How do you start small and grow global? Where do you get started?

Group shot of cheriatone's staffGroup shot of cheriatone's staffGroup shot of cheriatone’s staff

By Alvin Ung

  1. Tap into your passion. Do what you love whether it is your vocation or avocation. As a child growing up in Kelantan, Nik loved listening to his uncle’s vinyl records of Elvis Presley. Nik’s hobby coalesced around vintage tube amps when he went into university. Back in Malaysia, his passion for tube amps transformed his avocation into a vocation.
  2. Find support from community. We all need friends and community to cheer us on. At the turn of the 21st century, online forums were the rage. Nik went there to exchange notes about tube amps, to build friendships and to sell components. A forum group supplied him the  instructions on how to build an amp, and they ended up buying his first commercial 18-watt model. Today, members of these online communities remain the strongest advocates and buyers of Ceriatone amps.
  3. Take the calculated leap of faith. At some point you need to be bold. But the leap of faith isn’t as scary you think. For Nik, the leap was so gradual that he hardly noticed it. Before he started Ceriatone, he was a partner in a successful IT company where he did business development. But eventually his hobby grew so big – and was generating significant revenue – that he needed help and additional space. So he rented new space and hired two people to help him. Before he knew it, he had become a full-blown entrepreneur.
  4. Catch the wave. When it comes, you’ve got to be ready. Just as Nik began, the winds of change blew at the global level to create a wave for Nik to go surfing. At the turn of the 21st century, there was growing demand for high-end tube guitar amps. But the U.S. economy was weak so musicians cast around for affordable alternatives, and were willing to consider this unknown company from Malaysia with a strange name called Ceriatone (Americans typically pronounce it “See-riatone”). Meanwhile, the Internet forums enabled photos to be posted for the first time. So Nik capitalized on that opportunity to sell high quality components, kits and amps at unbeatable prices. His business took off.
  5. Master your chosen field. The pursuit of excellence requires that you first become proficient in your chosen field, and the sub-fields. For Nik, he learned everything he needed to know about tube amplifiers – from soldering components to sawing wood to servicing customers. He also studied the history of rock and roll, kept abreast with current artistes and music, and identified all his competitors in the vintage amp market. Still, that’s just the beginning. It’s only when you understand the outer limits of your ignorance as well as the contradictions that lie within the sub-fields that you are able to create great products.
  6. Innovate new products for the market. You are never judged by just one product; people look at what you produce over the long-term. Nik has more than forty models for sale. But at any given moment, Nik has three or four amp designs ready for production. And he picks the right moment to launch a product. For example, he released the Lunch Box during the slow summer season in the United States so he would gain a buffer zone to tweak his production line before demand ramped up during the fall (when most musicians return from vacation). “It’s important to know what the market wants, when they want it, and whether you’re able to supply what they want,” Nik said.
  7. Determine your threshold of enough. Growth is a blessing but it can burn you out. A few years ago, during boom time, the staff worked until midnight. Nik survived on three hours of sleep a night. That was unsustainable. Eventually they realized that the optimum number of staff for a boutique amp maker was 15 people. Below that, you don’t have enough economies of scale for price advantage. More than that, you’ll compete against low-cost production amp assembly lines from China and Vietnam.
  8. Leverage on your parochial roots as you go global. Your roots may just determine who you are and why you succeed. Nik’s company culture revolves around a “Kelantan attitude.” He’s ticked off when politicians attack his home state. And he’s fiercely proud that his most affordable amp, as well as the most pricey one, come with the label – “made in Kelantan.” Most of his staff come from Kelantan. And most of them have stuck with him since the early days of Ceriatone.
  9. Grow together with your loved ones. There are high-flying entrepreneurs who’ve gone global but who grew distanced from their families. You can gain the whole world but lose your soul. And that’s sad. What struck me most from my time at Ceriatone is the sense of joint ownership that Nik and Azlin, his wife, share together as they build the business. They are, in a sense, a global mom-and-pop shop. The chemistry and camaraderie between the two are palpably felt. Azlin says it best: “in whatever you do, you need good support, and a partner in crime.”

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