Guitar Hero Swims with the Sharks

Travis Perry was living a comfortable life as owner of Wiregrass Realty. But an idea he had 32 years ago for a simplified guitar learning system resurfaced when he least expected it. After a lot of sacrifice, hard work and an appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank, ” Chord Buddy has surpassed Perry’s wildest dreams.

“It is tough and scary to launch a product when the whole global economy is off balance, ” he says.

The idea for the color-coded Chord Buddy came to Perry 32 years ago when he was teaching guitar lessons in Dothan. He watched as frustrated students quit after only a few months, and wished a device existed that could be attached to the guitar to help simplify the learning process. According to Perry, the guitar is one of the most popular instruments people want to play, but it is also the most difficult. Seven out of 10 people who try to teach themselves quit after just 60 days. The Chord Buddy boasts a 90 percent success rate for people who learn using Perry’s system.

Twenty-eight years after his initial inspiration, Perry was on a completely different path—the owner of Wiregrass Realty, and doing well. But when the real estate bubble burst, he held on as long as he could, waiting for the economy to turn around. When it didn’t show any sign of improving, he went to his own music store, Perry’s Music, to try to pick up some guitar students.

“Had the real estate bubble not burst, Chord Buddy would probably not have ever been invented, ” he says.

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Perry inherited 75 students from a teacher who was moving. But once again, students quit when they got frustrated. One of Perry’s students, his daughter Bradi, was one of the frustrated. Perry told his daughter about the idea he had years ago for a simplified system.

“She said to me, ‘Daddy, if you invent that, I promise I’ll learn to play.’ So daddy did it, ” Perry says.

Perry found an engineer to help design the Chord Buddy, and after 17 prototypes they had a product.

Financing production was another mountain climb, and Perry took an unconventional path. He was a fan of ABC’s “Shark Tank”—a reality TV challenge in which a panel of predatory entrepreneurs bait a string of would-be entrepreneur contestants. Undaunted, Perry swam directly to the website and sent the producers information about his product. A couple of years went by, and Perry forgot all about his application. That is, until a producer called and invited him to pitch it to the sharks.

“My wife didn’t believe it until they sent me the packet with all the disclosures, ” he says.

Perry landed himself an investor on “Shark Tank.” Robert Herjavec bought 20 percent of Perry’s Chord Buddy company for $175, 000. Herjavec is not heavily involved in the day-to-day operations at the company, but he is always available for advice. Perry is hoping to have a follow-up episode on the fourth season of  “Shark Tank.” 

Perry didn’t just get an investor from going on the show. The exposure increased his sales exponentially. The week leading up to Perry’s “Shark Tank” episode, he sold six Chord Buddies. The Friday night after the show, he sold 3, 000. In two months, Perry has sold 15, 000. This spike in sales allowed the staff to quadruple, going from three full-time, paid employees to 15, including one staff person to handle strictly wholesale accounts. Perry also was able to move into a new facility and open a satellite office in Indiana to handle international accounts.

“This is bigger than I ever imagined, ” he says. “If I was able to sell 1, 000, I would have been able to pay off some debts. I prayed to sell 3, 000.”

Perry is now working on a deal with QVC and has sent samples to Best Buy and Target. UPS is considering featuring Chord Buddy in one of its commercials.

Since the first Chord Buddy was sold in October 2010, Perry has invented several other products for guitarists. A junior Chord Buddy, designed for half-size guitars for kids, is in the works, and capos and tuners are available.

“The Chord Buddy learning system will be the flagship product for the company, ” he says.

On Perry’s appearance on “Shark Tank, ” he mentioned that he planned to keep production in the United States, even if costs would be cheaper to move it overseas. Perry has received thousands of emails from customers who say they are willing to pay a higher price for an American-made product.

“We didn’t start Chord Buddy to move it overseas, ” he says. “We feel strongly about this, and Chord Buddy will never be made anywhere other than the United States.”

Perry’s goal is to give everyone a chance to have the joy of music in their lives.

“Music has been with me at the best times and worst times. It was a constant, ” he says. “It doesn’t matter if your stage is Carnegie Hall or your back porch.”

Laura Stakelum is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Dothan.

By Laura Stakelum

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