A conversation with Bohemian Guitars


Cool idea. Electric guitars made from oil cans. Inspired by street musicians in South Africa.

The guitars look great and—according to every review I’ve read and every video I’ve seen—sound great. (I’ll be able to say more once I get my paws on one of them.)

You gotta love their story. Shaun Lee sees street musicians in the townships of his native South Africa playing guitars made from scrap metal, including oil cans, and has an epiphany: produce electric guitars out of branded oil-can bodies; make them available at a low price (starting at $299!) to large numbers of people; and contribute some of the profits—and some of the guitars themselves—to music ed programs around the world. Then get launched through Kickstarter, the crowdfunding program.

Last week I caught up with Mark Friedman, the company's CBO, to ask him a few nosy questions about his new company. (CBO, I assume, stands for Chief Bohemian Officer.) The following is an edited version of our chat.

Me: Can you give us the quick version of how you came up with the idea for Bohemian Guitars?

Mark: Shaun was traveling through Johannesburg after graduating from the University of Georgia and fell in love with how the oil-can guitar sounded and he immediately felt the strong connection the instrument brought him to his homeland. When he arrived back to the US he knew he had to build one and got to work on it immediately.

Me: Do you have employees already? Do you subcontract the making of the instruments?

Mark: At this time it is just the three of us. [Ed. note: Adam Lee is CEO and Shaun Lee is COO.] All the instruments up to this point have been made by us, by hand. We now have some manufacturing help in place that will allow us to greatly increase our output to keep up with demand, while continuing to assemble all of our guitars by hand.

Me: You've already separated yourself from the pack with a radically distinct product design. Your "social action mission around music education" is potentially as unique and ambitious. How’s that coming?

Mark: During our very first meeting we knew music education was going to be a cornerstone of what we did. We wanted to give the gift of music to as many people as we could, whether it be people who bought our guitars, or those that receive our donated instruments or benefit from our guitar auction proceeds. In 2012 and 2013 we were able to donate a small instrument for each guitar we sold through our website. These instruments primarily went to schools with underfunded music programs and to Boys and Girls Clubs to start their own music programs. We also donated several guitars to music therapy or music education organizations that used them as auction pieces for fundraising.

Me: Will you be doing more of that in the future?

Mark: We have some exciting programs in store—one of which being "Far Out Friday"—which will see one guitar donated for every guitar we sell on Fridays. We hope to expand this program one day, but for now we cannot be more excited about being in a position where we can donate our Bohemian Guitars to music therapy and music education non-profits worldwide. We are also in the process of adding a new sustainability initiative in 2014 where we partner with an organization to plants trees in African countries to benefit local communities. Our outreach programs continue to evolve as we gain a better understanding of where our resources can be best used.

Me: Do you have long-term goals—if you don't mind sharing them—for the size and impact of your company?

Mark: We have been building steadily on our foundation to get us to the point where we are at today, but have learned to keep plans fluid and never get too set in our ways. It is incredible to think how far we have come—building in our parents' basement—and how far we still have to go.

Me: Have you lined up sponsorships or endorsements with any celebrity musicians yet?

Mark: We are in the works of lining up an official sponsor, but our guitars have been in the hands of many musicians around the world from ZZ Ward to Of Monsters and Men to Robert Plant.

Me: And Urban Outfitters is now carrying your guitars?

Mark: We are honored to have our guitars offered online at Urban Outfitters. I think you will be seeing us around in other places as well in 2014.

This Marietta, Georgia startup is currently onto their third round of funding. They raised $54,233 via Kickstarter earlier this year, then $129,400 through Georgia's SparkMarket equity crowdfunding site, and are now raising money on Fundable, a crowdfunding site for accredited equity investors.

Will they make it for the long haul? Well, they certainly seem to have the business and design talent. Then there's the usual checklist I apply to predict the success of business teams and rock & roll bands...

1. Do they have a bold vision—and the drive to achieve it? Check.
2. Are they absolutely passionate about what they’re doing? Check.
3. Do they have something uniquely distinct to offer? Check.
4. Are they relentlessly innovative? Check.
5. Are they fiercely independent-minded, doing things their way? Check.

You can judge for yourself at Bohemian Guitars.

I always want a musical instrument to SPEAK to me. I guess Bohemian Guitars just did that.

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