By Danny Monahan
Small Business Administration Vermont District Office public information officer
Maybe his guitar of choice is a 1965 Fender Stratocaster. Or perhaps it’s a 2013 PRS Custom 22. Whatever the preference, it can be placed into his hands without him ever having to leave the couch.
It’s not that lifelike, but it’s what the owners of Music Store Live are trying to accomplish with their online guitar store, musicstorelive.com.
“Our goal is to bring the guitar shop into your living room and come as close as we can to putting the guitar into your hands without actually doing it,” said Ben Werlin, Music Store Live co-owner.
Music Store Live highlights its new, used and vintage guitars through high resolution photos and videos.
After a little more than two years, their website has made them one of the largest Fender Guitar retailers in the northeast.
It started in the fall of 2010, when brothers Ben and Brandon Werlin were camping in Yosemite National Park talking about their jobs.
“We are sitting on a boulder under the stars having some beers,” said Ben Werlin. “Brandon has always been involved in selling things on-line and he was looking to hire an assistant. He asked me how he should go about hiring someone. I started giving him some advice when I had an epiphany. I said ‘wait a minute … we should partner up.’ We got really excited about the potential that was out there if we scaled Brandon’s model, and really innovated within it. I came back from my trip and we began making Music Store Live.”
Music Store Live attributes much of its starting success to the Vermont Small Business Development Center.
“The VtSBDC has been great,” said Werlin. “We were referred to them, and they are a totally free resource any small business owner can use. They helped us with creating a business plan and projections, so we could go to a bank prepared with exactly what the bank would want to see in order to approve a loan.”
For their first loan, they were approved for $130,000 and shortly afterwards approved for a $300,000 loan, both backed by the Small Business Administration.
“We first started in my house, but after a few months it became evident we were going to have to move when I couldn’t sit down in my living room,” said Ben Werlin. “Every couch and chair was blocked by stacks of guitar cases.”
In 2011, they moved to a small warehouse by the airport in South Burlington, Vt. As the business grew, they moved within the same building a few months later, with plans to tear down walls, so they can expand more.
Today they have more than a dozen employees.
“We are very happy about the number of local jobs we have been able to create,” said Jeff Santoro, Music Store Live co-owner. “As a whole our employees are doing something they love to do.”
Music Store Live employs two photographers, two descriptive writers, two guitar techs, two shippers, three salesmen, a videographer, an instrument buyer, an accountant, and a digital/IT manager.
“We take high res photos of each guitar from several different angles, so integrity is built into the sale immediately,” said Santoro. “This approach improves customer satisfaction because people see exactly what it is they are buying.”
The videographer spends most of his day in the warehouse’s video studio filming Bob Wagner, their in-house guitarist and descriptive writer playing countless guitars.
For their efforts of bridging the gap between the online and in-store experience, they have been recognized by the SBA as 2013 Vermont Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
The annual award is presented to business owners under 35 who have had success in sales, profits, increasing jobs, having innovative business methods and demonstrating entrepreneurial potential necessary for economic growth.
“Winning this award has made us realize what a team effort this is,” said Ben Werlin. “I’m really proud we’ve been recognized this quickly, but it couldn’t have been done without all of the talented people spending their days here, making all of the moving parts work as well as they do.”
Music Store Live says it plans to continue its mission to reinvent the way people buy musical gear, and this is just the beginning.