Gordon Mayer's first job out of college was working for a start-up company creating industrial robots. He spent the '80s elbowing through a gauntlet of gigs at tech start-ups before becoming CEO at a data-compression company. Soon he was making ahead-of-the-curve operating systems for early smart phones. But Mayer got burnt out and quit working in 2000. He took up a series of hobbies, but nothing really stuck. That is, until he met a ukelele. That's when things got interesting.Today, he's crafting the go-to ukes for musicians such as Eddie Vedder and Dave Matthews at his woodworking studio, Mya-Moe (pronounced my-uh-moe-ay) Ukuleles. And the experience running a passion project making instruments taught him a few things he wish he'd known in the tech world. He tells Tim Donnelly how it happened.

Did you have musical ambition when you retired?
I've always loved music but I really did not have a musical ambition at the time. It was like, man, I've been working for 20 years. I was really burned out of the high-tech thing. High tech start-ups—they're a lot of work. I was traveling half the time and I was working, I would say I averaged 60 to 70 hours a week. So I really just wanted to power down, but I've got a kind of typical Type-A personality and was always looking for something to do, be it recreation or otherwise.

But why ukuleles?
On a lark I thought I'd like to learn how to play guitar. I bought a guitar and then bought another one and I thought, at this rate I'm going to have to go back to work. I had always had a little woodworking shop and I thought it'd be kind of fun to try and build a guitar. I wanted to turn the guitars into a little business, but really there just wasn't enough demand. Then about four years ago, one of my early guitar-owners, a professional musician named Moe Dixon, asked if I would build him a ukulele. I don't think I'd ever used ukulele in a sentence in my life before then, and I'm not sure I could spell it. I kind of laughed at him because my vision of a ukulele was Tiny Tim, a joke instrument. And he said, "Look something's going on with ukulele. I want a good one and they're not even available." I told him I'd build him one and by the time I was done building him that one, enough people knew I was building them. Suddenly there was more demand for the ukulele than I ever had for guitars. That and a couple other data points caused me to say I'm not going to do guitars any more. All I want to do is build ukuleles.

"All I want to do is build ukuleles."
—Gordon Mayer

What lessons did you pick up from the start-up world that you're using today?
To me the interesting part of virtually any business is: what is your business model, who is your customer, who is not your customer, what's your focus, what is your product direction, what is your unique differentiation. In other words, why should you exist as a business? I was lucky enough in my career to be with a venture capital firm, to have looked at more than 100 different businesses. The business equation, the marketing analysis, the customer analysis, is the same. I look at what we're doing with the ukuleles and believe in a way I've prepared my entire life to do what I'm doing now, technically, artistically, from a product standpoint, and from a business standpoint.

Is there much marketing that goes into Mya-Moe?  You already have a huge waitlist.
We actually have a seven-month backlog and about 120 instruments on order right now. We're building a high-end custom-made instrument and I thought that musicians would always want to go to the store and play their instrument before buying it. So early on I thought that we're going to be working through dealers the way every other large instrument-maker works, and I thought the website was just going to be there because we are in an online world and people are going to want to look us up. As a lark, we thought, "Let's put up a shopping cart." And within days a guy ordered online from the Netherlands. It was a seminal moment for us. Now, nearly 100 percent of our businesses is people that we've never met.

But you're still a small company. How do you manage the high demand and keep your brand untarnished?
I want people to love their instrument and I want them to be passionate about it. I want them to think of us as not a big company, but rather very personal. It’s a very fine line to walk because you want to have a little bit of an air of inaccessibility, like you don't want people to perceive that this is just some every day product they can just go out and get. At the same time, you do want the accessibility, you want people to feel like, "Wow, I talked to the people who are making my instrument." That's the brand we seek to establish.

How did you come about the idea for the Uke Tracker, which lets customers see photos and status updates of their order?
About two years ago, we had gone from a backlog that was one to two months to about five months. If five months go by and I'm worried people are going to forget or cancel their order or not care as much. We need a way to keep them engaged and more importantly, as their instrument is being built, we need to make sure their anticipation is peaked. We've got everything in the database, we know how long it takes to make an instrument, our process was very regimented, I said we've got all our instruments in the database, all the dates, why can't we do a Uke Tracker? For people to be able to watch their instrument as it's going along, it enhances our brand; it gives people that personal connection. It's real-time because we're in the shop with our iPhones. When we complete a step, we take a picture and it's automatically FTP-ed right up to the website. Our average website traffic doubled within a month of putting the Uke Tracker up. It's not that we got more customers but I think it's people telling friends and family, "Hey go check out my ukulele."

What lessons have you picked up making instruments that you wish you knew in the start-up world?
I wish I had that to do over again. It's more of a management perspective. I was way younger when I was doing that in my 40s, with a career that was on a fast-track. I was CEO of a company when I was 30. I had too much ego involved. I got too involved with the stock price and managing the analysts and the public side of it instead of just running the business. One of the reasons Mya-Moe has done well is that we do not have a financial motive. We like making money, and we like looking at the financials as a measure of our success, but we make our decisions based on what we think is right for the business. I think if there's one lesson I'd apply, it's that one. You don't make decisions in order to increase shareholder equity. You make them in order to increase the health of the business, and the shareholder equity just happens as a byproduct.

Who was the first big star to buy a ukulele?
Mumford and Sons were the first ones we really started working with. They've become a big name but they weren't when we started working with them two years ago. Eddie Vedder or Dave Matthews would have to be pretty much at the top of our list. When Eddie Vedder toured it was his go-to ukulele on the tour this summer. Dave Matthews, his equipment guy got a hold of us one day and said Dave wrote a song this morning in Chicago and premiered it that night in front of 30,000 people for his encore. I had written him a handwritten letter when we built his ukulele. When we met with Dave, He opened his case and there was our hand written letter and a piece of paper with the lyrics from that song. He pulled them out and said "I keep these together." That was a pretty cool moment for us.