JamStack creator finally hits the right chords with his smartphone guitar amp

There’s nothing Chris Prendergast likes better than rocking out. But his instrument is the electric guitar, which means that when he wants to jam, he has to round up his amp, cables and foot pedals to hear his music they way he likes it — loud, with generous helpings of reverb, echo, delay and other audience-pleasing effects.

Why, Prendergast wondered, couldn’t he jam with his electric guitar as easily as the folkies do with their acoustic axes? So the 29-year-old Toronto science teacher, physics grad and musician devised JamStack, a portable device that combines software, a smartphone and a Bluetooth speaker to bring effects, amplification and portability to the electric guitar. “Up till now,” he says, “the equipment for electric guitars was meant for performance. But most guitar players spend a lot more time practicing than playing. So this will save them time and hassles.”

But turning a prototype into a sustainable business is no job for a solo performer. Fortunately, Prendergast plays lead guitar in a Toronto band, so he understands teamwork. The way he’s collaborated with mentors, advisors and creative suppliers demonstrates how under-resourced startup entrepreneurs and local support systems can make beautiful music together.

Call it the School of Rock.

Prendergast first combined music and technology four years ago when he drilled a hole in one of his guitars to mount a speaker and electronics right on the body. He 3D-printed an iPhone mount to provide shredding effects, through music apps such as AmpliTube. “My friends were blown away,” he says. “I could take my guitar anywhere, and I could produce any sound I wanted.”

My friends were blown away. I could take my guitar anywhere, and I could produce any sound I wanted.

But his idea languished, in part because none of his friends wanted him drilling into their guitars. Then, two years ago, a group of Australian designers and musicians unveiled the Fusion Guitar, “the world’s first iPhone-integrated guitar.” It was Prendergast’s concept, but transformed into a one-piece, thickset “smart” guitar. The Fusion was launched through a US$60,000 Indiegogo campaign that ended up raising US$500,000. Introductory priced at US$399, the Fusion will cost even more when it’s available for sale, probably later this year – but even the inventors admit it’s more suited to practising than performing.

All of which made Prendergast blow the dust off his idea, realizing he offered a much cheaper solution. The epiphany, he says, came when he realized he could attach and detach his brainchild – essentially, a Bluetooth speaker with smartphone mount – to any guitar via the shoulder-strap button.

Peter J. Thompson / National Post

To bring his vision to life, Prendergast knew he needed help. VentureLAB, a regional innovation centre in Markham, Ont., provided advice on such issues as funding, intellectual property and business plans. They also provided two crucial referrals. One was a law firm that helped Prendergast apply for a provisional patent, a temporary but affordable tool for protecting his intellectual property rights. The second was Toronto-based Cortex Design, an industrial design firm that could turn his brainchild into a working prototype — and thus launch his own crowdfunding campaign.

The Cortex team was enthusiastic about Prendergast’s idea, but quoted $30,000 to produce a working prototype. “That wasn’t in my price range,” he says. But Cortex founder Dylan Horvath surprised him by proposing a partnership. If Prendergast could pay part of the cost upfront, his firm would do the work — and bet on getting its money back from the proceeds of JamStack’s crowdfunding campaign. Prendergast eagerly accepted.

(Entrepreneurs, take note: Horvath says Cortex’s goal is to work on cool projects that enhance people’s lives: “We’re looking for products that solve specific pain points, or provide moments of delight.” He says his firm often finds creative ways to partner with startups – in some cases, even trading its services for a slice of equity. “It aligns us toward the same goals,” he says.)

Cortex’s risk paid off. Aided by slick ad copy and videos, some of them showing professional musicians rocking with JamStack, Prendergast’s Kickstarter campaign last fall raised $81,000 on a target of $25,000. (The deal priced the JamStack at US$229.) That total was more than enough to move ahead with final design, moulds and tooling, with production scheduled for late spring at a factory in China, with which Cortex has worked before.

But Prendergast now wishes he had more funds, to finance more inventory and gain more clout in negotiating last-minute upgrades. He also wants extra products to give to professional musicians for an “influencer” marketing push: “Musicians love to get cool stuff.”

So he’s planning another crowdfunding campaign, this time on Indiegogo, in April. The goal is to raise another $80,000. “The more clout you have,” notes Prendergast, “the more you can put your foot down (with a manufacturer) and say, ‘No, that’s not the component I want.’”

Prendergast is also planning a tactical marketing change. “Last time, we didn’t showcase the problem,” he says. “We were very good at focusing on what JamStack can do. But we did not show the struggles of someone trying to play without the Jamstack: setting up the pedals, carrying amps, looking for an outlet. That means we only sold to the people who already understood that problem. Now we know we have to spend as much time talking about the problem as we do about the solution.”

Prendergast estimates he has now invested $80,000 in JamStack. Asked if this is a business he can build by himself, he says, “I don’t know. I’d like a partner. I’m definitely looking for an investor.” To start, he has a date with Dragons’ Den when the CBC show resumes production next month for the fall season. Besides VentureLAB, he is also working with mentors and potential investors through Ryerson University’s Transmedia Zone incubator, and taking pitch lessons from Innovation Guelph. Prendergast is taking his schooling seriously. “This is not a product,” he says. “This is a business.”

Rick Spence is a writer, consultant and speaker specializing in entrepreneurship.



Source link