Transcript: Episode 023 – Eric Branner
Today I’m interviewing Eric Branner, a guitar teacher and the co-founder of Fons, an online scheduling and payment platform that’s gaining popularity among music teachers.
If you’re familiar with Fons, you might be surprised to learn what the original vision for the platform was and how they got to the platform they have today.
Stick around to the end of the episode to hear about the AMAZING promo Eric is offering Music Studio Startup listeners to get an extended free trial of Fons, plus some other awesome extras!
Here’s our chat.
Andrea: Hi Eric. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for being here today. Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Eric: Hello. My name is Eric Branner and I am a music teacher and I am also the co-founder of Fons.com.
Andrea: Can you tell us what Fons.com is?
Eric: Fons is an online scheduling and payments app for music teachers or any appointment-based business for that matter.
Andrea: Awesome. And we’re going to talk a little bit about your teaching studio and also about Fons and how that came to be. Let’s start off with Fons. Where did you get the inspiration to start that?
Eric: It’s a great question you know. I’m a third generation independent music teacher and I’ve been teaching full-time for about 16 or 17 years and was eking out a pretty great life in Seattle raising a family. My wife’s an actor and she help me run my studio but you know, making a full time living being an independent music teacher is a lot of admin, a lot of time, a lot of headaches and we were just very fortunate to be in Seattle in a really vibrant technology community and got hooked up with kind of a super genius tech person that was looking for a new project to do and just saw a bunch of the pain points that we feel as independent music teachers that he thought we could simplify and automate.
So we kind of set off on a one or two year journey of just studying that and how the process worked and kind of just reinventing it as well as we could. So the idea of Fons is originally called instructor.com but our legal advice didn’t really appreciate that too much and Fons is actually the Latin word for “wellspring of knowledge.” So that’s where that one came from and not the Fonzarelli we often get asked about, although he’s totally cool.
Andrea: Either association is fine.
Eric: Yeah, it’s just fine.[00:02:56]
Andrea: So that’s kind of an interesting start. You started with a partner or someone who is looking for an idea and you had the subject matter real life experience of a teacher to lend itself to starting a business.
Eric: Yes, exactly. And then the process is really cool. This person had done 10 or 12 startups and some of them have been really successful. He’s been an executive at really big international corporations so his genius is putting together a team and understanding operations. He basically locked me in a room with a couple of really smart math folk that just kind of timed everything it took to run an independent music studio because we thought we had it worked out really well, you know, we’re making a great living in Seattle and a long waiting list.
But still, to really make a good living as an independent teacher, there’s so much admin that goes with it. You’re sending out 50 invoices a month and chasing payments. He just timed every single aspect on both sides, from the client and the provider, which is the teacher, from creating an invoice, chasing an invoice, the stress that comes up with asking for money when people forget to bring you checks, and was able to just take all these data and then we just started crunching it down into creating a workflow that would eliminate as much of it as possible and build a better relationship between a student and their parents or the client and the provider, which is the teacher.
So it was really interesting because as we started doing it, he also had me look into every other vertical, different kind of businesses that do appointments. We looked really deeply into, say, personal trainers because personal trainers are impeccably goal-oriented, right? They’re like just trying to get yoked and they’re also the same way with business. We looked at their models. We looked at yoga teachers’ models that are even more friendly and sweet than the average piano teacher’s model. We looked at about 200 to 500 of those and we talked to about that many independent music teachers as well in that process, so it was quite a haul.[00:05:07]
Andrea: So you really started focusing with the one-to-one service providers.
Eric: Yeah, because the one-to-one and small groups was always the magic of my studio is that I am, as a guitar teacher and I love teaching classical guitar and all styles of guitar, but my big deal is in real life one-on-one mentorship, which I’ve been really lucky to have 50 private teachers that I’ve studied with and that’s just the thing I’ve always loved the most is guiding young people into being awesome adults. Your music is 75% of it and it’s a great vehicle, but it’s also a safe mentoring opportunity for young people, so I’ve been really into that.[00:05:52]
Andrea: So let’s go back to the beginning. It was you and your– is this a partner or an investor? What was the relationship with you and the other founder?
Eric: We co-founded the company together. The two of us co-founded it and we built a team around that. I had the basic idea. I actually taught his kid guitar and I still do, and he saw an opportunity and we started hashing ideas out together and kind of went down this road. It’s pretty fun.
I was looking into the universe for something. I’ve been teaching 50 students a week for 15 years and I loved it, but I was really looking for an opportunity to go down to put my energy into something else and teach 25 students a week. So I was wondering whether it would be looking for a university position. I was really open to ideas and when this opportunity kind of arose, I just jumped on it. I’m still teaching 30 students a week, so I was the first customer as well as the co-founder so it was a pretty interesting adventure.[00:06:52]
Andrea: I’m sure. So tell us about that road from you got the idea, you and your co-founder are studying the process you used like behind the scenes. How long is it from the idea phase to when you’re launching a product and what’s going on during that time?
Eric: That’s a great question. We first started hashing out the ideas, you know, originally we thought it would be like a marketplace, which was something that compete with which would give people a way to find students. There’s something like Thumbtack and we realized when we looked deep at those and we’re like that’s not what we need as much as something for people that are already making their living doing this, to give them an opportunity to run really great businesses and to look at the companies that are really great at creating efficient business models, like for instance like Uber. They make those transactions very simple.
We started what we called wire framing. I started out with a couple of developers that were really intelligent and Jared, my co-founder, and a great designer, and we basically just spent six months in coffee shops sketching this out, looking at what we needed, looking at my business model, looking at other business models, and it was a lot of arguing because if you just take one example of I’d run my business one way for 20 years, which is this idea of what many piano teachers do which is invoicing at the beginning of the month, sending out an invoice and waiting for the payment to come in, right? You know, you have four lessons this month, here’s your invoice. You missed one last month so there’s only three; it was in my cancellation window.
And Jared, when we first sat down, and what I really wanted was an app that did that automatically. I want an app that would just create these invoices, send them out and they could pay it. And so he just sits down, looks at it and we had a lot of great contentious moments because I knew how to do it. I thought I was one of the most successful guitar teachers in the country, financially anyway, and I thought I really knew how to run a business. I had a background in business. And he’s like, “Man, you’re wasting so much time with invoices,” and I was like, “No, I’m not.” He’s like, “How long does it take Allison to make them? I just timed her. I know that she spends five hours a month sending invoices out and then I know that your students don’t all bring them on the first week when they’re supposed to and I can tell that like 12% of your students don’t pay the full amount because they give themselves a credit.” And I was like, “Oh no!”
And so, it turned out to where the first step we did was we ended up scrapping the fundamental thing that I wanted the app to do, which was create invoices and he’s like, “Invoices are done.” He’s like, “Nobody wants to open invoices. I’m the parent, my kid takes guitar lessons, and I don’t want to read your invoice. I just want my kid to come.” He’s like those models are kind of they’re moving on and there’s different ways to do them. So that’s a really long answer to your question but it’s an important point that like the process of putting the first beta version of Fons in the market took about 15 months from design to then building the team, and then getting feedback of what worked and what didn’t.
And so in real life, we really consider ourselves launching we were almost two years in when we had a product that we thought was like, “Wow, this we believe in and this is a model we can really fly with.”[00:10:12]
Andrea: I’ve worked with startups before and in tech, more tech fields and it’s amazing how much time is spent just discussing like what is this product really and who is it really trying to serve and what are we really trying to accomplish with it. And I think it just takes time to have these conversations and figure out really where you fit in the market.
Eric: Yeah, and I mentioned something called wire framing, which is I don’t know if your listeners all know that. It is great for any kind of business model. Wire framing is essentially drawing pictures of what the website will be or the app will be like, drawing each page that the person that will be using the app will be going through, so you’re like creating that flow, and that’s a really difficult process too if you’ve been through that.[00:10:55]
Andrea: I have, yeah. You don’t realize all the pages behind things, the “thank you” page and the error page. So from an engineering side I know there can be some disagreements between the artist or the musicians and the engineers of what’s possible and what should be possible. Were there any surprises that came up on that side of things?
Eric: As far as engineering or physically building it?
Andrea: Yeah. Were there any features you wanted that and the software designers are like, “Uh, we can’t do that.”
Eric: Oh my gosh, hundreds, but you know they all came into really healthy argument and the people, I really want to stress that we are really fortunate to have such an awesome team and to have people that knew what they were doing. So the reality is anything that we really wanted that we decided was the right decision, they could build.
One example of that would be, you know, because what Fons does and what Fons does differently than anything else is it creates a relationship between the provider and the client where by just tapping a button they can approve a payment. So there’s a client or your student only has to sign up one time and they agree to your cancellation policy and they agree to your rate, whether it’s a recurring monthly flat fee with so many of the David Cutler savvy music teacher way or whether it’s guitar appointment it automatically builds them. It’s a model that works great for this what we call “relationship” appointment-based businesses because you know I’m very close with all my clients. They trust me, I trust them, we bet each other and as most piano teachers are, especially in these one-on-one arrangements and there’s thousands and thousands of people that do this. Being able to do that safely and securely was very challenging, so it took a lot of know-how to do that but we did, so that was an interesting side of it.[00:12:44]
Andrea: I’m sure having that experienced team was a real asset as you got to launch time. What did it look like when you actually put it out for the world to see?
Eric: Oh it was pretty thrilling. To be perfectly honest, the initial challenge was changing people’s ideas of what it meant to change your business model and to convince them of how much stress and time they could save because there are two big things that I totally understand is that music teachers are very concerned about processing fees, about automating payments. They’d like to try to do like VenMo free version or the Cash or Checks and I was the same way. I didn’t want to pay a PayPal fee if I didn’t have to but it’s so apparent that by eliminating invoices automating payments, the processing fee which just goes to the credit card company anyway, is so worth it like you save so many hours a month at whatever your billing rate is.
It’s an absolute no-brainer but people have a hard time grasping that. They’re like, “Oh my gosh 3%.” Convincing people that you should raise your rates anyway and that this is the cost of doing business, that gives you so much freedom. That particular one was difficult, and I think it will be difficult, frankly, until music teachers in general start to value themselves more as a profession that deserves to be run professionally.
The other big one is invoicing. I had my mind changed by a lot of data and a lot of arguing, right, because I was dead set on what I wanted. I think that releasing the app was really exciting and it was also the beginning of kind of a journey that led to more like finding the people that were really doing well in the industry and talking to them about it and getting their feedback because a lot of them were already doing this and then working to try to meet in the middle to help change the minds of people that are used to doing things one way or the other.[00:15:06]
Andrea: I think most of us just start teaching the same way our teachers taught us pedagogically and that’s how we ran our studios, in general, and I think so much has shifted just in cultural norms in the last 20 years, people getting married, they’re actually depending on the income to support themselves for a time, if not their entire career, and our studio practices haven’t caught up with the realities of our lives today.
Eric: Yeah, you’re definitely right. We do start just like our teachers did. That’s an awesome observation.
Andrea: That’s what we know.
Eric: So yeah, when we first started I started the interview process, I went and started meeting with a lot of high level piano teachers and in general, piano teachers, the average age of someone in the MTNA is like 53 years old, 54 years old. They’re not native tech users and I interviewed a very, very pretty much famous piano teacher and I was like, “How do you do your scheduling? How do you do your payments?” And she was like, “Well honestly, I have that on top of my fireplace. I just spot where the kids put the checks. I hope they go there. My husband grabs them up every month. If they don’t pay me I have no idea.” And I was like, “Wow! Gotcha.”
And it’s different because also there is an entire community of people that are making really great livings now teaching. They have chosen to do this that are making great money doing it and they have decided that they are going to make a professional wage and their community to support them, and they really value them. It’s really an exciting time because I think there’s going to be a lot more independent music teachers doing really well in the next decade.[00:16:55]
Andrea: So how were you supporting yourself while this was getting off the ground? You’re still teaching through this whole phase?
Eric: I am still teaching and I’m always going to teach. Again, I’m really fortunate. The community that I’m in, you know I’ve tested the app on my clients. Many of them work in technology in Seattle. When I landed in Seattle and started teaching I just got really fortunate with a great community of students and I taught their siblings and they’ve all been very supportive that from testing the app on them, you know half my students don’t know that I have anything to do with Fons so I can test them blindly and a lot of those are technology executives. You know I intend to each until I keel over dead. It’s my passion but it’s pretty tiring because I have two children and I’m running this company and I’m still teaching 30 students every week, so it’s a juggle. And of course, my kids love soccer, of all things. I’m paying the ultimate price for a guitar teacher.[00:17:57]
Andrea: And how are you funding the business? Is that coming out of your pocket or how does that look?
Eric: No, we’re angel-invested. We haven’t done a VC round yet so that’s something down the road.
Andrea: What did you do at the beginning to promote Fons and get the word out there about the new platform?
Eric: When we first started I cold called a thousand independent music teachers. I literally looked them up and started, I mean, I love talking with them, I love chatting so I just started calling people. With the first handful of people that were using it I’d take them out to coffee, hold their babies–I actually held some babies–and explained it because it was a different idea. And even though it was just two years ago, two years ago was way different than it was now as far as people understanding it.
So when it was kind of like “Wow” and I found that it was an awesome experience like kind of our core group of users that were willing to come on at first and tested it and be open to new ideas have kind of become somewhat of a family and it was really hard, too.
Andrea: That sounds really hard.
Eric: Yeah, Jared told me and he was like in any venture that you’re starting you’ve got to be willing to really hustle. It was one of the best pieces of advice that he gave me which it was so much great advice that he passed on and continues to, but this idea of “It is not easy.” Any business venture is not going to be easy and anybody who makes it look like it is it’s just not. It’s all about how hard you’re willing to hustle and how much you’re willing to put yourself out there because there is so much failure and there’s so many people that are like not buying into it that you just have to keep positive and keep believing in what you’re doing. So yeah, it was definitely a grind but I look back on it very fondly, like I look forward to doing it again someday.[00:20:01]
Andrea: I had a house painting business in college and I literally knocked on thousands of doors to book estimates and it is grueling but it gets the work done. And I’ve talked to teachers who went on the podcast to launch something on Kickstarter and the way she got her project funded is by sending personal emails and Facebook messages to individual people. It’s not just like putting it out there and they’ll come. It’s that grind, that hustle.
Eric: Yeah, and to be fair on the side, we also got help. We had a marketing team that was really awesome that started working on your brand recognition and putting the idea out because, again, there was, “Why are you calling it Fons? Why isn’t it called like Music Lessons Are Easier” or something like that? And that was a choice we made, that we knew would be challenging upfront, having a nondescript name but also the interesting thing about Fons is that it works.
We’re having tons of people that are really enjoying it that are personal trainers, that are academic tutors. They had the same problems. There’s a chiropractor that loves it. There’s someone that’s actually renting their boat marina using it. We got interesting folks checking it out and those are what we call different verticals and so branding it is one thing and long-term we decided, yeah Fons is awesome. It’s a 4-letter dot com and it means wellspring of knowledge, which is pretty appropriate for what we’re trying to promote.[00:21:35]
Andrea: And it is flexible for those different verticals. Can you give us a sense of where Fons is today as a business, like how many users or something to give us perspective?
Eric: Sure. We’re not right now releasing our overall user count because we can’t at the moment but we are growing pretty quickly. Yeah, we’re adding a lot of new users each month.
Andrea: Awesome. I’ve been seeing it get traction in piano teacher Facebook groups and things like that. People are starting to talk about it more. So you mentioned that as you watched the data you can see trends for teachers across the country, how has seeing the data through Fons influenced your own teaching and how you structure your studio?
Eric: That’s an awesome question. Well you know what? To be honest, yeah, I have been inspired by some of our early adopters that run their business better than I did and seeing things like, Wow, this market can support a higher wage than what I thought I was doing. I’ve reached out to those people and I have become friends with them. There is a superstar guitar teacher you should reach out in Rob Hampton who was such an inspiration. I got to peek in and get to know these people by working with them, so I’d say that, for sure.
The other is by getting their feedback because the way we work now is that when someone writes in with a request, maybe we’ve heard about it 30 or 40 times or if it’s a great idea, we go to work and start building it; we queue it up. I think we’ve got a lot of great feedback and a lot of great ideas for new teachers that we want to build. At the same time, our core is just the business. We don’t want to have a metronome. We don’t want to have a lending library. We want to take all the stress points out of running the teaching business–at least that’s our goal–so the lesson can be the lesson in real life experience or online can be the experience and there is no friction there.[00:23:46]
Andrea: And what trends are you seeing that you think will change or should change the way people teach and run their studios in the next 5 or 10 years?
Eric: You know what? The big trend that we’re really excited about is it seems like parents of young people are really, really excited about having their children have these relationships with the teachers or there’s any option, the parents want their kids studying arts because they know the science behind that, but they really want their kids doing something that’s not sitting in front of a device. Personal trainers are seeing a lot of growth on one-on-one and so are music teachers.
Personally, I think that it’s going to be an increase of music teachers and the thing we’re really watching is there’s going to be a really big increase in classical music teaching. We’re going to see a lot of that. Or there is going to be a huge increase in more recreational music like teaching op styles and just keep you to play as this new generation of parents is coming through. Are they going to want to have like really structured “on it” method-based, competition-based piano lessons or are they going to want to have kids just expressing themselves learning how to play chords?
But both of those seem to be having a lot of growth and as young people come up and start teaching more and coming in with these new business models and deciding they’re going to support themselves well by doing it, it’s bringing a lot of energy into it. I know that once I went out on my own and started teaching and making a great living teaching and can support my family doing it, I was a way better teacher and I provided way better service to my students and those families told more of their friends and my studio is just going to thrive and it continues to. I think that’s like a personal– I don’t know if I’d say that’s a trend but I think it’s a real goal that we’re going to see more teachers living better by making their living through independent teaching.
Andrea: I think that just helps our industry move forward if parents see that their child’s teacher is making a living by teaching then they see more of a future for their own kid in music if they want to go that route.
Eric: Yeah, exactly, exactly, it’s super cool.[00:26:05]
Andrea: Is there a book that has had a strong influence on you as a teacher or an entrepreneur?
Eric: I have a bookshelf I wish I could send you. I’ve had so much required reading in the last three years since I started this project. Jared has been such a wonderful mentor and it’s been a whole lot of Amazon orders. I’m reading this really great book now called The Phoenix Project which is about constraint theory and finding bottlenecks in your workflow. I really want to apply it to like building a classical guitar recital because it’s so interesting. It’s how to solve these problems on a large scale finding the little tiny things that hold you up. I’ll share with you a picture of my bookshelf but yeah, I love The Phoenix Project. That’s been really interesting.
My mind was really opened by David Cutler’s Savvy Music Teacher. It was more by meeting him and going to do his savvy arts challenge which I think is awesome. His book was really mind-opening into new ways because he was one of the first people to codify the idea of doing a flat rate tuition; simplifying the process by having your clients pay a flat rate amount every month whether they come or not and I was not at all interested in it until I met him. We talked about it and then we built that feature in because it was really good and made a lot of sense. But yeah, I’ll share a book list with you.
Andrea: Yeah, that would be fun.
Eric: I feel like I can’t really just fill out a million of them right now.[00:27:41]
Andrea: We’ll put them all on the show notes. And what’s next for you and Fons? What goals are you working towards right now?
Eric: Just to continue to improve it and just to make it better, you know the idea is that people don’t want to change, especially with their businesses. People don’t want to change unless something’s going to be– There’s a thing they say in the tech industry which is like it’s got to be 8x better, like it needs to be 8 times better than what they’re currently using to make it worth the change. And so our goal is to kind of always shoot for that. It is to try to make this experience 8 times better and not just for the teacher but for the clients. We’re going to keep grinding on that definitely. That’s kind of our personal goal with it is to make it right.[00:28:24]
Andrea: And where can listeners get in touch with you?
Eric: They can email me. My email is public or at [email protected] or through Facebook or Instagram. I can send all those links over to you.
Andrea: Great. Well Eric, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day and busy week for having this conversation and we’ll keep in touch.
Eric: Awesome. Hey thanks so much!
[00:28:48] [End of interview]
I so enjoyed talking to Eric because he is a music teacher at heart and is obviously passionate about being a great mentor to his students. Although Fons may seem like a completely unrelated goal, Eric has connected it to his core mission of building deep, personal relationships between teachers and their students. In this case, by using technology to eliminate the sometimes awkward interactions around money.
I thought it was interesting that Eric and his co-founder originally thought the platform would be a marketplace to help teachers find students. Did you notice how much Eric talked about surveying the market while developing the business idea? In doing this, he and his partner realized that what the market needed more than a marketplace was a product to help teachers who already had big studios run really efficient businesses.
This is a completely different problem than they originally set out to solve, and I think Fons has done a good job staying focused on that goal.
Instead of trying to be a marketplace and a practice-tracking app and a metronome all rolled into one convoluted system, they’re just trying to be THE MOST streamlined scheduling and payment app for appointment-based businesses. So many businesses, both large and small, could benefit from being a little more focused!
I also wanted to touch on funding. Eric couldn’t share details about how Fons has been funded, but he did say that they started with angel investment and haven’t done a VC round yet. These terms aren’t used much in music teacher circles, so I wanted to clarify in case they’re new to you.
Angel investors are the first people to invest in a new business. They’re often individuals who are investing their own money and they’re called angels because they’re investing in a business at the very beginning when it’s unproven and carries the most risk.
AFTER a successful launch, a startup might pursue a round of VC (or venture capital) funding. A business is probably trying to raise a lot more money at this stage and VCs are generally interested in larger, scalable businesses, like a franchise or an online platform like Fons, as opposed to a single local shop.
I think it’s important for entrepreneurial music teachers to be able to speak the language of business, so I’ll continue to explain these terms as they come up.
Last, but not least. Eric is offering a very generous Fons promo for MSS listeners. If you use the code MUSIC STUDIO STARTUP you’ll get:
- A three month trial of Fons
- an hour of coaching/onboarding help
- a $25 visa card after your first transaction
Enter the promo code MUSICSTUDIOSTARTUP or mention it to an onboarding specialist when you sign up.
That’s all for today. I’ll be back next week!