University of Rock aims to make music lessons cool

By Brandon Brown

Jon Kim, CEO and founder of Los Angeles-based University of Rock, is really excited about the new boxes he is going to start using to ship materials to his customers.

“It’s going to look like a little guitar case,” Kim said, “You’ll open it up and you’ll have everything you need to rock.”

Shipping materials might seem a bit unimportant, but Kim sees every business decision he makes as a chance to enhance the University of Rock brand. Right now Kim is working on getting the miniature-sized cardboard cases ready for his new customers. He will not move on to the next step until they are in the mail. That is how Kim has built his business one step at a time.

University of Rock started in 2009 when Kim moved to Los Angeles to attend the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. He wanted to teach guitar lessons to get himself through school. He was making smoothies and going to class during the day and hiking to his lessons in the Hollywood Hills at night with his guitar.

Growing up, Kim tried taking lessons from multiple instructors at his local music shop but he said that playing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” did not really connect with him. University of Rock’s curriculum is based on teaching students music theory and correct form through songs the students want to learn.

In the winter of 2011 he decided to do University of Rock full-time and really try to make it work.

“I never raised money for this business,” Kim said, “I have never had any investors and no partners even.”

Instead of doing the normal things a start-up business would do, Kim said he just worked on a curriculum he thought would work best with his students and tried to present it in a way that was easy for them to understand.

He did not advertise University of Rock by traditional means. He would ask the parents of his students to refer him to others who might be interested, and when he got too many students to handle he started hiring other instructors under the University of Rock name.

Today Kim has 22 teachers working for him in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, San Francisco, Phoenix and Denver. Kim will find instructors in guitar programs at colleges and universities.

Kim’s teachers are all in their mid-20s. He wants to have young, hip instructors that teenagers can relate and look up to.

“I don’t hire based on talent, I hire based on personality,” Kim said, “No one cares how good you are, people care what you can do for them.”

Simon Nagel is a University of Rock instructor who has been working with Kim since 2010. He said he enjoys it and he thinks his students like it, too.

“I’ve had some if the same students from the time I started til now,” Nagel said.

With his jeans jacket, punk rock t-shirt, multiple piercings and bowler hat, Nagel has the young rock star look that Kim looks for in his instructors.

“I think my look appeals to people,” Nagel said. He said his style is very rock and roll, which helps when parents are hiring someone to teach their kids how to play rock and roll songs. Nagel plays in multiple bands in the Los Angeles area. He said he invites his students to his shows and that gets them more excited to play.

Nagel said he enjoys teaching for University of Rock, not just because he makes close to $40 a hour, but he gets to play songs by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin with his students.

Kim said he looks over resumes and then will do an interview via Skype when he needs to hire an instructor. If that goes well, he will put the new teacher through the University of Rock training.

“The training to bring on a University of Rock instructor is very rigorous,” Kim said.

He produced a series of training videos on YouTube and the rest of the training is in PDF form documents and handouts.

Kim’s training is not the only thing that University of Rock does online. Deal-of-the-day websites have been very successful for Kim.

“We quadrupled our revenue last year by using Living Social,” Kim said. “Living Social was working out so well in 2012 I didn’t feel I had to do any other type of advertising.”

Kim said that he will continue to use sites such as Living Social and Groupon to get the word out on University of Rock. Recently Kim signed a nationwide deal with Groupon for guitar lessons over Skype.

“We are open worldwide to do Skype lessons,” Kim said. “We are going to market that really hard this next year.”

Kim said that his use of the Internet has helped grow University of Rock, he also thinks his location in Southern California has been beneficial.

“Being based in L.A. has helped. It comes down to branding and perceived image,” Kim said.

He said he tries to make his company looks a big as possible without lying.

“I tell people our corporate headquarters are based out of Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world,” Kim said. “People hear that and think it is a big thing. No one knew I was in my tiny little apartment in Hollywood, dirt broke, trying to run this company.”

Kim is always concerned about the company’s image. He always is trying to make it look better and more recognizable.

He has started a clothing line based on University of Rock. He gives lectures on entrepreneurship and his fast success with University of Rock. He is now looking into making a series of YouTube videos to spread the University of Rock name.

Kim’s ability to take University of Rock in whatever direction he wants goes back to one of the very first decisions he made when forming the company and decided not to have any business partners.

“The advantage of doing it on your own is you get full control of your business,” Kim said.