Taken from The Star :
Guitarist Nik Shazwan Nik Azam turns his love for music into a business
WHAT does it take to be a rock star? Is it the ability to sing in front of 20,000 screaming fans or is it the attention-grabbing outfits worn by the likes of Lady Gaga, KISS or Marilyn Manson?
Some say to be a rock star who is adored by millions one needs to have a unique, original and fresh sound.
Tools also help. While not absolutely necessary, a good musician is helped by good equipment. And, to generate the right sound, you need the right amplifier.
Tucked away in the heart of Bandar Sri Damansara, above a motorcycle workshop, is Ceriatone Amplification Sdn Bhd.
If you are not a musician you might not have heard of them before, but this Malaysian company supplies amplifiers (hand-wired tube guitar amplifiers) globally.
“We have customers in 72 different countries across six continents,” says Nik Shazwan Nik Azam, Ceriatone Amplification’s managing director, adding that their biggest market is the United States.
Nik Shazwan started building amps because he found it difficult to find vintage vacuum tube guitar amps in Malaysia.
The electrical engineer started out by searching for items like vacuum tubes and circuit boards to fix his own vintage vacuum tube amp.
He then started selling amps on the online auction and shopping website eBay. That was 12 years ago. Today, Ceriatone Amplification has 18 employees and is recognised globally. They produce an average of 100 amps a month.
Vacuum tube amps are widely regarded as some of the best amps available because of their sound quality and are favoured by music producers and serious musicians.
Nik Shazwan is very vocal about how difficult it is starting a niche business in Malaysia. Asked about starting his company, he immediately explains his frustrations with the banks and government agencies.
“When we were incorporated in 2006, we approached several different banks for a loan and all of them turned us away.
“They did not understand what we were doing and said they would only give us a loan if the business was already turning a profit,” said Nik Shazwan, who manages Ceriatone’s day-to-day operations with his wife, Azlin.
Failing to secure financing from banks, Nik Shazwan took a RM150,000 loan from his father and cleaned out his own savings to kick-start operations.
Nik Shawan is also unhappy about the roadblocks thrown up by banks when it comes to credit card payment methods.
“We have customers from overseas and we run an e-commerce business. The banks should make it easier for merchants such as Ceriatone to receive payments from abroad, but they don’t, hence we chose to work with PayPal, a global e-commerce business allowing payments and money transfers to be made through the Internet.” he said.
Paypal allows anyone to pay in any way they prefer, including through credit cards, bank accounts, or PayPal itself, without sharing financial information.
“I play the guitar as a hobby and I am familiar with all the forums and portals that are popular.
“That’s where we started talking about Ceriatone amps and if you do a good job, people will also talk about it.
“As they say, word-of-mouth marketing is the best form of marketing,” Nik Shazwan explained.
And he is spot on.
A check on popular music/guitar forum TDPRI reveales many satisfied Ceriatone Amplification customers from across the world.
A customer from Idaho, US wrote: “I was sent to Malaysia for three weeks on a business trip and took the opportunity to go check out Ceriatone while I was there.
“Nik was amazingly hospitable and had me to his facility a couple times.
“He shared a ton of information on how to put amps together and let me observe his staff as they worked.”
Another satisfied customer from Okinawa, Japan who also posted in the same thread said: “Glad you had a positive experience! I’ve bought three amps from Nik and the amps and his services are second to none.”
Nik Shazwan said 99% of his business comes from other countries.
“If we make 100 amps a month, only one is sold in Malaysia. The rest are shipped out,” he explained.
Nik Shazwan believes that this is because Malaysians think that local companies are unable to produce quality products and would rather pay a premium for something from abroad.
Ceriatone is able to remain competitive on the global front due to its prices. The company has 40 different amp models, with prices ranging from RM1,900 to RM6,000.
This makes the amps cheaper than those made by famous names like Marshall and Fender, which can start from about US$1,000. Ceriatone’s main customers are music producers and serious musicians.
Even though the brand doesn’t have endorsement deals, which helps to keep his product prices low, Nik Shazwan said he has plenty of famous clients that he can’t name on record due to branding conflicts.
The company obtains its components from South Korea, the US and China, but builds everything locally. Nik Shazwan, a Kelantanese, believes in nurturing young local talent and most of his employees are from his home state.
“We have good talent in Malaysia. If we can unlock their potential, Malaysians are as good as anyone out there. Ceriatone is a perfect example that a homegrown Malaysian company can achieve global success,” said Nik Shazwan.
So what’s next for Ceriatone Amplification?
The company is going to focus on international markets and continue to produce quality amps at an affordable price. Demand for its products is growing in Japan and South Korea and the company needs to cater to this.
In an age where it is not uncommon Malaysian companies are waiting for handouts and government contracts, Ceriatone is definitely a breath of fresh air.
The company takes pride in the fact that they started out on their own without external support (except from family members) and become a global player.
Start-ups could do a lot worse than emulate Ceriatone Amplification’s’ dedication and perseverance to carry on even without external support and aim to be global frontliner.