Pavan Bapu has always loved various means of artistic expression. Through much of his life, he was on a mission to find the perfect way to express himself creatively, to find his own unique voice. He says this background is what led him to found Gramovox, a consumer electronics startup that reimagines vintage design with modern technology.
The idea for the first Gramovox product, the Bluetooth Gramophone, emerged in 2013 as Pavan walked through Chicago’s funky Wicker Park neighborhood. “I came across this 1920s speaker horn in an antiques store,” he remembers. “I actually purchased it, brought it home and brought it back to life. It had that curved silhouette, and the sound had a very sonorous, kind of sonic quality to it. There was something interesting about this artifact of nostalgia from the past. But it’s very heavy and very large.”
He studied the machine and considered how to modernize it for today’s music fans. “Today, people use smartphones and Bluetooth. I thought, if there’s a way to reimagine this design with modern technology, I think people would enjoy it. They’d enjoy the warmth and organic nature of the past and nostalgia. It makes your heart tinge.” He reimagined the old record player into the sleek, modern Bluetooth Gramophone, with a smaller steel horn inset into a beautiful block of walnut wood. His team designed their own Bluetooth electronics so customers could pair their smartphones to the gramophone and stream their music library through the unique speaker. “You can appreciate the vintage design made with modern technology. That became the mission and mantra of Gramovox.”
Growing up in Skokie, Illinois, Pavan knew he wanted to go to school for “something in the arts” and attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, immersing himself in art and design. “I did sculpture, painting, photography – I fell in love with each and every medium,” he says.
After college, Pavan still felt a longing creatively. He eventually got a job at FCB (Foote, Cone & Belding) in Chicago, where he worked as a creative on digital banner ads, TV spots and radio commercials for clients. “I realized I wasn’t satisfied with just the existing mediums, but in creating new mediums,” he says. “I was part of a founding team at FCB that was part of an innovation group. We created new mediums, interactive installations and products. I knew then that was the big thing, and it fell into the camp of non-traditional advertising. We had a lot of success. I kind of found my voice.”
Pavan says that while he learned a lot about marketing, product development and design elements from working in advertising, the jump to running a large, international company was huge. “I had absolutely no business getting into the business of manufacturing products on a global scale,” Pavan says. “On paper, I’m an art and English major. To say that a couple of years down the road I’d be running a consumer electronics company and shipping units worldwide – there are a lot of various disciplines required to do that.
“When I did the Bluetooth Gramophone, I drained my 401k, borrowed money from my parents, and even then it was an embarrassingly little chunk of money,” Pavan says. “I kind of went all in. I thought there was potential there and I just kind of had to hustle. I had to know what I didn’t know. That’s the most important thing, I think, when people begin a startup. You have to admit immediately what you don’t know. It’s important to release your ego.”
He developed relationships with mentors in Chicago who lent insight and set him up with financiers and supply chain management. Pavan says that Kickstarter was ultimately his best metric of success, and it was there that he launched his first product in December 2013. “It was just blind faith that it would work,” he says. Pavan ended up raising $240,000 for the Bluetooth Gramophone in just 35 days, far surpassing his goal of $100,000. “I thought, OK, there’s something there. This can continue.”
Soon after, Pavan met his co-founder, Jeff LaBelle, an event that Pavan calls serendipitous. “I knew my strengths were in being kind of the visionary, the marketing, the design, and the product end of things. I needed someone who was really good on the operations, logistics, supply chain end of things. [Jeff] had just left his company . . . I was talking with him casually once and was like, oh! You have these skills? I need these skills! And I have what you’re probably looking for in a company. That was back in January 2014, and we’ve been working together since. He’s a phenomenal partner.”
Pavan says he knew he was onto something great when he brought the first Bluetooth Gramophone prototype into a metal machine shop he’d been working with in Illinois. “They had never seen the machine all together, they had just seen the horn component,” he remembers. “I had the horn, the base, I had it synced with my phone. I didn’t say anything. I just walked in as everyone was working on their items, fabricating their materials. I placed it in the center of the room and played Etta James ‘At Last.’ Everyone was standing and kind of turned around, they all kind of stopped working. In that moment, I think they felt something special. The warmth and the character of the horn emanating within that space. I realized the emotional quotient of the product and the notion of communal bonding and how it brings people together, ironically, the way it did back in the 20s, when people gathered around the curving horn and heard songs through it.”
Pavan says this moment was particularly important, as he defines his success largely in how his work affects other people. “To get people to stop in their tracks and pay attention, maybe others would feel the same way. It’s always been about the people.” He mentions that he often takes his products on the streets or to record shops to hear what people think. “They are my ultimate validation. To hear, ‘this is an experience I’ve never felt before,’ or to enhance the quality of life for someone – that’s a great motivator.”
After the success of the Bluetooth Gramophone, Gramovox created its second product, the Floating Record, which launched in June with $1.6 million in funding on Kickstarter.
“I was interested in record players, and at the time an enthusiast,” Pavan shares. “But for me, I felt the best part of a record is the record itself and yet to experience it, you had to be at a birds-eye view position, a stance above the record, as records are traditionally horizontal. I thought a more apt multisensory experience would be if that record were to play vertically. You can both see it and hear it and truly experience the full visceral nature of vinyl.”
Pavan notes he puts every ounce of his creativity into Gramovox, which doesn’t leave much room for free time. And that’s just fine. “When I worked in advertising, I sectioned off time for personal projects. Work wasn’t reflective of what I cared about – most people do that. But for me, going into work [now] is doing stuff I love every day. Work isn’t work – work is fun. I’m doing what I love and when you do that and when you’re passionate about it, it makes a big difference.”