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Cranky music business makes it big

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Tom Bugs took his interest in ‘electronics, randomness and chance’ and turned it into a £70k business that sells to customers worldwide.

So how did a Bristol musician come to run BugBrand, a VAT-registered business with a global customer base?

“I studied technology, maths and engineering at college. And I played standard instruments in a lot of bands. These two influences led me to experiment with electronics for music.”

Tom had been using computers for his solo music, but wasn’t entirely satisfied with where this was going.

“Computers only do what you tell them to. I started opening up sound effects boxes and playing around with the circuits inside.

“I was interested in creating an element of chance. I wanted random events that I could react to live on stage. So I started building stuff that would allow for a sort of controlled randomness.”

Tom’s experimentation with circuits eventually led to his first ‘proper’ commercial design: a batch of five devices. These were sold for £60 or £70 each to musicians he’d met through his involvement with the Cube Cinema here in Bristol.


Hand-made sound device from BugBrand

“I had one box left over, so I put it on eBay open auction. The bids crept over the £70 mark and then at the end there was a flurry of bidding and it ended up going to a guy in Australia for over twice what I’d been originally asking. That was a bit of a lightbulb moment.”

As he continued to build and experiment with music devices, he gradually started to think he could make the work into a business.

At about this time Tom discovered BRAVE in St Pauls, and attended a free half-day seminar about starting a business. He then enrolled on a more in-depth, three-day course. I asked him about the experience.

“It was a good environment, with several people at a similar stage of development as me. We all realised that, while running your own business wasn’t going to be easy, it just might be possible.”

My own experience in talking to entrepreneurs is that people make their own luck. Yes, you can be in the right place at the right time (Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers if you need convincing). But the people most likely to succeed in business are the ones who seek advice early. Indeed, the stats back this up: businesses that took advice from their local enterprise agency are 30% more likely to survive Year One in business.

I asked Tom how he went about marketing such a niche business.

“I got interested in a lot of weird musical equipment and I suppose I hung out on a lot of geeky forums for people who liked that kind of thing. So I was learning all the time – and I was promoting myself, too. Most of the marketing is word of mouth gained from hanging out these communities. But I do also keep mailing lists and do mail-outs when I make something new.”

Things have moved up a gear for BugBrand. Now producing a growing range of devices, Tom has employed part-time help to keep up with orders.

BugBrand became a limited company in March this year. At the same time sales tipped over the VAT threshold.

“One downside to the business growth is the increase in admin. The form-filling is a real hassle. Still, we are doing pretty well for a cranky music business!”

Tom has managed to make a living from what he loves. But many talented painters, musicians and makers never manage this. Why can’t they make their art commercial?

“Well, I think that any artistic development should include some form of small business training. You don’t have to be ‘business’ about it – rather than saying you need to ‘network’, see it as meeting interesting people, and ‘marketing’ is just sharing the joy of what you have made. Just as with painting or cooking, I see it as important to learn some basics so that you can then tweak things to your own desires.”

Not many creatives manage to stay true to their vision and make a living at it. Tom’s sharp commercial sense has built an extraordinary niche business out of transistors, circuit boards and dials.

I’m always looking for interesting business stories. Maybe I can raise your profile? Please get in touch – thanks.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Koozai Mike 22/06/2011, 11:17 am

    The amount of great business concepts coming out of Uni is excellent. Definitely a lot more is being done at Universities to help get students thinking in that way – my business degree practically screamed “Set up your own business” in most lessons.

  • Mick 22/06/2011, 1:36 pm

    That is very encouraging, Mike (love your blog BTW). My own college training was sadly lacking in that respect. The only so-called business advice we got was, literally, a hoax. That story is actually a good anecdote but far to long to recount here. Cheers! Mick

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