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The Amazing Snark Story

...Foxx effects, Gorilla amplifiers, Qwik-Tune tuners, and, most recently, Snark Tuners and Danelectro effect pedals and guitars. During a 40-year career, Steve’s product concepts have consistently hit that elusive sweet spot, simultaneously resonating with musicians and generating profits for retailers. His unusual life story, defined by energy, ingenuity, and resilience, isn’t easily reduced to a case study or a “how-to guide.” But, it illustrates how business success relies more on art than science.

Steve was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in the hills above Hollywood. His father was an engineer and his mother was a CPA. While growing up, he heard a lot about business, product design, and accounting around the dinner table.

 Are entrepreneurs made or born? It’s a question that has sparked endless debate, and Steve’s life experience offers no conclusive answer. He says that his parents’ influence helped set him on a course to build his own business. But, from an early age, he also seemed to have an innate drive to make and sell things. At age five, he was turning discarded orange crates from a nearby supermarket into toys that he sold to his friends. By 11, he was cutting mistletoe boughs before Christmas, packaging them, and selling them to local retailers. A few years later, he was running a local yard business; one of his clients was Hoyt Axton, author of Three Dog Night’s hit “Joy to the World.”

By the age of 14 his entrepreneurial instincts intersected with his passion for music making. He was already an enthusiastic electric guitar player, and when he encountered an ad for an early fuzz box, he decided to build one himself. With some help from his engineer father and a lot of trial and error, he developed the “Liverpool Fuzz Tone.” His high school friends were sufficiently impressed they placed orders for a few. The first day of his summer vacation that year, he officially “launched” the product. Too young to drive, he walked ten miles on a hot day in June to secure orders from three local music stores.

Based on the initial positive response, he persuaded his father to drive him to the C. Bruno & Son warehouse in Compton (Bruno is now part of KMC Music and JAM Industries). The buyers at Bruno saw potential in the Liverpool Fuzz and placed an order for 800 units to be delivered in time for Christmas. Getting a spot in the Bruno catalog led to additional orders from Harris Teller, LPD, St. Louis Music, Davitt & Hanser, and Chesbro. Steve is proud to say that all of them are still his customers.

With sizable order book in hand, Steve wanted to make the effects business his full-time vocation, but his parents insisted he attend college. He lasted one semester at USC, dropping out at age 18. He spent the next year raising $20,000 in seed capital from private investors and used it to open a small factory in North Hollywood. His first product was the Foxx effect pedal, distinguished by its furry housing. (He had stumbled on a unique “flocking” process while attending a business opportunity show.) The pedals were an instant success. Keith Richards used them onstage with the Rolling Stones and 2,000 dealers were stocking them.
Despite the acceptance, the company struggled. Steve spent his days selling to music stores, and from 4 p.m. to midnight, he supervised the production crew. He recalls today, “I knew nothing about business management or cost control, so I made every mistake in the book. And I could fill a second book with mistakes nobody has ever made except me. Really!”

With internal problems mounting, in 1975, Steve shut the business down. Looking for a new way to earn a living, he struck a deal to handle export sales for the DeArmond Company, then maker of guitar volume pedals and pickups. His first sales call was to a large dealer in Germany who had sold Foxx effects. Steve recalls, “The dealer said he had zero interest in volume pedals but wanted to buy Fender guitars. I told him I wasn’t selling Fender, but he gave me a $140,000 order for Fender gear anyway. I took the bait. Today we would call it ‘gray marketing.’ Back then, I called it ‘avoiding starvation.’”

Four years spent exporting U.S.-made music goods provided Steve with what he calls “my real college education.” The experience provided three crucial lessons that have guided him ever since.

“First, I learned how to run a business,” he says. “One of my suppliers was Doug Brown who owned a music store in Anaheim, California. Doug knew how to operate on a shoestring. Low overhead enabled him to sell at low prices and attract volume business. He did most everything himself to save costs and was one of the best mentors I could have had.

“The second lesson I learned,” he explains, “was how much business there was outside of the United States. The third lesson started out as a mystery. Companies made hundreds, even thousands of products, but customers only seemed to want a few of them. It taught me that one well-designed product can become the foundation of a great business.”

The exporting business grew quickly, and within a few years Steve had 100 customers all over the globe. But selling other people’s products was unsatisfying, and he yearned to do something more creative. At age 28 he sold the business and decided to become a songwriter.

To learn the craft, Steve became a student of Jack Segal, a songwriter who had authored a string of hits including “When Sunny Gets Blue.” Although he never amounted to much as a songwriter, Steve says time spent with Jack Segal taught him everything he needed to know about marketing. “Jack never said a word about marketing. But in teaching me to write lyrics, he taught me how to speak to people in advertisements…how to get their attention and deliver a compelling message. Jack gave me a marketing MBA and he never even knew it.”

For decades Steve has put these lessons to work, personally conceiving layouts and copy for all his ads. “Product development and marketing are like ‘Siamese twins’; you cannot separate the two,” he says. “You need to be thinking about the marketing while you develop the product.”

After selling the export business, and unable to craft a hit song, Steve found himself newly married at age 30 with a need for income. Ever resourceful, he called up a local music dealer and asked, “What is hot right now?” The dealer responded, “Guitar tuners.” Steve replied, “You mean the pegs on the headstock?”  “No,” the dealer said, “Korg has just launched an electronic guitar tuner and it is a big seller.” Steve bought one to take a closer look.

Impressed with the Korg tuner, Steve sought out a competitive manufacturer in Japan and began importing their tuner. Sales were going well, but Steve’s innate curiosity led him to pry open one of the new tuners. From his previous experience making Foxx pedals, he immediately realized that there were far more efficient and less costly ways to build it. “Opportunity knocked,” he says. “It was one of those times in your life when you stumble upon your destiny.”

Steve recounts, “At the time music products were made almost exclusively in the U.S. and Japan. I decided to make my tuner in Taiwan to achieve a much lower cost. It was unheard of at that time to make products there.” After linking up with an electronic toy factory in Southern Taiwan, he introduced the Banana tuner, priced at $49, compared with a going price of $100 for competitive models. Combining clever packaging and compelling value, Steve recounts, “We were buried in orders.”

Others might have been content with a success like the original Banana, but Steve kept pushing for improvement. After careful analysis, he figured out how to build it even more efficiently and came out with the Banana II, priced at $29. He says today, “If somebody can compete with you, by all means be that somebody.”

Around this time, Steve’s distributor customers were complaining about the poor quality of guitar amplifiers from Japan. At the same time, U.S. dealers told him that leading amp makers consistently ran out of student amp models at Christmas. Sensing another opportunity, at age 32 Steve launched the Gorilla amplifier line, a selection of durable ten- and 15-watt practice amps with decent tonal quality and an irresistible price.

“It was absolutely huge,” says Steve. “We were selling such a large volume of amps—two million pounds worth—I realized we were also in the freight business. We had to pay the freight to get distributors to buy the amps.” In response, he aggressively negotiated truck freight rates and even chartered trucks to deliver the amps. “Even a little freight savings added up to a lot of money,” he notes.

Shortly after establishing Gorilla, Steve secured the rights to distribute the Arion effects pedals from Japan, which were priced well below market leader BOSS. “Everybody thought we were getting rich from Gorilla. The truth is we made a lot more money from effects pedals,” he says.

Steve’s next coup was a deal with Bernie Rico, founder of B.C. Rich guitars. Rico had secured endorsements from top artists and his instantly recognizable “pointy shaped” guitars were on stages everywhere. Steve secured a license to manufacture low-priced, Korean-made B.C. Rich guitars. “Bernie was funding a lot of marketing, so it was easy to sell a good quality B.C. Rich guitar for $299. We sold tonnage,” says Steve.

Steve’s music products business had doubled every year during the 1980’s. But a restless side of him kept looking for even bigger opportunities. Struck by the burgeoning popularity of fax machines in the mid-1980s, he started exploring the idea of fax machine advertising. “Call it junk fax if you like,” he says.

Sending advertising messages over a fax machine was easy; the bigger question was what product to advertise. Steve relates, “In the ‘pre-Costco,’ ‘pre-Staples’ world, a roll of fax paper cost $25 from the Fax machine maker or $20 from the stationary store on the corner. We could make that roll ourselves for about $4, so we decided to sell it direct to fax users for $10.” 

Since there was no hardware or software in the mid 1980s for sending millions of fax messages, Steve had to develop his own automated fax system, writing over 750,000 lines of software code and installing the system into an IBM PC. Steve credits his ex-wife with the marketing insight that launched the fax paper business. “When I told her (before she was my ex) that we were going to sell fax paper to offices by advertising over the fax, she said it was a terrible idea, pointing to the office toner phone scams that had existed for years. ‘No one will trust you, and no one will buy from you’, she said.”

To overcome the skepticism, Steve paid a local cartoonist $100 to create a jovial, grandfather-looking character who would smile at the user on every fax ad from his firm. The jolly, bald-headed, bow-tied elderly gent was dubbed Mr. Fax, and the company was on its way. What followed?  “Mass pandemonium is probably the best way to describe it,” says Steve. “It was absolutely the fastest growing success story I have ever been part of."

Mr. Fax grew from zero to 45 employees in two years, with sales doubling every six months. “As fast as we could find a good person and give them a phone, a desk, and a computer, we hired them.” Every night and weekend (when phone rates were cheapest) 200 IBM PC’s blasted out fax ads hawking Mr. Fax paper. More than 10 million fax ads were sent out each year, and the company had an annual phone bill topping $1.0 million. “But we didn’t care,” says Steve. “We were turning those fax calls into pure gold.”

The company gained 100,000 new customers overnight, including more than 20% of the Fortune 500, and shipped 30,000 cases (180,000 rolls) of fax paper per month. Fax roll production in the factory ran three shifts to keep up with demand. Trying to run both the music products business and the fast-growing Mr. Fax overwhelmed Steve, so he reluctantly sold his music product lines to various U.S. wholesalers and focused all his energy on the fax business.

Unfortunately, the businesses came with a heavy price. In 1988 Steve came home from the summer NAMM show to find that his wife had moved out, taking their two small children with her. The realization that he had failed his family was a devastating blow. “I never had had much interest in God, but suddenly I knew I needed help,” he says. “I prayed, ‘God, I am making a mess of things, would you take over?’”

With prayer came an almost immediate desire to go to church. Steve had hated going to church as a kid, but suddenly felt compelled to go and found himself enjoying it. Church attendance led to Bible study. “The Bible had never made any sense to me, but suddenly it did,” he says. With his new faith, he tried to reconcile with his wife but was unsuccessful.

In the meantime, Mr. Fax continued its meteoric growth. The company’s large and growing purchases of fax paper drew the attention of Mitsui & Company, a major Japanese firm, and in 1989, they made an attractive offer to buy it. Steve, worn out from the long hours of work and still hurting from the recent divorce, agreed to sell. The deal closed in September of 1989.

Steve remarried in late 1990 and began exploring new businesses. A line of sunglasses he introduced proved to be what he calls “a costly disaster.” After a nearly unbroken string of success, the failure rattled his confidence. “I felt that if I ever had any business ability, I had surely lost it. I wondered how I would provide for my family.” Clarity came from an unlikely source, Proverbs 28:19, which reads, “Those who work their land will have abundant food but those who chase fantasies will have their fill of poverty.”

In Steve’s interpretation, the “land” referred to in the scripture is an analogy for the abilities and opportunities gifted to us by the Creator. A person who applies those abilities and opportunities will eventually succeed. When they eye the “land” of others and chase after abilities and opportunities they don’t possess, hardship inevitably arises.

In another inspirational moment, Steve realized that with sunglasses, he was pursuing someone else’s “land.” “Somebody may get excited about lawn furniture, but not me,” he explains. “I love music and I realized that music was my ‘land.’ I decided to get back into the music business.”

After that “forehead-slapping epiphany,” Steve pulled out a design for a low-cost LCD tuner he had conceived in 1987. Seven years had passed, and to his surprise, it was an idea no one had yet put into production. To secure the lowest possible product cost, he went to China in 1994, found a manufacturer, and brought out the first affordable LCD tuner. Analog meter tuners dominated the market at the time, even though they had accuracy problems and would not survive a fall to the floor. And the cheapest ones retailed for $39. When Steve hit the market in late 1995 with the more reliable and accurate Qwik-Tune LCD tuner at just $19, he caused a sensation. “We got over $1 million in orders in the first 30 days,” he says. “We were off to the races.”

With the success of the tuner, Steve decided to return to his first endeavor: effects pedals. Searching for a brand name that would gain recognition, he bought a copy of the Recycler, a ’90s-era newspaper where musicians advertised and traded secondhand gear. He explains, “One morning, I spread the paper across the floor of my bathroom and got down on my knees and asked God, ‘Which of these brand names do we want for our pedals?’” He felt the Lord pointing to Danelectro and relates, “We found the owner of the Danelectro trademark and made a deal in the first phone call.”

Three models of Danelectro pedals were introduced at January NAMM in 1997. “Every dealer ordered them,” Steve says. “But, their very next question was, ‘Where are the guitars?’ I had never intended to make guitars. But now it seemed I had to.”

The Danelectro guitars, reproductions of the original models designed by Nat Daniels, were launched at the following January NAMM in 1998 to immediate acclaim. Steve says, “Our booth was flooded with dealers. There were eight of us manning the booth and the whole show we each had a line of three dealers in front of us wanting to order the guitars. We sold 10,000 guitars at that show and all that year we kept adding more factories to try to keep up with orders. There were even fist fights in some music stores over the one Danelectro guitar the store had left in stock.”

It was around this time that Steve read the autobiography of George Muller, who had run an orphanage in England in the early 1800s that cared for 5,000 children. Muller had made a vow never to ask people directly for anything, but to ask God instead to inspire them to provide food, clothing, money, or whatever else was needed. He eventually received more than 50 million British pounds in donations, all without ever asking anybody for anything.

“After I read that book,” Steve says, “I prayed, ‘God, let me be Your checking account. You put the money in, and You tell me where to spend it.’” The prayer led Steve and his wife support an orphanage in Kenya with 182 children, and another one in Thailand caring for 130 formerly trafficked kids.”

December 31, 2000 brought another inflection point in Steve’s life. He had gone to the office to catch up on some work. But that day, he says, the Lord told him to fill out a seminary application that had been languishing in his desk. He did, was accepted, and started school in September of 2001. In 2002, he started a church in Calabasas, California, which he pastored until 2009.

Attending seminary and pastoring the church took most of Steve’s time, and from 2001 to 2009 he was only able to spend about ten hours a week on the music business. “It is a miracle the business survived,” he says. By 2009, the competing demands of supervising the church, attending to parishioners, taking care of his family, and managing his music business proved too much. That year, he merged his church with another, and returned full time to the music business.

His first new project was a guitar tuner. “We had completely missed the clip-on tuner craze,” he says. “I started work on designing a better clip-on tuner. It had to be absolutely great if we were to gain market share from entrenched competitors.”

Steve enlisted a local designer to help him develop the unique “round” tuner body Snark is now famous for. During a visit to a local hair salon, he noticed the bright red rubber paint on a hair dryer, which inspired the look for his new clip-on tuner. Snark tuners were introduced in red or blue. “Anybody in the business would have told me to paint it black,” he says. “But I felt we would get lost in a sea of black tuners in the stores, so I went with bright colors.”

The next challenge was coming up with a name, a task the Steve pondered for hundreds of hours. One day, while perusing a “rare words” website, he stumbled upon “Snark.” “That’s it,” Steve exclaimed, and the rest is history.

Bright colors, a catchy name, and a unique shape helped launch Snark tuners. But Ridinger says the success of the product ultimately came down to its unique tuning software. “There is a reason so many professionals trust Snark for their tuning,” he says. “We have the best tuning software. Period. That is why we have sold millions of Snark tuners.” But even Steve concedes there’s no full explanation for the success of Snark. “There is a saying that when God does something, you will not be able to explain it,” he says.

Steve describes his current stage of life as a “renaissance. Everything has come together. We have the very best team of people in our business. We are so thankful to many thousands of music dealers for their support of our products. Our product development teams and products we are working on are the best ever. We have new products in development that will raise the business to a new level.”

At this point in life, what excites Steve most? “Two things: I love creating products. But even more than that, I love seeing people come to know the God who loves them and receive His forgiveness and eternal life.”

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