Rising StarRising Star: Chris Duncan’s Alpaca Guitar Loves Adventure as Much as You

This Q&A was contributed by Danielle Towne, Owner of Evans Academics.

Chris Duncan - founder of Alpaca GuitarYou’ve spent the day hiking through hilly terrain and trekking through Oregon’s back country. Now it’s time to sit around a campfire, roast marshmallows, and sing camp songs to the strum of a guitar.

But have you ever tried backpacking or traveling with a guitar? Most guitars are not optimal in shape nor size, and neither are they able to withstand the elements.

Chris Duncan, an avid adventurer, wanted to solve this problem by creating an instrument that was small, light, and weatherproof without sacrificing quality sound. Thus, Alpaca Guitar was born. Here’s more from Chris:

What was the spark that inspired the birth of your concept?
I sold my last business in 2011 and embarked on an 18-month travel sabbatical in a 40-foot converted Greyhound bus with a family of five. We traveled to 48 states, Mexico, and Canada. All the instruments we took with us were ruined after one season—twisted necks, cracked wood, and flaking paint.

What problem does it solve?
Travel normally ruins guitars. They don’t like it hot, they don’t like it dry. They don’t like it cold, and they don’t like it wet. They don’t like dirt, and they certainly don’t like to be dropped. The Alpaca solves this instrument paradox in one brilliant design, giving musical adventurers the freedom to explore.

How did you come up with the name?
I’d like to say that it was a well-thought-out decision with foresight and market testing. But the truth is, around a poker table in Savannah, Georgia, we were helping a friend brainstorm a business name. I commented that the next business I started would either be named after an animal or start with the word “galactic.” Fast forward to life in Vermont—we were raising llamas, and everyone in town thought they were alpacas. Alpaca Guitar had a good ring to it, and also a clever double meaning. Thankfully, the domain name ‘galacticguitar.com’ was already taken.

How do you distinguish yourself from your competition?
All of Alpaca Guitar’s competitors build small guitars, as if that is the only qualification for travel. The Alpaca is small, light, and still does what is primary to an instrument, which is deliver great sound and playability. The added bonus from using advanced composites is weatherproof durability.

Alpaca Guitar
Photo courtesy of Alpaca Guitar.

What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur?
Big question. For me, creating your own opportunities and destiny are the greatest thrills. It’s knowing that I can choose the people I work with and develop and sell the ideas that I am passionate about.

What has been the biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date?
This realization hit me like a ton of bricks five or six years ago, and it has had an enormous impact on my expectations and interaction with partners and team. Many, if not most people, work for a paycheck and not because they love what they do. Further, they might wear a smiling face when you see them, but they may not like you! I know, duh.

Your biggest success?
Hardest question. My biggest sales successes have come from large sustainable contracts to the the Army, designing complex PLC systems for universities, and leveraging them for future sales. Sales are king, and we have to sell our bread-and-butter product to pay the bills. But getting to spread my wings and create for a customer is awesome.

Do you have a failure story to share? What did you learn from this failure?
Since persistence is the mother of good luck, I try to give up only after a couple of dramatic failures. However, one of my biggest failures has been under-capitalization. Twice I have opened the doors with less capital than I needed to be successful. My attention was turned to fundraising instead of selling and developing the business. This put me behind the curve and cost real money in lost opportunity. Entrepreneurs are intrepid believers, and we can talk ourselves into and out of decisions. For me, this translated into very optimistic and un-achievable sales figures. When it comes to funding, I am now very conservative in my calculations.

As an entrepreneur, what keeps you up at night?
Payroll. I have eaten beans and rice many a month, but never missed a payroll. My people are my greatest asset, and I have to keep them happy. I worry when I see them buy their first house, new car, or plan a big vacation. They are counting on ME to ensure their future.

What is the best entrepreneurial advice you have received?
Rick Alden, the founder of Skull Candy, said something like this: “Coming up with a dozen creative idea is not a problem. The challenge is saying no to the sexy ones and focusing on the idea that you can implement fast and effectively go to market with.” This answer might also qualify for the best failure story.

What is your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur?
Fail often but fail fast. Failing is inevitable, but recognizing a failure, learning from it, and changing tracks quickly is the key. Failures also make the best stories. BTW, why do we keep coming back around to failures?

What is the #1 book you would recommend for a budding entrepreneur?
The newspaper. Pick your favorite one—New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Mail Tribune. Read it while you eat, read it at the park. Read real words by real reporters on real paper about real things. I guess I would exclude the tabloids.

What song best describes your entrepreneurial journey?
It has to be The Long Way Around by The Dixie Chicks. I think all entrepreneurs have pondered the path they’ve taken. The straight road is not for us. Also, for a motivational song to get you off the couch, William Shatner’s Has Been.

Imagine your venture becomes wildly successful. What does that look like?
I’d love it to look like me on a beach with an umbrella drink. But I hope it looks like fun, good stories, and interesting people.

What’s your favorite local business and why?
Well, according to my Yelp profile, all I do is hang out at local breweries. But the must-see business that is on my tour when friends/family come to town is the Rogue Creamery. World class blue cheese and an awesome tasting room experience. After that, I suppose we’d head to the brewery.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I think every boy at some point wants to grow up and be a fireman… or an astronaut. I was heavy into computers as a kid. Commodore 64, Atari, Apple II, TI. I wanted to work in and with computers. Life moves you in funny directions, and the older I got, the more I wanted to solve problems and create solutions.

Do you think Oregon is a good place to start a business? How has it helped you, and what challenges has it posed?
Moving to Oregon has enabled us to get much closer to our target customer and opened up a world of new resources. However, the state is still very Portland-centric which means lots of freeway time.

One comment on “Rising Star: Chris Duncan’s Alpaca Guitar Loves Adventure as Much as You

  1. Your last comment leaves me wondering who your ‘target customer’ is. Considering you started in Vermont, one of the most outdoor centric areas of the Country your comment leaves me, a New Hampshire resident, feeling a bit like a left behind poor cousin. Vermont and New England is one of the Great playlands of the Nation with millions of rugged outdoors people traveling 1,000’s of trails and camping areas. You may …yet… wind up making a great guitar, but your diplomacy leaves a bit to be desired.

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