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During the day, Dr. Mark Polczynski is the technology consultant to the vice president of engineering at Eaton Corporation.
But on evenings and weekends, he's an entrepreneur.
Polczynski's two-person business, M and E Irish Flutes,
is not a huge money maker. "My take out of this is very soft," he said. But the time he has spent developing and running a global e-commerce micro-business has taught Polczynski a great deal about the importance of keeping one's customers satisfied.
"Hard core Irish musicians are fanatical," Polczynski said. Serious Irish flute players will search high and low for just the right instrument with just the right sound. And the handful of traditional Irish flute manufacturers who know how to make instruments that sound "just right" have a hard time keeping up with the demand. "They work to live, they don't live to work," Polczynski explained. "They live until they run out of money, and then they make some more flutes."
Because of the difficulty in procuring an instrument, well-made Irish flutes can cost anywhere from $350 to several thousand dollars. But this figure greatly exceeds the cost of the materials. It is possible to buy an imitation Irish flute, manufactured by women in Pakistan, for around $100. Non-experts would have a hard time telling the difference between an imitation Irish flute that was hand-made in Pakistan and a genuine Irish flute that was manufactured by a traditional Irish craftsman. After all, Polcynski said, "This is just a little tube with no keys."
The difference, Polczynski said, has to do with how the instrument sounds. After a piece of wood has been hollowed out, and the holes have been drilled, a traditional craftsman must spend hours tweaking the flute so that it sounds just right. But Polczynski discovered that it is not necessary for the traditional craftsman to do all of the work of buying the materials and hollowing out the tube in the first place. "There is a company in Pakistan that sells lots of traditional instruments, including Irish flutes and drums," Polczynski said. "They would wholesale traditional finished Irish flutes for less that the cost of materials." But, although the Pakistani flutes were considerably cheaper, they did not sound like traditional Irish flutes.
When a Pakistani entrepreneur contacted Polczynski about selling his flutes on Polczynski's Web site, Polczynski had an idea. The Pakistanis could do the rough work of creating the flutes, and Polczynksi's colleague could finish them. The Pakistanis would do two-thirds of the work associated with creating the flute and create a product that would retail for about $100. Then, Polczynski's colleague would take the unfinished flute and tweak it until it sounded like a traditional Irish instrument. They would use their Web site to sell the finished product to traditional Irish musicians for around $350.
"The entrepreneurial engineer of the 21st century has to change his perspective," Polczynski said. In the modern era, "You can get just about anything made at a very reasonable price, out of excellent materials. Your job is telling [the manufacturers] what you want. Two-thirds of the effort in time and materials is done by Pakistanis. Michael does one-third of the work. But two-thirds of the value is added in Ireland.
The flute that comes from Pakistan could be a playable flute, but nobody would buy it. Local interest groups expect it to play a certain way. Pakistanis, not being tuned into that environment, can't reproduce the traditional Irish flute.Flute lessons for aerospace engineers
Trying to get traditional Irish flute players to accept flutes partially made in Pakistan has given Polczynski insight into the mindset of another extremely risk-averse community: hydraulics engineers working in aerospace. "That's what my day job is all about," Polczynski said. "Can we develop the technology? Can we get conservative and entrenched customers to accept this technology?
"Aerospace hydraulics customers are very entrenched, and it's very difficult to get them accept new technology. But I believe that the fundamental principles of entrepreneurship apply to both situations. If engineers who work for big companies got involved with small entrepreneurial issues, suddenly the scale is small enough that you can get your head around these issues. You discover the rules of the game. You see the decisions that have to be made. And it's safe."
In his role as technology consultant at multi-billion-dollar Eaton Corporation, Polczynski does not have the freedom to experiment with sales, marketing and public relations. But in his role as "the technology guy" for M and E Irish Flutes, Polczynski has to pay attention to what customers want, and how they are responding to his product. "In this little tiny business, I'm doing global supply chain management!" Polczynski exclaimed. "I'm actually doing it! It's not a hypothetical discussion any more."
Polczynski and the other members of his band, West of Ennis,
will be demonstrating their traditional Irish instruments at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 22 at the Crystal Garden Stage at Milwaukee's Irish Fest.
Teresa Esser is a contributing columnist for the Wisconsin Technology Network and author of the book, The Venture Café.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.