"Part of me feels like success is if you wake up every morning happy and healthy, there is no reason to ever need anything else. The other part of me goes, success means money, it means influence, it means power, it means respect. It means a sense of accomplishment. I struggle with that every day."
DISCOURAGEMENT & BEGINNINGS
John R: We got discouraged many times. It's like being in a band, we had no money, surrounded by gear all the time, doing what you love but also hoping that some vehicle or some engine would facilitate taking that to the next level. I kept having new experiences and meeting new people and selling guitars to bigger and bigger names but there were times where we didn't eat or pay rent.
There were times where there was literally not a dime around. I think the only thing that kept us going was that we were just having so much fun, and that's not necessarily sustainable, but for a good four or five years the sheer enjoyment of what we were doing kept us going through very hard times.
WHAT SEPARATES RONIN?
John R: I think at the end of the day it's just the subtlety of our approach to building and the little traces that you make that add up the finish, the hardware, the way you shape the necks, the decisions you make on the whole thing. It's the little things that add up to put your stamp on it.
John R: In the turn of the century and up to the 40’s and 50’s, the logging companies would cut the old-growth Redwood trees down, which is, of course, kind of a shame, an understated shame. I think the world’s ironies come full circle where you can take something that was a travesty a century ago and repurpose it into something else that breathes life into the wood. In one sense, you get some satisfaction by repurposing something that should have never been cut down in the first place and repurposing it into something that’s pretty special.
You’re not salvaging and reclaiming this just to say you did, you’re doing it because it actually sounds amazing. It actually has a purpose and it’s not just to say you’re using salvaged woods and be cool and hip and green. It’s because the wood really is that special and that magical.
I think it was Bill Sims Junior who was a customer of ours in New York, a wonderful guy. He said -- I think his comment was something like, “It just sounds broken in. It just sounds old.” A lot of times, wood like wine gets better with age if it’s taken care of. Musical instruments that are never played start to get a dead sound to them. They want vibration going through them. That’s why old instruments that are beat up and heavily played are usually the ones that sound pretty good. I think the sound of redwood is that it sounds like an old broken in piece of wood the moment you string it up.
CHALLENGES AND STRUGGLES
John R: The biggest challenge with our business is probably cash flow, at the end of the day. We've never gone into debt once. We've been approached by a few different people to try to buy us out. Our own, "I got $5,000" Wayne's World episode. You never know if you're going to get paid on a month-to-month basis. For 10 years straight, there's no guarantee of a check at the end of the month. We just basically work and hope and basically the universe just somehow took care of us every month, some way or another.
One of the lowest points for Ronin, and myself, was actually about six months ago when we had to leave our shop because it was sold. The building was sold and we had no place to go and about 30, 40 custom orders to finish up, and we had no shop. I had to actually stop all custom orders. I think I refused over $100,000 worth of business over the last nine months just to makes sure that I could deliver on what we’d promised. That was a pretty terrifying moment. Thankfully, it took about three months but we found a new shop space and got back to work but there was a moment there that I was like, "This is it. It's over. Without a place to work, I can't complete these obligations."
It's one of the scariest things about the business model, is when you take someone's money, it's a half-down payment. It can be sometimes between $3-, 4-, 5,000 of somebody else's money and you've promised to deliver this product six, seven months, maybe a year from now. It’s a lot of responsibility to make sure that you run your business correctly and you manage your cash flow properly because someone's basically entrusting you with a bunch of money. That business model has actually ruined a lot of guitar companies because they weren't able to deliver so that was a pretty scary moment. I could give you a thousand of those.
WHAT'S THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE RECEIVED?
John R: “No matter what, never ever sell out.” Meaning you're going to get approached, you're going to get opportunities, you're going to get people that want something from you.
He just basically sat us down and said you guys are on to something, always make sure that it's yours, make sure that it's on your terms and don't be tempted by money, don't be tempted by investors, don't be tempted by anybody singing a song that you know in your heart is not to your advantage. It seemed strong harsh advice at the time but I think it sunk in its own special way. I think it helped us navigate some waters over the next few years and kept us on the right path.
John R: The biggest break for Ronin was, most certainly, being introduced to David Torn. He emailed us out of the blue one day while we were working in California and wanted to come visit our shop in New York City. David’s a prolific musician responsible for many wonderful films scores, and an incredibly innovative guitar player. The guitar that he wanted from us challenged us to basically reinvent a pickup design from the 60's that we had access to at the time.
That request from David fueled the fire for us to understand pickup making and pickup design and it took us over a year to develop this pickup for him - the foilbucker - which is now the foundation of our entire company. That’s our pickup. The original prototype is still in his pink Mirari that we built for him. From there, that pickup has formed eight different pickups designs now. We've never used another pickup since. It was basically a challenge from David Torn saying, “Hey if you guys can come up with a way to make this hum-bucking and build it into the guitar that I need, I'll play it.”
WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE FOR SOMEONE LOOKING TO MAKE A CHANGE?
John R: Save your money. Save your money and lower your overhead and get out.
John R: I'm pretty excited to transform Ronin into a pick-up business and start selling the designs that we've come up with. I think it's the next phase for us. The income that we'll get from that will allow us to pursue some pretty wild builds that we've been interested in. Izzy and I have always talked about building an arch-top out of redwood, for about 10 years we've talked about it. To do that, it’s going to require a lot of tools, a lot of jigs, and a lot of time to sit down and perfect that. I think that'll give us some freedom to be even more creative and tackle some larger projects.
- John Reed, Ronin Guitars