Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is Oran and I handcraft steel tongue drums used by musicians and also for sound therapy/meditation. The tongues or notes are tuned in a way that they all resonate with each other making it very easy to create alluring melodies, when the tongue is hit with you finger or a mallet, it vibrates creating sound waves. There is a hole underneath allowing sound to escape. No musical background is needed to play, so they are suitable for all ages and abilities.
All of the drums have nice artwork painted on them so they nearly double up as a nice ornament.
Sales vary from month to month but tend to average out at $2000 a month from my website www.goya.ie. I’m continually creating new designs and experimenting with sounds which is a perfect way for me to spend my time.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I had traveled to the Amazon rainforest in Peru a while ago to partake in some tribal ceremonies and stayed in there for a week.
On one of the days I took place in a sound bath where Tibetan bowls and other instruments were played to help induce a relaxing, meditative experience. I was expecting nothing more than some enjoyable tones and melodies, but a few minutes after relaxing and closing my eyes, I became immersed in a sea of bliss. After the sound bath ended I felt refreshed, positive, and energised! A new connection to sound and music was made and a new passion grew inside me.
Upon returning home I found out about handpans, big metal percussion instruments that emitted beautiful tones for meditative music. The only downside was the price tag of 2000 euros.
While I scoured the web looking for cheaper alternatives, I discovered steel tongue drums (often called tank drums) that had a reasonable price tag. I inspected one in a music shop and realised that I could probably make my own if I wanted to.
I have a professional background in metalworking and welding. I also have a background in music having played a few musical instruments. It was the theory I had learned while playing the piano that really made me feel like I could figure out scales to use for the drums, and my understanding of the guitar for the tuning.
Fresh from returning home from my travels, going back to work was the last thing I wanted to do. So prototyping a drum became my excuse to postponing the gloomy return to the 9 to 5. I really didn't have too much money at the time, but I was sure I could pick up work quite easily when I needed to. With nothing to lose, I got to work on my prototype!
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I found out that metal butane/propane gas tanks are used for making the drums, so after some research, I found a company that refills used gas tanks. I visited them and after a lot of explaining about how they could possibly become drums, they showed me some that cannot go into recirculation and were going to be discarded. I could take my pick from a cage full of 30-40 tanks. Now I had something to work with…
Failure is the best learning tool I've encountered, I've learned to welcome it as an opportunity for my brain to stay creative.
There was no tutorial on how to do this, only a few timelapse videos on YouTube with a bit of commentary, but ultimately no information on tuning or what dimensions to make the tongues (notes) on the drum itself. After polishing the metal back to its former glory, I sat down with the drum and marked out some symmetrical notes that would look uniform and neat.
I cut the two ends of the tank off and welded them to the shape I wanted. Cutting the notes in was my next step, but I needed a scale to tune it to. After some research I realised that pentatonic scales are widely used for these instruments, so I settled on a scale of A major. I knew that the longer the metal tongue was, the lower the tone would be, so I began cutting making the tongues longer until I hit the note i was looking for. Many later factors affected the tuning such as paint and sanding the metal, so lots of trial and error was involved in discovering a winning formula.
The last thing to do was to make it look appealing as the majority of these drums are quite bland. I came up with some symmetrical designs that fit well, some with spiritual meaning like the ‘Aum’ symbol, some with celtic designs also, and some patterns that were simple but attractive. I painted the designs on and gave it a varnished finish.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The launch came a while after having finished my first drum, I was hesitant to really push this as a business, even though I was happy with the product.
Doubt and uncertainty started to creep in the more I thought about trying to make a business out of it. Perhaps due to the illusionary fear of failure. I went back to my 9 to 5 grind feeling accomplished with what I had created as friends and family admired the drum whenever they saw it.
I’ve learned not to be motivated by the outcome, more so the process of learning and growing.
After an incident in my job, I was let go and decided to travel to get some headspace. Having plenty of time to myself, I pondered what I would do to earn a living when I returned. I came across StarterStory and was inspired by all the niche, unique and quirky businesses people had started and had success with. Reading people's stories and seeing that some were in similar positions to me really helped, I realised that behind these businesses was a person who also had to make their first step.
I came home full of motivation and made a batch of drums.
Not having too much experience playing these drums, I sought validation by visiting some music shops to criticize them and to highlight anything I missed or could improve on. Upon inspections of the drums, some offered to purchase them to sell through the shop! The support was great as they all made it clear that they like to support local instrument makers as much as they can. Again the facade of communicating with a business dissolved into a chat with two people, helping each other out.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I do a lot of work reaching out to music shops around the country and abroad. I usually sift through a google search of music shops in various cities, email them a background of who I am and attach attractive pictures and video of my product.
Smaller, independent shops usually reply quickly with various questions which I promptly answer making the process very easy. If only every customer was like that! Because of the huge number of emails that larger shops and purchasing managers receive, it can be difficult to grab their attention.
To overcome this, I’ll follow up the emails by calling the shop trying to speak with the manager. In a lot of instances they may vaguely remember only the subject of the email without even reading the email! Once I have them on the phone they'll usually search their mail to find what I’m talking about, leading to some sales. I also physically visit the shops with some drums, if the manager isn't there, the staff will usually tell them about me and pass on my contact details.
Persistence is key, sending one email to every shop is not enough. I have to follow up by more emails, phone calls and visits to ensure that the right person actually receives my message. If not my email would just become one of the thousands of unread messages and I’d be left wondering what I was doing wrong.
If there's any upcoming sound bath/music meditation sessions, Ill seek permission to bring some drums to the events and sometimes sell some there. Also I always have leaflets in my car that I leave around in holistic shops, music shops, yoga studios, wellness centres etc.
I tend to stay away from Amazon as its saturated with cheaper and bad quality drums manufactured in Asia. It's very difficult to tell from pictures if a product is good quality or not, even more so if the buyer has little experience with them. I use Amazon if I’m looking for something cheap and quick personally, handcrafted goods don't seem to be very sought after here.
Every so often I'll switch up my designs to keep things new, I've done some collaboration with local artists painting one of a kind artwork on the drums and I’m always experimenting with new scales and more recently with new frequencies such as 528hz known as the love frequency. Several studies have published the benefits of this frequency such as the ability to positively affect cellular water clusters to assist in removing impurities, preventing sickness.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I’m kept busy with orders and the business is slowly growing. Online ads is something that I don't use but am definitely considering to aid me in expanding across the globe.
50% of my sales are through selling orders of 3 or 4 to music shops in Ireland, the UK and across Europe. The support is great but my main aim is the sell direct from the website as it’s more profitable for me. 35-40% of sales come from events that I attend where I’ll showcase the drums and play a few melodies. The remaining 10% comes from word of mouth.
Financially there are no huge upfront costs for me which makes life easier. For each drum between paints, consumables like cutting blades and discs, vinyls and packaging, it costs around 70 to 100 euro. The time invested in actually making them can seem colossal at times but its rewarding work. I had previously dreamed of having passive income where I could sit back and go about my life. I’ve discovered that the hands on work has a very positive impact on me and keeps my mind creative and healthy.
I’m planning on moving more towards sound therapy in the near future, I’ve been made aware of organisations that have sound therapy sessions in hospitals and rehabilitation centres. Its hugely beneficial for people living with dementia and children with learning and intellectual disabilities by promoting positive mood, self-expression, motor development, cognitive function, and communication.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve learned patience through the whole trial and error process of perfecting my product.
Being even-tempered in success and failure, not to be hard on yourself, not to waste time. Discipline on putting in hours even days of work in that could potentially end up being nonbeneficial. I’ve learned not to be motivated by the outcome, more so the process of learning and growing.
I nearly gave up as a result of a passing comment someone made. If I had given up my life would be quite different, probably back in the construction industry trying to persuade myself that I made the right choice….
Failure is the best learning tool I've encountered, I've learned to welcome it as an opportunity for my brain to stay creative.
Creativity is now an intrinsic part of my day to day, I feel kept on my toes always looking to innovate.
Mental health is of huge importance to stay on top of, to deal with unforeseen circumstances that are bound to arise.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I'm currently using Squarespace for my website, and Instagram as well.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The book Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite by Paul Arden was a great way to look at things differently. That what you consider to be a safe choice can often be a trap in disguise.
Listening to the How I Built This podcast, especially the James Dyson episode. It took him 6 years to perfect his product and then faced an uphill battle to get people on board with his bag-free vacuum cleaner. He knew he had a good product and stayed true to himself.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Enjoying the process and what you're doing is vital as having your own business takes up a lot of headspace. You want that headspace to be positive! Not miserable.
Letting go of expectations and being transient is a great way to prepare your mind for obstacles.
Make sure you have a genuine sales pitch/reason for someone to buy your product. You want to be talking freely, confidently and proudly of what you bring to the table instead of trying to convince someone to spend money.
Also, don't feel like you have to go in cheaper just because you're new or starting out. If you have what you believe is a fair price, it will show when you talk to customers and they see that you're genuine.
Ultimately the best advice is to be proactive and make sure you explore all potential avenues that your business could develop in. There's no shame in failure, it's not worth having a lifetime of regret thinking of what could have been.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
As I handcraft the drums from start to finish I’m essentially operating as a one-man band.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Shoot me an email!