Notes from the birth of a company
How to work your business network
Measuring the electric deal
Where to look for outside help
Sales & Marketing
setting the stage
the birth of a
Tim Meeks, CEO
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The musical start-up of Marcodi
By Jan Tegler • Photos by Bryan Burris
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NOTES FROM THE START-UP OF MARCODI MUSICAL PRODUCTS
By Jan Tegler • Photography by Bryan Burris
www.smartceo.com May 2008
heard a new sound last week. It was familiar and unfamiliar, musical but not quite like anything else my ears have ever taken in. Had I not known what
I was hearing, I might have assigned its origin to one of the world’s most popular instruments.
Or maybe the sound was coming from two of the world’s most popular instruments, or maybe more.
It was the last week of March and I was standing before the stage at the Ram’s Head Live! Known for the wide array of national acts it brings to
Baltimore, the 26,000-square-foot concert space was resonating with a sound never before heard in any musical venue. And despite my perception, it
was emanating from a single source, a new musical instrument called the “Harpejji.”
Thirteen and a half inches wide and 38 inches long, the Harpejji is part guitar, part keyboard and has the capability to create genuinely new sounds, blending notes and chords in a way no other stringed instrument can.
If that’s hard to imagine, it’s similarly difficult to describe. You have to hear it for yourself. The thing is, very few people have ever heard a Harpejji. That’s
because, in addition to being a completely new musical instrument, it’s a brand new product.
How new? As of this writing, the Harpejji had been on the market for just 15 weeks, the same length of time that the firm that created it has been in business. Only two exist. One is in the hands of the company’s first customer. The other, the example I heard and touched, was shipped from New York City especially for the photo shoot that produced the images you see here. Probably no more than 40 people have seen or heard a Harpejji in person.
In business terms, Marcodi Musical Products is as “start-up” as a start-up company gets. Musician or not, many of you can identify with the exhilaration,
anxiety and uncertainty that accompanies the very first steps a new enterprise takes.
In musical terms, partners Tim Meeks and Jason Melani are on the downbeat – the first beat of a bar in measured music. As the music begins, we’ll take
a look at where the Harpejji came from, what it has become and where Marcodi wants to take it.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
When Tim Meeks speaks about the instrument he created, he talks with his
hands, punctuating his remarks with gestures that have their roots in music. Meeks
is a musician – a keyboardist – but he’s also an engineer. The 35 year old from Havre
de Grace began his career in acoustic and audio engineering, and for most of the last
nine years, his “day gig” has been with Baltimore-based Polk Audio. He’s the company’s director of purchasing, but much of his work has focused on bringing new
products to market.
Away from work, Meeks has indulged his passion for music, playing with a
number of local bands and staying close to the progressive music scene that fires his
imagination. Like most musicians, he revels in the opportunity for expression that
playing music opens up. But about six years ago he began to feel restricted. It wasn’t
music in general that seemed to be the problem; it was the instruments he was playing. That’s when he began to wonder if there was a way to liberate himself from the
confines of piano and keyboard.
“It all goes back to frustration with the piano,” Meeks says. “When I would
watch an acoustic guitar player really get involved in his instrument, being expressive
with each note, imparting all sorts of nuances to the sound, I thought, ‘Why can’t
you do that with the piano? How come every time you play a piano key it pretty
much sounds the same?’ You can’t really bend a note, there’s not the same vibrato,
no muting. I thought to myself, ‘The key mechanism on a piano does more to separate the player from the strings than it does to connect him. It’s forcing the same
motion every time. It’s inhibiting creativity. Why can’t you just connect the player to
the actual piano strings, to the real vibrations? How do you do that?’”
With that question in mind, Meeks began to explore the world of alternative
instruments and in particular, a class of string instruments specially developed for
the “tapping” method of fingering. Tapping is a playing technique most commonly
associated with electric guitar, but this style of play – using the fingers of one hand
to “tap” strings against the fingerboard in synchronization with the traditional fingering of notes by the fingers of the other hand – has existed in one form or another
In the mid-20th century, many guitarists began to experiment with and adopt
this one-handed method of tapping. Then in 1969, Emmett Chapman, a Los Angeles-based jazz guitarist discovered a two-handed method of tapping in which the fin26
Baltimore SmartCEO May 2008 www.smartceo.com
Marcodi partners Jason Melani and Tim Meeks with one of only two Harpejjis currently in existence.
gers of both hands could be used to “tap” notes on a guitar fret board. To facilitate
this, he designed a unique nine-string electric guitar. What came to be known as the
“Chapman Stick” or “the Stick” looks like a guitar neck without the body of a guitar.
With split pickups for five melody and four bass strings, the Stick is body-worn, held
upright and secured by the player’s thumbs. In this fashion, the player’s other eight
fingers can be brought to bear. Chapman’s two-handed tapping method was adopted and employed by a wide variety of guitarists, from Eddie Van Halen to Stanley
Jordan, and thousands of Chapman Sticks have been sold since the early 1970s.
Meeks discovered the Stick and ordered one but found that it didn’t satisfy him.
“I thought, ‘Hey, that’s a solution. With eight fingers I could be very expressive.’
So I tried a Chapman Stick out but quickly got frustrated with it,” he says. “It was
uncomfortable. It was not intuitive for a keyboard player; there was a completely
new note system and it wasn’t easy to learn. I also felt like I had to choose between
playing keyboards and the Chapman Stick. It didn’t physically integrate into my
playing rig. To play it, I had to have a whole different amplifier; I had to wear it. It
just wasn’t working. I sold it on eBay.”
While the Chapman Stick didn’t deliver what Meeks was after, it did get him
thinking. What he began to imagine was an instrument that improved on the Stick
– something more like a keyboard which, in addition to strings, would use a system
of black and white markers. Like piano
keys, the markers could produce notes in
intuitive fashion, ascending in pitch from
left to right. Ideally it could integrate with
“We love the idea of
a keyboard rig, perhaps sitting on a stand
creating a subculture
of its own rather than being worn.
where people are proud to
The idea was so compelling that
Meeks called Emmett Chapman and
say, ‘I’m a Marcodian!’”
asked, “Can you build me a Chapman
Stick that’s like a keyboard? It would be something where everything is rearranged
and there’s a new tuning system and you can put it on a stand and so forth.”
Chapman was busy with his own work, turning out nearly 400 Sticks a year and
working on other projects, but he knew of an instrument that had already been created along the lines Meeks was thinking. It was called the “StarrBoard.” Designed
and built in the 1980s by Dr. John Starrett, a mathematics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, the StarrBoard combined a chromatic matrix of guitar
strings and frets laid out on a maple-wood body adapted from the “pin block” that is
an integral part of the modern piano. Starrett earned a patent for his unique instrument in 1985 but never put it into production. Only 11 prototypes (in amplified
and acoustic versions) were built, but the StarrBoard was very close in concept to
what Meeks had been imagining. He was so enthusiastic that he called Starrett to
discuss the StarrBoard as soon as he could.
“His prototypes were in storage just kind of collecting dust,” Meeks says. “He
offered to sell me one and I bought his original 35-string prototype. We have a
tremendous respect for Dr. Starrett. He did what he did at a time in history when we
didn’t have the Internet and computers were doing very little to help aid anyone in
design. But he created the StarrBoard, and the StarrBoard is the true ‘daddy’ to the
Pleased as he was to have one of Starrett’s prototypes, Meeks believed he could
improve on the StarrBoard.
“I knew that with my engineering skills I could make it better,” he says. “I
wanted to improve it just for me. At the time, I wasn’t thinking of creating a product
and a company. I was just thinking that I wanted to improve it so that I could play it
the way I wanted to and have the instrument studio-ready where I could record with
it without difficulty.”
Over the course of two years, working in his spare time, Meeks made major
changes to the StarrBoard,. He improved its sound and intonation, bringing its
www.smartceo.com May 2008
strings closer to the frets to give the instrument a better “action” or feel. He wanted
to give the electric instrument a more acoustic sound, so he switched from the magnetic pickups used by the StarrBoard and traditional electric guitars to the piezo
pickups commonly found on acoustic guitars. But the two changes that most radically altered the device, transforming it into a new instrument, include the markersystem which Marcodi now calls “EZ Ivories” and the modification of its tuning
system, which jumped from “half-tone” intervals to “whole-tone” steps.
With other enhancements including better build quality and a new body, Meeks
was happy with the progress of his new invention. Then a thought occurred to him.
“After a while I realized that what I had was pretty cool,” he says. “Then I realized that, ‘Hey, I bet I’m not the only person in the world who would think this
product was cool.’ So I started thinking about making it more attractive in terms of
its looks and reducing cost and other things that I could do to make it marketable.”
Tweaks and improvements to the new instrument continued until spring 2007.
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With the new product “99 percent there” in terms of its ability to provide the freedom of expression Meeks had been seeking, he acted on the impulse he’d had while
developing his creation. It was time to share the instrument with a wider audience,
an audience that just might be interested in buying one.
In April 2007, Meeks applied for a patent and began talking to longtime friend
Jason Melani about joining him to form a company. Melani currently works in medical sales, but prior to that, the 28 year old from Abingdon, MD, was a colleague of
Meeks’ at Polk Audio. A drummer, vocalist and guitar player, Melani shared Meeks’
enthusiasm for music and the two hit it off. He agreed to become a partner, and just
over a year ago, the two formed Marcodi Musical Products, LLC, with Meeks as
president and Melani as vice president of sales and marketing.
With only the single prototype Meeks had constructed and a simple vision, Marcodi began the process of taking a new product to market.
While few have seen a Harpejji in person, a growing group of musical seekers
have seen and heard it on the Internet. That’s because when Marcodi officially went
into business on Jan. 1, 2008, the partners also launched a Web site – www.marcodi.com.
By that time, a buzz was already beginning. Through online enthusiast forums
like Tappistry.Org and the viral video portal, YouTube, “tappers” were getting a preview of the Harpejji. So what does it sound like in person?
It’s difficult to fully describe, but to me, the sound is most like what one identifies with amplified guitar and bass with a range of tonal shadings that distinguish it
from anything else. Interestingly, it can sound like multiple instruments simultaneously. Meeks and Melani recently had the opportunity to briefly show the Harpejji
to the CEO of Maryland’s most acclaimed
contemporary instrument manufacturer,
Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars.
“I realized that, ‘Hey, I
Smith describes it as being like a “3-D
bet I’m not the only
piano” or a cross between a Chapman
person in the world who
Stick, harpsichord and clavichord.
Twenty-four strings stretch across its would think this product
finely finished 13-ply hard rock maple
body. As Meeks indicates, the body serves
“This one piece of wood is like all of the pieces of a guitar in one – the neck, the
fret board, the head,” Meeks says. “It’s actually a piano pin-block. All the pins of a
piano are mounted in this 13-ply piece of maple. We buy it from a piano pin block
supplier and have it milled down on a computer-controlled milling table. The fret
slots and pre-amp cavities are routed out and the Harpejji’s shape is made.”
Its 29-inch strings (a scale length in between bass and guitar strings) are familiar
to any modern guitarist, sourced from guitar and bass-string maker, Ernie Ball. Each
is seated in a fully adjustable saddle, complete with custom tuners and bridge.
Diminutive piezo pickups “pick-up” the vibrations of the strings.
The spacing between strings is just over a half an inch, which gives the Harpejji a
distinct advantage over a piano. The relatively smaller distance between its strings as
compared to the distance from one piano key to another means that a one-octave
stretch of fingers on a piano results in two octaves on the Harpejji. Overall range
runs from A0 to A5, or five octaves in total – an additional octave over most guitars
and just two short of modern pianos.
On the face of the fingerboard are frets made from common fret wire that combine with Marcodi’s EZ Ivories marker system. The white dots represent the white
keys on a keyboard, while the black squares represent sharps and flats. The diamonds
represent the note “C.”
Meeks and Melani both demonstrated the Harpejji, playing it from a position in
front of the instrument, using both hands to tap its strings against the frets. Each fret
gives the Harpejji expressive nuance. The player can bend notes by simply sliding his
fingers up and down the strings over the frets. Fat-fingering a fret can have the effect
of muting a string. Tapping lightly achieves a bright sound. Varying the pressure on
a fret and string can produce vibrato.
The musical potential of Harpejji is extended by the simple fact that the instrument doesn’t have to be held. Sitting on a stand on a slight incline or completely flat,
it allows players to bring all 10 fingers to bear. This and the Harpejji’s unique design
result in almost limitless possibilities for improvisation and composition.
While the layout of the Harpejji is somewhat different, its makers claim it’s more
accessible for keyboard players than any other tapping instrument and they say it
cures a common problem.
“There’s this thing called ‘guitar envy,’” Meeks explains. “Keyboardists have it,
bass players have it, drummers have it. Some people solve the problem by taking a
keyboard and strapping it on like a guitar or a ‘keytar.’ That’s one cure. We’re kind of
offering a cure for the guitar-envy disease in another way. We’re giving keyboardists
the sound and expressive capabilities of a guitar with a more familiar keyboard interface.”
Though the Harpejji was designed by a keyboard player for other keyboard players, Marcodi’s principals expect that it will draw guitarists and drummers, as well.
Melani says that he approaches the instrument with a drummer’s sensibility, playing
it percussively. And he suggests that guitarists may use techniques more familiar to
Meeks says the instrument is comparatively easy to master once you understand
its use of isomorphic scales. “If you’re learning to play piano, and you want to play a
major scale, you’ve got to learn 12 different patterns,” he says. “On the Harpejji you
learn one major scale pattern and you can move that finger pattern anywhere you
want – start on any note and the shape is the same regardless of where you start.”
This should allow musicians and students to go “unconscious” faster in terms of
learning to play the Harpejji because the patterns quickly become muscle memory.
Instead of thinking, “B-flat,” you think, “this sound – this hand pattern.” Meeks and
Melani think the Harpejji could even find a place in the music education world.
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“If you’re teaching music to a student, it’s much easier to teach them a simple
pattern than to get them to understand what a scale is,” Melani says. “Once they
understand the pattern, then they can see the scale. On the Harpejji you understand
that it’s a whole step from one string to another and a half-step up. It’s extremely
THE ANSWER TO A
Musical terms – like “vibrato, crescendo” or “forte” – have their roots in the Italian language. With this in mind, Meeks and Melani sought a name for their instrument that would suggest that Italian heritage.
“We looked through a list of Italian musical terms,” Meeks remembers. “‘Arpeggio’ was one of the words. It means ‘harp-like’ literally. This instrument sort of looks
like a harp, and to play an arpeggio, you play a number of notes sequentially. So we
thought, ‘arpeggio’ is a cool word to start with. We just kind of morphed it and came
up with ‘Harpejji.’ It fits with the Italian look and feel of the instrument.”
Up close, the Harpejji is visually appealing with obvious attention to detail and
quality craftsmanship. The concept behind the instrument and its sound and musical potential are equally intriguing. But what’s the business potential of the Harpejji
and how do Marcodi’s leaders, currently its only employees, plan to sell it?
Paul Reed Smith is intimate with the challenge of introducing new products to a
very old industry – the musical instrument business. Smith began designing and
constructing high-quality guitars in the early 1970s. He struggled into the early
1980s, but by 1985, PRS guitars had a stellar reputation. Musicians like Carlos Santana were drawn to PRS guitars because of their craftsmanship and the musical question they answered.
“What our instruments did was fill a need somewhere in between a Stratocaster
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and a Les Paul,” Smith says. “They also filled a need for quality because many guitars
had poor quality at the time.”
In Smith’s view, the ability to fill a need is what makes the difference between
success and failure. “If a new instrument answers a question nobody’s asking or it
provides something nobody needs, it won’t work,” he says. “If you have a mandolinpiano let’s say, it may be a fascinating instrument but if it doesn’t fill a musical need,
it’s not going to be adopted.”
So is the Harpejji the answer to a musical question? Does it fill a musical need?
That’s hard to say at this point. Meeks admits that he designed the Harpejji for himself. But the most important thing for Marcodi now, he explains, is to “create a
public recognition of the value of this instrument. That’s going to be a challenge”
With so few Harpejjis extant, Meeks and Melani plan to get the word about their
instrument out in three ways – two of them traditional and one whose power is multiplying daily: the Internet. Tappers are already catching on to the Harpejji via online
forums and videos of the Harpejji in action. Interest extends beyond the United
States, according to Meeks, who says that the company already has had inquiries
from musicians in Norway and other European countries.
But as much visibility as the Internet can bring to the Harpejji, nothing can
replace seeing, hearing or playing the instrument in person. As Melani points out,
Marcodi needs to get Harpejjis into the hands of musicians, or at least provide
opportunities for the public to experience it live.
“Musicians are aesthetic learners, feelers,” Melani says. “They like to touch
strings or drum sticks. The hardest thing for us right now is to be patient and to get
people to the tipping point of saying that they want to see a demo, see it in person.
We want them to see it on stage, being played before them by someone who can
show them techniques for achieving some fantastic sounds – somebody like Jordan
Jordan Rudess is a Juliard School of
“The hardest thing for us Music-trained musician, a master keywho turned his attention to
right now is to be patient boardist
modern music and modern instruments
and to get people to the
(synthesizers in particular) in the early
1990s. Celebrated by fans of “progressive
tipping point of saying
metal,” Rudess has a kind of cult followthat they want to see a
ing and is best known for his work with a
demo, see it in person.”
progressive heavy metal rock band called
Meeks and Melani are Rudess devotees, impressed not only by the music the versatile keyboardist has produced but by his willingness to experiment with new
instruments. Early this year they traveled to New York City to show him their creation. Rudess was so impressed he asked to keep the instrument to explore its capabilities. At the time, it was one of only two examples in existence – the original had
been sold to Marcodi’s first-ever customer who took delivery of Harpejji number one
last winter. Rudess still has the demo Harpejji. In fact, the instrument I experienced
in late March was shipped back to Baltimore direct from the keyboardist’s studio.
“We let him know we received it in great condition,” Meeks relates. “He said,
‘That’s great, now give it back!’”
In addition to performing, Rudess has written instructional books and filmed
instructional videos. Meeks and Melani have struck a deal with the keyboard wizard
to make an instructional video for the Harpejji. Rudess is not formally endorsing the
instrument as yet, but Marcodi’s partners hope such efforts will help to promote
their product. Getting the Harpejji into the hands of other artists with visibility is a
priority. Still, they acknowledge that artist endorsement can be tricky.
“The most important thing is how much they’re going to play it,” Meeks says.
“We could have Billy Joel call us up and say, ‘I want one of those. I’ll play it.’ But if
it ends up sitting in his studio collecting dust, how beneficial is that to us?”
If Rudess’ enthusiasm for the Harpejji is any indication, the Harpejji just may be
filling a musical need. But for now, job one for Marcodi is selling and producing
more of them. At this early stage in the company’s history, every order builds
momentum, generating word-of-mouth publicity and gradually exposing the instrument to more people, thus creating demand.
Currently, Marcodi’s Web site is the only direct channel to the Harpejji. The
partners say that there is the possibility that demo models may be in one of the area’s
largest musical instrument retailers by the fall. Having a physical presence in a retail
setting should contribute significantly to awareness of the Harpejji. Nevertheless, the
Internet will remain the only conduit to the instrument for most people. Given the
power of that young medium, online exposure may prove the most benefit to the
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At press time, Marcodi had approximately seven orders for Harpejjis. Filling
them will take some time. According to Meeks, the minimum build time for the
instrument is currently 60 days. Marcodi’s president does all of the assembly and setup work himself, but the painting and fretting of the instruments is outsourced.
Would the partners be able to handle larger orders? Meeks is confident in his
ability to pull together suppliers and vendors quickly to turn out a product. That’s
essentially what he has been doing with Polk Audio for many years.
“I know how to put the people together,” he says. “If Guitar Center called us
and asked for one demo model for every store, we’d be sweating. We might have to
tell them, ‘no’ or ‘wait.’ We might have to parse them out at a rate of five a month,
but I’d love to have that problem. We’d find a way to solve it. The biggest thing is
that we protect the integrity and quality of the product. Everybody says that, but we
Marcodi doesn’t plan to expand or seek outside investment in the near future.
The business is currently 100 percent “self-financed” and its owners want to retain as
much equity as possible. Besides, the partners view their enterprise as a custom
instrument manufacturer, not a mass producer.
“When I consider the fact that Emmett Chapman builds 400 Chapman Sticks a
year, he’s far ahead of us and he’s still doing it in a garage,” Meeks says. “That tells
me we shouldn’t be thinking too grandly yet. But I do think there are a lot of reasons
why this could surpass the Chapman Stick.”
Melani agrees and adds that Marcodi might look to fill other musical niches
before any large expansion. “I think before we would go to major manufacturing in
a factory we would expand out product line,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of discussions
about what we want Marcodi to be. Do we want to make conventional instruments?
Or do we want to be pushing the envelope for brand new types of musical construction? We might invest in instruments that will simply give musicians instruments
with greater means of expression.”
Given the profitability of other new instruments like the Swiss-made “hang
drum,” a custom-made steel drum available only in small quantities at a high price
point, the Harpejji may never have to sell in great volumes to make a tidy profit for
Marcodi. Currently, the instrument’s price is negotiable, determined by the finish
(three are available) and features a customer selects. While it’s less expensive than
many other custom-made instruments, it still isn’t cheap.
Meeks indicates that he and Melani are working to bring the cost down and
stresses that he wants the Harpejji to be accessible. “I want this to be a quality product, but I don’t want it to be an exclusive thing,” Meeks says. “I want as many people
in the world who would like to play a Harpejji to be able to afford one. I think we’ll
come out with more affordable versions of it, maybe with fewer strings.”
The partners see the Harpejji fitting into every modern musical genre either as a
stand-alone instrument or as part of a keyboardist’s rig. More broadly, they want to
build a loyal following of Harpejji players. Citing the book, Art of the Start, by
former Apple Computer marketing guru Guy Kawasaki, Melani would like to see a
Harpejji subculture emerge.
“Apple created a subculture where people love their Mac computers and are dedicated to them,” he says. “We like that. We love the idea of creating a subculture
where people are proud to say, ‘I’m a Marcodian!’”
As a first step toward that subculture, Marcodi will hold a Harpejji launch party
in Baltimore sometime this summer. Meeks and Melani hope to have some notable
musicians on hand playing their innovative new product. By then they’ll be moving
past the downbeat and the musical start-up of Marcodi will be in full swing. CEO
Excellence in Audiovisual Systems Design
Installation and Service for:
Clarke Langrall, Jr., LUT
ast Strategic Advisors
204 East Joppa Road, Suite
202 t Towson, MD 21286
410-583-1777 t [email protected]
Clarke Langrall, Jr., President
204 East Joppa Road, Suite 202
Towson, MD 21286
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www.smartceo.com May 2008