Rohan Hill and Ian Jorgensen are having so much fun running their boutique audio equipment firm that no amount of money could make them sell.
Wellington electronics manufacturer Synthstrom Audible can only just keep up with demand for its flagship product.
Engineer and musician Rohan Hill developed the portable Deluge synth/sequencer/sampler – “in my bedroom, before it was even in the garage” – to help him make his own music. “I thought it would take a couple of months to build, I’d start using it for gigs. I had absolutely no concept this could become a commercial endeavour.”
That was 2014. Today the boutique firm is selling thousands of the $1400 devices and has a loyal international following. It has curated a two-disc vinyl compilation featuring tracks from users – including New Zealand artists like Peach Milk and Drunk with Power, a project by Matt and James of Beastwars – and will launch the album with a world tour of events early next year. Unsurprisingly, the startup’s success has garnered the attention of investors who’ve made it some attractive offers.
But fame and fortune are not where Hill and project manager Ian Jorgensen’s interests lie. “When we started I spent a good six months, a year, talking to so many people in the Wellington region, all these different startup companies, and everyone’s question was ‘what’s your exit strategy?’” Jorgensen says. “It was such a weird thing. I didn’t understand why people were starting these companies just to make money, as opposed to starting a company because that’s what you want to do.”
So what is this gizmo with the flashing lights that looks as if it would be at home on the Starship Enterprise? The Deluge is a battery-powered portable device that provides a musician with all the tools they need to construct and perform music, Jorgensen says. It has a drum machine, built-in synthesiser, sampler and microphone, and it can sequence and arrange parts of songs. “It means you don’t need a computer to do everything you want to do with making a song. You can write songs from anywhere.”
There are similar products on the market, but the Deluge’s standout feature is that it has a thing called a piano roll interface. “It’s the way people generally interact and create music on a computer. It means visually you can see all the pitches and length of time they take. There were no portable devices out there which had this.”
Demand for the Deluge hasn’t let up, and thus far the firm of six has been able to sell directly to customers through its website. However, as Synthstrom Audible grows, it may start using intermediaries in harder-to-reach markets, Jorgensen says. A distributor in the former Soviet republic of Georgia contacted him just recently, for example.
In the early stages the pair endured all the usual rushing around and meeting of deadlines that goes with establishing a new business, and found they weren’t enjoying it. They now have the business at a point where they’re happy with it, and although they would like to continue to expand they are well aware of the headaches that come with that. “We’re employing our friends, we’re having a good time, we’re not stressed, it’s doing better than we thought when we first started,” Jorgensen says. “What’s important to us is taking our time to grow at a reasonable rate, rather than just try and anticipate and cross your fingers and borrowing money.”
Hill was able to fall back on his own savings to spend a couple of years developing the Deluge. “The real investment was my time,” he says. In January 2014 he drew a sketch of the device he wanted to create, and in that first year it was just a sequencer that would talk to other instruments. He didn’t even know how to make it produce sound itself, and turning it into a business seemed like a distant prospect. “Selling 10 to friends, that was as big as the dream was. Then in mid-2015 Ian came on board and convinced me we could make this a company that could make money.”
The pair works well together. Hill is the software and hardware engineer, while Jorgensen has long experience as a music publisher and events organiser. They have always been immersed in the Wellington music scene, and it was to this community they turned when developing their fledgling product. “We showed the first prototype to 20 musicians over the space of a few evenings at a local studio and asked, ‘what do we need to do to make you buy this?’, Jorgensen says. “We went away and made a dozen of them in 2016. Then we went through the same process again.”
Finding ways to spread the music of emerging artists is at the core of Hill and Jorgensen’s philosophy, and Synthstrom Audible funds various events particularly those that raise awareness of minorities. Its upcoming series to launch the compilation will see it hold seven New Zealand parties and then events in Australia, the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and Norway.
“Making a multi-billion-dollar company wouldn’t make me happy but having a company that has parties around the world and gathers people and has a really good time, that’s how I can enjoy my life and be happy,” Jorgensen says.
“We’ve had the right people put in really good offers [for the company]. There is literally no amount of money that would make Rohan sell. He wants to do this.”
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.