Matt Atlas

Unlikely Entrepreneurs Turn Hobby Into Lucrative Export Business

Two Brno art students have done what many people dream about: turning their hobby in a business. In this case the two passionate musicians built their own musical kit in the form of boxes. They initially offered workshops explaining the DIY process and then started to sell the equipment. The result is a multi-million crowns business which exports to the four corners of the globe. But founders of Bastl Instruments Ondřej Merta and Václav Peloušek still like to see themselves and the business mainly as a community of musicians rather than as a conventional firm. I initially asked Ondřej Merta to describe Bastl.

ʺWe are a company that is focused on developing and manufacturing electronic musical instruments. What you can imagine is something like synthesisers, even though ours don’t have keys like on a keyboard or something but you can make sounds on that. There is something like modular sound and that’s a system where you can design your own instrument from different tiny parts like Lego so you are choosing the fundamental blocks and then you compile your system which is most probably unique and fits your needs.ʺ


So it’s like special effects for music in a way?


ʺYes, we have some effects stuff but it’s also like the way you build up the sound, like signal generators. You just make simple wave form and filter it and you use different blocks of sound you like or music. It’s good for sound design or really dancey stuff or popular music like hip-hop.ʺ


And who are some of the big names who use your equipment, the artists and studios?


ʺWe are not in touch with most of these super famous people because most of the time we sell through shops and from time to time these shops are proud that they sold our stuff to some bigger artists. I know that the Depeche Mode studio have quite a few of our modules. I am really happy that Moor Mother, an artist from Philadelphia, is using a lot of our instruments and we are a big part of her rig so to say. Moor Mother’s release was the best of the year for Wire magazine and she is on tour all the time. Whenever we have something new she is into that and we are happy to collaborate with her. We also know about Hans Zimmer for instance using our stuff, or having it that’s for sure in his studio. It’s a different kind of music then.ʺ


Maybe we can turn to you Václav and you can explain how you two got together and how the company started?


ʺI think maybe we met 10 years ago when were both studying at the art university in Brno. Although we were both studying fine art we were also both musicians and had bands making music, electronic music. We were searching for new sounds and new instruments and after a while we found we were both building our own instruments from the few tutorials you could find on the Internet. Eventually we started to play in a band together. I was initially building a video synthesiser for Ondrej’s band and then we began to make sound units and we started to offer workshops for these instruments so that people could build them. They were not really products at first, they were more of a social experiment. We were meeting people, working with the education sector and talking about what does it mean to build your own equipment. That’s where our name, Bastl, comes from.ʺ


It means do-it-yourself, make it yourself…


ʺExactly, yes. And in the Czech context it especially refers to electronics. And we were eventually touring Europe with these workshops and our instruments were getting better and at some point people wanted to buy them. We put them online to see if people wanted to buy and eventually we were told by PayPal that we were a company…


And that you had to do all the formalities?


ʺYes. That is how the company started but we had no idea we were starting a company. It was more of an art project at that time. Then we said OK, let’s give it a shot and we started to take it more seriously and focus fully on making instruments. We have been doing it for six or seven years now. That’s the story.ʺ


And how quickly was it that the hobby became the business?


ʺIt started to pay for itself quite early on but I would say it started to be a real company around five years ago when we said we are Bastl Instruments and that was 2013. Since then I would say we are a real company.ʺ


Where do you mostly sell these products, is it in the Czech Republic or worldwide? I presume there is a worldwide community for this sort of thing…


Ondřej: ʺModular sounds are like very specialised instruments and it’s a bit expensive for the local environment so we are trying to bring these instruments to the Czech or Czech and Slovak community through the workshops and this kind of approach is helping to lower the price of everything to make it affordable. I would say the strongest economies are the markets we are selling into, so it’s the United States and California especially, Germany, the U.K., and Japan.ʺ


I read that for some of the products you supply kits so that they can do it themselves?


ʺYes, initially we tried to make it affordable for people. But then we discovered that it’s better to provide it to people who love to build the stuff and like the experience of building an instrument because it gives you a different relationship to the instrument I have to say. So, it’s not how to make it cheap but how to have fun with an instrument. But we are trying as much as possible to bring stuff through the DIY kit.ʺ


Your best seller is the microGranny. Perhaps you can describe what this does and how big and important this was for your success?


Václav: ʺMicroGranny was really the instrument that started the company. We introduced it four years ago. We had other instruments before but this was a big hit. It is a granular sampler. That means that you can work with sound files, pre-recorded stuff, but you can also record with the instrument itself and then manipulate the sounds. It can create some very unique ambient sound structures. This sampler we have built has remarkably low quality of the audio reproduction…ʺ


Is that good?


ʺIt’s actually really nice and sounds unique and I think that’s what a lot of people appreciate is the low fire quality of the instrument that we have built about four years ago.ʺ


And when that came on the market what was new, revolutionary, or original about it? Was it the technology? Was it the price? What was the selling point exactly?


ʺIt was the price for sure but I would say but there were no hardware granular samplers. You could find software that could do it but there was no dedicated box. It’s a fun little box that’s cheap, that makes very unique sounds and I think that’s the main selling point of the microGranny. And it’s also beautiful, I think.ʺ


I get the impression that you two aren’t too happy about describing yourselves as businessmen and you are happier describing what you do as a sort of community. Can you describe how Bastl Instruments is a sort of community? What formal or informal rules you have? What formal or informal rules you have? How many people work there and how you interact with the community in Brno?


Ondřej: ʺThe way we run the company or the way we see it is like a collective of people who are sharing the same enthusiasm for electronic music and we are mostly musicians. I have to say that for most of us the music is the goal or motivation. We are trying to support not just ourselves but all the people we are working with. That’s around 20 people. We are trying to help people grown as musicians and so we organise workshops every week, provide instruments, and have a big synthesiser library so you can borrow stuff to play with, practice, or record. At some stage we started to organise small shows, not really announcing them but having the opportunity to practice in front of a small audience, which was mostly us.ʺ


It still seems surprisingly informal and relaxed what you do with people coming in and out and you give them time off to practice their music if need be. Is that something that you can stay with given your success so far?


ʺIt’s a good question. It’s really informal. I don’t know anything what the turnover is and we don’t have to dig the numbers and be focused on the structure itself although we are trying all the time to improve what we do. We are trying to find the best ways to manufacture, the best ways to do everything. We are growing but we are not really focused on this. There is the focus is on the music, the workshops, and having a nice time being there and working with us. Sometimes it’s hard to deal with that because you want to make it super relaxed but at the same time you have to keep it professional and running. Keeping this balance is tricky.ʺ


Hear the full story at Radio Praha