Turning a passion into a business is a labor of love. We live for the bright spots, struggle through the pitfalls, and celebrate the successes along the way. For Ezra Cimino-Hurt who started Case of Bass, a custom speaker business here in Portland, nothing could be further from the truth. You’ve probably seen one of his unique, hand-built suitcase speakers at a backyard barbeque or outdoor music festival. Their sound is as legendary as their beautifully artistic design.
As the second installment of our #DesignNaked series, we caught up with Ezra in his new studio space to talk about the process of pursuing passions — and the hard work of making those converge with a successful business. When we caught up to Ezra, he was busy repairing one of his speakers for a friend (who also happens to be his doctor). The speaker had just been to its fifth What The Festival. Ezra was enthusiastic about the job: “I love being able to repair these. I mean this thing is a part of this guy’s personality — It’s completely unique and special to him.”
Well, I’ve never had my electronics and manufacturing in the same place so I’m really stoked right now. My favorite part of coming here lately is just getting things organized, getting settled in the space. Working on creating a flow.
[We] called our buddy Chris who has an electronics recycling company and said, “Dude, we wanna build a crazy boombox.”
How did you make the jump into doing this, anyway?
Well, it was more like a slide. I wanted something that I couldn’t afford. It was this TDK black acrylic boombox. It had these exposed drivers, it was back lit, it was really fresh… It still is. This was in 2012 and this thing was amazing, but it took eight D batteries, and I was like, “For real!?”
So my brother — he’s the co-founder — Alex and I went home and called our buddy Chris who has an electronics recycling company and said, “Dude, we wanna build a crazy boombox,” and he was like “We have hundreds of old speakers and amps here, just come get what you want.” So we went down and dug through these huge bins and just started pulling out all sorts of stuff yelling, “Look what I found!” We quickly loaded up my car and went back to the garage and started disassembling stuff, then we were trying to figure out how to put ‘em back together with this shitty old soldering iron. It was like trying to build something for NASA with 2×4’s.
How did you land on the idea of putting it all in a suitcase?
The real question became: “What is the vessel?” We experimented with tool boxes and coolers, and then one day we were at the Goodwill and saw this old, big, vinyl 1960’s Samsonite and a lightbulb went off, so we bought like 5 of ‘em. Just the most horrible ugly suitcases ever.
What was it like in those early days?
There were like 14 hour days that we would just lose track of time experimenting and trying new configurations and failing along the way. I would have saved so much money if I had just bought that TDK! I probably sank thousands of dollars pursuing this concept. We’d spend all this money and buy a really nice digital amp and we’d be like, “Okay, we’re gonna make a good one.” And then something would happen — we’d short it out and fry the whole thing and you’d just want to cry.
The level we were building at initially was just horrible, but we knew where we wanted to be. The idea of building something super tight for ourselves and maybe a few of our friends kept the dream alive. After a few months in the garage, some friends pursued us to make one.
How did you finally make it into a business?
We decided if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. Let’s make a business, brand it, get a logo. We tried to give ourselves as much foundation as possible and just fake it ’till we make it, as far as making the product goes. We sold our first one to my friend Abe for $160 — the Green Meanie, and he still has it. He uses it all the time. And then we’d set ‘em up in friends’ galleries and stuff. We’d make a little stack of ‘em — like 4 or 5 — we were so proud. And then John Jay from Wieden + Kennedy bought the second or third one. He was so stoked. He got it for like $185.
What was the hardest part of getting started?
Delivery and manufacturing. The real problem was the nuts and bolts stuff. Trying to build a process with no money to throw away. We just made it work. If anything broke, we paid for the shipping label and for the box to send it back. If you break it, it’s okay, we can fix it even if it costs us $60 or $70 just to fix a wire that got disconnected. The customer service has always been about responsiveness and responsibility. I’m amazed at how much people appreciate that.
What’s been your biggest success so far?
We’ve been surrounded by a lot of really talented friends who have helped us along the way. Photographers, painters, graphic designers, artists, and they rally. They’ve really helped us push it through. This is the company that was built on boombox trade.
What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to face down?
I’m facing it right now. The question is: How can I make this business worthwhile and profitable? How long can I keep doing this as a hobby? How can I make it grow? I’m 37 and I have two almost-grown children and I’m working on my passion, but I need to make it sustainable. I’m just getting to the place where I can put everything I have into this to make it a success. And I know that If I give it my all and I can’t make it grow and I end up shutting the doors… that would be the hardest thing ever. This is the coolest thing I’ve done. And it’s not just one thing — it’s a hundred.
Being able to scale this up enough to keep the dream alive is the goal. I’m in such a fighting mode right now, I’m sharper, I’m focused, and I’m going to figure out how to get this to the world in a way that gets this business to thrive. I want it to be more than I imagined.
How are you going to scale it up?
I’m going to try to take on a business partner. I’m looking for someone who can help lighten the load with web design, marketing, and bookkeeping so I can focus on getting 50-100 prototypes built. I have a bundle of online retailers who want to do some drop ship test run of 20-30 thousand dollars worth of product. I want to see if we can use these marketing channels to make a few big pushes.
You can learn more about Case of Bass at their website caseofbass.com and join the conversation using the hashtag #DesignNaked. Show us your passion projects, process photos, and inspiration on Instagram and you could be our next featured article.