“The Czechs should be proud of their geeky DIY past. The very beginnings of our business were an attempt to pay due respect to earlier DIY electronics pioneers, and to carry on their legacy.”
Not a company, rather a bunch of enthusiasts
"We didn't begin as a start-up, or a company that wanted to make money. We were simply doing the things we enjoyed and gradually taking on more and more activities, so in the end we had to give ourselves a legal form," disarmingly confesses Ondřej Merta, one of the company's leaders. Even today, the same applies unchanged at Bastl Instruments. It's still a group of about twenty enthusiasts who enjoy electronic music. Luckily, this also makes them money.
However, not too long ago, back in 2010, everything was different. Ondřej Merta and Václav Paloušek were students at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Brno University of Technology. They were aware of each other and their common fondness for electronic sound, but what really brought them together was their joint project Standuino, which paid tribute to their teacher Standa Filip and to the world of DIY electronics enthusiasts.
We're helping restore the credibility of DIY geeks
"We were stoked by the possibility of creating interactive toys, but we soon reached our limits – we were all doing exactly the same things, because we were using the same internet sources. However, we gradually started to discover a local community of DIY electronics guys who were able to create functional electronics from a few electric circuits," says Merta. From then on he started to frequent local component shops and talk with the people shopping there. In the process, he uncovered the history of 'Golden Czech hands'.
"Before our market was flooded by electronics from abroad, the only way to get a good radio or mixer was to make it at home. Our dads and granddads had great skills. But for many people they were just men who liked to surround themselves with a lot of old junk. We wanted to change this view," says the graduate artist about the legacy of Standuino.
The company has grown spontaneously before our eyes
He gradually started to organise workshops in Brno for participants to assemble their own instruments with buttons that produced sound, and to play them at joint concerts afterwards. In time, their 'electro-parties' became popular, even attracting attention from abroad. Merta began to sell his synthesizer modules online and send them all around the world. One day he received a notice from PayPal that he'd exceeded a sales limit and that he had to submit a business licence. So they founded the company.
The entire professionalisation process has been a wild ride. One day they were contacted by a Japanese trader who wanted to purchase and resell their synthesizers. The artists had no experience with distribution, so it was their first trading partner who helped them create a wholesale price list. With similar help from the community itself, Bastl Instruments has become a company that dispatches 500 synthesizers around the globe every month. To give you an idea of their quality, Bastl devices can be found in the studios of Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), and the composer Hans Zimmer.
Business can also be driven by external forces
Although the company generates income from the strong worldwide electronic music community, sometimes it's been necessary to channel this Bohemian energy in the right direction. This was done in 2016, partly owing to the JIC MASTER programme, onto which the company's shareholders registered. "I devote a lot of energy to the people from our local community. But sometimes it's difficult to find enough energy for myself. But I found it at JIC. The consultants helped clear up a lot of things for me, offered me some new perspectives on business-related matters, advised me on potential problems that I was overlooking, and taught me to stop and reflect on the direction I and my company were heading in," reflects Merta, on his cooperation with JIC.
He was also delighted that consultants who were brimming with so much insight into how other companies functioned confirmed to him the fact that he'd managed to build a unique corporate culture. Most employees of Bastl Instruments are enthusiasts who joined the group at a certain moment and later avowed an interest in working for the DIY artists. All of them share a great passion for electronic gadgets. And all of them are given by Merta plenty of room for self-actualisation, no matter whether they're developing new synthesizers, composing music or opening a coffee roasting plant. "All of us are musicians. That's why we opened in Brno the club Herna (Rehearsal Studio), focused on electronic music, where we can jam together from time to time and invite interesting people from the scene to Brno. We also have a music publishing house to publish whatever we record. And we cooperate with musicians from other continents," says Merta, adding that he's co-opened new premises in Prague, namely "Zvuk" (Sound), focused on education in electronic music.
Brno's still a place for creating something new
Considering that Berlin, which is not far from Brno, has a renowned electronic scene and that Bastl has showrooms not only in Brno, but also in Brooklyn, why is the Czech environment still interesting to him? "At the beginning of our business, it was a great advantage to have the company based here in Brno. At that time I was continuing my studies in Vienna, and if I'd set up there and tried making enough money to pay the local rent and remunerate colleagues, I'd never have made it," explains the entrepreneur.
"Moreover, Brno has huge potential. What I like about the city is that I can positively influence its culture. I can establish a new scene, unite the community, or attract talented people. There's always room for innovation," enthuses Merta. After all, even during his university studies he devoted himself to changing the institution at which he was studying. Now he invests his energy in the electronic music scene and in nourishing the DIY phenomenon in the 21st century.
where Bastl Instruments synthesizers can be bought
where musicians can take a look at Bastl instruments
Bastl Instruments is a community company specialised in the manual production of electronic musical instruments and modules. Its portfolio includes standalone instruments and utilities or modules for modular synthesizers. In Brno, where the company is registered, it also has a brick-and-mortar shop with instruments – noise.kitchen on Kounicova Street. Its instruments are played by musicians and electronic music fans all over the world, but especially in the USA, Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany. The key figures in the company – Ondřej Merta, Václav Peloušek and Leoš Hort – met at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Brno University of Technology.
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Oliver Dlouhý has been keen on doing business since childhood. He sold blueberries at the Czech-Austrian border and collected cheap jukeboxes for pub owners in his home town. In 2012 he founded Skypicker (called Kiwi.com today) and started to develop a unique algorithm that has helped increase sales by 7000 % over the last four years.