Four years ago, at twenty-nine years old, with zero business experience and two boys under three years old, my wife and I risked our entire life’s savings - our family house money - to start an online guitar school. And then for 2.5 years I got almost everything wrong.
Broke and in debt, we had to move three times and rely on family and friends for bare essentials. We even had to sleep together in the same bed during the winter because our tiny apartment was so cold.
Today we have 70k+ students, one of the highest grossing guitar courses on the internet, major brand sponsorships, guest artist instructors, and have even had a course mentioned in Time Magazine. Perhaps most importantly, the five of us (yes we had another boy) finally have a home of our own.
Here’s a glimpse of our struggle, and how knowing yourself and helping others made all the difference.
First off, I would like to say how excited I am to be collaborating with The Nice Guys. Doug - or DJ Doug as he would say - and his daughter are former guitar students of mine. They are such positive, hard working, and naturally uplifting people and I’m glad to see Doug sharing the message that he lives and breathes. I reached out to Doug to get involved with The Nice Guys because I feel I have a compelling story of risk, struggle, and reward - with success ultimately coming from giving first and caring - which is at the core of his message. Of course, Doug was nice as ever and encouraged me to share. And if this inspires to you to pick up the guitar (as I hope it does), I have included some tips and a free video to get you going. Furthermore, you can always email me at email@example.com and I’ll do my best to help you in any way.
I don’t remember not playing the guitar. Without a doubt, I have spent the vast majority of my life chasing a singular goal: to be the best guitar player possible.
I didn’t come from a musical family, but they saw my passion and thankfully encouraged me every step of the way. My first private lessons began in Kindergarten, and for most of my adolescent life I could be found in my room, guitar in hand. At twenty-three I got serious and moved to Hollywood to study at GIT with some of the very best players in the world. It was incredibly difficult, but I succeeded - even chosen by my peers to represent our class at graduation - and immediately after graduation I nailed an audition with a major record label. They had a summer tour lined up, and I thought I had it all figured out.
And then - seemingly overnight - iTunes and YouTube changed the music industry forever. My peers and I watched our label gigs disappear that same spring. I never even had a rehearsal. It happened that quickly.
My (now) wife was in Baltimore, and because I desperately wanted to be with her, I moved home and did what all musicians do: Teach and gig.
For the next seven years I taught hundreds of students, up to 50-60 a week, coached rock bands (Doug was in one), and gigged around town. During that time I realized something critical about myself:
I may be a good guitar player, but I’m an even better teacher - and teaching made me a better player. THIS was my niche.
There was only one problem: I had scaled out and couldn’t make any more money teaching. And then a friend gave me “Crush It” by Gary Vaynerchuck and I immediately knew I had to move online to reach more people.
BIRTH OF GUITARGATE
So - I planned the perfect product - the website I wish I had growing up: “A facebook for guitar lessons.”
It would feature a professional-grade curriculum like I found at GIT, but function as a social network, encouraging students to post videos for instructor and peer feedback. And since I had never sold anything in my life, and my family encouraged me to complete my degree, I also went back to college full-time for business.
Yes, you read that correctly: Not only was I risking everything we had to start a business from scratch, but also I took out student loans to be a full-time college student, all while I was still a full time teacher, a full-time gigging musician, and a full-time husband and father of 2 non school aged children. My Wife was also a special ed teacher and ran a skin-care business of her own.
Hiring a firm for the site development, my main job was to create the content to fill this amazing new site:
It was a massive, 60 level, 10+ hour, all HD, multi-angle with pro audio video course. I was the on-screen instructor and my brother-in-law manned the camera. It also featured 100+ jam tracks and 400+ images and documents. I played all of the MIDI instruments, did all of the writing, all of the image editing.
12 months and our life savings later, I was ready to launch this incredible product that I was beyond proud of. I thought selling would be the easy part. - because after all - who else could or would put that kind of time and money into the product??
WE LOST MONEY FOR 18 CONSECUTIVE MONTHS
Pouring every extra dollar we earned from gigging and teaching back into the company, I read every marketing book and blog known to man, took sales course after sales course, and lived and breathed Adwords and FB Ad Manager trying to make my LCV higher than my user acquisition cost.
I finished my business degree 2nd in my class, placed in three nationwide collegiate whitepaper competitions along the way (won one), and I won our university’s entrepreneurial competition which included free office space and interns for a year. My band was even voted “best band” in Baltimore Magazine 3 years in a row.
I was working hard, smart, and succeeding in all my endeavors except one: Guitargate was going bankrupt. Almost 3 years in I knew my business model was broken, and I was in complete despair.
DOUBLING DOWN ON RISK - AND MYSELF
And then I had my boldest, craziest idea yet. The exact opposite of what I’ve been doing: Let’s make the site completely free.
The plan was to film a new 60 lesson course - but for complete beginners - and offer brands the opportunity to feature their products in the videos in exchange for co-promotion (I was long out of advertising money). To hopefully make money, we would simply offer these free students a coupon to buy our masterclass at a discount (which we moved to a 3rd party course marketplace called Udemy.)
This was also when we moved for the 3rd time in 2.5 years to an old mouse-filled apartment with no insulation that backed to a train track. We maxed out the last credit card.
And we were having another baby.
And what did I do?
I spent all day and night giving lessons to people without expecting or asking for anything in return. I responded thoughtfully and consistently to every email, every video, every comment, and helped any way I could - all for free. I talked to hundreds of guitar players a day and gave honest, professional advice and encouragement. Day after day, month after month, and now year after year.
I simply provided a link to the masterclass, explained that it picks up after the free beginner lessons, and let students know that that’s how I support Guitargate. No ads, no email campaigns, no landing page A/B testing, nothing salesy at all.
And do you know what happened?
Within 12 months we had generated 40k+ students, $30k+ /mo in sales, and secured PRS Guitars (the 3rd largest guitar maker in the US) as our first corporate sponsor.
I could go on for hours about why, but it came down to two main points:
1. I didn’t really know what my product was
2. My customers didn’t know what they were buying
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
I was the product. It was me - the good player and great teacher - not the amazing expensive website that took a year to build.
Making Guitargate free allowed people to get to know me and get value from my skill set before being asked for a credit card number. They liked learning from me, and they bought my higher level content because they knew the value of it.
It’s that simple.
I gave first.
In that spirit, here’s a list of common questions the beginner guitarists ask and a video to help you get started. I hope you find it useful, and if I can help you in any way, please don’t hesitate to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Am I too old? - NO WAY! Even if you are 80 years old, you can absolutely learn to play the guitar if you try. If you start slow, give yourself reasonable goals, and have fun, you can do this.
Are my hands / fingers too small? - NO WAY! I have small hands. Some of the best guitarist that ever lived had small hands. Look at Django Reinhardt - he only had 2 fingers and many people feel he is the best to have ever lived! Moral of the story = you can do this :)
I don’t have much time to practice - is this a waste of my time? - Absolutely Not. Actually, especially as a beginner, you don’t need that much time to practice… you just need to practice frequently. Learning a discipline is all about repetition, not duration. 15 minutes a day is better than 30 min every other day. You will not be practicing for hours and hours in the beginning, so it’s important to realize that regular practice is the key - not practicing for a long period of time.
What should I expect realistically? - You get out what you put in. I know this is obvious, but many people struggle with this simple concept. It is related to the previous question on practice time - if you practice every day for even 5 minutes, you should start seeing results on a weekly basis. And that’s fantastic. If you practice an hour at a time, but only once every 7-10 days, it’s going to take you at least 1-2 times as long to progress. Yes, of course, some people are more naturally suited to playing for a variety of reasons, but it’s quite simple: if you practice regularly, you will see regular and consistent progress!
Check out this first lesson on YouTube.
Here's a interview with Michael on The Nice Guys on Business Podcast.