Presented by CORTEX
Founder Series: Vijoy Rao of Magic Room
Vijoy Rao has been a musician in St. Louis for most of his life, so when he decided to leave his VP position at a communications firm to begin his own startup, he knew exactly what it was going to be. He’s the creator and CEO of Magic Room Brand, a company that creates eco-friendly music accessories.
EQ caught up with the one-man operation to talk about St. Louis startup culture, the many creative uses of duct tape, and living your own brand.
Tell me about Magic Room; what need are you trying to meet?
I’m trying to address the desperate need in the market to provide musicians with eco-friendly accessories. What we’re doing is making guitar picks and guitar straps out of a composite of bamboo and other plant fibers, while our drumsticks are made with 100% bamboo grass—a completely biodegradable material.
What’s the advantages of bamboo over present-day materials?
I read somewhere recently that everything that’s ever been made of plastic still exists in some way, shape or form. It’s probably all in a big mountain at the bottom of the ocean somewhere. It doesn’t just go away, which is terrifying.
That is terrifying! How sustainable is bamboo?
They’ll be significantly more durable than a lot of the wood that’s being used today. Bamboo, since it’s a grass and not wood, it’s very renewable and sustainable. A stalk of bamboo puts out 30% more oxygen than trees do. And it grows super fast—for a tree to mature enough to chop down and be processed, it takes 50 to 70 years to cut down and use, whereas a bamboo stalk will take a tenth of that time.
How did you come up with the name of your startup?
It comes from my first band. My buddies and I were in my parent’s basement and we had no gear—no mic stands or keyboard stands, stuff that a band needs. My parent’s storage room was full of junk so we took that—and a lot of duct tape and some ingenuity—and were able to create everything we needed.
Our first mic stand was a broken pool cue stuck in a torn lampshade and secured with duct tape. We always said that that room always had everything we needed; we called it the magic room. And that’s the whole spirit I’m trying to keep as the foundation of my business: creative necessity will breed ingenuity.
And music was the creative spark that started it all?
Music has always been more than a hobby or a passion—it’s just been something that I kind of need to do. I worked in Guitar Center as I put myself through business school and I would see these accessories come out and that were really gimmicky and didn’t solve any problems.
So when I decided to exercise my entrepreneurial ambitions, I tried to find a good overlap between something that I am knowledgeable and passionate about and something with marketable opportunities.
Have you gotten a lot of traction or interest in your startup?
There’s been a ton of interest within my network of musicians that spans all across the country.
I presented at the Tri-Tone Expo this past April and that event speaks volumes about the local music economy—not just the number of bands that are in town but the number of makers. It’s a really tight-knit group and being a vendor there really helped my exposure.
You’re set up at Cortex in the CET building. How do you like being there?
I had always read about the startup culture in St. Louis but it absolutely lived up to the hype.
The first thing I focused on was getting back to networking and it was one of the most important things – connecting with people who can give you sound advice and who can help you with what you’re doing – it was really supportive and collaborative. I love being in this space because you can really be inside that energy with other creative like-minded people.
What’s been the most challenging thing you’ve learned about your first startup?
It’s hard going solo, but I really enjoy it after coming from the corporate world. I think the challenge is learning to do it without making decisions in a vacuum.
Even though we’re pre-launch and pre-revenue, I’ve been able to put together an advisory board, with people from a variety of different disciplines who I can bounce ideas off of all the time and that allows me to get a well-rounded perspective.
Any advice you have for other entrepreneurs thinking about starting out?
Networking. I can’t speak enough about it. I know that’s cliched but if you’re aggressive about networking, it pays off in the long run. I think it allows people to end up making better decisions when they’re investing time and money into the business, there is a balance between getting advice and figuring out which advice you’re going to act on.
And you’re still an active musician?
Absolutely, I’m playing in the Antidote Agency Jam next week at the I’m also recording a solo album with the guitarist from New World Spirits. I’m married with two kids and one on the way, so it’s definitely harder as you get older to keep up with your hobbies but it’s probably more important now more than ever, especially if you’re in the business of trying to inspire creativity in people like I’m trying to do with Magic Room.
You have to live your own brand; you can’t be a poser. And I’m out here trying to do it.