Travis Perry was just 18 or 19 years old when he got disgusted with teaching people how to play the guitar.
“I thought ‘I must be a horrible teacher’ because half of my students quit after two months,” he said. He would learn that as many as 60 percent of the people who start learning guitar drop it about the two-month mark because of the physical aspects of playing – soft fingers and muscle memory development.
That experience also produced a thought that “there has to be something to make learning easier and fun.”
Now, the Dothan resident sells the device he invented at his eight-year old daughter’s request: the ChordBuddy – and the system of learning guitar in under two months to go along with it. His company, located on the Cottondale Road in Dothan, produces and markets not just the ChordBuddy, but the YukeBuddy, the only electronic tuner that uses colors, sells entry-level Perry Guitars and a learning system. Perry estimates the business has grown into a $25 million enterprise.
Over the years, a Shark Tank appearance (and a follow up) propelled ChordBuddy into a multi-million dollar business, and promotional deals with folks such as Duck Dynasty’s Robertson family has made its mark for him.
The road to success wasn’t without some curves for Perry, though.
Out in southwest Coffee County, near Kinston, is the Perry Community, complete with the Perry Country Store and Restaurant, and the Perry farm, where Travis’ father asked him what he wanted to be as a teenager.
“When I told my daddy I wanted to be a singer, he said ‘that’ll only get you on drugs, in jail or dead.’ Well, I’ve covered two of the three,” he said, grinning ear-to-ear in his ChordBuddy office.
His love of music, though, wouldn’t be undermined. He earned a music scholarship to Enterprise State Community College where he performed with the school’s choral group, and then helped establish the Enterprise Entertainers Group that featured a smaller group of performers.
After ESCC, he was bound for Auburn University, “where all the Perrys went. We had 16 Perrys go to Auburn and 15 graduate – I was the one who didn’t.”
One of those curves landed him at then-Troy State University, Perry joined Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity, was a Phi Mu Big Brother and earned a Bachelor of Science in Finance in the Sorrell College of Business in 1985.
“My girlfriend was a Junior Miss and had a full ride to TROY. I went one quarter at Auburn but was driving to Troy every weekend. It didn’t take me long to figure out TROY was where I belonged,” he said.
By that time, he’d already had some experience in business, having operated a music store, but stock trading had an allure that proved to be irresistible.
“Ira Pyron was my finance professor, and he took a shine to me. He really took an interest in me, so much so that he let me manage one of his (stock) portfolios for a quarter. I did it all and did all the trading,” Perry said.
Pyron, a Navy veteran who had earned a masters at Harvard and a doctorate at University of Missouri at Columbia, had been a stockbroker in Memphis, Tenn. He had taught finance at Arkansas State, Western Kentucky, and East Tennessee State before landing at TROY in 1978. When he retired in 1988, he moved to Destin, where his family had vacationed as a child.
“Ira had hooked me up with A.G. Edwards in Destin for a job after graduation. He said he was going to follow me when he retired from Troy and we could work together,” Perry said. “I was all set.”
Then came another bend in the road and once again, it was his daddy who was standing in the curve.
“I was getting ready to graduate when my daddy called me and asked me what I was going to do after graduation. I told him I was going to be a stockbroker at the beach,” Perry recalled. “He told me he wanted me to come home and talk.”
After initially turning down his father’s offer to sell him the family business, The “talk” ultimately landed Perry as the owner of Perry Seafood Restaurant.
“I started thinking about it. I could delay my job with A.G. Edwards for a year, cherry-pick a buyer for the restaurant and then go on my merry way,” he said.
He called Pyron and let him know the change of plans and went into the restaurant business. The plan never worked out. Perry found he enjoyed the business, plus he was putting together a band – Silverado – with a couple of friends.
It would be the band itself that provided another curve. After performing at a talent show, a stranger approached Perry complimenting the performance, saying they ought to be playing in Nashville, not down at the beach in Florida.
As it turns out, that stranger was manager to George Jones and Conway Twitty.
“He asked when we could be in Nashville, and I asked him when he wanted to see us. He said, ‘can you be in my office tomorrow morning’ and we were in Nashville Monday morning,” Perry said. “That was on a Sunday, so we drove from the beach straight to Nashville.”
He sold the restaurant to his mother and Silverado would go on to become a sought-after opening act for performers such as Garth Brooks and the band Alabama. That lasted until about 1994, when showbusiness slowed down for the group and Perry decided to open a Music Exchange in Dothan. But this time it would be his mother who encouraged him to launch into another career: real estate.
Soon, Perry had garnered a broker’s license, opened his on real estate agency and launched a mortgage company. Then, 2007 struck with a vengeance.
“The sub-prime mortgage bubble burst, I didn’t sell a house for six months – it was dire straits,” he said.
Perry went back to the music store and started teaching guitar lessons once again.
“I mean I was teaching guitar to keep my house it was so bad,” he remembers. By 2008, Perry’s daughter asked to him to teach her to play guitar so she could play a Taylor Swift song.
“I used popsicle sticks and some rubber grommets and made that device I had first thought about when I was a kid. My daughter said, ‘Daddy you have to invent this so I can play,’” he said.
It took 24 months to bring ChordBuddy to market, after 17 prototypes and six more mold changes after those for the injection-molded plastic needed to fine-tune the ChordBuddy.
“Nobody wanted it. All the big music stores said nobody would buy it and that it wouldn’t work. I literally got to the point of just leaving a case of them and telling the stores, ‘look, if you sell any just send me some money’ and that’s how it began,” he said.
In July 2011, he got a call from “Shark Tank” inviting him to appear on their show. He had applied the year before but hadn’t heard anything back.
“The episode aired on Feb. 2, 2012, and that’s the night that changed my business career,” Perry said.
In the 18 months prior to airing, he had sold a total of 8,000 ChordBuddys. The night of Feb. 2, he received orders for 12,000. Bolstered not only by sales, but with a relationship with investor Robert Herjavec who injected $125,000, plus another $50,000 for infomercial development in exchange for a 20 percent stake in the company.
The partnership got Perry’s product into large retailers, online stores, mom-and-pop guitar stores and national chains.
“I don’t think you can teach entrepreneurship – you can teach certain skills that may make you successful, but individuals have to have the drive, the motivation to keep going,” he said. “I was a highly successful ‘entre-manure’ long before I became an entrepreneur. You’ll fail a lot before you succeed.”
“My thrill is finding out what’s over the next hill that I can’t see and what adventure lies over that hill in the next year,” Perry added.
Perry never did get to be a stockbroker.