Earlier this month, Jamie Stillman and Julie Robbins, founders of Akron-based EarthQuaker Devices, flew to Washington, D.C., to accept an award for being named Exporter of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The Beltway, however, is just about the shortest distance the couple has gone in an impressive campaign to sell their handmade guitar pedals around the world. Stamps from China, South Korea, Australia and Japan dot their passports, and Stillman and Robbins soon will return to Japan for a five-city tour to promote EarthQuaker pedals, taking with them a cadre of Rubber City musicians.
Robbins said international “matchmaking appointments” — arranged through the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Gold Key Service — have become so frequent, “we each had to get a second passport to send off with the [Gold Key Service] applications so we could travel on the first one.”
EarthQuaker’s rise as worldwide exporter began in earnest about two years ago. Stillman, a guitarist and former tour manager for the Black Keys, started crafting and selling special-effects pedals out of his West Akron basement in 2005. Robbins left her job in banking to join him as full-time CEO in 2011.
Under Robbins’ leadership, EarthQuaker grew to a $3 million business by 2015, which included some sales in Europe.
That year, the company renovated a two-story, 15,000-square-foot building on West Bowery Street where it currently houses about 50 employees who design, fabricate, test and market a line of 40 guitar pedals and special-effects devices.
Come 2016, Robbins said, EarthQuaker was ready to expand its global footprint. She reached out to the Ohio Small Business Development Center Export Assistance Network at Cleveland State University’s Monte Ahuja College of Business, and over the next two years, Robbins availed herself of as many of the free or low-cost export programs as possible.
The company, for instance, applied for and was granted a $12,500 subsidy from the state under the Ohio International Market Access Grant for Exporters. That money offset the costs of tailoring marketing content to foreign markets. EarthQuaker also got access, via the Ohio Export Internship Program, to a summer intern to help translate its marketing materials, social media and manuals into seven languages. The program pays 50% of the intern’s stipend.
In addition, EarthQuaker participated in the Global Business Center‘s nine-month GlobalTarget program, which provides monthly educational seminars on topics such as export logistics, international business regulations and trade finance. The program also pairs participants with mentors from larger companies that have experience exporting products, according to Nate Ward, director of the center, which is at CSU. GlobalTarget is a partnership between the university, the Ohio Export Assistance Network and the U.S. Commercial Service, the Commerce Department’s trade promotion arm.
Ward and trade counselor Alex Simon, through their work with the Ohio Export Assistance Network, also guided EarthQuaker in the development of an international marketing strategy, which identified Japan and Germany as high-growth targets.
The Akron couple also made use of the Commerce Department’s Gold Key “matchmaking” service, which facilitated face-to-face meetings with distributors in Shanghai; Seoul, South Korea; and Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.
As a result of those trips, the company landed a contract with Yamaha’s Australian division with an opening order totaling $41,000. Stillman and Robbins, drawing from lessons learned in the GlobalTarget program, also were able to form a distribution relationship with Yamaha in Japan, opening the door for its most significant push into the Asian market.
“One of the biggest things we learned was that you can’t presume that you can take your American way of doing things and do it the same way everywhere,” Robbins said. “You need to learn how customs and culture are different in places and figure out how to adapt your approach to work with those differences.”
Sometimes, the differences can provide opportunities. Robbins said EarthQuaker is partnering with Yamaha to bring local musical act Relaxer, which features Stillman and several EarthQuaker employees, and solo artist Lisa Bella Donna on a five-city tour of Japan this month. The Akron musicians will share the stage at Yamaha dealerships with two Japanese acts in what Robbins called a “unique opportunity to elevate the EarthQuaker name in Japan.”
“Business there is a lot more relationship-based, and what we are looking for is any opportunity to set ourselves apart from the bunch,” Robbins said.
Early indications suggest the export focus is paying off. International sales have more than doubled in the past five years, according to data provided by the company, increasing from 21% of its total revenue in 2014 to 26% of its $5 million intake last year.
Ward said EarthQuaker is an ideal fit for Export Assistance Network programming. Companies that tend to benefit the most, he added, are local manufacturers who produce “something that is unique and high-quality.”
But what makes Robbins and her team especially shrewd, Ward said, is how they leveraged the programs and services as a whole rather than participating in just one or two aspects of the offerings.
“They are kind of a super-user of basically everything the state has to offer, which is one reason I think they were such a great candidate to win the national award,” he said. “We want more companies that will do that. The programs are designed to work together.
“They bought into that promise, and we are excited to see them succeed.”