Photograph by Hamish Trounson
When guitarist Ben Fulton went electric, he found the only way to get the right sound was to make his own gadgets—and other guitarists agreed. But how do you turn a garage business into an international boutique brand? First, you find someone to share your dream—like Geoff Matthews
If you want to be noticed, it helps to be endorsed. So when Ben Fulton was looking for a big-note guitarist to pay attention to his garage-built effects pedals, he set out to get his products into a few key stores. The most important was TrueTone in Santa Monica, Los Angeles.
“They’re the shop of the stars,” says Fulton. “Everybody goes there—Eric Clapton, BB King. I rang them up, talked to the guy who owned the place and said ‘Look, my name’s Ben, I’m from New Zulland. I make pedals.’”
This tells us two things: that Fulton is serious about getting his custom pedals into the big time, and that his pitch could use some polish. TrueTone’s owner “was understandably sceptical,” says Fulton, who decided to send over a pedal anyway. “About ten days later he rang me and said we’ve got it, we love it, we want another six.” The plan started to fall into place: TrueTone demoed the pedals for Andy Summers, who bought eight for the Police reunion tour; Sting quickly adopted them himself; John Mayer became a fan. Fulton’s company, Red Witch Analog Pedals, had its endorsements.
And it has the brand story to back them. Red Witch was literally born in Fulton’s Paekakariki garage, and until recently the pedals—with names like Fuzz God, Pentavocal Tremolo, Deluxe Moon Phaser and Empress Chorus Vibrato—were made in nearby Wellington where Fulton could keep an eye on progress. Every pedal is individually hand-tested by Fulton himself and he signs each unit when it meets his standards and is ready to ship. Red Witch’s pedals are high-end, boutique products, and although they’re not well known in New Zealand, they sell for thousands of dollars in top US music stores.
Fulton is perhaps an unlikely character to create a better fuzzbox. He spent much of his professional music career as a solo acoustic guitarist, before joining a mate’s band. “My partner at the time kindly bought me an old second-hand Holden amplifier, which is a valve amplifier made in New Zealand. It was alright but needed some serious work. I didn’t have the resources to get someone else to do it so I went online and started learning about it.
“Then I decided I wanted some pedals, looked at what was available and realised that there were certain sounds that I wanted to hear that you couldn’t get, so I put the time and effort and energy into working out how to go about getting those sounds.”
Fulton had learned to make pedals in the old-fashioned style. Each of his pedals is created entirely from hardware, using off-the-shelf transistors, resistors and custom chips to get a unique sound. In a digital age, Red Witch is distinctly old-school.
It turns out that other guitarists liked those sounds too. Guitar players are fairly set in their tastes, says Fulton. “They’re pretty regressive with their take on technology. Guitar players will look back at their heroes—Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and people like that—and look to the sort of sound that they were getting in their equipment. People like this instead of digital stuff because it’s generally accepted that it sounds better.”
Not that Red Witch is stuck in the seventies. “It’s a combination of classic sounds, plus some innovations that you can’t get anywhere else … some sounds that are unique and specific to our products and our products only.”
To create his pedals, Fulton spends much of his time sourcing the components that give interesting audio effects. Some you could buy at Dick Smith, he says; others need to be tracked down to some warehouse. “Several of our products use what are called ‘new old stock’ components. The chorus pedal, for instance, uses a delay chip that they stopped making in the late seventies, so we’ve sourced a large quantity of new products that have been sitting on a shelf for 30 years. It wouldn’t be easy for somebody else to go and build one of these things. The fact is that they sound so good.”
A niche product, a great brand, some big-name endorsement and an enthusiastic distribution channel into the biggest music market on the planet: Red Witch had done the hard work. Yet demand brings its own difficulties. By necessity, production was shifted to a specialised manufacturer in Taiwan, but each pedal is still shipped to Paekakariki for Fulton to test. Demand was soaring, but Fulton didn’t have the ability to meet it. He’d created a range of custom pedals but he was struggling to look after development, testing, sales, support, marketing and media by himself. How does a business like Red Witch scale in the Internet age?
And then there’s the thorny question that so many inventors struggle with: would Fulton be prepared to give up some of his creation to an investor?
When Queenstown entrepreneur Geoff Matthews met Fulton, he was struck by the work that had already been done. “Ben had done everything right,” says Matthews. “He’s got the best brand and a product that the world wants. He made a good decision with manufacturing: not to go to China, but to go to the best factory in the world.” Matthews sought out US reviews of Red Witch kit, and found that it was considered the best of its kind. “His brand was already batting way above its weight. To me, that is unfulfilled potential.”
Matthews thought he could help with the classic problems that Kiwi inventors face: capital, systems and planning. A former Ironman champ and one-time private secretary to former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, Matthews had been chief executive of swimwear maker Blueseventy and is familiar with the challenges of building a global brand. (He’s also the founder of TaxRefunds.co.nz)
Red Witch had the potential, but would Fulton be prepared to let someone else share in his creation? Too right. “That’s not a problem for me,” he says. “After seven years of doing it alone, one’s romantic notions are replaced with the simple fact that we need to make this thing fly. That’s where Geoff came in. We talked with various people and he was just the right guy.”
Says Matthews: “The difference with Ben is that he was willing to give away half his company to make this successful. And he wasn’t looking for cash in his pocket. He wanted to get somebody to take it forward.”
Just where are they taking it? The plan is to grow Red Witch into a company with around US$10 million turnover each year. Beyond that, says Matthews, “you’d lose your boutiqueness”.
And they’re determined to enjoy the journey. “There’s a lot of honesty in our friendship,” says Fulton, who remains Red Witch’s chief executive. “I’ve only known Geoff since the start of the year but we went to the NAMM show, a big music show they have in LA, and we had a lot of fun. We’re both on the same page of wanting to have success with the business, and he has great belief in himself, in myself and in the company.”
For Matthews, business has become his new sport, and sport is about friendships. “The best day you can have is when you all have a great day.”