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Voices: Entrepreneur and engineer on what happens when your dream dies

W. David Tarver

I designed an awesome electronic music synthesizer. A work of art full of microcomputers and other advanced electronics, it made familiar sounds alongside far-out space-age sounds. Its elegant black control console oozed technological sophistication. Polished cherry wood framed its gleaming piano-like keys.

Musicians learned about my synthesizer by word of mouth, and top players in the industry called to inquire about it. I was flattered, but I was interested in having one and only one person play my fantastic creation: my musical hero, Stevie Wonder.

Then one day it happened. Stevie Wonder visited Bell Labs scientists in Murray Hill, New Jersey to check out their experimental music synthesizer. One of the scientists informed Stevie about my invention, and that very afternoon my phone rang. I was amazed to hear my idol's voice on the line.

"David, I hear you've designed a really cool synthesizer. I would love to see it. Might I come by?"

"Mr. Wonder, I would be honored if you would play my synthesizer. I've followed your career since we were both just kids, and I can sing every one of your songs."

That evening, Stevie showed up at my apartment. My synthesizer and piano and other instruments were arranged around the living room. I took Stevie by the arm and helped him to the piano bench in front of the synthesizer.

Stevie ran his hands over the keyboard and cooed, "This is cool, man. You have a really nice place here, and this synthesizer is just the bomb! The keys feel so nice. May I play it?"

"Of course, Stevie! Go ahead!"

I was beaming with joy and pride as Stevie started playing "Superwoman"—on my synthesizer! I couldn't believe my ears and eyes. Stevie finished playing that song and immediately lit into "Tuesday Heartbreak" and then "Livin' for the City." He played and I sang, then we sang together. We played song after song until the wee hours. When we were both exhausted, Stevie got up to leave. 

"David, this was great, man. You're a wonderful soul," he said. "I want you to come to Los Angeles and work with me. We'll put your synthesizer on the map, and we'll have fun, man!"

That was the best evening of my entire life.

---

The next morning, I awoke in a daze, wiped crusty sleep from my eyes, and stumbled into the former dining room I had converted to serve as my electronics laboratory. My eyes focused slowly on my music synthesizer, crude but complete, sitting on a makeshift plywood lab bench.

Gradually, I realized that no famous musicians were clamoring to play my synthesizer, and that there had been no magical evening with Stevie Wonder. The jam session with my hero was just a dream.

My music synthesizer was no dream, though. It was very real and very much in need of marketing. On that spring morning in 1978, after six years of dreaming and learning and designing and building, I had finally created the object of my dreams, but only a few family members and close friends had seen it. For years, I had been apprehensive about showing my invention to professional musicians. I wasn't sure what would happen when my dreams met reality, but I knew if I was ever going to turn my music synthesizer into a business, I had to act.

I had no contacts in the music business, so I turned to my uncle, Bill Hayden. Uncle Bill worked in a Ford factory by day, but by night he was a jazz aficionado, raconteur, and man-about-town who hung out at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. He was an amateur photographer whose photos of touring jazz artists were posted on a wall just inside the Baker's entrance. Bill's outgoing nature and photography skills allowed him to develop relationships with many jazz stars. One such star was the brilliant keyboardist Les McCann. I figured if I could get Les McCann to play my synthesizer, I would be on my way.

Uncle Bill gladly put me in touch with Les, and I stalked him by telephone at his tour hotels in New York and D.C. Les wasn't interested, though. "Man, I don't have time to be lookin' at nothin' on this trip. Check me out next time." Right.

Deflated and frustrated, I was ready for any warm-blooded musician to take a look at my synthesizer, so I packed it up and took it to the local music store near my home in Red Bank, New Jersey. There, I encountered two young keyboard players who reluctantly agreed to try out my synthesizer. When they learned that my nascent product would cost a few thousand dollars, they immediately balked.

"Wow, that's a lot," said Musician #1. "I don't know any musicians who'd be willing to pay that much for a synthesizer, computer-controlled or not. There's a lot of stuff out there cheaper than that, and there's more coming out every day. It may not be as sophisticated as this, but musicians don't care—they just want something cheap and rugged. Besides, this thing is too big. It might work in a studio, but no musician is going to drag this around."

Musician #2 jumped on the bandwagon. "This is basically an expensive low-end synthesizer. The high-end guys can get synthesizers from Yamaha or Kurzweil—they don't need something like this."

My bubble was burst. I should have been talking to musicians much earlier, before I'd invested so much time and money designing and building my synthesizer. Times had changed during the six years I spent working on it, and the music industry had moved on. Far from being the music of Stevie Wonder's mind, my synthesizer couldn't even impress two geeky guys at a local music store. I had developed a cool but obsolete product.

I was working alone with minimal funds and no music industry connections. I had good, fresh technical ideas, but better-funded developers had good ideas, too. Many had the music industry experience and ties I lacked. I had been fighting a losing battle.

That evening, I realized I had reached the bitter end of my synthesizer journey. For years, I had dreamed of starting my own electronics manufacturing business. That evening, the dream died. Failure felt like a swift kick in the gut. It took the air out of my lungs. It left me dazed. Failure sucked.

A year or so after that fantasy encounter with Stevie Wonder, I was working at my "day job" as a research and development engineer for AT&T Bell Laboratories. While working on my project there, I noted the need for a device that could accurately simulate the operation of the telephone network. It was an improved version of a device that I and my colleagues were using in the lab. I noted also that the technology in this device was very similar to my failed music synthesizer.

Just like that, I had a new business idea, but I was determined not to blow it this time. I did my research, talked to potential customers, and recruited two colleagues to help me build a prototype. Two years later, we formed the company Telecom Analysis Systems in the basement of my Little Silver, New Jersey home. We built it into a substantial player in the telecommunications test equipment industry. And twelve years later, we sold the company for $30 million. 

Had it not been for my music synthesizer failure, I would never have experienced my subsequent success. In that sense, my failure wasn't a failure at all, it was a learning experience. That is why I insist to aspiring entrepreneurs I meet these days that the only true failure is a failure to learn.

This article is part of a series where entrepreneurs tell their stories of failure. It is sponsored by TechTown Detroit. Read more articles in the series here

Adapted and condensed from the chapter "A Dream Dies" in the book "Proving Ground: A Memoir" by W. David Tarver. The full book is available at DavidTarver.com and Amazon

David Tarver currently serves as senior counselor to the provost for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Wayne State University. He also a lecturer in the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In 2014, David started the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative, which facilitates business innovation and entrepreneurship that benefits urban communities. He was the CEO and co-founder of Telecom Analysis Systems, the company that resulted from his early "failure."
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