Delve Talks: Jonathan Spangler, Ciari Guitars | Delve
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Delve Talks: Jonathan Spangler, Ciari Guitars

February 25, 2020

Delve Talks is a podcast that digs into the challenges around design, product development, leadership and innovation. Our second season continues to explore how to create a culture that supports innovation through interviews with leaders of startups, educational and banking institutions, and multinational corporations.


Dave Franchino [00:00:00] Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to another Delve podcast focused on innovation. This afternoon, I'm really excited to be talking to Jonathan Spangler, who's got a really varied background, currently the principal and founder of Spangler Advisory Services, but more appropriately for this conversation. He's also CEO of a really fascinating startup, Ciari Guitars. Jonathan, I know you've got 20 years of experience that started in the legal world, but a lot of business experience in patent law and medical device industry. So first off, I just wanted to welcome you and thank you for taking time to talk to our listeners today.

Jonathan Spangler [00:00:36] I'm more than happy to be here, David. Thank you. And yeah, this is exciting from our standpoint as well.

Dave Franchino [00:00:41] Great. You know, Jonathan, you've got such a fascinating background. Rather than try to tell it myself, could you please walk our listeners through the history of your career and how you got to where you are right now?

Jonathan Spangler [00:00:56] Sure, I'd be happy to. So basically, I got my undergrad in biomedical engineering with a minor in electrical and was exposed to patent law while at Marquette University in Milwaukee for that undergrad degree. Yeah, I just happened upon patent law as a profession. It really piqued my interest because it has a lot to do with, obviously, innovation and I like -- I love really -- and I still do the notion of innovation and trying to stay on top of, you know, what is new and improving in the world and certainly being a part of it by helping people protect those good ideas. And so, yeah, I practiced patent law first with a couple of law firms in Minneapolis, did litigation, prosecution, and eventually because I wanted to be close to the actual business side of things I went in-house. And so I ended up being chief counsel at a couple of companies, one that was a startup when I when I started NuVasive, a spinal medical device company in San Diego. And, you know, we grew from 30 employees to 2,300 during my tenure there. 

You know, it was a rocket ship. It was super-duper fun. And again, innovation was was one of the reasons that we were able to be so successful. So it was at my time at NuVasive, this spinal medical device company in San Diego, that really exposed me to not only innovation but market-making innovation. And those were two critical parts, epiphanies, if you will, that that helped guide what we've been doing here at Ciari Guitars.

Dave Franchino [00:02:53] So, you know, one of the common denominators was the energy you sort of focused around startups and innovation curves and a lot of areas. But what particularly drew you to startups, both in the early part of your professional career and then now is you've sort of taken the plunge in yourself to run and start your own startup?

Jonathan Spangler [00:03:13] Sure. I think primarily it was being being able to influence and really help guide. And have a genuine impact on getting some technology to the masses or getting it out there. And so I personally found that being part of a team to help demystify and, you know, iterate your way towards addressing all the challenges in order to take that idea and make it a reality and then have people buy it and then it proliferates, like, you know, it's very, very powerful to to know that you were a critical part of something.

Dave Franchino [00:03:57] Sure. That makes a lot of sense. So obviously, you know, a while ago you started a very different direction a couple of years ago. You made a decision to launch your own travel guitar and with a startup called Ciari, can you walk me through the story of that? Where's the motivation and history behind that interesting diversion?

Jonathan Spangler [00:04:19] It's somewhat incongruent with the rest of my career unless you peel back a little bit. One of the really enjoyable aspects of NuVasive was that our CEO had our quarterly meetings in the format of a Tonight Show. And so he was the host. And it was, you know, we'd have all the employees in one room and and they would be the studio audience and then the guests would be maybe a doctor or patient or the V.P. of sales or the CFO or what have you. And it was a playful way for us to be transparent and share the key metrics that we were all driving towards to the company, but do it in a fun and playful way. Well, he knew that I played guitar. For the podcast listeners you can't see, but I have a physical resemblance to Paul Shaffer from David Letterman. And so I jokingly say that he tapped me to be the Paul Shaffer of our company band.

[00:05:28] Now, my day job there at the company had me traveling a ton. You know, global travel for a variety of business development lawsuits, depositions, meeting with inventors, surgeons, you name it. And so what I had to do is basically travel with my guitar in order to practice enough to be, you know, somewhat competent for these quarterly meetings. And so that's where I first experienced the pain points of guitar air travel. And then, you know, I researched the options out there and realized that the options that were out there did not meet my, you know, my satisfaction. And then, frankly, it was under my nose this entire time. I've been telling people forever, if you don't like your options, make what you want and maybe someone will want it, too. And it took my own travels, literally and figuratively, to kind of bring about my own advice to myself and that's what led to it.

12 Delve Talks Spangler
"Don't let somebody else find out what's wrong with your product. Make it. Do it. Figure it out." — Jonathan Spangler

Dave Franchino [00:06:46] Tell me a little bit, though, about taking the plunge. Because I think a lot of people can relate to sort of finding a personal pain point or frustration. I think your advice is great and that, you know, you find something that you don't like and you serve a need. But then, you know, you researched it. You found there were options out there, although they weren't very good options. What did it take for you to sort of say, OK, this is it? This is really something that I'm going to throw my energy and passion behind? Did it happen at once or did it sort of happen over a period of time where you sort of convinced yourself that there was something here?

Jonathan Spangler [00:07:24] It was it was over time. And for me, you know, and this is probably a unique opportunity that I have. But I basically started the patent process first because I knew and I studied all the other patents out there, I studied the market. But I also had a day job at the time. I was still at NuVasive. And so in order to de-risk it and just to see how the market unfolded and so forth, there wasn't a burning urgency. You know, just to be clear, and I think everyone would agree, our product is a nice-to-have. It is not a, you know, it's not a must-have. And so, you know, I didn't take too dramatic or drastic any, you know, burn-the boat-type tactics. But I started the patent process. And then really we had the first patent before we had the first prototype. And then after I got the patent, I thought, now I know that if I invest time and money, I know that I can at least keep people away from it, you know, I can protect it to make sure that I monopolize this and can capitalize and get the investment back. But, you know, that said, we didn't know if the if the design would work. We really didn't have a design at all, right? And you guys were a critical part of bringing this from a patent into a prototype into now a product.

Dave Franchino [00:09:00] One of the things that fascinates me, Jonathan, is every innovator, every leader, brings certain skills to their tasks. And then there are other areas where they're going to have to fill in or learn new expertise. And you had a lot of assets. Being a patent attorney strikes me as an intentionally or very significantly valuable asset for a startup. And you did certainly have a background in innovation and startups through your professional career. But I have to assume that the design and engineering and manufacturing of a guitar and the building out of a music-based business would have been new. How do you go from that idea to something you feel you can really bring to the marketplace?

Jonathan Spangler [00:09:43] Well, to first of all, I have to agree wholeheartedly. It was absolutely new. You know, loving guitars, and being frustrated with guitar air travel is one thing. But yes, building a business and all of the myriad, you know, challenges in things that have to be mastered was sequential risk mitigation.

[00:10:05] First one, the patent. After that, decided to invest in the prototype. Looked line hard at what this guitar needed to do to meet our design objectives. Really, the marketing objectives. And again, for the listeners, if they're unaware, our guitar folds mid-neck away from the playing position and folds into a state that can go into a backpack that can fit under the seat in front of you during air travel. And so I point that out because absolutely most critical to our endeavor, the success or failure, is the design of that hinge. And so we basically did a very, very focused study on the feasibility of a hinge to fold mid-neck. And that's where through, you know, good fortune, our paths crossed. And and so we engaged Delve to help ideate, generate several different concepts for the hinge. And then we we basically picked a horse. We tested that and improved feasibility as to that very, very critical component. After we reached feasibility there, the next step was designing the other mechanisms that are required but aren't as unequivocally critical as the hinge. And so, sequential risk mitigation.

Dave Franchino [00:11:40] Jonathan, there's a couple of areas of your experience that I think our users might be particularly interested in. One is that you're blending a personal passion of yours with your business endeavor. And I'm curious, you know, what your perspective is, what things you've learned about sort of something that is so passionate to you, the making of music, and then turning that into a business. I can see areas where I think that might be an advantage and areas where that might create kind of risk for the entrepreneur.

Jonathan Spangler [00:12:12] Sure. Great question. And yeah, I think you definitely need to balance, you know, the passion has to have ... There has to be a market and so, you know, and that's something that is if you're going to market make, you have to have as we are like we're market making in terms of we have created for the first time a gig-ready, pro-play travel instrument, which you may know was recently ... our goal was recently validated by Guitar Player magazine when they for the first time said, yes, the Ascender is the first pro-play professional guitar. If you are going to pursue your passion and for it to be a market-making endeavor, you had better be extremely committed and you have to have the capacity to accept all the people who are going to tell you you're nuts to do it, right? Or even the people who say, you know, that's a terrible idea and is it really a problem? And, you know, you have to get thick skin and just know. It's like you see the oasis out in the distance, know that it's real, and let all the noise pass by.

Dave Franchino [00:13:38] I think one of the things that's always impressed me about you, Jonathan, is you have passion for the business, which gives you that drive and motivation but you've also had the business instincts and the business acumen to back that up, which I think is a really, from my perspective, an important balance in doing something like this. I'm curious, you know, you had a fair amount of experience, what's been the most surprising about your experience with Ciari? Going into it, you'd seen startups, you'd been part of them growing. But I'm sure some of this was new for you, being kind of in charge and this being your endeavor versus one you were signing on to. What's what have been some of the biggest surprises?

Jonathan Spangler [00:14:23] I would say probably just how challenging it can be when you're trying to marshal, you know, it's really supply chain management and marshaling all these various players to be on the same page and the same timing and the same level of urgency and so forth. You know, where you are a startup, you're going to need to rely upon third-party manufacturers, find the right partners, and hat's something that I think everybody is going to bump their head on a bit as they just start their journey.

[00:15:09] You know, I probably spend more time ... I just literally drove and dropped off parts for plating and gave the platers a demo so that they could understand how cool this product is. So that when I deluge them on Monday with, you know, the 90 percent that, you know, that remains to be plated they're going to go the extra mile for me because they understand that it's a cool thing. So it's driving relationships and managing all the other variables that can be out of your control, doing your best to influence them.

Dave Franchino [00:15:49] I think there's something really magical in what you said there. And you actually took the time and effort to make a little bit of your passion the passion of some of the other people who are involved in that. I know you did such a great job with our team here that worked on that. And one of the real advantages you have, Jonathan, is it is a pretty evocative product for those our listeners, and we'll make sure we have some links to it. It's certainly an exciting industry and exciting product. So it's not not a hard product to get passionate about. You did say something there that I wanted to drive into and it was particularly interesting to me.

You talked earlier about market making and we talked about that, the fact that this was a new product that didn't exist. But just recently you started to talk about I'll call it manufacturing making or supply chain making, that there wasn't a readily apparent existing supply base that was ready to produce these products for you. Obviously, there are manufacturers of musical instruments, but I suspect that the additional complexity of one that has the unique mechanism of Ciari sort of takes that supply chain and whittles it down a fair amount, if not in its entirety. When did you first realize that manufacturing was going to be a challenge? And what advice or learnings do you have that our listeners might find interesting in working your way through that?

Jonathan Spangler [00:17:14] I would say one of the single biggest learnings in this entire journey has been you're never going to know until you do, right? Action is going to equal knowledge and you're going to learn things that are far from what you expected. And so, yeah, it's been the single most constant thing is every time we try something and do something, even scaling from prototyping to initial-run manufacturing, there's always something that is different and there's always something that you learn.

[00:17:52] And so, you know, the classic analysis paralysis that a lot of people in businesses get into where, you know, they want to make sure that everything is absolutely perfect and is risk mitigated as possible before they start cutting chips or what have you. Life is going to, you know, intervene in ways that you just never expected. And so, you know, if I look at all the things that we have bobbed and weaved over time ... And I'm grateful for everything that went wrong. I'm grateful because I found it out early or in a way that would allow us to be the first to understand it so that we can mitigate that risk or make a design change or whatever it is. But, you know, don't let somebody else find out what's wrong with your product. Make it. Do it. Figure it out. And, you know, going back to the supply chain, that is the double-edged sword of innovation is that you may have a product that simply doesn't fit into any box. And so, yeah, we absolutely had to spend a lot of time and continue to work with supply chain to make sure that we have the right people from the guitar perspective and then the right people from all the folding technology perspective. And, you know, you might have multiple vendors in both those camps. Anyway, yeah, if it was easy everyone would do it, right? I suppose that's a barrier to entry in some aspects.

Dave Franchino [00:19:44] Jonathan, one of the things that I've admired about you is you've got a strong strategic vision and yet you're at a point in the process right now where I assume that a lot of your day to day is filled with some very tactical activities -- firefighting, working with suppliers, trying to forward the marketing. What have you learned about trying to maintain a longer-term strategic focus on the future business of Ciari and balancing that with just trying to get the day-to-day done and keep the doors open and the lights on?

Jonathan Spangler [00:20:20] Excellent question. And you're you're spot on, I would say, more than anything. It's trying to be very disciplined on time management and know that you have to lock out some time for, you know, for the longer-term items and projects that need to be part of your your week or your month, lest you end up a year from now and you've done nothing but fight fires the entire time. And so, yeah, I would say it's the near-term firefighting with the fire prevention strategy and it's not easy, but it's just time management.

Dave Franchino [00:21:09] I obviously won't ask you to share anything confidential, but now that you've launched the Ascender and it starting to get its sea legs, what's next and how do you plan on turning Ciari from a product into a company?

Jonathan Spangler [00:21:26] Sure. So basically we launched our pre-sales of the Ascender in July at Summer NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) in Nashville. We make the guitar in Nashville. And ultimately, right now we're making and starting to deliver on the first wave of the pre-sales. We have been extremely excited about certain events and opportunities that have availed themselves.

[00:22:00] You know, we take pride in not only innovating on the guitar, but also how we're getting the guitar into the hands of potential customers. And in the marketing associated with that. So exciting things that are coming down the pike.

[00:22:16] Well, we recently launched in five stores. There's a new company called b8ta. They have 18 stores nationwide. And basically it's a startup out of the Bay Area in California. They saw a void in the market where direct-to-consumer products and companies still need some sort of venue where people can come try their products. And so we are now in Austin, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Pheonix, Arizona.

[00:22:53] That took place November 15th. So that's, you know, anybody listening out there in those geographies stop into a b8ta store. It's like Sharper Image meets Apple Store. Really cool form factor. Great technology in there. And it's not a guitar store it's a technology store. And so there's that. We are probably in the first quarter going to be launching the first ever in-airport experiencial marketing -- a free guitar lounge at the airport here in San Diego. We got into the innovation lab here at the San Diego International Airport. Really had a highly successful two-week test in the summertime. And so we will soon have, you know, in airport guitar lounges where you can just sit, grab a headphone and the iPad, have an Ascender and relax. We're super excited about that.

[00:23:59] Yeah, I think fundamentally, you know, where like 2019 was getting the message out and starting the manufacturing, in 2020 is on execution and really delivering and then getting in the hands of artists and starting to prime that particular pump.

Dave Franchino [00:24:21] Jonathan, it's really exciting to see you innovating not just in the design and manufacture of a really incredible product, but also in the distribution and marketing of that as well. I think that's exciting to see you looking at some nontraditional means to promote this unique product. I'll maybe close our conversation off with asking you for what advice you would give somebody who's listening to this and is maybe inspired or motivated to start up their own company. Or maybe how would you suggest people sort of evaluate their own lifestyle and opportunities and decide whether or not they're ready to take the type of plunge that you took with Ciari?

Jonathan Spangler [00:25:04] Sure. So the way I see it, you know, first off, you know, you have to have a product or an idea that is that is not just serving you, right? That's serving, you know, that there's some common denominator between yourself and others. You know, music's a powerful force. I knew that I couldn't be the only person who wanted to travel with a quality instrument that was hyper convenient. So, you know, make sure you're you're pursuing something that has a market to it. Tons of patents out there, probably 90 percent of patents at issue are on products that never see the light of day because they're ideas that may not have a market. So make sure that you're doing something that will have, you know, a genuine large-scale impact.

From there, it's risk mitigation. So knowledge is power. You can search on Google patents. You've got the, you can do that. You can do some patent research for free. But don't stop at the patent research. You know, Google other products out there because there will be other products out there. Make sure that you have something that's differentiated and better than those other products. And so, you know, risk mitigation, differentiation. And then, if you can chip away at those ... I mean, I filed the patent in 2012. I chipped away at it nights and weekends until 2016 when the patent issued and I decided to leave my day job. So now, there can be some wing walking, you know. That served me. I am a risk mitigator by, you know, by profession. But I would say once you chip away and you start getting yeses to some of those those questions, then you start to look at taking those those steps like maybe filing for a patent.

[00:27:40] You know, I also was was fortunate to have really smart friends who are great engineers. I brought them into the tent and we had for the first probably five years we had activity and efforts going on there. But it was, you know, based on equity participation, sweat equity, you know? Participate and you get some equity in the company. Use the cards that you have. And as a founder, equity is a card you have. Once you get to a certain point, you can go no further with that. You know, you might have to invest some money.

[00:28:23] I will say I did not take one dime of outside money until we hit the feasibility because I value friends over money a thousand times out of a thousand. Even though I had friends who wanted to, saw my passion, thought it was a cool idea ... I didn't want to take a dime until we made sure with Delve's help, that, yeah, this thing has a chance. So anyway, there's a lot there but fundamentally, you know, get educated, mitigate your risks, and that at some point you've just got to take some chances and have the perseverance to follow through.

Dave Franchino [00:29:07] Jonathan, great advice and a lot of great nuggets for people who are listening along. I think your story has been very inspiring. I hope it inspires people both to look more creatively at what they're doing and maybe a few of them to take the leap and try something along the lines of what you've been able to accomplish. So thank you very much for the conversation. I'm really grateful.

Jonathan Spangler [00:29:29] Thank you, David. And thanks to Delve for helping me get to where we are.

Dave Franchino [00:29:33] Once again, my guest has been Jonathan Spangler, who's the CEO of Ciari Guitars. We'll make sure to include some links on this podcast to a really exciting and innovative new product and also some examples of people playing some fine music with you. So, Jonathan, congratulations to you on your success. Best of luck to you going forward.

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