Meet Mike Upton
The man. The myth. The legend. Mike Upton, founder and owner of Kala Brand Music Company, is definitely high on the list of Worlds Coolest Bosses. His laid back personality makes everyone feel like family, but his hard work ethic has built Kala into the booming company it is today. Check out our interview with Mike and get to know the face behind the U•Bass.
Q: First off, where are you from?
A: I was born in Mountain View, California at El Camino Hospital on December 4th, 1961. Very close to what’s now the Shoreline Amphitheater, which used to be a whole bunch of drive-in’s we used to go to as kids. And really close to Moffett Field, which used to be an old Navy base. I remember as a kid seeing B-52’s coming overhead every 30 seconds during the Vietnam War. They came directly over our house on their flight path. Just all night long, you’d hear them. That was like music to my ears.
Q: What brought you to Petaluma?
A: Well, my wife Wendy is from Petaluma. I moved to Hawaii in 1989, and we didn’t know each other but she moved there too. We moved there within three days of each other to Kailua. I got a job painting, and I was painting the condo complex where she was living. She was taking care of her brother's kids, nannying for them. So I was painting her door, and the door was open and we just started talking. I was around there for days painting and we kept talking. We ended up getting married a couple years later, and in 1994 we moved back to her hometown of Petaluma. Being from Silicon Valley, it was getting so overcrowded there that Petaluma just felt like the country with wide open spaces. I just fell in love with it, especially the downtown area. The old historic downtown buildings, the Mystic Theater had great bands playing all the time, and of course Tall Toad Music, this cool funky music store. I fit right in here.
Q: When did you first play the ukulele?
A: Oh I have a picture somewhere (shown below) of me at maybe 2 years old playing a uke I got for Christmas with my mom. My dad played them, as well as guitar and harmonica.
Q: What was the first instrument you really got into?
A: I started playing guitar at 5 years old, but the steel strings hurt my fingers. So when I was 8, I started playing clarinet and then saxophone in the school band. But I kept up with guitar and then picked up bass at 13. Bass was the one instrument where I really felt, okay this is my instrument.
Q: What’s Kala’s origin story? How did it all start?
A: I started working for the Hohner Company in 1995 in the warehouse there. They sold and distributed musical instruments. Guitars, basses, drums, harmonicas, accordions, cymbals, drumsticks, everything. I loaded containers and packed shipments and helped run the warehouse. In 1998, my daughter was 3 and I was like, I need to make more money. So they said, if you can sell, we can give you Hawaii, the Caribbean and Canada as territories to cold call and sell. So I started doing that, and immediately Hawaii was buying the product that we had. But I thought, if we can get ukuleles, we can definitely sell those. Nobody had lower priced ukuleles. There was one brand that had super inexpensive ukes that weren’t very good, and of course all of the Hawaiian made ukes were expensive with nothing in the middle. So we started working with Rudi Degaspari, who was Hohner’s guitar product manager, to develop a line of ukuleles. We introduced those in 1999 and we called the line Lanikai, which is still a popular brand now. I started that line for Hohner and developed that for the next several years, selling them in Hawaii. It just kind of took off, that’s when the uke thing really started to happen. We were the first ones to do it in a little bit of a larger way with those moderately priced instruments.
Hohner ended up changing management, and they were going to move the Santa Rosa warehouse down to Corona, California. And I wasn’t going. So I packed everything up and took care of that, I think that was June of 2005, and I started Kala in July. I started in Honolulu, rented a warehouse there and had containers going there. It took off almost immediately. By January 2006, we displayed at NAMM and got a place here in Petaluma to start selling. Hired a few sales reps, started selling here and it really boomed. But Hawaii for the first several years was the dominant part of the sales, and then the mainland eventually took over.
Q: Did you expect Kala to grow so big so quickly?
A: No, I had no idea it would do that. I just needed a job, and I thought, I know how to do this because I’ve been doing it for the past several years, and I knew customers who would buy what I had if the quality was good. It was just a no brainer to continue to do it, and do it the way I wanted to on my own. But I had no idea it was going to mushroom into this huge thing. It was just at the right time when ukulele was getting popular and we were there, close to the resurgence of it. So no, I didn't think that far ahead, because that can trip you up and you can freeze if you think about it too hard. You just gotta get it going and work hard.
Q: How do you hope to see Kala grow in the future?
A: I mean, it’s growing on its own. We’re implementing new sales strategies and aiming towards different markets. But it’s really got a life of its own. We’re putting ourselves out there into different areas, different markets and different countries. We’re marketing it well and doing our best, but I still think there’s this natural, organic growth going on. It’s hard to predict where it’s going to come from, but the US domestic market is definitely growing by far the largest, and Canada as well. But a lot of the international countries as well, I think South America is an up and coming market.
Q: What does “Kala” mean?
A: Kala is a Hawaiian word that has several meanings. If you say “Ka-lah,” that’s the sun. Kala is also a type of fish. It’s also slang for money, like cash. It’s kind of hard to describe, but it also can be a prayer of forgiveness. When different Hawaiian tribes were at war, it was part of a peace treaty called the Kala. It was like, they released each other and said, “We’re making peace.” That’s a really loose translation of what it is, but I liked the thought of forgiveness and peace.
Q: What is your favorite thing about your job?
A: I just love coming to work and seeing people having fun, seeing everyone do their thing. It’s like, wow, this is really cool. I don’t even know what everyone is doing all the time because it’s all so detailed in various aspects of the job, but I know there’s a lot of good people working here. It’s neat to see people using their gifts and talents, what they’re really good at. Say we can find out more about what someone that works here is particularly good at or is passionate about, and then use that gift. Then they’re happy and we get the best results. Sometimes it takes a while to find that, because there’s certain jobs like in the warehouse where you just need that thing done. But a lot of our production and manufacturing guys have come out of that, because they’re really good with their hands. So you slowly find that out about people, see what they develop into and how they grow. I think that’s my favorite part.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you were given when you started Kala?
A: That you can’t look too far ahead. It’s like the Proverb says, "today has enough trouble of its own, so don’t worry about tomorrow." That’s a loose translation, but to not take your eyes away from what’s going on right now. I mean, it’s good to plan and make plans and you can take some time to do that, but don’t live in that all the time. Just work hard and don’t worry about what tomorrow will bring, today has its own issues.
Q: What about the worst piece of advice given to you?
A: That I had to have this complete business plan written out with specific goals. That everything had to be mapped out. I read a book on how to start a business that was actually really depressing. It was like, “90% of businesses fail after the first 5 years,” or something like that. I was like, why am I reading this? I think you have to just be dedicated to what you want to do. My business plan was scribbled on a legal pad with no detail, but there were ideas. So yeah, you need a plan, but it doesn’t have to be the way everyone says it does. It doesn’t need to be the way you’re taught at school. It’s really just what’s in your head that you want to do. For me, I was already selling ukuleles and getting them made as quality as I could and just being excited about the product. It really comes down to if people like doing business with you, they’re going to buy. If the product is good and the price is good, it’s an easy transaction. That’s all you need: good price, good quality and good customer service. It’s very simple, at least that’s how I looked at it.
Q: If you could go back in time and talk to 2005 Mike, what advice would you give him?
A: I probably would have hired people sooner to do the things I wasn’t good at. Like marketing, I struggled through that for a long time and it wasn’t till recently when Joy Cafiero (Kala’s Marketing Director) came on that the marketing area really developed. I wish I would have hired someone to do that much sooner. Same thing in finance, I would have hired people for that sooner. I did that for a long time because I thought I had to. And it’s been so great the last 3 or 4 years now to have people who are actually good at those things to take them over. It was great to hand that off and be able to look more at the overall direction of Kala instead of worrying about marketing and finances, stuff like that.
Q: Who is your hero?
A: Sports hero, Willie Mays. Musical hero, Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin. Overall hero, Jesus. Just in terms of how he treated people, the love he had for people. Also, the people who serve in the Military. They’re real heroes.
Q: Last question, what is your favorite uke or U•Bass and why?
A: I just love the original Mahogany U•Bass with the black strings. To me, those were the magic. They just sound so great. The solid bodies are cool, but that’s not really my thing, I like the woody sound of the acoustic.