Power chords and product reviews: A day in the life of Fender’s head of digital

Kaplan: Fender mender
Kaplan: Fender mender

As far as guitar brands go, few are as iconic as Fender. The name alone conjures bellbottomed images of Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, George Harrison and Buddy Holly. This rich legacy (comprising mostly old — or dead — dudes) is also part of the brand’s problem: Nine out of 10 beginners who pick up an axe today will abandon the instrument within three months, according to Ethan Kaplan, chief product officer and gm of Fender Digital.

“The only way to address that abandonment rate is to be part of the journey,” he said. “Looking at the full cycle, we have to make products and services that amplify their abilities and create and environment for learning.”

Toward that end, Kaplan has built a team from scratch — from zero to 80 employees over the past 18 months — to create a suite of digital products to guide a player from novice plinking to Stevie Ray Vaughan-levels of virtuosity. Kaplan’s job is to assist the player along this journey.

In August his team launched the the Tune app for iOS. What set the app apart from the army of other digital tuners already available for download was how it catered to the beginner (without alienating more seasoned players). It offered, for example, gear hacks and advice on tone and strumming. Last week, Fender brought the Tune to Android devices. Kaplan is working on a suite of other digital products with the learning experience in mind.

“To build a digital product well, it has to be in the DNA of what you do, engrained in the product,” said Kaplan. “Everything we’ve launched is the first time we’ve done it.”

Here, lightly edited for length, is a typical day in the life of Fender’s digital product head:

5:40 a.m.: Get to the gym which isn’t open yet, so chill in the car and catch up on emails. The coach arrives at 5:45am so go in and warm up on the rower for 10 minutes.

6:00 a.m.: Crossfit class. Between this and distance running, it keeps me away from computers, gives me a great circle of friends and keeps me healthy and balanced.

7:10 a.m.: Arrive home and have 30 minutes to get the kids and myself ready to go. With my daughter settled with a book, iPad and breakfast I quickly get ready. It’s easy since I only wear one type of t-shirt, my go-to hoodie and one type of jeans. No decisions!

7:50 a.m.: School drop off. My daughter is in pre-school and my son in second grade, but go to the same private school. It makes drop off easier. On the way back to the car I order my Starbucks order (Iced tea and breakfast sandwich)

8:00 a.m.: Starbucks pick up and the long drive to work. By distance it isn’t long (19 miles) but it usually takes up to an hour. I listen to audio books for the most part, and the car’s auto-pilot makes the drive a bit easier.

In tune: Fender's app
In tune: Fender’s app

9:30 a.m.: Everyone has shown up for Fender Digital Product review. We always start by looking at performance numbers: App downloads, ratings, traffic, conversion metrics, etc. We also often look at financials. I believe in a transparent work environment and like everyone to know where we stand. Today we’re celebrating the launch of our new Fender Tune for Android app, which had a great first week that also had halo effect on our iOS tuner. We’re also going over where we are in our shooting schedule for a video-focused product launch later this year.

10:30 a.m.: Mondays are typically light meeting wise, so I use the time to get ahead on email. I also go through all our product analytics to see if there are any trends to dig into. From product review I had some notes for the team on better ways to present some information, so I met with the team leads to discuss. Video production has sent some audition footage for instructors, so I watch those and weigh in.

12:00 p.m.: Monday I have no lunch meetings so typically get a salad bowl from SweetGreen downstairs. Tofu, salmon, arugula and kale. I’m trying to scale back on caffeine but it isn’t working, so I’ll usually go across the street and refill my Starbucks iced tea. Catching up on news from Techmeme.

1:00 p.m.: I try to walk around the building a few times a day. My team is all of the first floor and half of the second, but I’m the only executive on the first. I have a standing desk, and for the most part won’t sit as a matter of course all day. I check in with engineers, product, design, content (if they aren’t in the studio) as well as the exec team, PR, marketing and HR. We have guitars everywhere so I tend to pick one up wherever I’m at and noodle. Usually an REM song just out of habit.

1:30 p.m.: I have a meeting in what we call the Bungalow next door to our building (where our product teams work) to discuss the recent launch of our new flagship electrics line, American Professional, and how we can blend aspects of Fender both product and digital and continue to keep our 70 year heritage cohesive and alive across both platforms.

2:00 p.m.: Back at my desk, going over my schedule for the week with my assistant Judy. Judy is also the bassist in our Fender jam band. We (naturally) specialize in REM covers, so our name (naturally) is E.I.C. (Earnest Indie Covers). We have rehearsal Tuesday in prep for Band Jam Thursday. Eight bands are playing, including mine, our CMO’s and our CEO’s heavy metal one.

3:00 p.m.: I check Techmeme again, as well as peruse through Hackernews. I used to be more involved on engineering, but not as much anymore. I feel a bit out of step and resolved to do more programming on my own time this year. I like to keep pace with what’s going on however.

5:00 p.m.: Find myself upstairs in the corner with the mobile engineers and as usual we get to playing guitars and as usual lapse into mid-nineties alternative nostalgia. We are old hipsters at the core.

5:15 p.m.: Lapsing into a coma, so off to Starbucks with some people. I have gone to Starbucks with the same two people since we were at Live Nation four years ago. Consistency matters! One of the guys who joins me runs our e-commerce and we had a quick touch base about new additions, colors and the remainder of the roll out for 2017.  Fender Mod Shop is an immersive digital studio experience providing consumers with the ability to design their dream guitar (Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision Bass or Jazz Bass) by choosing from a wide variety of customizable options.

6:15 p.m.: Start the long, long drive home.

7:00 p.m.: Passing by Van Nuys airport. I got my license three years ago, and am in a Flight Club there where I can rent pretty economically one of five planes. I’ll sometimes book the plane at around 6:30 p.m. and stop there on the way home, take the plane up around the San Fernando Valley for a half hour, then continue home. There are worse ways to spend about 30-40 bucks.

7:15 p.m.: Arrive home. On a normal evening, both kids might have been bathed already and my son doing his homework, or bath is in progress. Tonight, my wife isn’t yet back so I put my daughter to bed myself as our help leaves. She’s very independent so unlike my son I don’t have to read her stories, she just wants to go to sleep.

7:30 p.m.: Catch up on some email. I have a policy though that I don’t send email before 7 a.m., after 7 p.m. or on weekends. Any emails I need to send are put into drafts and I’ll send them tomorrow. I also try to not be on Slack after 7.

9:15 p.m.: Check the gym schedule to see what’s on the menu for tomorrow AM. I add shin-guards to the pile of gym clothes since rope climbs are on the workout of the day.

10:00 p.m.: I can’t keep my eyes open so I’m off to bed. I get up about four hours earlier than my wife, so she usually stays up later.

11:00 p.m.: One of the kids had a bad dream. Now back to sleep.


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