Spotlight on Viva Tubes
Dave Mell, the founder of Viva Tubes, has been selling online for over nine years. Dave sells vacuum tubes—the secret sauce behind retro guitar and amp sounds—and his path to selling started long before he listed his first item on eBay.
In fact, Dave started his business life at thirteen years old, selling soda at his dad’s construction site. He’d make rounds on hot days to offer soft drinks to the workers as they ribbed him for not selling beer instead. This early experience in connecting with customers, building an inventory, and managing money taught him the fundamentals of commerce. More importantly, it gave him spending money for his real love—making music.
As a kid, Dave Mell sold soda on construction sites. Today, he's a leading supplier of vintage vacuum tubes for professional musicians.
When Dave wasn’t working or in school, he spent his time learning to play guitar and studying the golden age of rock—along with the gear that its musicians relied on for their sounds.
An eBay Musical Equipment Business
By the time he was in college, Dave was regularly visiting flea markets, auctions, and second-hand shops to find vintage musical equipment. He acquired a large variety of interesting musical gear—everything from guitars to harmonicas—and soon realized that it was only natural to list some of his acquisitions on eBay for sale to music enthusiasts across the country.
Dave eventually became successful enough as an eBay seller to decide—once he’d finished college—to sell on eBay full-time. He rented out a small warehouse and office and began to source and list items more aggressively. Success followed, with sales increasing steadily enough that he soon had to hire additional employees to help with fulfillment.
Though he was thrilled to be able to support himself and others with his business, Dave quickly came to realize that he’d need to specialize to continue to grow. It was the purchase of a bulk lot of vacuum tubes that decided the direction this growth would take.
Dave had purchased the lot without knowing much about vacuum tubes beyond the fact that retro gear enthusiasts loved them—but he managed to find enough details online to be able to list them for sale.
Vacuum Tubes Exceed Expectations
To his surprise, Dave's vintage tubes sold like hotcakes, with revenue far exceeding any of his other products. He realized then that it was time to take closer look at the history, uses, and many families of vacuum tubes as a possible business opportunity.
Dave soon learned that after years of obsolescence, vacuum tubes—especially vintage tubes—had become popular again in the 1990s, favored by artists that loved their unique, warm sound. Vintage tubes, as it turned out, were better-made than contemporary tubes, and during the golden age of rock and roll factories across the USA and Europe had manufactured them by the millions every year.
Changes in labor laws ultimately marked these vintage tubes as too dangerous to manufacture, so in time, production shifted to countries like Russia and China that had more relaxed labor laws—but quality control on these new production tubes wasn't always ideal, leading enthusiasts to favor the more reliable sound of vintage tubes. This, Dave learned, was why they had been such a hit.
For Dave, all of this interest implied a swath of unmet market demand.
Launching and Growing Viva Tubes
With this knowledge in hand, Dave began to work hard to source and list more vintage tubes—as many as he could get his hands on. After monitoring the first few rounds of sales, he knew it was finally time to specialize. In 2012, Dave launched Viva Tubes and began to cater directly to vacuum tube enthusiasts around the world.
Things went very well, but there were also obvious challenges—first and foremost was figuring out how to continue to source high-quality tubes at a reliable rate, given that the most desirable tubes hadn’t been produced in decades. Many of the inventories still on the market had already been picked over for years, so Dave quickly decided that it was a necessary compromise to carry new production tubes as well.
By diversifying his offerings, Dave ensured that his business wasn’t entirely reliant on a dwindling resource. This decision also increased choice and generated natural pricing tiers. As it turns out, his customers became fans of both and began making comparisons—trying out old and new brands together, comparing their quality and effects, then returning to Viva Tubes for more purchases to experiment with.
Dave’s second challenge required more work to overcome. Even when he could find vintage tubes to sell, identifying and pricing them decades after they were produced proved to be a dicey task. Luckily, Dave quickly found Terapeak and says that he’s been able to rely heavily on Terapeak’s historical data and images—knowledge inadvertently shared by other sellers—to help him to describe and list his items.
There isn’t a manual that details the price or make and model of Vacuum tubes. You need to get creative and research sales. Being able to look back a year on Terapeak and see if there are other matching products is incredibly helpful in determining the market value of what I’ve sourced.”
By using Terapeak, Dave has been able to ensure that he doesn’t underprice his inventory or misidentify a tube. He uses markings on tubes and their boxes to identify similar listings that have sold on eBay in the past, and to then describe and price his own inventory accordingly. Terapeak’s Product Research tool has served Dave well in this capacity, and he now has over 50 thousand tubes listed either on eBay or on his e-commerce website—many of them rare or vintage models made long before he was born.
Dave’s final big challenge has been in catering successfully to such a specialized clientele. To differentiate Viva Tubes from its competitors, Dave and his team began to use digital tube testers to test their sale inventory for shorts, leaks, gas, and noise. This enables them to offer new production tubes at quality levels that the competition can't match. They’ve also worked hard to provide as much make, model, and history detail as they can for each product—so that shoppers know everything about their purchase before it arrives in the mail.
Dave says that this extra investment in the customer experience has paid off, setting Viva Tubes apart from its competition and giving buyers peace of mind about shopping with them.
In vintage and resale markets the best way to set yourself apart is by offering something unique to the customer. Some of my customers know more about tubes that even I do. I need to make sure I give them the best technical specs I can so that they trust the product.”
Viva Tubes and the Future
Today, Dave and his team are looking toward a bright future. In 2015, Dave launched Vivatubes.com and began selling on a music-specific marketplace called Reverb.com. By selling on three platforms at once, Viva Tubes has been able to reach new audiences and cultivate new and productive relationships with music industry leaders.
In addition to build relationships with enthusiasts online, Dave’s team has opened the first physical tubes store in the world. Their warehouse store is located in Easthampton, Massachusetts—home to a vibrant music scene.
There, customers have access to all of the Viva Tubes products available online as well as two in-house amp experts to help them install tubes and service their amps. Dave hopes the store will be more than just a retail space, instead becoming a community hub where staff, musicians, and experts can improvise, experiment, and learn together.
Looking forward, Dave is excited to continue serving the community that has made his business a success. Whether online or in-person, his commitment to supporting artists will take him far.
To find out more about Viva Tubes visit:
Viva Tubes Website: http://www.vivatubes.com/
eBay Store: http://stores.ebay.ca/VIVA-TUBES-NOS-Vintage-Vacuum-Tubes
If you live in Easthampton and would like to visit in person, Viva Tubes is located at 142 Pleasant Street, Suite 402 Easthampton, Massachusetts, 01027.