Yes, We Can! Trash Amps Turns Soda and Beer Cans into Speakers

Adam Wegener started working on Trash Amps — a line of iPod speakers and guitar amplifiers made with upcycled soda and beer cans — while studying manufacturing engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Since 2008, he’s taken the concept from prototype to market, producing 1,500 units so far. One of Wegener’s roommates, Ron Sloat, came aboard in 2010 to handle the electronic side of the business such as designing new parts and circuit boards.

The GoPayment Blog recently chatted with Wegener about refining his production process, finding the right price point, and accepting mobile payments.

GoPayment: How did you come up with the idea for Trash Amps?

Wegener: It all started in college. I had a bunch of roommates who were all engineers living together in a house, and one of my buddies got a kit to turn an Altoids tin into a guitar amplifier. You would get all the parts in the mail and then solder them together. We were all musicians, so it was kind of a cool little project. The problem was the poor sound quality, because the tin is so small and the sound needs space to bounce around. So, we said, “Hey, what about a beverage can? That would be cool and still involve reuse, but it would give the sound more room to bounce around.”

We started making prototypes and showing it to people who were like, “Wow, I want one!” or “I wish I played the guitar so I could buy one.” Over the past two years, I’ve taken that idea and, with my background in manufacturing engineering, figured out how to make a bunch of them for an economical price and not spend hours and hours on each one. Now it’s an MP3 speaker-type product, but it definitely rocks as a little guitar amplifier, too.

Aside from your website, where are Trash Amps available?

We’ve been part of a lot of ecological and Earth Day fairs this year. I especially like going to schools, not necessarily to make sales, but just to show the kids the product. I think the most powerful thing about everything that I’ve done is when people see the product, especially kids, and they learn this concept of reuse. There are so many things out there that we just blindly throw away that we never even consider could be made into something else.

My hope is that this will change the way people think, and then maybe some people down the road will make more devices that involve reuse.

What were some of your biggest challenges?

We made some earlier versions of the product, but it really just didn’t live up to quality standards. When the product first came out, it was $60 and you could tell that it was homemade in a garage. Some people liked that, but I wanted something I could be proud of. I’ve done a lot of work over the past year figuring out, “How do you make something that’s professional, also considering your budget?” We’ve made 1,500 of these units here with what we have.

How did you get to a point where your product could be replicated on that scale?

A lot of it was just taking the time to think creatively about the product’s design. One of the big decisions was to invest in an injection mold. I designed a part and then worked with some local injection-molding companies. One of the drawbacks about this process is that it’s really expensive to get the mold. The mold costs between $5,000 and $10,000, minimum. I had to weigh the cost benefit regarding how much it cost versus the benefit we were getting from it.

How did you fund that purchase?

It was mainly friends and family. They said, “We’ll loan you this money for one year or two years, and then you can pay us a little interest.” I’m pretty fortunate in that respect.

Who are your customers?

We’ve had customers as young as 3 or 4 and as old as their 70s. But I would say our target customers are high school and college age — young, active-type people. There’s a coolness factor, plus the fact that you can interchange the cans. The price point ($50) is kind of high for some people, so my hope is that, when we bring out a new model, we can bring the price point down to, say, $39.99, which sounds like a much better number, even though it’s only $10 less.

Why do you use GoPayment?

Whenever we go to festivals, it’s great to have GoPayment with us so that we can just process payments on the spot. Consumers really think it’s cool. With what we’re doing, we have kind of developed this cool vibe, and I think GoPayment fits really well with that. The facts that you can sign with your finger and that you can email a receipt support our ideas about sustainability. We use an iPad for it, and it’s really simple, straightforward, and dependable.

When we first started selling the product, we had a kiosk at the local mall. I was using a regular credit-card terminal, and it had a huge setup fee, and then monthly fees, and a two-year contract. Then once I found out about GoPayment, which has no setup fee and no monthly fee, it was just like, “Man, this is a much better solution for someone like me.”

About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a freelance writer and blogger who specializes in writing about business and personal finance. Her articles have appeared in or on The Boston Globe, Dance Retailer News, GetCurrency.com, Mint.com, PARADE Magazine, WomenEntrepreneur.com, and other places.
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