Max Larson of Centre Music House discusses how his family built a business based on private lessons. Max has spent the last decade modernizing and automating the business to enable staff to focus on what they do best and enable technology to solve some of its backend processes.
Max tells the story of how modernizing lesson scheduling helped eliminate time and effort from the hassle of managing 400 students and 20 instructors. He also explains how software has enabled the music store and its business to continue to grow and gain greater market share in the area.
- Even if you don’t earn a commission or make a sale, it still might make sense to do.
- Don’t try to reinvent a process that someone else has expertise in.
- Pay for expertise and let experts take care of it.
- Just because it is easy for someone else doesn’t mean it will be easy for you.
- “It saves us man hours, man or woman hours, like, the things that my dad was doing when I started working here, I was like, you’re doing what? You’re spending, how many hours doing this? And it’d be like, we can just automate so much, you know, and it saved us just hundreds of hours. Even stuff just like updating our checkbook, you know, he was…manually doing that?”
- “We can’t necessarily afford to hire five or 10 people to do a job, having software to just run the background and take care of things. It just saves us so much time because it’s just us, you know, and a couple of other people. And if it wasn’t for that, we’d have to be doing everything manually. So yeah, software is everything.”
- “And I spent so many hours trying to figure it out. I was just like, this is dumb. Like other people have figured this out. I’m just going to pay them to provide the service. And so that’s, that’s kinda like the other side of the coin. It’s like, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to making your life easier through software. It’s like, you focus on what you’re good at in your store: building relationships and selling products and lessons. And then Rain has figured it out. Pay them and it’s done and when things break, they take care of it. It’s great.”
Max Larson is a second generation family owner at Centre Music House. The store was founded in 1973 and serves Framingham, Massachusetts. Centre Music House believes music has the power to bring joy and positive change into the lives of the people who create, share, and listen to it.
[00:00:21] Thanks everybody for joining us today, we’ve got Max Larson with Centre Music House today. Thanks for joining us, Max. How are things going for you?
[00:00:31] Max: Things are great, great day. Yeah.
Center Music House Origins
[00:00:33] Eric: Great. So we’re hoping to dive into some topics and get your insight just with a lot of things that are going on. I feel like you can give some unique insight, but we wanted to start and get, kind of your story. We found that that’s fun for listeners to hear, gives them ideas, and things like that even. So go ahead and let us know, like, how did you get started and how is Centre Music House where it is today? What’s the backstory on that?
[00:01:02] Max: Sure. So it’s a family business. My dad has been here since 1973 and he, actually, even before that, where we are right now in Framingham, it’s been a music store since the sixties. It used to be called Eli Rankin’s Drum Studio. And it was this guy, Eli who sold drums and taught out of the studio here and it’s like an old home that was converted into a retail space.
[00:01:32] Eric: Oh, interesting.
[00:01:33] Max: And so, my dad moved to Framingham in the early seventies, started taking lessons here and then started working here and then Eli sold the business to a family, the Agins family, and they changed the name to Centre Music House, and they bought the business for their son thinking he would want to run a music business, but he’s like, “I don’t want to run a music business. I want to play music,” and so they’re left with this business and my dad was still working there. He became the manager. And then in the eighties he actually met my mom here cause she started taking piano lessons at the store. So I owe this place a lot.
[00:02:16] And so, in the eighties he bought the business from the Agins family and then I started working here back in the end of 2012, early 2013. So I’ve been here about nine years and it’s retail, but also a lot of education. So we have about 20 teachers on staff, about 400 students taking private lessons.
[00:02:38] The retail side has gone through lots of changes. We used to be a Martin dealer, a Gibson dealer and sell… you know, my dad tells me stories about back in the day when bands would be touring and they were doing gigs all up and down Route 9, which is the major highway that runs from like Boston to Framingham and Worcester, lots of clubs, way more live music and bands would come in and buy their own PA system for the tour and you know, buy brand new guitars, and this is the day before online sales and before Guitar Center and Sam Ash and all those guys. And so that’s what we were for a long time and then in the early nineties, places like Guitar Center and Mars Guitar, all the big guys moved in and took away a lot of that high-end business.
[00:03:29] So we focused more on education and students. So we started carrying more, like, student level, introductory instruments for, like, guitar, some keyboards, and then we’ve always been close with the local schools around here. So doing, like, school band instrument rentals and repairs.
[00:03:51] So now where we’re at is mostly student focused. So beginner guitars, lots of rentals, violin rentals, selling books, and we also do a lot of repair work. But most of what we do is teaching.
[00:04:07] Eric: Okay.
[00:04:07] Max: Yeah that’s where we’re at.
A Business Built Around Lessons and Paper
[00:04:09] Eric: So, I mean, your mom comes in for lessons and your dad works there. When you came into the business, was there anything that was really surprising to you or was this just kind of, you played instruments all growing up and you were around it and it just, that’s what it was. What was that like? Was there anything surprising?
[00:04:29] Max: Surprising about, like, behind the scenes? What’s going on in the business?
[00:04:32] Eric: Yeah, just coming into the business more and starting to actually work there and seeing what goes on or where you shielded from a lot of that cause you’re just, you know, a kid that’s growing up in the shop, but you don’t… you didn’t deal with the angry customers or, you know, stuff like?
[00:04:44] Max: No, didn’t deal with angry customers… no, luckily, no. I mean, I was crawling around on the floor here in diapers. So this was like my second home, you know, as a child, and so it very much feels like home, you know, to me. And so the things that I learned, no. I guess to answer your question. Yeah. I was shielded from all the ugly parts and there are not really too many ugly parts, to be honest.
Modernizing Centre Music House
[00:05:10] Eric: Well, that’s great.
[00:05:11] Max: But no, when I started working, I was just working on the sales floor and so, you know, doing customer service and just getting to know the ins and outs of the business. And over time, I started doing more, like, marketing and rebuilt our website using WordPress and getting into, like, social media and Facebook and really trying to modernize the business.
[00:05:33] And you know, when I started working here in 2013, we were still doing all of our lesson scheduling by paper and pencil. We had a big green binder. It was separated by all the teachers and they had sheets for the days that they were teaching. It was basically like a printed out spreadsheet. And so we’d have, like, different columns for the names of the students and the times, and the parents on it. Anytime anyone wanted to move to a different day, we’d have to erase it and then write it into the next place and then we had individual teacher folders that they would pick up that had their handwritten… It was just like, all paper and pencil, and I was like, “this has got to change, like number one.” And so we did a lot of searching for a lesson scheduling software that worked and we tried a bunch of different things. Ultimately found something that paired with a point of sale. It was Retail Up.
[00:06:35] Eric: Okay,
[00:06:36] Max: That didn’t work out at all, and then my dad got a postcard from Rain [Retail Software] and he was like, “You should check these guys out,” and that’s how we found Rain.
Strictly Private Lessons
[00:06:45] Eric: Well, that’s interesting. On the scheduling side, you mentioned that you work with schools a lot. Do you do a lot of, I guess, joined work with schools on the lesson side or are the lessons generally with the individuals, and the work you’re doing with the schools are the repairs and the rentals, or is there a lot of like referral I guess and cross over?
[00:07:04] Max: It’s pretty informal. We don’t have any, like, contracts with the schools as far as, you know, teaching goes. So the lessons we do, it’s strictly private. Students come here and they sign up directly with us, not through the school. The relationship we have with the schools is just for rentals. We don’t do any repairs, really. It’s technically through Music and Arts, as well. We’re a Music and Arts affiliate, which is owned by Guitar Center, and so they have a contract with the school and the kids will rent instruments through Music and Arts through us. We earn a commission on that.
[00:07:43] But just through having relationships with the teachers, they’ll send a lot of students our way, like, “Hey, you should take some lessons, go to Centre Music House,” or “you should get a new instrument, go to them.” That kind of a thing. It’s pretty informal.
Personal Relationships With Schools
[00:07:55] Eric: Okay. Now managing that relationship with the school, I’ve heard lots of stories and different tactics that people have used. What’s your guys’ strategy in-house to manage that relationship with the school, whether it’s to, get with new schools or increase sales through a school, do you guys have a team of ed. reps? Do you guys just do everything with you guys there? What does that look like? And kind of, what are your goals when trying to build that school business?
[00:08:22] Max: We really don’t have a strategy, to be honest. It’s not something that we focus on too much. Mostly because honestly they take forever to pay us on invoices. We’ve had things sit out there for years and it’s like, “ah,” and then they ended up going through… you know, they’ll call us for quotes for like 25 ukuleles and we’ll put together a great package, you know, give them a good deal and then, you know, meanwhile they’re shopping for quotes at other places, and then they end up going with somewhere else and it’s like, “eh, okay.” It’s tough because we want to be there just to support the teachers, you know? But the relationship, sometimes it feels like a one-way street, you know? And so our strategy, I guess, is if a teacher comes to us and they’re like, “Hey, this kid broke their cello that they’re renting,” and they’re not renting it through us, but we’ll repair the cello because we want people to trust us and come to us if they have any issues and that’s an opportunity for us to build that relationship so that if they do come to us, you know, eventually we want them to think of us as like the music place in town.
[00:09:41] Eric: Yeah. So, you’re having people that are renting instruments elsewhere, and then you guys are doing the repair and service on those.
[00:09:47] Max: In special cases, yeah. If, like, for example, this teacher, she teaches in a local elementary school. Very nice. We have a good working relationship with her and she was like, “Hey, my cello broke. Can you guys repair it?” And it was rented directly to her through Music and Arts. So we don’t earn a commission on this cello. And the side separated from the top or something like that. And I was like, “you might want to reach out to the rep.” And she’s like, “oh, I thought that was you guys.” Like, she wasn’t clear about the distinction between us and Music and Arts. I was like, you know what? I’m not going to make her go through all these hoops talking to Music and Arts to get it repaired and all that. It’s like, we can do it right now and help her out. So like, we’re just going to do it, you know, because we can and it’s the right thing to do. Identifying Your Segment of the Market
[00:10:40] Eric: Yeah, well that’s great. I think, yeah, to be able to have people coming to you for those sorts of things. The other business I’m sure would want that upsell, if you want to call it that. But I mean, that’s a great way to get your foot in the door. I’m curious, are there a lot of local music stores around where you guys are at?
[00:11:01] Max: No. So there used to be half a dozen in town back 40 years ago and now it’s us and there’s a Guitar Center in Natick, which is the next town over, and there’s a little shop on the other side of town called Liberty Music. We’re pretty much it. There’s some music stores in other surrounding towns around us.
[00:11:25] Eric: So from a marketing standpoint then, I’m sure that your marketing is probably more local focused than like nationally focused. Do you guys feel that you have to do much in terms of marketing and if you do, what are those things that you find are working from a local marketing standpoint?
[00:11:45] Max: I think we are lucky that we’ve been here for so long that people know we’re here. You know, if they grew up in town, chances are they came here to rent a flute when they were in fifth grade band and so when their kid is old enough to start lessons or whatever, they know we’re here. And so we’ve kind of leaned on that a little bit as a crutch and not really focused on marketing too much.
Building on Reputation
[00:12:12] Eric: Your guys’ reputation has been your marketing there.
[00:12:15] Max: Yeah, exactly.
[00:12:16] Eric: Generational stuff, even, which is great, which is fantastic.
[00:12:19] Max: Oh we’ll go to a lot of local events where we can have a booth and like, meet people and talk to people, so there are like, local festivals we do. There was an earth day festival last week that we sponsored the music and so we have a booth next to the music stage and just having a presence there is our marketing approach. We sponsor a local all ages rock show at a local venue.
[00:12:44] I host an open mic at that venue, where anybody can come and play and so we’ll get a lot of people from the community and also our students who go and perform and that’s great because we get people who are already interested in music attending. Maybe they’re not students yet, but we had someone just the other day who said, “yeah, we want to sign up for lessons. We went to your open mic five years ago, and now my daughter said she wants to play guitar and so we thought of you,” and so it’s like a fun community thing that is also a marketing strategy.
[00:13:20] Eric: That’s great. I’m sure others do it. That’s one I haven’t heard of as much, just being in the community at these events that may seem a little unrelated, like an earth day event where it’s like, okay, well, how does that deal with music? Oh, well we sponsor the music there. Okay. I like that. I like that idea.
Putting A Team Together
[00:14:38] I am curious, with you guys being a small store or something, I’ve heard a challenge that people are dealing with is getting the right team members to run things. Now you’ve got standard clerks that, I mean, even that can be difficult to find right now, but somebody like a repair technician that has specialized, what are you guys doing to manage this human capital difficulty that we’re going through right now? What are some ideas or strategies or things that you guys have done with that?
[00:15:08] Max: That’s a great question. As far as the people behind the counter who work here, putting job ads out on Indeed and paying the money to get it exposed, you know, so that more people see it.
[00:15:23] Eric: Do you find that you’re getting those leads and those interviews from indeed? Is it paying out?
[00:15:28] Max: Definitely. Yeah, and the feedback I’ve gotten from people, you know, I’ll ask potential candidates, like what interests you about working here? And people are always saying, “oh, I really… you know, I love music and I want to get closer to music and have it be more a part of my life and I liked the idea of working for a small business that’s family run. I don’t want to work for a big company,” and so that is an advantage of ours. And you know, just interviewing everyone, asking everyone the same questions and really just being very discerning about what we want in a team member.
[00:16:04] And because it’s such a small building, I’m going to be 10 feet from this person all day long. I really want to make sure that we’re gonna get along, you know, and work well together and it’s paid off. We’ve hired a couple of team members in the last… I hired someone last August and then most recently this past February and they’re great. Could not be happier.
[00:16:29] During that time, I was working, covering all the shifts after we reopened. After the pandemic, we had lost a couple of the team members and so it was just me and my dad six days a week and that was brutal. But it was worth it to put in the time to find the right people because I feel like I have a good team, you know.
[00:16:50] Eric: That’s great. That’s awesome to hear. One thing that we obviously look at from being on the software provider side is how can software help plug these gaps where, you know, human capital is difficult. How long have you guys been with Rain? Is it four or five years?
[00:17:06] Max: It’s been 5 years, March of 2017.
[00:17:09] Eric: Okay. Great. How do you guys see just… and you can answer it even software in general. How do you guys see that helping you, especially as a small store, fill those gaps where another store might be able to just hire anybody? How do you guys see software helping fill the difficulty of getting the right human capital?
[00:17:28] Max: It’s just everything. I mean, it saves us man hours, man or woman hours, like, the things that my dad was doing when I started working here, I was like, you’re doing what? You’re spending, how many hours doing this? And it’d be like, we can just automate so much, you know, and it saved us just hundreds of hours. Even stuff just like updating our checkbook, you know, he was…
[00:17:58] Eric: manually doing that?
[00:17:59] Max: Like what are you doing? So because we can’t necessarily afford to hire five or 10 people to do a job, having software to just run the background and take care of things. It just saves us so much time because it’s just us, you know, and a couple of other people. And if it wasn’t for that, we’d have to be doing everything manually. So yeah, software is everything.
Automating Business Functions
[00:18:24] Eric: Yeah, well, that’s great to hear. I feel like if you were able to afford human capital and hiring employees and whatnot, not that’s bad, this is not against hiring people but, especially right now, when it gets very challenging to find those people it seems like a lot of people are just very used to that old model of, well, you know, if we’ve got this much work to be done, that means we need to hire this many employees rather than, you know….
[00:18:49] I feel like a smaller shop like you guys have to get scrappy. “Okay, well, we get a software that can automate this for us?” Because the software doesn’t have sick days. I mean, technically, I guess software could have some downtime but, but you know, you’re not dealing with that. You’re not dealing with the scheduling and all that. It’s there, it works, and it costs X amount per month. It’s interesting to see how many people haven’t shifted to the software for things.
[00:19:18] Max: Yeah, there was a moment when we were looking for another scheduling software where I was like, all right, I’m going to learn… I think I was talking to a parent who’s doing lessons here. And he was like, you could just program that in SQL and Microsoft Access. So I was like, really? He’s like, yeah, it’s super easy. He got into my head that I could do this. So I was like, okay, I’m going to learn how to do that. And I spent so many hours trying to figure it out. I was just like, this is dumb. Like other people have figured this out. I’m just going to pay them to provide the service. And so that’s, that’s kinda like the other side of the coin. It’s like, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to making your life easier through software. It’s like, you focus on what you’re good at in your store: building relationships and selling products and lessons. And then Rain has figured it out. Pay them and it’s done and when things break, they take care of it. It’s great.
Building Vendor Relationships
[00:20:20] Eric: Yeah. I do want to ask about vendor relationships for you guys. It’s so challenging to get product right now, being a smaller store. How are you guys creating those vendor relationships, maintaining them, getting product that maybe your volume can’t speak as much to them to, you know, take care of you. So what are those things you guys are doing there?
[00:20:41] Max: Our relationships with vendors… my dad is very old school and very like, “let’s call him up on the phone and talk and let’s, you know, press the flesh,” that kind of thing. So our relationships with vendors has always been pretty solid. You know, and just got a call from Larry Green, from OMG Music who calls and just checks in and he’s like, “Hey, you guys need anything? No? Okay. No problem. I’ll call you later.” So that’s been our mode of maintaining those relationships; just reaching out if we need something and checking in, and they check in.
[00:21:12] As far as getting stuff, I mean, it’s a small shop and we don’t really carry all that much. So we weren’t too affected, you know, we don’t really rely on the high sales volume of product. It’s mostly the lesson business that drives our revenue.
Managing Private Lessons
[00:21:29] Eric: Now I’ve talked to different stores that do it in different ways. How do you guys handle your lessons? Are you guys contracting with teachers? Are you guys doing all of that in-house? How are your private lessons structured?
[00:21:41] Max: All of our teachers, our employees
[00:21:44] Eric: Okay. Like how many teachers do you guys have?
[00:21:47] Max: 20.
[00:21:49] Eric: Okay. So you guys have a lot.
[00:21:50] Max: We do.
[00:21:52] Eric: I guess, are your teachers using the software to manage it or like a student can’t make a lesson or whatnot? How do you guys handle all of that? Is that done by, you know, you as management or are teachers logging in individually and handling that? Can students log in and do all that?
[00:22:08] Max: So with the software we use, everyone is a user and they can log in and do different things. So teachers can log in and they can check their schedule and they can mark attendance, so they can check a student off. Yeah, they were here or they didn’t show up.
[00:22:26] The arrangement we have with our teachers is we take care of, you know, marketing, billing, scheduling, all of that stuff, so that you guys can just focus on teaching and do what you are passionate about. And so if a student calls up and is like, Hey, I can’t make it, or I need to reschedule, that’s done through us. We manage the schedule and we have a part-time lesson coordinator who works here about 15 to 20 hours a week managing the schedule.
Be Flexible for Success
[00:22:58] Eric: Okay, great. So just going a little bit bigger picture on owning a music store, what’s the most crucial trait or like, you know, top two or three crucial traits for owning and running a music store? What would you say is that?
[00:23:15] Max: I think flexibility. And just being able to roll with the punches is huge.
[00:23:22] Eric: So flexibility in a way of like anything could happen today and I just have to be ready for it.
[00:23:27] Max: Pretty much. Yeah. And not let it rock your boat, not let it, you know, throw you off your game. And I think my dad, you know, he’s been doing this for so long and he is “Mr. Cool, Calm and Collective.” He has this super power where he doesn’t let things really get to him all that much, which I really admire and it took me a long time to kind of develop that on my own. You know, when I was first working here and younger and you get all worked up if something didn’t go right, or if, like, a teacher calls out sick last minute, or, you know, the toilet stops working or whatever and it’s like, you know, I could get all worked up but it already happened that I can’t change that. I just have to deal with it and move forward and stuff is always going to come your way and you just got to roll with it.
Access Anywhere, Anytime
[00:24:23] Eric: Great advice. So I know we’ve talked a little bit about software already on the call, but we would love to hear like, what was the thing about Rain that made you guys want to start using it and switch? We know there’s other software providers out there. What was it that made you guys want to use Rain and go that direction?
[00:24:41] Max: I think it was a few things. The fact that it was cloud-based was huge. We were in the process of getting a different system up and running, which was not cloud based. It was, like, based on a local server. So everything was tied on one computer. It was like, there are cloud-based systems. Why aren’t we doing this? You know.
[00:25:04] Eric: You guys were having to manage the server yourself. Okay.
[00:25:09] Max: And it was just not good. And so having a cloud-based system where, you know, if I’m working at home one day, I can log in and just start working behind the scenes. That’s amazing, from my laptop or my phone. Also the user interface was very appealing. It was very clean and the fact that it allowed us to list everything on our website, as well, was a huge bonus. So I think those were the top three.
[00:25:40] Eric: Did you have a website at the time?
[00:25:42] Max: We did have a website, but there was no e-commerce on there. It was just basically a big advertisement.
[00:25:50] Eric: Okay. Now the real question, how’s it lived up to what you were hoping it was able to do when you guys switched over to it.
[00:25:56] Max: Overall I’d say really good. I think what was clear to me after using it for a while is that the team there definitely cares about the product and is always working to make it better. Always updating things, always, you know, adding new features in beta and then, you know, getting feedback and tweaking it as people use it and responding to feedback. So that, I think it makes me feel good about using it. It makes me rest easy because I feel like I can trust you guys, you know. I mean, it was just way better than the software we were using before in terms of just the user interface, reporting.
[00:26:39] Eric: We love the feedback. We’re glad that you’re able to see that we do care about the product, that we want it to be better, that we’re continually working on it. We’ve got a lot of resources devoted to that, not just the actual developers, but a team of people that actually looks at requests and things like that. So we’re glad that you see that.
[00:26:55] Max: Definitely.
[00:26:56] Eric: This has been super helpful to hear all this. So thank you so much for taking the time to do this. Best of luck as you keep running your business, Max.
[00:27:04] Max: Thanks, Eric.
[00:27:05] Eric: Thanks.