I love hearing about business success stories, especially of course those that are related to Bali. This story in particular caught my attention. A Canadian entrepreneur visited Bali and saw the fantastic wood carvings and immediately came up with the idea of using Balinese master wood carvers to build guitars. Here is an interview I did with the founder of the company Blueberry Guitars, Danny Fonfeder.
I first visited Bali in the late 1990’s – I run a Canadian school supply and stationery company that requires me to travel to Taiwan, Hong Kong and China from Canada on a regular basis to source items and visit factories , and one of my friends recommend that I visit Bali as a side trip.
I fell in love with Bali immediately and always tried to take a few days to visit whenever I was in Asia. I was particularly impressed with all the handmade wood carvings and also silver carvings that I saw and I noticed how rare it is to see handmade works of art at such reasonable prices in a world where everything is mass produced.
Can you tell me what gave you the idea to use Balinese wood carvers for your guitars?
I have always loved to play guitar since I got one for my birthday when I was 13 years old, so wherever I travelled for business, I always brought my guitar. On one trip to Bali in 2005, I accidentally left my guitar in my hotel in Hong Kong, so when I got to Bali, I asked my Taxi driver to take me to a music store to buy a guitar that I could play while on vacation. My Balinese taxi driver was having trouble locating a music store, but he finally found a store that had very inexpensive Chinese guitars and I bought one for about $18.00 USD. When I tried to strum it in the taxi, the sound was terrible, and at the same time I looked out the window and saw a few Balinese wood carving shops with their traditional wood carvings in front of the shop. In a matter of seconds, the entire business plan came to me – I would create a company to build the most beautiful guitars in the world utilizing the skill of the Balinese wood carving artists and name it after my youngest daughter, Talia Blueberry. I asked the taxi driver to take me to the most skilled wood carving shop in Bali, and the driver took me to the gallery of Wayan Tuges daughter and son in law.
I introduced myself, showed them the Chinese guitar, and asked them if they would be interested in a joint venture where they would build guitars and I would sell them. They must have thought I was crazy, but they took me to visit their father, master carver Wayan Tuges and he was very interested in the idea. Note that this was in 2005, shortly after the Bali terrorist bombings, hotel vacancies were at 5% occupancy, there were NO tourists and the Balinese economy was really hurting, so any idea would probably have been interesting.
How was Wayan able to make the transition from carving traditional Balinese art to carving wood for guitars?
When I met Wayan, he had never even touched a guitar, but he was eager to learn. We took a saw and cut open the Chinese guitar I had bought earlier that day and we took a look at the construction and different woods. Wayan told me that there was nothing about the guitar that he did not think he could reconstruct, and I asked him to build me two replicas of that first guitar, but to put as many ornate Balinese carvings on the body as possible. I also wanted him to try to make an Electric guitar, so I went to a souvenir shop, bought a refrigerator magnet in the shape of an electric guitar and gave it to Wayan and told him to build something ornate in that shape, but the same size as the acoustic guitar. I gave Wayan a few hundred USA dollars and told him I would return in a few months. I returned a few months later and Wayan had build two bodies of acoustic guitars and one body of an electric guitar – they were very rough, heavy and of course would never play music, but the potential became very clear. I went back to Canada and found a master Luthier from Vermont named George Morris, who runs a highly respected guitar building school in USA called Vermont Instruments.
I asked George if he would be interested in going to Bali and teaching traditional Balinese wood carvers to build guitars. George had been to Bali with his wife Pipa (an artist) in the 1990s, he understood what I had in mind and he agreed. George took a total of about 12 months over a 2 year period to teach Wayan and his three sons to build guitars. I did invest substantially in machinery and equipment from USA and there was a long and painful learning curve if about 2 years before our guitars were “state of the art” and comparable to the best handmade guitars in the world. George was amazed at how quickly Wayan and his sons learned the craft, how quickly the workshop was built and how determined everyone was to make this project work.
Do you think there are similar opportunities in other areas for entrepreneurs to mix eastern and western ideas and skills?
I think that there are many opportunities for entrepreneurs to partner with Balinese artists and craftsmen. Just as an example, look at the link below. We are making hand made guitar stands and selling them quite well to our guitar customers:
Other immediate ideas related to musical instruments could be handmade guitar straps,musicians stools, piano benches, pianos, violins etc. Each of these ideas could utilize Balinese artists to come up with something very special and sellable.
Just as I was able to find a niche for musical instruments, I am sure that similar niches could be found by others in hundreds of other areas ex: eyeglasses, wristwatches, automobile accessories, etc, etc, etc,
The world is so used to mass produced junk from China and the opportunity for an individual to own something unique and handmade is very rare in 2011. The Eastern/Western concept of functional art at a reasonable price is something that will always be valued by people all over the world, and is something that is possible in very few places outside of Bali.
Did you have any problems with the Indonesian government in starting your business and how did overcome them? For example importing wood into Indonesia.
The Indonesian government never caused us any difficulty. I leave all red tape to Wayan Tuges who is well established and connected in Bali, we have 47 people working at our workshop and dependent on our success. Everyone in Bali that we have worked with at all levels have been helpful and encouraging. At first we did bring wood in from Canada and Australia, but there were very high duties and taxes, so I suggested that Wayan to start sourcing Balinese and Indonesian woods and he was able to find the most beautiful woods, many of which had never been used on guitars before.
As I am sure you are aware, you can have the greatest product in the world, but if no-one knows about it, you won’t make many sales. How did you go about marketing your guitars and what did you find to be the most successful?
For the marketing, at first we began attending musical instrument trade shows, looking for customers with music stores. We took beautiful photos of our guitars and placed them in Acoustic guitar magazines – they really caused a commotion in the very conservative acoustic guitar market, because no one had ever tried to carve on guitars the way that we had, and many people were very skeptical about how the guitars would sound and how they would last and if there was a market for us. Fortunately, George Morris and Wayan Tugues got it right, and our guitars sounded as good or better than any hand made guitar in the world, We initially had no success selling to music stores, and out of desperation, we started selling them direct to musicians on eBay actions. there was a lot of positive word of mouth and positive reviews on internet websites and the word got out relatively quickly – you can see some customer reviews from the links below. Today we get over 10,000 visitors to our eBay store each month.
You can also read a lot about the beginning of Blueberry guitars at the following links – these were newsletters originally written in 2008 when we were just starting and it details the trials we went through in our early days.
Thank you for the interview and I would like to wish you all the success in the future with your business.
Danny is looking to expand his operations in Bali and is looking for potential partners or investors in the business. You can contact him through his website: Blueberry Guitars.