he asked Tony to work on a new guitar of his in the same way. With mechanical experience behind him, Tony made the instrument look outstanding without affecting its playability whatsoever. Today, he’s become an accomplished luthier, riding the momentum of this one brotherly side project and turning it into a craze: “Steampunk” guitar building. Tony combines his artistry with his exacting talent to create masterpieces that look like this.
Since that fateful day in 2011, he has crafted and sold 46 of these beauties at approximately $3500 each, engineered from awesome machine parts, whacky metal, or perhaps leather pieces he can put his hands on. What’s truly awesome is his philosophy and how it pervades his business and social strategy. According to an interview, he likes “visual complexity” and thus, tackles a tasteful disassembly, reconstruction, and reassembly process. But with these maneuvers, he more importantly breathes new life into old, “[taking] guitars that have a history and [giving] them a new history.” Tony accompanies his finished works of art on Facebook and his website with very strange tall-tale descriptions and one-of-a-kind names. They feature people, places, and events that might never have existed or transpired, but they draw your attention. The first one I read made me cycle through a dozen different stories. “Madame Bibi’s House of Happy”…? The guy is a true wordsmith, and his writing style is pervasive. He’s created a stellar brand for himself using an unprecedented offering in the guitar market: incredibly unique and wonderful sounding art, fit for rock celebrities like Rick Springfield.
I spoke briefly before about his philosophy, too. In order to clarify my title, Tony Cochran Guitars will only produce 300 of these instruments. He will eventually disband the craft and potentially move to other artistic trials. Demand is high for his product (like I said, 46 guitars have sold with 10 currently for sale) despite the niche market segment, but he’s clearly just supplementing his comic-strip income. He shares a strong passion for imbuing guitars with visual and metaphorical mystery, but he realistically cannot and will not scale the business. After all, there’s only one Tony Cochran, only one creative mind of that specific caliber for this purpose.
Monetarily, he might be profitable (at least I hope he is), but the margin is rough. He’s absolutely not picking up quality instruments for less than half his retail prices. He might spend $1500-$2000 on the guitar itself. After a month of sporadic evening labor on one project, he might amass about 24 hours. Technically, he’s approximately doubling his money at point of sale, but a luthier of similar custom work sees six-figure pay. He’s not charging properly for the labor cost, which might run 30% of the retail price. I’m no expert, but one could possibly argue that raising his average price tag to $5000 would not affect demand. His buyers are wealthier collectors and they can likely afford it. Obviously in no rush to complete his next guitar, Tony could probably take a higher cut, but that’s not what his strategy calls for.
His simple website and quirky Facebook presence accurately capture his uniqueness and provide transparency about his work. It’s just one guy doing what he loves. Almost 10,000 Facebook likes makes his following sizable, and I’m sure the whole limited concept feeds into his enigmatic nature. He will have an impressive and sought-after collection under his belt after he sells #300, and history will tell the rest of the tale.
Maybe social media for businesses isn’t about the cash every time, after all is said and done. We’re always trying to value tech companies and judge innovations based on the value they add for investors, their bottom lines, their yearly EBITDA margins. But Tony Cochran reminds us all what we were told as we entered college, and I think it’s fitting for the last informational post I will share with you guys. You have room for your passions in life, and if you don’t, you should clear the time for them. If you can make a buck in the process, great, and if you can live on it, that’s the dream. However, social media can seriously help you share your stuff with the world, regardless of your personal bottom line.
“Money: it’s a crime. Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.”