Selling vacuum tubes in a digital world

Tyler DeArmond’s story started like many we’ve heard in this economy — a would-be entrepreneur launching a new e-commerce business to supplement a pay cut at his full-time job.

Then he started talking vacuum tubes.

What kind of online market could there be for a turn-of-the-20th century invention, largely extinct? Turns out there’s a pretty good one, fed by musicians.

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“I’ve had a hobby of playing with old electronics for years and as a result I’ve accumulated literally thousands of vacuum tubes,” said DeArmond, an associate pastor at a local church and a source in MPR’s Public Insight Network.

“It used to be that pretty much all electronics (60′s and earlier) used vacuum tubes,” he said, kindly suggesting that I might not be old enough to remember that era (I am!).

The transistor pretty much did in the vacuum tube. But there’s still a music industry niche: Guitarists who use tube-based amplifiers, and recording studios who use high-end tube gear, DeArmond says.

After collecting vacuum tubes and tube related gear for more than a decade as a way of supporting a Hi-Fi hobby, he and his wife Chelsea decided to see what they could do online, selling vintage tubes.

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On the site, Tyler makes it clear, “Starting this small business is our response to the challenges of this economy. We hope to gain enough momentum to be able to hire some folks in our neighborhood who are looking for work.”

He told us he’s taken a voluntary 20 percent cut this year and Chelsea has taken an involuntary 10 percent cut at her job.

“We’ve been trying not to take any money out of the business and so far we’ve succeeded and as a result the business is growing pretty steadily,” he said.

12/17 UPDATE:

We asked Tyler for a little more detail on the business.

We launched this business in January of 2009 but didn’t go live online until March. We have seen a steady increase in sales over the first 9 months but actually, we’ve run ourselves out of inventory as a result of a higher than expected amount of demand this fall.

Because we’re very small and we’re “paying as we go” (no small business loans other than what we can pull together from our own resources) it will take us a little time to recover and get stocked up again. We expect a stronger year in 2010.

So far, we have not taken any money out of the business (yes, we’re working “for free” right now), we are simply reinvesting it back into inventory so that we can expand product lines and grow the business as quickly as possible. Of course, for us, this also means that we both are still working our day jobs and we do this business in the evenings and on weekends.

One other aspect of this that is a little unusual is that we are willing to take international orders that most other businesses shy away from. They are typically a bit more risky and always more work due to the added complexities of shipping overseas (to say nothing of potential language barriers, misunderstandings, currency exchanges, etc.).

He also shared the basics on why musicians still dig the vacuum tube:

Musicians who play bass and electric guitars often use vacuum tube-based amplifiers to achieve a desired sound. Mullard tubes from England can help you get a Beatles sound, and so forth.

Happily, vacuum tubes by their very definition keep all of the functional components in a vacuum so as long as the vacuum is intact the tube remains good until used up, much like a light bulb. So, we provide vintage tubes to musicians seeking to mimic a certain sound or creatively establish a sound of their own by swapping out various tube types to see how they sound together.

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