AKRON, Ohio — From Cleveland to Columbus and Toledo to Cincinnati, Ohio is packed with companies who call the Buckeye State home.
As part of the News 5 Cleveland Buckeye Built series, reporter Meg Shaw went behind the scenes of a business who has made major waves in the music industry: EarthQuaker Devices.
EarthQuaker Devices first got its start in an Akron basement back in 2004. At the time, founder Jamie Stillman was working as the tour manager for The Black Keys. Stillman said working for the band reignited his interest in music equipment once again. The Northeast Ohio native has deep-rooted history with music.
"My parents even have a recording of me playing Beatle songs, like playing drums and singing Hard Day's Night on the Cat boxes from when I was four," Stillman said.
All throughout his high school years, Stillman played in bands. At one point he even had his own record label, Donut Friends, which he operated from his home in Kent.
But in 2004, when he began playing music again, his effects pedal broke. "I really relied on that pedal, so I bought a new version of it and it didn't sound anything like it," Stillman said.
So he went in search of how to fix it. He scoured the internet for answers. "I don't really know what I was looking for a really or what I expected," he said. But, alas, Stillman found a DIY website and he figured it out. This sparked something inside him. Prior to this, Stillman had no electronics or engineering experience but now he wanted to know and learn more. That's when he began building effects pedals from scratch.
Piece by piece, in his basement, Stillman was building equipment for his friends after the news spread by word of mouth.
"There was no business plan, no intention to start a business. No money involved really of sorts," he said.
Stillman's first pedal for someone other than himself was created for Pat Carney, the drummer for The Black Keys.
Little by little, his side hobby was growing. Eventually, Stillman was spending 14-16 hours a day making pedals in the basement of his home. Finally, to make it official, he named the company EarthQuaker Devices.
"I never really saw EarthQuaker becoming what it is now," Stillman said.
As the years progressed, so did the business and its plan. In 2011, Stillman's wife, Julie Robbins, left her full-time job to join Stillman at EarthQuaker. Robbins was named CEO. That was the same year the pair moved the company to a large space, an abandoned glass factory.
But the growth kept coming. In 2015, EarthQuaker Devices moved into their current space, a two-story 15,000 sq. ft. building. This is where the some 50 employees work day in and day out.
Every pedal made at EarthQuaker Devices is made to order by hand, one by one. Stillman said the company rarely sits on a lot of product at one time. He believes this is an advantage and allows their company to move with the market swings.
"We've been able to adapt to whatever the market is. We've had a slow month, we've had a great month. We're just able to quickly move back and forth between all that stuff," he said.
Stillman said he realizes making their product by hand is dated with today's technology, but he stands by the practice and said this is how they can guarantee quality.
But he also said, with many of his employees being former or current musicians, their personalities have helped shaped the company and the products.
"It has taken out a little piece of everybody's personality, so it's not so much my baby. It's sort of our baby. Everybody works here, I think, a lot of people who just come on, they take a lot of pride and the work that they do here and we try to make it a really great place to work," Stillman said.
Those personalities like people like Sam Wandtke, who's nicknamed Sam the Pedal Doodler. Wandtke, who's worked at EarthQuaker Devices for three years, is responsible for placing the back plates onto the pedals prior to shipping. Wandtke said she enjoys drawing, specifically cats, so one day she began drawing on one of the back plates before screwing it on.
"One day I had extra time so I just started drawing," she said. "Then it kind of became a thing. It actually got me a gig to go to Japan with Jamie and Julie, to draw cats on pedals."
Wandtke said she only spends about 20 minutes drawing a picture with markers and now selects one plate from a group.
"It's like that element of surprise now," she said. "People open up their pedals and check to see if they got a doodle."
Right now, the company sells about 40 different pedals on their website. The products range from $99-$299.
Robbins, the CEO, said EarthQuaker Devices is now exporting products to nearly 50 countries all around the world, with much of that business coming from Japan.
This year the company was honored for their exporting efforts.
EarthQuaker Devices was the winner of the 2019 U.S. Small Business Administration Exporter of the Year.
The SBA office said in a press release, "Mr. Stillman’s company has successfully made use of the SBDC Export Assistance Network, which provides free, confidential counseling to exporters and has offices throughout Ohio."
Robbins had a big hand in helping the company win the award by applying for several grants and other programs.
When they received the news, Robbins said she ran around the office with the letter shouting, "We won! We Won!"
"It's so cool," she said. "We're the first company from Ohio to ever win the award."
Robbins said they are proud to represent the Buckeye State.
"It means we're putting Ohio back on the map in terms of manufacturing," she said. "Ohio is a great place to own a business. It's a great place to do manufacturing."
In May, Stillman and Robbins traveled to Washington D.C. to accept the award at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
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In 2004, musician Jamie Stillman opened a business in his basement designing guitar effects pedals. Word of mouth spread quickly about the products and he soon hired his first employee and focused on building pedals full time. In 2011 Jamie’s wife, Julie Robbins, left her banking job to join the company as CEO. In 2015, the company moved to a 15,000 square-foot building, which is currently home to its 53+ employees, who build and distribute their products to 47 countries. In 2018, they were awarded the IMAGE grant, funded through SBA’s State Trade and Export Expansion Program (STEP) Grant Initiative and used the grant to develop marketing pieces. Keeping production in the U.S. is paramount: EarthQuaker proudly marks its devices as “Made in Akron, Ohio.” Congratulations to Jamie and Julie, SBA’s 2019 National Small Business Week Exporters of the Year. #WorldTradeMonth #export #guitar #bassguitar #guitarpedals #music #akron #ohio
For more information about EarthQuaker Devices, click here.