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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Inventor Robb Hendrickson '99 follows his own tune
Song of the Jellifish

By Gregg Mitchell ’89

Roots-rocker Ben Harper has one. So do guitar gods like Joe Satriani and Adrian Belew. Is it the latest bling-bling ice? Personal spiritual instructor? No, it’s the Jellifish, a little piece of state-of-the-art technology meets old-fashioned ingenuity that’s turning the music industry on its ear.

Designed with custom-wound 32-gauge guitar strings cut at an angle like a kitchen broom, then laser-cut and fused to a piece of gleaming Lexan, the Jellifish is a deceptively low-tech tool that, when brushed across a guitar’s coated strings, echoes sounds similar to other string instruments, as varied as the cello or 12-string guitar.

Although at first glance it looks a bit like a typical guitar pick, that’s where the similarities end. The Jellifish’s unique design allows musicians to create new sonic textures using three basic techniques—the “chorus” (producing an effect similar to a 12-string guitar or chorus pedal), the “pluck” (creating a tone similar to a harpsichord or dulcimer) and the “bow” (imitating the sound of bowed instruments like the cello or violin).

“To be honest, I don’t even refer to the Jellifish as a guitar pick—I think of it as a hand-held mechanical effect,” says inventor Robb Hendrickson ’99. Or, as one customer's testimonial posted on his Web site (www.jellifish.com) raves, “It’s a ten-dollar stomp box!” – all with no batteries or cables required.

Struck by how his early prototype resembled a jellyfish, Hendrickson christened his patented pick, as well as its parent guitar-accessories company, with a re-tooled version of its namesake: the Jellifish.

It was a fitting name choice for someone who has spent plenty of time working underwater, just one of many unusual twists in his career.

A Chicago native who later moved to Los Angeles, he graduated from Pomona with a concentration in mathematical economics at the nontraditional age of 32. He has tried his hand at everything from offshore oil diving to investment banking to a stint as a music studio engineer. “I’ve always done what has interested me,” he says.

Fascinated by oil field diving in his younger years, he was soon earning a living doing “ultra-thermic burning” (essentially, “cutting things apart underwater”), later graduating to underwater welding and a slew of underwater construction jobs both in Chicago and on the West Coast.

Then Hendrickson made the unlikely leap from offshore to office space. He attempted to take over the commercial diving firm he’d been running as operating officer and, during the somewhat labyrinthian process of rounding up financing, he stumbled onto “a whole new world about buying and selling companies I knew nothing about.” With his interest piqued by the potential applications of mathematics to finance, Hendrickson landed a plum internship at investment firm John Nuveen, working at their private equity group in Irvine before transferring back to corporate headquarters in Chicago, making the transition to mergers and acquisitions. After the company was sold, Hendrickson received an alluring offer from New York-based firm Gerard/Klauer, and soon he was launching Klauer’s Chicago office. Then the dotcom bubble burst in 2000 and Hendrickson came to a professional crossroads. “There just weren’t a lot of deals getting done, so I decided, why not start my own company?,” he says.

An avid guitarist since the age of 7, Hendrickson also had experimented with digital audio recording back in the late ’80s, performed in a slew of indie rock bands (with names like the Hooligans and Swollen Heads) and eventually established his own boutique recording company called Big Think Studios. As an in-demand studio engineer, he began to explore cutting-edge guitar sounds for local indie bands. Inspired by guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page and Steve Vai, Hendrickson sought to free other musicians to tap into their own unique “sonic fingerprint,” pushing the boundaries of recorded guitar sounds through mechanics.

Coming up with the concept for the Jellifish in 1998, he did some “bread-board model” prototyping before realizing he just might be onto something that merited a U.S. patent. At first, Hendrickson thought he’d simply seek a licensing deal to get a steady stream of revenue that might have some resume value, or at least “enough royalties to pay for a new car every three years.” The Jellifish started off as a “coffee-table tool for prospective clients to break the ice,” but Hendrickson began getting a rush of positive feedback from music product companies. So he decided to make the leap out on his own rather than sign his prized product away. Now all he had to do was find the money.

To fund his start-up, Hendrickson had no choice but pull himself up by his Doc Martens, mortgaging his own condo, emptying his savings account, maxing out credit cards and recruiting two high school buddies as co-investors and founding partners: Ron Kovar, Jellifish’s vice president of information systems, and Paul Bazan, the company’s vice president of finance. As equal investors and full-time employees, this brotherly trio routinely clocks in 60- to 80-hour workweeks. They outsource the manufacturing to a Chicago-area company that uses state-of-the-art laser technology.

The venture requires Hendrickson to constantly learn new skills. For instance, Hendrickson, who had no previous experience with print advertising, now finds himself routinely placing full-page ads in such magazines Guitar World and Guitar Player. “Coming up with the very first ad was difficult, a definite challenge,” he recalls. “I really agonized over those first ones.” A lot was at stake: when Jellifish first launched, the firm was chiefly direct-response, using print ads to drive consumers to their Web site (www.jellifish.com) to purchase products. As a result, “Right out of the gate, we are able to track the effectiveness of each ad, each campaign, finding out what works, what doesn’t. I was really able to hone my skills,” he says, adding “I like learning new things all the time, and I enjoy the pressure and risks, as well as the satisfaction, of having my skills tested by the marketplace. If I do something wrong, we see an economic disadvantage, but if I do something right, then we immediately see our revenues spike.”

Hendrickson gets satisfaction from seeing the real-world results of his efforts. “I really like seeing things play out on the ruthless battlefield of the market. I come up with new ideas all the time that might sound good in theory, but when you put them in practice, they don’t always work out,” admits Hendrickson, who gets a charge out of “putting the product out there and then seeing tens of thousands of customers using our product and enjoying it.” He’s able to monitor customer feedback firsthand when his posse regularly attends the network of consumer and trade shows around the nation to build buzz about his Jellifish brand. “I have celebrity guitarists who come up to me all the time and say, ‘Hey, I used the Jellifish on my last acoustic album, and it sounded really cool,'” says Hendrickson, joking, “God knows I haven’t cured cancer, but it’s still cool to have all these people come up and share how our product has made them happier or inspired them. I also encounter more down-to-earth people who come up and say, ‘Hey, I’m in a cover band, and when we play ‘Hotel California,’ now I don’t have to bring my twelve-string to the gigs. I just use my Jellifish on my six-string guitar, and the audience doesn’t know the difference!'”

Taking a cue from lessons learned during his undergrad days in Claremont, Hendrickson believes that “Pomona really teaches you how to think – it’s such a challenging place that, if you can make it through Pomona, I think you’ve got the kind of tenacity it takes to be successful in your own start-up business.” And while it may have taken four design generations, and as many months of R&D sessions, before Hendrickson’s team was able to transform his original mechanical concept from raw prototype to mass-market product, when the first orders came rolling in, they weren’t so much surprised by their instant success as “relieved that someone out there was willing to buy our products.”

He needn’t have worried, as Jellifish’s potent sales figures spell exponential growth: his firm’s first-year revenues totaled just $3,000 in 2002, exploding to $195,000 in 2003, and are on-track to generate nearly half a million in profit by end of this year. Not bad for a business that’s still housed in Hendrickson’s basement until he can secure multi-zoned office digs down the block.

His invention has attracted some big-name fans. A-list players counted among Jellifish users include electronica pioneer BT and a host of in-demand session musicians who’ve played on records from everyone including The Who, Pink Floyd, Iggy Pop, Seal, Siouxee and the Banshees, Psychedelic Furs and Nine Inch Nails.

Launching new product lines in 2005, Hendrickson hopes to tap deeper into the burgeoning music products market, estimated at $7 billion, with the guitar-accessories market at approximately $400 million annually. While Jellifish products were initially only available online, Hendrickson is reaching out to major retail chains to boost sales, including music-store powerhouses such as Sam Ash, The Guitar Store and Daddy’s. Jellifish products are already distributed in 250 retailers across North America, and are branching out into international distributors in Australia, Indonesia and Ireland, with products being sold in 42 countries worldwide. The goal is to eventually phase out e-commerce altogether to concentrate on retail stores.

Building on the niche market he helped create, Hendrickson is slated to roll out additional Jellifish product lines next quarter, including his brand-spankin’ new “Hot Rods,” the first all-aluminum guitar bridge pins, as well as another as-yet-undisclosed music product his firm is currently in negotiations with a major guitar manufacturer to include in a “starter” acoustic guitar kit, inspiring a whole new crop of young Jeff Becks or Grant Greens in training.

For all his success, Hendrickson concedes that running his own business cuts into his personal life. “I’ve been told over the last three years that I’m not very good relationship material, but I think I had the same problem when I was an investment banker or a commercial diver,” he says. “When you do things you’re passionate about, and when you want to work as many hours as you can – ” his voice trails off. “When I used to dive, I’d be out of town for weeks at a time, and when you’re an investment banker, doing 100-hour weeks isn’t uncommon. I don’t think of myself as a workaholic, but other people might.”

And as much as he enjoys Jellifish’s swift rise, he calls his current gig the most stressful career he’s ever had, simply because there is so much on the line. “I live or die by the cumulative decisions I make every day, and I have two other people’s fate in my hands,” he says.

To deal with the pressures of his daily grind, Hendrickson regularly blows off steam at the local gym and, more recently, he’s gotten into – of all things – domesticating feral cats in his neighborhood. “I had one given to me by a friend, and it’s now become another project,” he says, laughing. “In my personal life, I guess I enjoy a challenge just as much in my professional life.”
 
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