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Marching to the Beat of Their Own (Foot) Drum

It was one of those perfect nights. Our sitter came early so we were able to sneak out for a happy hour beer before an amazing dinner at the newly opened Alliance. After dinner we headed just north and just west up the Leelanau Peninsula. It was crisp outside, but not cold. The sunset was spectacular. Our destination was Farmer Foot Drums in Cedar.

Pete and Kate Farmer are the owners of Farmer Foot Drums. We were headed to their place for a “Shop Show” – live music in the intimate setting of their workshop – featuring Grand Rapids-based band Nathan Kallish & The Lastcallers. We stopped off for a six-pack of Oberon and headed into the show.

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I was introduced (via email) to Pete and Kate a few days prior, when it was suggested to me that Pete might be a good option to play live music at the Spring Fairy Fling on May 1st. Kate and I corresponded, she said Pete was game, and we’re excited to announce that Pete – along with Traverse City’s Hot ‘n Bothered – will be playing live music at the event.

When we pulled up to the Farmer’s place Kate was outside to greet us and welcome us into the shop. Inside was a wide array of parts, machinery, instruments and interesting people. A stage with lights and sound was set-up in the back of the shop. We had the opportunity to meet Pete and Kate in person before the show, and chat with the band as well as other attendees.

The show was great. I even danced a bit, without the cover of wall to wall people to muddle the view. I don’t think I was quite dancing like no one was watching, but it was close. Anyone who knows me well knows that if I’m dancing that means that either the music is great or I’ve had some drinks. Typically both. I was getting that bemused grin from Heather – you know, the one people have when they want to laugh at you but don’t want to tip you off because then you’ll stop doing what you’re doing. I’m sure I should have heeded Amy Schumer’s advice to “maybe dance like a couple people are watching.” But hey, I was having fun.

Great show. Great people. Make sure you get yourself to the next Shop Show on May 20th featuring Hot ‘n Bothered. Check them out in the video below. We’ll be there. I might even display some new dance moves.

Scratching His Own Itch

Sometimes businesses are started after an extensive analysis of market opportunities, demand, and costs/benefits. These are the types of businesses that get conjured up on a spreadsheet in MBA classes, complete with business plans, marketing plans and plans for raising financing.

Other businesses just happen because they need to. They don’t necessarily make sense on paper, but an innovative entrepreneur simply can’t get an idea out of his or her head, and can’t help but introduce a product into the world. In other words, the entrepreneur must “scratch an itch.”

Farmer Foot Drums is such a business. It designs and handcrafts beautiful musical instruments including foot drums, backbeat kits, bass drums, foot pedals and harp holders that are used by musicians all over the world. Pete began by building a foot drum for himself that would allow him to add percussion while playing his guitar. Soon his hobby turned into a business that officially launched in 2005. Kate joined him full-time in the business in 2013, and shortly thereafter they picked up and moved their business and young family from Seattle to Traverse City.

Rather than paraphrase Pete and Kate’s story, I thought it would more interesting to hear from them directly, so I tossed some questions their way that I thought would help elicit some insights from a young entrepreneurial family building a creative business that serves customers worldwide from a small town in northern Michigan.

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Jay: Heather often laments the fact that I struggle to hang a picture or change a lightbulb correctly. How in the hell did you learn to design and build precision musical instruments?

Pete: I have always tinkered around a shop. My parents were kids during the Great Depression and have a strong DIY work ethic. I never even took shop class in high school, but I still have all 10 fingers!

Jay: I also don’t have a musical bone in my body. What got you guys interested in music?

Pete: I am a kinesthetic person. I love running and usually have energy to burn. Playing music has always been fun, adding foot percussion just matched my energy.

Jay: Sometimes people start a business because they think it’s a good business idea. Others build something to “scratch their own itch.” What was the catalyst for you to start your business?

Pete: Folks saw what I had and they asked about it, and it snowballed from there. Encouragement would then trickle in after our first website was up in 2007. I recall one gentleman calling up and telling me I “should start building a factory because this thing is going to take off big time!”.

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Jay: Heather and I had an awesome time at the Shop Show you hosted a couple of weeks back. What are your plans for future Shop Shows? Any other interactive ideas on the horizon to spread the word about Farmer Foot Drums?

Pete: You guys were awesome to be there and show your fun side! We have had four shows total, two of which were well attended and had a lot of great energy. This last one revealed that we were pulling too much from friends and that it takes a bit more to coast on a “word of mouth” sort of attendance. The model came from our neighbor in Bellingham, Washington who had a really cool open floor plan house and just started having shows. He eventually got it so there was easily 100 folks watching well-ish known acts showing up for “house shows.” 100% of the money went to the musicians, BYOB for the guests, and our neighborhood had a great asset of coolness. Win-win-win (but I guess the bars/venues lose…). I think our dynamic is different in that we are in the country (which requires a drive), it is smaller city, and we haven’t asked a well known act to play.

Future interactive promotion will be to do a road trip to visit some stores and have in-store demonstrations to start in on the storefront retail side of the business; expand our artist ambassador efforts so our customers around the world can see what can be done, and see it for themselves; build out the website with a ton of more videos to help with playing tips and techniques and how to. I think we are promoting a new segment of musical instrument that will take more customer education to convince. A tough road ahead, but certainly nice in that it isn’t at all a crowded segment.

Jay: Heather and I work together. It’s great, but of course it’s challenging at times. How do you guys balance your work life with family life?

Pete: I am always comforted to hear that we aren’t the only ones that find it at times challenging! There have been great bonds that wouldn’t have been made otherwise so that is the upside, and we both know what we bring to the table at the end of the day in terms of stress and/or excitement. One of my goals would be to talk less about work at dinner. A tough balance, but very happy to know the kids understand what we do, and we can share little moments through the day. Wouldn’t trade it in for the world!

Jay: There’s something else we have in common – twin girls who are about the same age, plus another child who’s a bit older. Please tell me you guys aren’t getting any sleep, either?!

Pete: The bedtime routine is now divide and conquer and that process can drag out for an hour or more… then it feels like bedtime! And now they are coming up in the middle of the night for any excuse they can come up with. Yes, sleep is a little disjointed. I can get back to sleep usually, but Kate has some insomnia that can linger through the day.

Jay: We decided to move to Traverse City on a bit of a whim, but we’re loving it so far. What brought you guys to TC?

Pete: The twins being born and Kate’s parents in Holland, Michigan. We didn’t feel like Holland fit us, so the best place on the map seemed to be TC! Moving from Bellingham doesn’t feel like a huge change in some ways (outdoor oriented, progressive, water, etc.) but I do miss my family, the mountains and more connection to the nearby big cities. Detroit seems too far away, although we did have a great weekend there last year.

Jay: We’re always blown away by how many creative, entrepreneurial people are here doing cool things. What’s your impression of the Traverse City entrepreneurial scene?

Pete: Yeah, I think if you want to live here your chances of a getting a serious job are few and far between so either you make it happen or you have to leave. The 2008 downturn had me at the bottom of a tall totem pole in the public schools so I was laid off. It was a nice nudge for sure and in hindsight a great turn of events. I am not sure if our generation has an allegiance to the one job for life model that I was raised under. I think TC is the “right place at the right time” for making things happen. Most of our friend groups seem to be transplants from the big expensive US cities and find it cheaper and family friendly.

Come See Pete On May 1st!

It was great to meet Pete and Kate, and learn more about their fun and unique business. We love their website, too – make sure to check it out. While in many ways we have different backgrounds, we share a great deal in common – from twins, to running a business as husband and wife, to a love of the outdoors. We look forward to getting to know them better and watching them grow their business in the years to come.

Make sure to come see Pete play on May 1st at the Spring Fairy Fling. We can’t wait!

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