When James Toh transformed his bedroom into a makeshift guitar pedal workshop back in his university days, little did he expect to find his product making an appearance at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show one day. Posing shoulder to shoulder with Ariel Posen, Joey Landreth, Josh Smith, and Jeff Stinco at the prestigious convention, he smiles as he realises that his years of late nights and hard work had paid off.
Morningstar Engineering is no stranger to musicians who love their gear. With its wide international reach, the fact that Morningstar is based in Singapore is unknown to many enthusiasts of their products. Co-founded by James Toh and Benjamin Chia, the company has been producing controllers for musicians all over the world, together with their product specialist Seth Chan. After years of developing their MIDI controllers, they have become the everyday companions of the musicians who play for the likes of Ellie Goulding, Pixie Lott, Jessie J, and more.
We spoke to James, who shared with us his journey from day one.
Tell us about yourself and your role at Morningstar Engineering.
I’ve got two passions - data and hardware. I’ve got a day job at a FinTech startup as a data engineer. On my weeknights and weekends, I develop the hardware and software capabilities of Morningstar Engineering.
How did Morningstar Engineering get started?
I started out building guitar pedals as a hobby in around 2010 to better understand the devices that musicians love spending so much money on. I posted my builds on a music forum and that was when I got my first interested customer - someone looking for a custom audio switcher. This stayed as a side hustle throughout my time in university - building custom guitar effects and switchers.
In 2015, I purchased a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine to explore what I could create with it. After getting comfortable with the machine, I built my first prototype of what would become the products we sell today. Throughout that journey, I never really had an end goal in mind. I was just continually tweaking, learning, and trying different ideas until I came up with a feasible product.
I showed the prototype to Ben, who showed interest in it. We registered the company in April 2016 and started building out of my bedroom. He would come by every Sunday and we would assemble and pack the product. As the business grew, my bedroom was becoming too crowded. We rented our first workshop in mid-2017 in an old industrial building. The space was only about 35 sqm in size, but that move made us feel like things at Morningstar were getting serious. We spent our weeknights there assembling our products, while weekends were spent designing the next generation of our then core product - the MC6 MIDI controller - as well as creating marketing materials.
In May 2019, we moved to a much bigger space (with better toilets and a ping pong table) and have been working out of there since.
What were some initial goals when you guys first started out?
When we started, we just wanted to build and sell something cool as a side gig that would pay some “pocket money”. The goal for the product was simple - it had to be functional, flexible, and easy to use. Customer support was and still is our number one priority too. Our initial sales target was to sell 1 unit a day (30 a month on average). It still amazes us that we have now far surpassed that, and are looking ahead at achieving even greater goals for Morningstar.
In Singapore, considering how the industry for midi controllers is pretty niche, what made you guys decide to embark on this startup?
It was purely sparked by a passion for playing music, combined with the desire to create innovative and useful equipment for the musician community. Because we began this venture on the side while still holding full-time jobs, we were able to focus on developing products without the potentially negative pressures of needing to focus on profits. And as musicians ourselves, we had a very clear idea of what we wanted in our products.
Who are the people who buy your products? Where are they from? Are they professional musicians, hobbyists, etc?
Almost all of our orders are from overseas. Coming mainly from the USA, Canada, and Europe. We have a wholesale distributor for Europe and many other dealers all around the world. Our products are being used by both professional working musicians and hobbyists alike. Guitarists, bassists, keyboardists, and DJs make up the largest user base of our products. Some customers even use our controllers to control stage lighting equipment.
How did Morningstar manage to reach an international audience and get renowned artists on board to endorse the products?
It all started with word-of-mouth among the community, which in our opinion is the purest and most reliable source customers can base their buying decision on. The hardest part was getting the first customer to make that first purchase.
A while later, we found out that Daniel Freyberg from Children of Bodom was our user in 2017 when he emailed us with regards to our product - if you watch some of their live performances, you will see the Morningstar MC6 on stage. Along the way, we’ve also welcomed users who perform with big artists like Ellie Goulding, Pixie Lott, Jessie J, and Simple Plan. Every now and then, we receive an email from someone “famous” and we’ll be like, “Hey! So and so is using our stuff! Nice.”
On NAMM 2019
In 2019, we flew to Anaheim, California for our first-ever NAMM convention. It was an exhilarating and slightly nerve-racking experience for us having never been to NAMM before, let alone as exhibitors. The response from the people who came by our booth was awesome. By then we had already built a decent user base and presence in the industry. So we had both new people and customers who were already familiar with our products visiting our booth.
NAMM 2019 is where we met Ariel Posen, Joey Landreth, and Josh Smith, who are now big users of our products. Counterparts from larger companies like Line6 and Yamaha - lead designers of some of our favourite products - also dropped by to touch base with us.
At the most recent NAMM 2020, Jeff Stinco from Simple Plan, who had heard about our products before, came by to find out if they could meet his needs. We had a nice chat and showed him what our products could do. And after the event, he emailed us, agreeing to come on board as one of our Artist Users.
What is a piece of advice that you would tell our readers who are aspiring to venture into the music technology industry in the future?
As a business, I would highly recommend focusing on customers, marketing, and sales. It is easy to hide behind engineering, re-engineering and re-designing a product in hopes that if you create a great product, customers will come. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Without any effective sales channels, all the effort spent on engineering products will just add to costs and not generate growth for the business.
How do you envision Morningstar Engineering’s role in this new world?
Through our hardware and software, we want to inspire musicians to create great music, by giving them unparalleled control over their music equipment.
Find out more about Morningstar's products on their website here.
Cover Image Credit: Morningstar Engineering