By Ray Penner
Photos Courtesy of Sheldon Dingwall
At the Cher concert in Saskatoon last year, there was a group of unique fans in the audience. Sheldon Dingwall and members of his team were interested primarily in the musicians in Cher’s band and in Chic, the rock group that opened the show. Specifically, they were focused on the bass players, Ashley Reeve and Jerry Barnes. They were playing instruments that only the day before had been hanging in Dingwall’s workshop.
It was an evening Dingwall will never forget, “hearing all those famous hits that I had heard as a kid, being played using our instruments.” The anecdote behind how this all happened illustrates how Dingwall’s reputation and his business have grown over the past three decades.
Our product requires a very narrow band of skill sets and a particular psychological profile. It’s been very difficult to find the right employees and then delegate to them. When I have been able to do it successfully, the people have been far better at their job than I ever was.
“Reeve and Barnes had some time on their hands when they were in town for the concert,” explains Dingwall, “so they decided to drop into a local music store to look at instruments. They spotted our bass guitars on display and tried them out. It was either Reeve or Barnes who commented that they had heard about Dingwall bass guitars from other musicians. ‘Well,’ said the salesperson, ‘if you want to meet the guy who makes them, his shop is just a couple of blocks away from here.’” The two bassists, renowned among aspiring rock bass players, spent the next six hours at the shop, playing Dingwall’s instruments and eventually deciding on their two favourite bass guitars. Fortunately, the two instruments had not been spoken for, so Dingwall was able to let Reeve and Barnes have them.
The ultimate instrument
Dingwall’s business model is as old as the adage, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” It’s the advice restaurant manager Brad Laidlaw gave him when Dingwall, an employee at the time, asked him about marketing: “Just concentrate on building a good product,” responded Laidlaw, “and people will find you.”
Himself a musician, Dingwall “started from zero” as a guitar craftsman. To supplement his income in the late 1980s, he began repairing instruments in the basement of HEL Music in Saskatoon, using the skills his uncle had taught him. His reputation quickly grew; his shop began receiving instruments for repair from as far away as Texas, Newfoundland, and Alaska. That left little time for Dingwall’s passion for building his own prototype guitars, but fortunately he persisted with his dream. Again, word spread. After a while, it wasn’t just guitarists who began to take notice, but also bass guitarists. They started calling Dingwall, asking him if he could try his hand at improving their instrument. It was a challenge Dingwall embraced.
“I developed a prototype bass in 1993, and that’s when things really took off on the manufacturing side,” recalls Dingwall. He moved into a new, larger space and hired three employees. Driven by his desire to impress his new customers, he would often wake up in the middle of the night with ideas to produce the ultimate bass guitar. “Entrepreneurs are motivated by challenges,” he explains.
It doesn’t matter how much traffic a store generates; if we don’t have a brand fan selling our instruments, they sit on the rack.
Oddly enough, his main inspiration came from playing piano. On a piano, each key has its own string; the longer the string, the lower the note. That explains the shape of a grand piano. On a traditional bass guitar, however, all the strings are the same length, which causes inconsistencies in tonal quality. The solution to this problem is Dingwall’s signature “fanned fret” design, which uses different string lengths. The concept is not new, and can be seen on rare stringed instruments from as far back as the Renaissance, with the most recent versions now being developed by luthier Rob Novak. In his quest, Dingwall met with Novak, and the two agreed that Novak would concentrate on guitars and Dingwall could focus on bass instruments. The use of fanned frets solved a common problem plaguing five-string basses at the time.
Dingwall bass guitars are a radical departure from the norm. At the time he developed his first bass prototypes, and even to this day, most bass guitars have strings of equal length and standard spacing of the frets on the neck of the guitar. These typical basses are modelled primarily after those built by Fender, which never patented its design. Thus, it became standard practice for anyone who wanted to build their own version of a bass guitar to simply purchase various parts of the instrument, including Fender imitations, and assemble them for the market. Walk into any music store, and you will see that most, if not all, bass guitars are the standard version, with entry-level models costing around $500. In contrast, it’s not hard to spot a Dingwall bass with its distinctive features – along with a price tag starting around $3,000.
“Our bass guitars are never the first instrument a musician buys,” says Dingwall. “It’s more likely their fifth or sixth guitar.” Thus, when he started developing his prototypes, Dingwall knew he was appealing to a very narrow market. It didn’t matter. His customers were serious musicians who could appreciate what Dingwall was doing, and that was all the motivation he needed.
We’re now more mainstream than we’ve ever been, and it’s motivating us even more to stay ahead of the curve.
His business continued to grow, with customers from across Canada, until a major fire in 1996 that “destroyed almost everything, including all my drawings. I was back to zero again.” Fortunately, Dingwall was able to salvage some of his instruments and reverse-engineer them to recapture his technical specifications. That process took roughly a year; it wasn’t until early 1998 that Dingwall was again fully operational.
Since then, the business has grown steadily. Today, Dingwall has 15 employees at his Saskatoon shop and dealers in 18 countries. Dingwall’s customer focus and pursuit of perfection, though, have not changed, with growth viewed as a secondary outcome rather than a principal goal.
Growth without compromise
A major reason for slow but steady growth is Dingwall’s devotion to perfection. He would rather build the single finest guitar in the world than a million knock-offs. Finding the right employees to achieve that quality has always been a challenge. “We’re trying to build perfect instruments with imperfect materials and human limitations,” Dingwall explains. “Our product requires a very narrow band of skill sets and a particular psychological profile. It’s been very difficult to find the right employees and then delegate to them. When I have been able to do it successfully, the people have been far better at their job than I ever was.”
Finding the right dealers is also a challenge, and has taken Dingwall throughout the world. He’s learned that the secret is to find what he calls “brand fans” – those who understand his innovations and have high praise for his instruments. “It doesn’t matter how much traffic a store generates; if we don’t have a brand fan selling our instruments, they sit on the rack,” says Dingwall. He points out that his second highest dealership sales in the United States come from “a tiny store in rural Missouri.” His highest volume dealer worldwide is another small store, in Warwick, England.
Converting bass guitar enthusiasts into Dingwall disciples has also proven far more effective than trying to get his instruments into the hands of celebrity musicians. “When I first started, I would go to every single concert I could, spending as much as four or five hours backstage talking to the bass players. I think I might have sold one guitar that way,” says Dingwall. He is convinced, too, that the higher the price of your product, the less influence a big name will have on generating sales. That is not to say there are no opinion leaders in the music scene playing Dingwall’s instruments – there are, to the point where he has hired an artist relations manager in the US.
Figure out your weaknesses and address rather than ignore them. You don’t need to keep banging your head against the wall. There are solutions out there.
Dingwall’s biggest marketing success, by far, has come from the internet. While being able to display the instrument globally is important, what is of most value to Dingwall is the ability to connect directly with his customers and the global community of bass guitar players. He points to the UK market to illustrate. “In the ’80s and ’90s, we tried to break into the UK market but were unsuccessful. Then, in 2008, I was able to join the online UK bass forums. To my amazement, I discovered that people still hadn’t heard of us, and those who did recognize us thought we were some kind of joke or flash-in-the-pan. I decided to go online every day and search for our name so that I could respond individually to our detractors. I would calmly explain why we do what we do, countering their emotions with a rational response. After doing that for about six months, I turned the negativity around, and the UK quickly became one of our biggest markets.”
The internet has also made the location of Dingwall’s manufacturing even more irrelevant. In fact, being in Saskatoon has always been advantageous, according to Dingwall. “If I had tried to start manufacturing guitars in a major centre like Toronto or New York, I never could have afforded it. In Saskatoon, wages and rent were feasible, especially back in the ’90s. In fact, I don’t even think I could make it now in Saskatoon if I were just starting out, because of the rent I’d have to pay.”
With the advantages of the internet also come new challenges. Growth is still driven largely by word of mouth within a select community of musicians, but Dingwall’s reputation is now spreading much more rapidly, on a global scale. Knowledge and appreciation of multi-scale stringed instruments (i.e., those with different string lengths) is also growing. “The market is coming to the belief that multi-scale instruments are the way to go. We’re now more mainstream than we’ve ever been, and it’s motivating us even more to stay ahead of the curve.”
With new demands, Dingwall admits it’s become harder to manage his business. In response, he continues to follow the advice he would give to entrepreneurs just staring out: “Figure out your weaknesses and address rather than ignore them. You don’t need to keep banging your head against the wall. There are solutions out there.”
A deep connection
Successful innovators like Dingwall, though, do not achieve growth just through what they do or how they do it. It’s the “why” behind what they do. Of all the memories he has of his more than 30 years in business, Dingwall is moved most by the memory of two of his customers who were terminally ill and wanted to own and play a Dingwall bass guitar before they passed away. “To connect that deeply with our customers through the instruments we make is what matters most. I like to think of ourselves as being a link in the chain of giving something back to the world.”
First published in the June 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.