TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — “Why didn’t I think of that? It’s so simple!”
That cry of every would-be inventor doesn’t apply to Chad Smith, because he did think of it. But he also put in the decade of development, design, manufacturing, patent applications and more, including tens of thousands of his own dollars, to get his award-winning guitar gear to market.
Smith, owner of the Alcove International Tavern and a guitarist, has been marketing his line for about five years, but just began exhibiting last year at one of the biggest industry shows, the National Association of Music Merchants summer event. Last month, his Option Knob Inc. was named Best in Show for Best Add-on or Accessory.
“It’s a really great product at the right time,” said Frank Alkyer, publisher of Music Inc. magazine, who was moderator for the Best in Show selection committee at Nashville’s NAMM. “Chad has got his act together. He knows what he wants to do. He’s got some options.”
Although he’s been working on his inventions for years, Smith was surprised he won so quickly, having played with the big boys for only a short while.
“I’m still stoked,” he said. “It’s a pretty huge achievement. The first time they told me, I thought it was just a prank.”
Smith expects to get even more notice when the major guitar magazines come out with coverage of NAMM this month.
“For being a small guy, a little entrepreneur, to start with this outside-the-box idea, to be able to get up on that radar is really huge,” Smith said.
He won for a line of devices that look like wing nuts and can be snapped on in place of dials. There’s the Option, or O-Knob, a glow-in-the-dark Glow-Knob for easier on-stage visuals and the V-Knob for guitar volume.
They don’t reinvent the guitar or the effects pedal, but they make it easier to change settings. Most guitar effects pedals rest on the floor and are foot-operated, with a button that is tapped to engage. But the settings, the parameters of each effect, are usually one or more small dials too tiny to adjust with a toe. Guitarists typically either bend down and twist or just set it close and hope for the best. Smith’s O-Knob and Glow-Knobs snap over those dials and make for easier adjustment by foot.
The V-Knob serves a similar function. Electric guitars have volume knobs built on the body, but players generally have to stop what they’re doing to make a change. Smith’s V-Knob extends the reach so a guitarist can latch on with a pinky and change volume while still playing.
“The O-Knob actually came to me in a dream,” Smith said.
He had been trying to work around the dial-adjustment issue by Velcro-ing a delay pedal directly to his guitar, but that still involved moving hands away from the strings.
“One night in a dream, I was playing my Small Stone phaser pedal and hitting some kind of wing with my foot,” he said. “In my dream, I was hearing the effects getting more and more modulated.”
The next day he visited his dad’s garage and borrowed woodworking tools. He cut out two pieces of wood, glued them together and drilled holes, not forgetting to hit the wings a lick with gaudy gold spray paint.
Early on, he built a black knob with two large wings. One wing became smaller than the other, for an easier visual guide to setting.
The knobs overall became smaller, so if a guitarist is using one or more pedals in line, they don’t bump into each other. Smith ended up making them silver, and then glow-in-the-dark, because black was harder to see on stage in dim or changing lighting.
The first potential investors Smith sought didn’t see the vision.
“They would, in essence, laugh at my knob,” he said. With every year that passed, he feared looking out to see someone else had beat his idea to market, but frustration just fed the fire. So while working and later as he opened Alcove, Smith kept at it on nights and weekends, putting sweat and money into his ideas.
The patent process alone cost about $6,000. Another $10,000 went to craft the original steel molds.
“And that’s not producing any units, that’s not packaging, that’s not putting up a website to do e-commerce sales,” he said. “There were a whole lot of costs with no guarantees it would ever get going.”
Even though he could cut costs by outsourcing to China, Smith keeps as much of the Option Knob work at home as possible. Injection-mold manufacturing is done at a plastics plant in Albertville, then the works are packaged in San Diego and shipped back to Smith, who in turn ships to distributors. E-commerce runs through his site www.optionknob.com.
From business studies at the University of Alabama, Smith knew it typically takes five years from market to a measure of success for any new line. He may be just ahead of the curve.
Over the past year, his line has been picked up by two international distributors, reaching into 35 or so countries, and added by Guitar Center, a chain with more than 250 stores in the U.S. alone, as well as others. In Tuscaloosa, Option Knob Inc. products are available at Guitar Gallery and Tuscaloosa Music Service.
Any money he’s made thus far has gone back into the business, but it works out because the Alcove is up and running well, Smith said. Manufacturing costs are increasing, but he’s seeing risks pay off.
“I expect to be breaking even this year. By the end of the year, I should be into true profits,” he said. “I want it to take a foothold in the market, to be a standard option, something a guitarist always needs, like a pick or a capo, the little knick-knacks or accessories players use on a regular basis.”
The Best in Show award should be a big boost for Smith, Alkyer said.
“When you walk into a music store and say ‘Do you want to carry this line? It won Best in Show,’ that’s an automatic. It says other retailers have endorsed this. For a new business, a start-up venture, it’s almost like that Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It’s got that cache to it,” he said.
Alkyer’s seen many young inventors with ideas, but few who have the drive and marketing savvy Smith does, he said.
“He stuck with it. He’s like a dog with a bone,” Alkyer said. “He’s got a wife, he’s got another business, he’s playing music, but he’s still taking the time to look at the packaging and wonder how it’ll look on a store’s wall, how it’ll look to a guitar player.
“It took him a long time to get to market, but now he’s literally got three products spun off in the same concept. It’s how all manufacturers in this industry get started. They start out small in somebody’s garage. Hartley Peavey started out in the back of his dad’s garage making an amplifier. Somebody bought it, so he built another. Somebody bought that. … 40 years later, it’s Peavey Electronics (one of the largest music equipment manufacturers in the world).
“It’ll be interesting to see where he is in 10 years.”