I'm trying to learn to play guitar. (Emphasis on "trying.") Instead of taking formal guitar lessons, I'm using online tools: A bunch of free YouTube guitar videos here, a few paid membership guitar apps there.

While sometimes I think I spend as much time trying to find an effective way to learn to play as I do actually learning to play, generally speaking, the better the instruction, the more I have to pay.

Until now. The best online guitar tutorial service I've found is, yep, free.

The Synyster Gates School was created by Avenged Sevenfold guitarist Synyster Gates and his father Brian Haner (Sr.), an accomplished guitarist and session player in his own right. (If you aren't familiar, Avenged is a Grammy-nominated, multiplatinum-selling rock band with a billion video views and a billion-plus Spotify streams; their most recent release is Black Reign, an EP where all four songs -- including their newest, Mad Hatter -- were written for the game franchise Call of Duty: Black Ops.) 

The site's tutorial videos are outstanding. Papa Gates is clear, concise, and that rare blend of expert and down to earth that sets great teachers apart. And somehow he establishes a level of rapport that makes you want to learn. So does the community of guitarists on the site: they share tips, share their progress, and offer encouragement and praise.

Register, check it out, and start dreaming big dreams. 

Clearly the site requires a significant investment in money and time, yet membership is free.

Which is the perfect place to start my conversation with Syn.

You realize every red-blooded, high achieving, Type A entrepreneur is thinking, "Dude. Free?"

I don't recommend pushing the financial model down the road, or looking at shallow pockets or running out of money, but at the same time, if you're passionate about something, if you love doing it well and you love doing it with another person, you don't have to figure out the financial model right away.

Even though we did try. (Laughs.)

Ultimately, we knew we could help a lot of people, and we knew that once we did, we would eventually find a way to monetize it.

Walk me through what you considered in terms of generating revenue.

We thought about the freemium model. That's a great approach for some, but in our case we didn't want some kids to have access to things that other kids would not simply 
because they couldn't afford it. Creating two classes of users, for want of a better way to put it, is not the way to build a genuine community. 

Then we thought about ads. But I didn't want ads to be distracting, to go on and off all the time, to clutter up the site, and I didn't want to create a freemium model that allowed some people to turn off the ads.

Then we considered sponsorships. But I didn't want to have to beg a bunch of companies for money. Plus, many are having a tough time. Schecter Guitars, the company that makes my signature guitars, is killing it, but many are really struggling. (For example, Gibson Guitars is emerging from bankruptcy.) Our industry isn't in a position to just hand out money.

In the end, I never asked anyone for a dime. I can't say I wouldn't have gotten sufficient funding if I had, but then I might have had to give up some measure of creative control.

So you landed on e-commerce.

We're starting with a basic e-commerce model, one that we plan to grow and extend. 

What I really want to do is not just sell T-shirts. Granted, we're doing that, and I'm not thumbing my nose at it -- kids seem to want to wear what I wear, and they sell extremely well.

But what I really want to do is provide a unique and experiential type of guitar shop: We sell my signature pickups, signature guitars, we've created some cool cab packs. I want to provide great products and services that people can benefit from, that are helpful to musicians, and are integral to the community we're building.

We've started small but certain things have also started fast.

Of course, e-commerce also adds expense, especially in terms of inventory.

One thing we wanted to do to get things off to the races without holding inventory is to work out drop-ship deals. Schecter graciously agreed to do that; they fulfill guitar and pickup orders for us.  

It's a work in progress, but we're starting to find companies that say, "No one has ever asked us to, but sure, we can drop ship."

Then, when we're a lot bigger, we won't have to take on the cost and admin involved in inventory and fulfillment -- and that growth will make it a lot more appealing for companies to want to drop-ship for us.

You have a big enough platform that you could sell all kinds of things. And yet you don't.

We've had a killer first six months. But I admit I was uncomfortable selling stuff. I wanted a magical way of having a billion dollars in my pocket while giving everything away for free. Unfortunately, I'm not smart enough to figure out how. (Laughs.) 

So yes, we could sell a lot of other T-shirts, or sell products for other people, but I'm not interested in that. What I really love is curating products for the store that I wish I had had access to. I like curating products that I know people will appreciate. I don't want to just sell stuff. I want to sell things people need and will use and be glad they bought. 

I'm in this for the long haul, so it's all about quality, customer service, and curating products that provide genuine value to our community. 

Everyone defines success differently. How do you view the first eight to 10 months?

I'm human, so it's tempting to think, "I put out a free product so there should be millions of people on the site."

But when we ask real analysts (laughs) to evaluate our results, we're doing really well. We have approximately 75,000 people on our mailing list, and we have a little over 50,000
 active users in the community.

That sounds like a lot of members to me.

It is, and the growth has largely been from word of mouth, but it is a part of a bigger machine (the Avenged Sevenfold machine), which is why my hubris begs the question, "Why not more people?" (Laughs.)

So, we're trying to spread the gospel. I want to put guitars in people's hands. With a keyboard and a laptop you can make killer music, but there's so much expression and soul in playing a guitar that I don't want to see go away.

The businessman in me is OK with scaling without breaking the bank. And of course there are the inevitable issues you have to fix: Improving the user experience, the third-party integrations that claim to install flawlessly that never do. 

I invest in a lot of startups, and even when they're heavily funded they still go through the same cycle.

We can afford to iterate, but we want to iterate correctly. You have to listen to the community, know what they want, make sure that fits with your vision, and then find the right way to go about it.

It's really about the team. My father, Patrick Vlaskovits (who has been integral to building the site), Avenged: Everything in my life, all the successes in my life, have come from being part of a great team.

Learning to play guitar is an inherently lonely pursuit. Is that why you're stressing the community collaboration aspect?

I'm fairly introverted. When I was growing up, having a community like this at my fingertips would have been really good for me.

If we take a step back for a second, I feel there is a loss of nuance in most video tutorials. Yet nuance, even for a beginner, is everything. B.B. King could make two notes sound incredible. That's why we're closing in on 200 videos so far; 40 or 50 videos can't even scratch the surface of the subtleties you can introduce into your playing. 

Then add in the community. People provide these little eureka moments to other people. And what's really cool is they're teaching people how to learn: Making comments, telling people to try doing something a little differently, telling them to take something a little farther. Getting that ongoing feedback helps add nuance to your playing.

I was surprised by how many people, even beginners, are willing to post videos showing what they've learned. There's no way I would have the guts to do that.

The community helps build confidence. There are people who would be paralyzed with fright at the thought of playing in front of other people, but they feel safe squeaking out a few lines on video.

And then the community pounces on it in a really positive way. The amount of support the community provides is incredible.

I have a zero-tolerance policy: No trolling, no denigration -- first-time infractions will be immediately removed. But I haven't had to remove one person.

It's unlike anything I've experienced. Guitar players are notoriously catty. But our community isn't. It's really cool.

Speaking of cool, it has to be fun to do this with your dad.
I feel like the luckiest guy on earth, especially as I approach old age. (Laughs.)

When I was a kid I would never have wanted to do something like this. I didn't appreciate my father's gift, and certainly didn't appreciate the closeness of our relationship, which is even cooler.

But it also makes sense: All my ventures are based on doing business with friends and family, and to do that successfully, without problems or repercussions or losing 
relationships. Working together has made those relationships even better. 

What are your longer-term goals for the guitar school?

I recently met a cool guy who used to work at a huge tech company, and he said, "They're extremely successful, but they don't have a north star."

I've found a really bright north start with the guitar school. I want to put guitars and education in the hands of lots of people.

But what I'm also really excited about is if -- and this is the real magic if I can make it happen -- I can help our members be able to monetize the school. That would be a glorious day: Beginners paying other beginners for lessons, spotlighting star pupils at any level, letting people help other people, and making a little money from doing it. Allowing these kids' intellectual property to create a financial model for them.

If people can learn, and meet people, and also make money as well, that would be an absolute game-changer and truly be the epitome of an ecosystem.

Of course, the site would still be free. But if you want a one-on-one lesson, if you want to go outside of the forum and into somebody's living room, physically or virtually, that should be worth something. People shouldn't be afraid to monetize their expertise. 

You invest in startups, and I feel sure people pitch you simply because of who you are. What do you look for?
I look for new and exciting technology, but if the investment is about money, money, money then I'm looking at team, team, team.

As for being pitched, that was flattering at first. What's funny, though, is that my portfolio includes a lot of high-risk startups, but now that I've put money into myself with this school, it's kind of bewildering that I didn't do that before.

If I'm going to make a high-risk investment, why not make a high-risk investment in myself?

But that seemed too narcissistic. Or maybe I didn't have enough confidence. Or maybe I was just too shy. But I believe in what I'm doing, and the happiness of the community is incredibly rewarding, especially with the beginners and what they're gaining from it.

So yeah: If you're going to take a risk, take a risk on yourself. No one will care as much as you do.

And it's a lot more fun.

Published on: Nov 7, 2018
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