Since the 1950s, Fender has been one of the leading names in music. Six years ago, Ethan Kaplan pitched Fender to build out a digital take on a traditionally analog experience — guitar lessons. This week, Paul and Rich sit down with Ethan to discuss how he pitched the idea to the team and why Fender needed a digital strategy. He also shares valuable project management advice and REM album recommendations.
Rich Ziade I want to switch it and say do you want to play us out? But maybe that’s asking too much…
Ethan Kaplan No, I’m not gonna—[Ethan & Rich & Paul laugh]—it’s not tuned and…
RZ Okay, fair enough.
Paul Ford There we go, we found the limit.
RZ We hit the wall, we hit the wall.
EK I did that once on TV and it ended is like a collective disaster. [music ramps up, plays alone, fades out]
RZ Yes, Paul.
PF We always talk about digital technology on this podcast. Big thing for us. Computers, ones and zeros. We never talked about analog technology.
RZ Analog technology. Analog, just analog?
PF No, no, it’s a technology. Were you born with an analog device in your hand?
RZ No I wasn’t.
PF Do they grow in the field?
RZ I don’t like your tone.
PF Maybe I should cheer up a little bit.
RZ Cheer up a little bit.
PF Alright. Because we’re talking about something fun today.
PF We’re actually talking about something cool, unlike almost every other podcast we do. [Paul laughs]
RZ Okay, fair enough. What are we talking about?
PF Guitars… sort of.
RZ Ah, my brother is a guitarist. He’s a very good guitarist. And he was like 14 and I think was saving up money. And my parents thought that guitars would lead him to the devil. You know, he was real stubborn and angry about and he got into guitars and his first guitar was not an acoustic guitar. It was an electric guitar. And it was like a cheap starter guitar. Fast forward three or four years later, and we had probably three Fenders in the house, were teenagers at that point, and he had a lot of pedals that he would chain together to make all kinds of sounds. It was pretty cool.
PF We should have him on the podcast
RZ We could and should have him on the podcast.
PF With his pedals. But what kinds of guitars did he have?
RZ He had a Fender Telecaster was one of his first guitars.
PF Wow, just by coincidence. We have a person from Fender who works on the digital side of Fender. So Ethan, Ethan, welcome to the Postlight Podcast.
EK Thanks for having me on.
RZ Ethan Do you play guitar?
EK I do, I have one sitting over here.
RZ Who’s your favorite guitarist?
EK It’s a funny one. So I grew up working with REM so if I don’t say Peter Buck, Peter Buck will come and—
RZ You can’t just say I was working with REM. Now we gotta go there.
EK My favorite guitarist is probably Tom Verlaine from the band Television.
PF Oh, sure!
RZ Very cool.
EK He plays guitar like Coltrane played the saxophone. So.
RZ Give us the one minute on REM and your involvement.
EK I started a fan site at 16 when they had none and then I got involved in the band, worked at their label.
EK If you go to their Facebook page on the admin of that page and still do work with them.
PF What’s your favorite album?
EK I’m gravitating on Murmur again.
PF Yeah, it’s good.
EK It’s the 40th anniversary of the first single, so.
PF Yikes! [Paul laughs]
RZ Oh god, thanks for nothing, Ethan.
EK They just sent me all the reissue stuff.
RZ Oh, man.
PF Ah, it’s a great album. It’s also 40.
EK Murmur’s not 40 for two years. Radio Free Europe single is 40.
PF Ohhhh my god.
RZ Oh no.
PF Help us understand. You are a digital and product person at Fender. What does that mean?
EK I came in about six years ago to build a digital strategy for Fender oriented around teaching people how to play guitar and helping them get the right guitar to learn how to play. So essentially, I run all of the digital products and services from Fender.com to Fender Tune, and our digital learning platform Fender Play.
PF Fender is, obviously anyone who has watched a person play guitar on a stage has probably seen a Fender, very well known. How big is Fender? Like help us get our bearings as to what this organization is, where it is, how big it is.
EK Fender’s based actually, well, especially now around the world. Our headquarters is in Hollywood, California. We have offices in Arizona and the UK, Australia, Japan and manufacturing in a bunch of places as well. We are the biggest electric guitar maker. And at this point, we’ve on the digital side, we’ve taught 2 million people how to play using our digital learning platform since we started it.
PF If there’s a technology that takes pride in its sort of analog non-digital nature, its electric guitar. What is that like? When you’re coming in there and explaining why it’s time for apps and educating, you know, users using digital tools like how did that happen?
EK I’ve always built digital strategies around businesses that typically didn’t have them from the record business. And now the guitar business. I think that there is a pride to be had in the fact that we make things out of wood and metal that don’t need technology to work at core level—
PF Electricity, but yeah, not digital.
EK I mean, you need electricity and amplification, but to a degree you don’t. I mean to a degree with an acoustic you actually don’t. It’s like one of the last things that in the middle of a field you can open up a box and still get enjoyment out of it. So a lot of our digital strategy was, how do we complement that experience that is so pure, that has so much legacy? And that is so associated with individual creativity and collective creativity, and culture? How do we enable more of that and not get in the way of it?
PF So you need a plan, you need to convince people in the organization that you’ve got a good plan. What did you do? Like, what did you pitch?
EK I’m a product guy at heart. So it starts with looking at what the problem is that you’re trying to solve, or the job you’re trying to perform for the people that are going to use your products. So I always look at it and pose the question, what is somebody hiring us to do for them? Now on the guitar side, we obviously know, they’re hiring us to give them the best electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, or amplifier pedals possible. But on the digital side, if you’re going to go to the guitar manufacturer, to get something from them digitally, it should be something that enables you to play and something that enables you to play better. So for us, like the first product we launched was Fender Tune, very fundamental thing, you can’t play guitar without tuning it. So obviously, the people that make your guitar should help you tune it, you know, we make clip on tuners, we made a digital tuner. And then the second being a tool to help you learn how to play. If 90% of people who start playing are gonna abandon the instrument in the first year, not the first three months, the opportunity to help get people through that inflection point, get people to competency and confidence and make it fun and rewarding was a huge opportunity. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for anybody to realize that.
RZ I bought a Fender guitar. It’s beautiful. I shine it every day. And I just open YouTube. Why isn’t YouTube enough? Like what were you competing against here? Like, obviously, YouTube is awash with like, ‘how to play this’, I think you could just type in a song and type the word guitar right after it and it’ll teach you a lesson. So what’s different about the experience? What were you—that’s effectively unknown quantity out in the world. Tell us what Fender Play is and what and what was the inside track you were chasing there.
EK YouTube is great to find bits and pieces of a curriculum that you assemble yourself. Our aim was to put the curriculum informed by educational experts in a prescribed path for people to get through to maximize success, right? You can learn how to do anything by assembling a bunch of different videos, you can get exercise techniques, but people still go to trainers and still look for pathways through a learning journey. So a lot of what we did with Fender Play is you don’t want to get in the way of the desire to learn. What that is on YouTube is you have to search and hunt and peck and find good instruction and find camera angles that work or instruction that’s quality. And some of it sounds bad or there’s a cat walking in the foreground. You know, our aim for Fender Play was the highest caliber video production you can get distraction free video, stuff around the videos that makes it even more compelling like tablature and backing tracks, and what we call practice mode. As well as paying careful attention to the fact that learning should be about learning and not trying to figure out a user interface or sitting through ads for a grammar checking software before you get to your guitar lesson.
RZ Ohhh, zing.
EK All those things get in the way of learning.
PF You know what I’m getting a lot of lately? It’s the doctor’s office. I think it’s called Forward. And the very low-fi ad. “Hi there. I’m a doctor!”
RZ Yeah, YouTube gets flooded.
PF Yeah, but how are you gonna learn guitar? If you have to either learn about Monday.com.
RZ Why should I talk to a doctor the minute before I’m getting into learning how to play guitar?
PF That’s right. That’s right.
RZ You know what? We’re kind of skirting around it. You call it Fender play. What is it? Let’s actually say it, give us the quick one minute.
EK Sure. Fender plays an online instruction platform for how to learn how to play guitar, or ukulele or bass. We offer five genres probably more coming. And we can take you from never having picked up the instrument to playing along with backing tracks playing for friends. And there’s a whole robust community also that supports the learning journey that we have through Facebook right now. And it’s a subscription app with a seven day free trial. So.
RZ Got it. So it’s you pay a monthly fee?
EK Yeah, monthly or annual.
RZ Maybe this is a slightly controversial question. But if I had a, I mean, I could use any guitar with Fender Play, I’m assuming?
EK Oh, sure. We have no—nothing is proprietary, in terms of what guitar you play. Could be something you made yourself if you wanted to.
PF Eventually you’ll have DRM that will give you an electric shock if you touch it.
RZ If it’s a Les Paul? [Rich laughs]
PF We’re not there yet. Good. Good. I mean, so let’s break it down a little bit into pieces, right? So you’ve got kind of the learning and education module, then you have to charge people money. You have to get subscriptions going, you have to market this thing. Where did a lot of your time go? Like what were the hard parts of building? I mean, because it’s it’s a platform, right? Like it’s an experience, but it’s also it sounds like there’s a lot of interactive components. There’s money involved. Like where did you end up spending most of your time?
EK When I got defender six years ago, it was basically a cold start. So no servers, no staff. So I mean, literally the first place we started was spinning up a Amazon Web Service instance. And putting credentials in place and spinning up our first s3 buckets and EC two instances and all the technology that has to go behind it. But we quite literally built everything from the ground up from our learning management system that handles the videos and how we do the curriculum, integrating with billing platforms with the Apple platform, Google platform, and then cross integration with our direct to consumer ecommerce systems, our data and analytics systems, accounting. I mean, so it was building a team and building a platform, and then building apps on the platform all within essentially two years. We launched Fender Play four years ago.
RZ A credit to Fender, I mean, this is a storied company, a pretty legendary brand. You see a lot of stories, Paul, of companies that have a legacy, have a history, and they’re trying to wade into modernizing what they’re about, right. And that can happen in a lot of different ways. Marshall Amps comes to mind, like they somehow made this weird leap where they were, like, considered one of the better Bluetooth speakers, even though I mean, my guess is the innards is just, you know, the usual stuff that goes into a Bluetooth speaker, it had that signature kind of Marshal form factor, right, that is so familiar. Tell me, I guess, how do you negotiate that? I gotta imagine there was skepticism, but just hesitancy around heading into this, going down this path. Right? And what’s at stake?
PF Well it’s expensive. It’s not just servers. It’s the people, it’s design. It’s the learning modules and so on. So suddenly, you’ve showed up, that’s nice. We have the product guy, that’s we’re doing good. We’re digital now. Yep. And you’re gonna ask them for a very large amount of money, right? And how did how did that go?
EK It went fine. [Rich laughs] I mean, we have an overall corporate, we’re a large company that makes products that enable culture, right. And if the biggest problem that we face is that the people that start playing the instrument, get frustrated and quit, that’s a abandonment rate issue, which is a subscription metric. But it’s an abandonment issue applied to an industry, we know that if people get past the first year, they buy more guitars, they stick with the instrument longer. And we actually have been able to quantify that impact. And to this point, saying, we’re going to get more people through that first year, through any means necessary, and then help them find the next what they’re going to do the next year. That’s a pretty easy and compelling non-digital story to tell, which is we make products for customers that want to make or pursue a new hobby, and we want to get more people into that hobby. So it’s not enough to just get people into the instruments, keeping them in. And that’s a cumulative effect. So we’ve never lost sight of the overall business. It’s not just doing digital to do digital.
RZ I want to pluck a piece of advice out of what Ethan is saying here, which is, first off, one of the most powerful levers to use when you’re you’re pitching a strategy, a strategy that is so distinct, and it’s actually going to be costly for especially a legacy organization, is to outline for them this horrible path to failure and just descent into negative growth. Right?
PF If you don’t.
RZ If you don’t, right. Which is what very often happens is the geeks and and the technologists advocate and sell in their language, inside of their world. And it’s like you have to do this. It’s the coolest thing. And I think one of the things Ethan is saying, which I think applies in a lot of industries, right? It’s like, look, you have to bet on this because everything is at stake, not just you need to be cool and have cool apps. I have a Yamaha receiver at home. And there’s an app because it’s wired into my WiFi—
PF Oh, receiver apps are a crime.
RZ It’s a crime. It’s a crime. And it’s a crime, I think because it’s just so alien to them. And I just imagine I think about that poor group, that product group that’s actually trying to do something. [Rich laughs]
PF We need to come back to Ethan, remember, what you see is the decision making process almost inevitably involves a cross platform widget toolkit. This is gonna run on everything and invest too much in it. The Onkyo app is another treat.
RZ Yeah, they’re checking the box. They’re saying, I gotta put WiFi, we’ll put the WiFi chip. And I guess we need the app, we’ll go get the app done. And it is an afterthought. Versus, you know, that’s why you get new players upstarts that reset entire industries because they’re thinking fundamentally differently about it. And it’s not a bolt on.
EK Yeah, I mean, you raise a point with Onkyo and Yamaha right. Which they make receivers, but they have no motivation, necessarily to make the user experience draw people in and it’s why you got upstarts like Sonos coming in and making something user friendly and easy and drop in with with attention paid to a holistic ecosystem and they hurt them on the low end. Not sure 1000 plus end. But on the low end.
PF You know what Sonos has done too? Like the first Sonos experiences weren’t as good as they needed to be. The desktop apps and stuff. Boy, is it good.
RZ They were hardware centric.
PF They figured that out. Right. Whereas like the my LG TV app, not only is it bad and broken, but every time I open, it says, ‘You need to install the LG things app’ and I did that. And it gives me ads for Tide detergent. And I’m like, when will you be happy?
RZ Yeah. Exactly. [Rich laughs] Looking for a little bit of palace entry here. Ethan, tell me what was one of the biggest hurdles internally to get buy in on whatever was, I guess you could you could tell me that, you know, Fender is just a culture that just totally embrace this forward motion. But typically, and you know, we’re an agency and we go into organizations where they have to sell that story. And they hit their snags, right, and then the resistance.
EK Yeah, I think there’s two factors. One is language. As a product and technologist, I speak a different language. And I acknowledge that, right. And so I’ve always tried to check myself in terms of how I explain things. And I think the other is the trust and agility as a process. The concept of an MVP doesn’t exist if you’re making a guitar, or you’re sourcing wood well in advance, and you have to, you know, your bill of materials to deal with. And so we have, we have two things that are fundamental to us. It’s either you don’t know until you know, right, that you’re going to find the holes by falling into them. The other being we intentionally de-jargon ourselves, so we don’t convolute our argument underneath technobabble.
PF It’s so subtle, too. I got in trouble, terrible trouble once because I said, “Don’t worry, we’re only going to use really boring technologies here.” And of course, what they heard is I’m paying this agency to give us something boring, like they missed what that shading and I’m like—
RZ You’re trying to bring the stress level down.
PF I’m gonna give you a cloud based platform that is really well vetted. We’re not taking a lot of risk, we’re going to do a great design. No, all they heard was boring. We had to go out for drinks. And they had to yell at me for a half hour. That translation, you can’t do enough work.
RZ Yeah. Tell us about how you gain that goodwill over time. I’m assuming it wasn’t just one deck, and then you got the check, then you got the budget. I’m guessing you had to, over time, bring into sharper and sharper focus, division and validated and whatnot, I guess, where you prototyping? Were you having like, you know, use cases? Yeah. I mean, give us a little bit of sense of that that journey?
EK Yeah. I mean, I think it’s all of those. We prototyped and got things in front of people early, we build, measure, learn, and we, you know, implemented for data acquisition and telemetry early on with the first products we built. And we tried to make informed decisions. I think part of it is also we acknowledge when we made the wrong decision. And don’t get defensive about it. We checked it. Okay, move on, don’t do it again. We’ve certainly, you know, run into brick walls, we’ve made some bad decisions, and mostly good, but you just refine your decision making process as you go and be as transparent as possible. I think, part of how we run our department, part of how I like to run things is everybody’s invited into the room, and everybody’s allowed to have an opinion. But everybody’s also, you know, given the ability to not have to ask an opinion, because some of this is trusting your team to make the right decisions in not creating an environment of fear if the decisions don’t pan out.
PF What do you measure with this product out in the world? What are you what are you keeping track of?
EK I mean, we have the typical performance metrics retention, acquisition, ARPU, our pal, LTV. But because we’re also a complement to a physical products business, we look across the entire business. What are our users of Fender Play, what level do they get to where we get an uplift in terms of the overall sales and the overall commitment to the instrument? So we do look at it on a hybrid basis, not just as a subscription business,
PF How do you track that? Is there a Fender CRM with sort of stages—like how do you—
EK We track it using the telemetry we put in place that exists between the app. So we have a single sign on between all of our apps, including our direct to consumer, some of its extrapolated, some of its actually directly quantified.
PF I think a Fender is selling to music stores or lots of online, like, do you interface with that part of the world? How does that work?
EK I run the direct to consumer product side and the engineering side. It’s not the majority of our business in any way. We’re still a channel and retail focus business and work with all of our partners worldwide to make sure they’re selling our products in the right way and the best of their abilities. We do have a direct to consumer channel, obviously the last year has had significant impact on how people buy instruments but our dealers and US have all evolved as we need to.
RZ Tell us about your team. How big is your team?
EK Team’s about 60 people now that half of that is engineering, which is again broken into platform ops and front end engineering. Although a little getting Little bit more hybrid as we go, because people are training back and forth, which is good. I run the studio team, which makes all the videos. So that’s studio on production and all the infrastructure that goes into that. And then product and design and project management is the other half of my team.
RZ I mean, I ask this question of out of a lot of product leaders that have been on the podcast, what are the hallmarks of a great product manager?
EK Listening. The ability to listen and learn, learn from others, learn from the business, learn from their users, and not be so beholden to, I’d say, unmovable opinions that they’re not willing to admit they’re wrong and pivot, a good product leader thinks of themselves as the, the shepherd of a product, not the owner of it in a way that they’re having to make a product that feels good and responds well to the users of the product. And give the context needed to help build it engineering is, is very different than product in a way that you got to start and an end product never has a start and end, this is a continual loop. And there’s a lot of ways to make things. But there’s, it’s very hard to make the right thing.
PF You know, to that end, when it is a five person skunkworks team, everybody can kind of get in there, they get the work done, it goes live, and then you kind of figure it out from there, you’re on a different cadence, you’ve got a big team, you’ve a large org. And there’s a real difference between launch and sort of post launch. Right. And I was wondering how you manage that?
EK We’re at a different stage, we acknowledge that like, when we were first launching stuff, everything you did was for the first time, when you’re launching version four, right, which we’re working on for play, you’re refining the way you do things in a way that is not necessarily these monolithic things, but often harder, because you now have legacy to deal with as well and tech debt. Right. And there’s the perpetual trap of wanting to reinvent the wheel. The way we look at it is if where we’re at if there are things that we can do now, that are different than what you know, that would have affected the choices we chose in the past, let’s evaluate those if they’re gonna make our lives easier. But it’s also a matter of editing and filtering, what you end up doing. Some of what we’re doing now is evolving product management to be more longitudinal across the whole ecosystem, rather than siloed by product, because we’re finding that users have tuner using play, and they go to common, so how do we kind of look at it more of a journey basis in a longitudinal journey basis, rather than a strict siloed basis. So that’s, you know, a little bit different structure in terms of product management. But that’s just the evolution of how we make things. We’re no longer standing up new code bases, we do at times, but we’re mostly shifting and adjusting existing ones to adapt to the new realities of the business, the world where we are as a business, etc.
PF You know, the early days, you could launch three or four new things, and you could have this very sort of quick velocity. And then that always slows down, right? Like, how do you make sure that new stuff is coming into the org, that new things can be launched?
EK A lot of it is creating the structure and guide rails to be able to experiment without consequence, and do quick wins and do low hanging fruit stuff. And also, a lot of product companies later on, get bogged down and kind of a continual cycle of burning through tech debt and nice to haves rather than looking forward. And acknowledging that some stuff you may not get to, and it may not matter. And the ability to kind of evaluate the stuff that may not matter that everybody wants to do versus the stuff that can have massive impact, but that may not be as as cool. That’s just a balancing act, that product and engineering are always adjusting to, because you’re never going to be perfect. But you can always be moving forward, even if it’s incremental, small changes, open up large opportunities that you may not have known. And so the big problems are always the fun ones to tackle. But in my 20 something years of being in this, if I always jumped at the new shiny, I’d never get anything done. And also, I would have wasted a lot of cycles on stuff that didn’t matter.
PF Let’s say I’m a mid level pm. I’m aiming for senior. I love the industry. I’ve been able to get a couple apps across the line. Give me some advice. What are the things that you wish I would go learn? What are the things that I need in order to become a true leader inside of product management?
EK I think the primary one for me is simplicity. Is there’s a tendency and product to overthink, inconsequential things and under think the things that make a big difference.
PF I’ve never noticed that. Rich, you? You ever noticed that?
RZ I’m obsessed with this. I mean, and over design, right?
EK Yeah, and just overbaking things right? That’s a common tendency because you get into an insular cycle between, you know. what your design system is and the design language and it gets a little bit caught up in its own head when in reality, when you use products I use a ton of products, I just bought a home so I’ve been doing home automation stuff. I’m like deep in product, both industrial and software design. You know when things feel Right, because the team behind it was thinking in the right way about what they’re making. And they’re thinking about the people that will use the product, not the act of making the product. And if you go to any tech news on any given day, and you look at all the product launches on Product Hunt or Techmeme, and even big companies get trapped into this, like Apple, or Google, right or Instagram. You launch a product that internally you feel is something that you would love. But you’re not thinking through the fact that any product you launch has to live within, there’s 24 hours in a person’s day, your customer base has only 24. And you’re going to be taking up a certain percentage of that with whatever you’ve made. And the patience to deal with that is a lot less than your patients to make it.
RZ Very good thoughtful product advice here.
PF If you’re thinking what a product management leader should sound like, that’s pretty textbook, right?
RZ Yeah, and not just product management leader in a startup but project management leader who is navigating a storied organization. Right? And that is part of the job.
PF People are protecting the value in the org and that they’re going to be careful about new things. And and respecting that. While also having a real process is key. So great. That was very helpful.
RZ Yes. Thanks again, Ethan. This was a lot of fun.
EK Thanks guys.
RZ Take care, be well.
PF Well, Richard.
RZ That is, I mean, that is a very thoughtful product leader.
PF That’s what that looks like.
RZ That’s what that looks like.
PF Yeah. That’s what that is. It’s sort of fun. There’s a moment like you’re 10 minutes in and you’re like, yep, okay. There was a lot of my life and a lot of my career, I would meet people and I would go, I wonder how they got this job. [music ramps up] But that’s not that person.
RZ That’s not.
PF That person, you’re like, I know exactly how they got this job. Good for them. Rich, you and I are the co-founders of Postlight.
RZ We are the co-founders of Postlight. Neither of us plays guitar. Actually, I can play chords. If you give me like a song with chords. I can play the chords.
PF I’ve never been able to stick with it for more than 20 minutes.
RZ Yeah, well, I don’t know if you have the right fingers for it to be perfect frank.
PF I don’t. I don’t.
RZ Okay, just gonna throw that out there. Reach out! Hello@postlight.com.
PF There is something with big guy and ukulele though. That is a good thing.
RZ That is cute. Get you a big Hawaiian shirt.
PF Not a Hawaiian shirt, because then it becomes a problem. [Rich laughs] But like, just, you know, bring that out in the middle of the meeting and be like, yeah, you know, [sings] here’s our annual bonus.
RZ Alright, so speaking of—well, no, not speaking of which, firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re a digital product studio based in New York City. Amazing product, technology and design thinking coming together delivering great stuff, check out our work page, doing all kinds of interesting work these days. And we’re growing. We’re hiring. So reach out.
PF Yeah, it’s great time.
RZ Come on over Postlight.com. Have a great week everyone.
[music ramps up, plays alone, ends]