University of South Carolina

USC alum takes love for retro rock to market

 By Jeff Stensland, stenslan@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3686

Anyone who hears Philippe Herndon talk about his company will know instantly that he loves his job. His face lights up and his rapid fire voice goes into overdrive as he describes his newest product or rattles off stories about his recent dealings with suppliers. That passion seems fitting considering Herndon’s business is making handcrafted electric guitar distortion pedals for serious rock musicians.

“With analog pedals the effort you create, the kinetic energy you create, directly corresponds to the electric energy that’s created within the guitar and within the pedals. Our stuff is meant to be very dynamic and very much driven to how much energy you create,” Herndon said.

Herndon, who earned an International MBA from the Moore School of Business in 2009, founded Columbia-based Caroline Guitar Company in 2010. His products are designed to appeal to the subset of rock music aficionados who long for the heavy, raw guitar sound of the 1970s. Much of that sound, they lament, has been replaced by the more sleek but soulless sound produced by modern digital equipment.

“Most stuff today sounds like what we call ‘corporate hard.’ The most popular distortion pedal out there is like Budweiser. It may not be bad if you’re sitting out at the pool on a hot day, but if you’ve made a nice meal yourself, you’ve cooked something cool, are you really going to mix it with Budweiser? You want something with a more refined flavor,” Herndon said.

The products have won accolades from buyers and critics alike, with its first model named to ‘Guitar Magazine’s’ top 10 pedal list. So far Caroline Guitar has sold about 1,500 pedals and their products can be found in 30 different retailers in seven countries. All their pedals are made in a small workshop located on the third floor of the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator.

Caroline pedalsEach of the company’s four signature models (Wave Cannon, Olympia, Icarus and Kilobyte) is designed to create different retro sounds and effects. The Olympia, for example, will help produce the deep and fuzzy guitar sound of early Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

Stylish design is an  important element to buyers, and Caroline Guitar pedals are powder coated in vibrant colors and have screen printed lettering and graphics. Custom designs also are produced on demand.

Herndon, 40, said his interest in distortion pedals came from the seven years he spent on the road as a touring rock guitarist, where he discovered it was cheaper to learn to fix his broken pedals rather than send them away for repair.

“I became obsessed with them. Over the course of six or seven years I owned like 75 different distortion pedals,” he said.

After three years of operating Caroline Guitars Herndon practices what he calls ‘1970s capitalism’-- focusing on keeping the business simple, with a clear bent toward customer service.

“One of the things I learned at the Moore School, in operations management, is that if something goes wrong and you rectify that favorably for the customer, your customer is as loyal--if not more loyal--than if nothing had gone wrong in the first place.”

Being located in the Incubator gives Herndon and his team access to business coaching for startups. Herndon has bonded with Greg Hilton, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial and Technological Innovation (CETi) who also is located at the Incubator.

“He’s such a natural pitch man for his company,” Hilton said. “He has an incredible blending of backgrounds between being a touring musician, a savvy entrepreneur and an incredible product designer.  We've been privileged to work with him to build his capacity as a CEO and to help him realize his goal of building one of the most recognized effects pedals companies in the U.S."

Herndon said the advice he’s gotten from Hilton has been invaluable. “Greg’s awesome. The best way I’d describe it is like a batting or pitching coach. You can ask ‘what do you see here that’s causing me not to throw straight?’”

Not all the lessons along the way have been fun. Last year was stressful as Herndon figured out how to balance family life with the demands of a growing business. He also had to grow a thicker skin to operate in the ultra-competitive world of boutique guitar pedals.

“The elimination of some of my naiveté is one of the best things I’ve learned in business. I used be like ‘Oh, (retailers) want to carry our product because they really like us.’ No, they want to carry our products so they can make money,” he said.

For more information on Caroline Guitar Company and to hear samples of their products visit http://carolineguitar.com

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Posted: 06/10/13 @ 6:00 AM | Updated: 06/09/13 @ 10:20 PM | Permalink