Lotus Pedals - Partial Bloom
By Team HC |
Lotus Pedals - Partial Bloom
The pedal business isn't for the faint of heart ...
by Blake Wright - Gearphoria (adapted by Team HC)
IT TAKES MORE than a nose for solid circuits to build a successful pedal company. Sean Erspamer knows this now. When he launched Lotus Pedal Design almost eight years ago he was delivering excellent-sounding pedals, but in raw box enclosures with no labeling beyond a color-coded knob scheme that folks couldn’t wrap their collective heads around. After some aesthetic adjustments, Lotus took flight, but the fickleness of the gear masses, the struggles of being a one-man show and the draws of a full-time day job have kept the company from achieving its full potential.
THE PEDAL business isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be as ruthless as it can be rewarding. While the barriers to entry are low, the barriers to success are much more challenging. It takes dedication, persistence and product. Sean Erspamer at Lotus Pedal Designs had all of these when he took the plunge in 2009, but he did so with the safety net of retaining a full-time job at a high-end pro audio equipment manufacturer in northern Minnesota.
Sean giving a Snow Job pedal a thorough check
“The pedal thing started when the band I was in earlier on got back together for a reunion show in like 2009,” recalled Erspamer. “I had sold off most of my gear. I had one electric guitar, one acoustic guitar… no amp anymore. But if I was going to get the band back together, I was going to need some pedals. So I bought a boutique pedal from a manufacturer I won’t name and it didn’t work. So I took it into work and opened it up to take a look. I was like, really? This is all there is to it? I’m used to dealing with microphone preamps and compressors and EQs with 3,000 parts in them and this had seven. It took about three minutes to trouble shoot. Isolate the problem. Get the part. Fix it. And all along I was thinking I can make something better than this.”
The Workbench...where the work is never ending - vintage stereo and all
That thought lead to a fit of tinkering in the basement and emerging with three different circuits. A quick call to a friend and a few test drives later and there was a sale… only Erspamer didn’t take the money. He gave the friend the pedal. He did really have any interest in that particular circuit as a product. Not long after, word started to spread around Duluth that their was a new pedal guy on the scene.
“Folks started asking for a pedal here or a pedal there,” recalled Erspamer. “Then came ‘You should start a business!’ That sounded like a great idea… I mean, there can’t be that many people doing this, right? Right!? So I start Lotus Pedals… incorporate, go through all of the legal mumbo jumbo to get up and running and find out there are 5,000 guys doing this… not 50. When I started I had no clue as far as marketing… advertising.”
Initially, Erspamer thought it would be original to simply use raw box enclosures and let the knob colors tell respective clients (and potential dealers) what the pedal did. That was a mistake.
“I was going to be original,” he said. “Right… try and sell that to a store. Looks like a clone. We don’t want to carry that. What does it do? How do you tell which one is which? They all have different color knobs! So I changed the look and committed to $1,200 a month in advertising, which almost bankrupted me.”
It was his time at Crane Song that gave Erspamer the confidence and tools to move forward with Lotus. In his 20s he worked at a record store and played in a band that often toured the mid-west. While at the record store, he also owned a small recording studio with a 16-track, one-inch analog tape machine. After a purge at the record store, he was left with the studio as his main mode of income. The owner of Crane Song also owned a recording studio and would sometimes farm out tape transfers and such to Erspamer. Before long, he was offered a job, and even though he didn’t know anything about electronics, he took it.
“I start working there over a 90-day probation period,” recalled Erspamer. “Some how I made it through that. Over the course of time, Dave Hill, who was the designer their started giving me electronics lessons once a week. I would go Wednesdays from noon to 2pm and he’d pull out handbooks and teaching me basic electronics. I did all the tech support for anybody that buys the gear, all of the testing, alignments, etc… I learned how to do electronics there.”
Lotus had a growth spurt not too long after refreshing the aesthetics of the pedals. In his best year, Ersparmer shipped 620 pedals — and that’s as a one-man operation. However, the MI business tends to run in cycles and just as sure as the good times come, the tough times are likely not far behind.
“Last year, in July, I didn’t sell a single pedal,” confessed Erspamer. “Nothing.”
His best seller to date has been the Snowjob Underdrive, which just over 200 units in the wild, followed by the Ice Verb. Funny thing about the Snowjob? It’s not one of Erspamer’s favorites.
Erspamer's trusty Traynor and Fender Amps used for testing every pedal
“It was done as a distraction because I was stuck on the thing I was actually working on,” recalled Erspamer. “So I did something simpler to get my mind off the other project. Built one, gave it to a buddy of mine… and he said it was the best thing ever. You’re not getting this one back, but make me another one because the other guy in my band wants one too. Really? Let me hear that one again! I got it back and played it and yeah, I can see it… but not for me. I’ll take the Purple Boost over it any day of the week on my personal board. So I made the second one and they were like you need to get graphics and release this one, it’s incredible… hence the name Snowjob… not my favorite. I like it. I’m proud of it, but… sometimes I just don’t get it.”
The down times have given Erspamer pause once or twice… like maybe the pedal business isn’t really for him. He confesses that he’s no salesman, which he also confesses has likely contributed to the company’s flatter-than-expected growth curve. So, has he ever thought about stepping away?
“I’ve contemplated it,” he said. “Two years ago I had double the sales that I forecasted. It took me six months to get caught up over the previous year. I had no time to work on anything new. This is very much a fashion industry — to stay relevant you have to keep putting out new stuff. I’ve got two, three things that I’ve been working on for a year and a half, but I can’t get them to the point to where I like them yet.”
One of those new pedals is the Frostbite Fuzz, which at press time was still under development.
Erspamer recently left his gig at Crane Song after 15 years. He is now working assembly for Cirrus Aviation in Duluth. -HC-
Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.