Black Bobbin: Reimagining the guitar industry through partnerships and good coffee
Shelby Pollard cut his teeth at Chicago Music Exchange, but now he’s struck out on his own to create a new venture that combines his love of boutique guitar gear and small-batch coffee.
Shelby’s son Walter is probably too young for coffee but you’re never too young to start playing guitar
How did you get into guitar?
“Music was always a part of my family’s life even though neither of my parents played an instrument. My father notes that even as a toddler I’d make him turn the radio up when we were in the car. One Christmas I received a Harmony guitar and amplifier that I’d circled in the Sears catalogue from my grandmother. I think at first it sat in my room untouched for a while, but around the age of 13 I really became enamoured with it. I distinctly remember the moment I wanted to play guitar for the rest of my life. I was watching MTV and Blink-182 came on the screen, and at that moment I knew! My stepfather said I locked myself in my bedroom and tried to play Dammit on repeat until one day I was just playing the guitar. I used to sit in my bedroom and take my guitar apart and put all the screws and parts inside an empty Cry Baby box, and then put it all back together. I was completely mystified by this thing, and still am to this day.”
What stands out about your business model?
“Our aim is to elevate boutique brands with exclusive partnerships. The current industry model of carrying a brand’s core product means that retailers are effectively vying for customers’ loyalty at checkout. We have launched exclusive runs so far in batch windows where we allow customers to determine the size of the launch and the viability of the project over our lifetime. This really takes the guesswork out of inventory management, it creates a strong representation of the companies we work with, and there are no complications in competing with other retailers. We work hard to be thoughtful about our partnerships, because these are also long-time friendships, and people we really respect.”
When did you realise you had a viable business?
“Ultimately that remains to be seen because we’re just at the beginning of what are to be some exciting and big plans. I left two jobs in 2020 and redirected what was a five-year plan into what turned out to be a three-day plan. I came home from work on a Friday and put down a few name ideas on my phone, bought the domain name on Saturday morning, and asked Mason Stoops to design our logo on Sunday. The confidence in the viability of the business plan grew as I had discussions with Old Blood Noise Endeavors, Benson Amps, and Lollar Pickups. It felt like every call affirmed that I was on the right path and it was possible. I’m also very thankful for our coffee partner Gene Wilson, who’s the owner of Gallery Cafe in Chicago. He was the first on board to go on this crazy guitar cafe ride, and without that component I know I wouldn’t have taken a step forward.”
Did you have any external investment starting out?
“As of right now, everything has been self-funded. We have been able to bring our exclusive products to customers thanks to our batch order windows, which allows us to fund these projects immediately, and fulfil orders to our customers.”
When did you feel like you’d nailed your branding?
“For branding to be effective it has to be genuine and maybe a little bit accidental. I look back at my very first video at Chicago Music Exchange, and I can hear how nervous I am to be on camera, but I felt people responded really positively to someone who loves Jazzmasters and wasn’t interested in seeing how many notes I could play in a demo. I’ve been working on what I would say is now Black Bobbin’s branding since then. The goal of the guitar café model is to be connected to every facet of the music community in Chicago, whether that be as a resource for an instrument or a place to meet over a coffee. We’ve seen how positively people are responding to our brand, and we know it is because they can envision where we’re going and want to be part of the journey.”
How do you continue to develop in an ever-changing market?
“From years of previous experience, I’ve seen that you need to be fiercely protective of your integrity as a person, and also as a brand, and if you can do that the market comes to you. That is to say do what you love, put your word behind it, and people will recognise sincerity.”
What’s your proudest moment as a business owner?
“When you’re starting a business the only thing you have to base ‘work’ on is all your collective previous experiences. My proudest moment was when I realised that I’m in complete control of what ‘work’ looks like, and for me that means putting my family first and flexing my ‘work’ time around that. My primary role at home while I’m building Black Bobbin is taking care of my son Walter, which has been a massive gift in the face of what is a very difficult time to navigate due to COVID. Once I shifted my work around what is best for my family and figured out how to uphold my standard of quality for both worlds, I knew I could do this forever. The second moment was when I received our first set of ‘Black Bobbin’ Lollar Jazzmaster pickups, and I realised that if all I did was install these pickups and Mastery bridges in Jazzmasters I would be a very happy person indeed. What’s better than sharing your passions with others?”
What are the biggest opportunities for the guitar industry in 2021?
“There are two big opportunities on the horizon; the first being to increase the diversity of musicians represented in the field. The old guard of this industry is still looking for the next SRV to rep their brand, all the while players like Naia Izumi, Vanessa Wheeler, and Sarah Lipstate are exploring the edges of what the instrument can be used for. The industry has the opportunity to be the model of inclusion for other areas of the business world. The second opportunity is to remind our customers that these are instruments to be used to create, not just commodities to be sold. A guitar is one of the most intimate musical instruments since it makes such physical contact with the player, and we all need to encourage each other to spend more time in that space.”
What’s next for Black Bobbin?
“When the time is right and safe for all we’ll be looking for a place where locals and travellers can gather over a cup of coffee, guitars, and good conversation. For the time being, we have more partnership launches planned and to be announced online, and we look forward to meeting more people who are passionate about coffee, guitars, and music.”
Find out more about Black Bobbin at blackbobbin.com.
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