As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 18 Winter 2021
On the landing page of the Seymour Duncan website, one of the top slides reads: “Tone is at the heart of who we are and what we do. We’ve helped legendary guitarists find their perfect tone for over 40 years, and we’re here to help you find yours.” This seems to be a statement they’ve lived up to, as Seymour Duncan is an industry leader in the design and manufacture of guitar pickups, founded in 1976. We chatted with Seymour Duncan co-founder and CEO Cathy Carter Duncan to discuss starting the company from scratch in the seventies, the business practices she lives by, and what advice she has for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Starting a business is never easy, but it was arguably more difficult in a decade without modern technology. It all started with her relationship with Seymour Duncan, the company’s namesake, which played into the early leadership dynamic of the company. “I was Seymour’s girlfriend. He flew in from London, and somebody introduced us in Topanga [California]. He was really, really good about what he did. He was a great performer with great ears. He just has this sort of magic in his fingertips. We’ve all seen guitar players like that, drummers like that, and singers. It seems effortless, right? That’s Seymour.”
Starting a company like Seymour Duncan requires quite a bit of technical equipment. “We just started very, very poor, so we didn’t have any money [to start a business]. You have to have these little things called dies (manufacturing machine tools used to mass-produce a specific thing—each die has a fixed shape it is molded to) and whatnot. It cost me $500 to stamp the top piece of a Telecaster pickup part. After that, you still have to order wire; you still have to order other little things. You still have to wear a solder. For Seymour, that kind of detail bored him to tears; he didn’t want to.”
“So, it was a really just wonderful pairing that I wanted to support him, who in turn was supporting wonderful musicians, and that’s kind of how it came about. It was just good. It’s not my favorite thing to be detail-oriented, and I trained myself a little bit better. I wanted to support him. I learned it, and I got better at it.”
When asked if she ever felt like giving up in those early days, Duncan said it was a matter of keeping focused and looking at things in the long term. What kept her going was “keeping focused on the long-term, keeping focused on our core mission. I think this would apply to anybody who is a musician or supports musicians in one way or another. Isn’t the world blessed to have music? Where would we be as humans if music wasn’t around to soothe our souls, to dance it out, to celebrate? I can’t imagine growing up and going through my twenties, and thirties, and forties without music. I look at all the musicians we bumped into over the years, and I think about what they give to build their craft. The hours they spend woodshedding. The practice they do to perfect their art form. The macaroni and cheese they eat, every bit as much as I ate it, and Seymour ate it. So really, I’m a team player. I think long-term.”
When asked about work/life balance, Duncan said, “Trust me; it wasn’t pretty in the early days. For those of you who may not know, we started when we were both young. We actually divorced in ’87, but we had two children, and we learned how to not rip it apart. So, it wasn’t pretty, but my intent has always been strong. Seymour’s intent, our intent, to rise above ourselves and take care of others for both of us, was strong. So, the question of how did I balance it? There would be times where you got to go and have a little pity party. I tried not to feed that demon too much, but I made sure I did it. Run it out on a beach. Dancing it out for me was a big one. Scream it out. Then in my second relationship, I was introduced to this lovely thing called dirt bikes. You’ve got this sense of speed and balance. I think if we say, oh, I’m always going to look beautiful and pretty, and I’m never going to get stressed, I think that’s very unrealistic. At least it was for me. It was very unrealistic. I think we just find safe, good ways to [handle it].”
Another big side of running a business is deciding what ethics to build your business on. Duncan had to navigate her way through the business world. “When Seymour wanted to do business, I went to the library, and didn’t see many books about [business ethics], and went, well, wait a minute, maybe we can invent how we want to do it. I made a commitment then to always do it ethically and to put people first. That’s all people: our customers for sure, even our vendors and whatnot.”
To finish off, we asked Duncan if she had any advice for anyone wanting to start their own company. “The one thing I’d say is, be true to yourself. So true to yourself means if your values are here, and you got your personality over here, you have to kind of line things up. As humans, we know BS. We know when something isn’t really what it should be. I think when you’re dead honest, marketing’s gotten a lot harder than it used to be. In the old days, when I started, I could just be a straight shooter and make something look pretty, and we did well. [Now,] there’s a lot of technical know-how. There’s a lot of finesse. There’s a lot of artificial intelligence. There’s a lot of technicalities that are making that increasingly harder. No, ifs ands, or buts. At the time I started, it was a sh-tload easier than what it is today.”
New technology and increasingly challenging marketing aside, Duncan’s advice remains. “Set yourself up for success, not failure. Be honest with what you want, be honest in your purpose. If you think you want a kazillion zeros, and it’s a really competitive field, I’d say, I don’t know, are you that smart? Have an honest assessment of your skillsets. Do it because you love it. Do it because you care, you know; that’s what motivates me.
I always start with the outside and come in. I know my customers; I know my competition. I think ultimately you want to have more rights than wrongs. I can’t eliminate the errors, but I want a boatload more rights than wrong things. That will keep me from having too many skinned knees and stubbed toes, and that is the mission.”