Russell Fry epitomizes the idea that inspiration can be found in unlikely places. He’s a rare combination of business savvy and creative, which is why his unique speakers can be found in places like the Gansevoort Hotel and in the hands of people like Shaq & Bruno Mars. Curious Provisions boomboxes turn heads not only because they are handcrafted using rare vintage suitcases, but also because they sound dope. We spent a day in Russell’s colorful Santa Monica showroom and gained a massive amount of respect for him as he has navigated career changes, started multiple businesses, and turned his passion for music into a one-of-a-kind, culture defining product.
Stay Curious: This is an audio interview, but we transcribed it below. When turning sound to words, we do what we can to make it readable and authentic. Sometimes the two mediums may not always line up, but we figured you’d rather it make sense without all the “ums” and “likes” – Enjoy.
Boye: Alright guys, I got Russell Fry here from Curious Provisions. What’s up man?
Russell: What’s up bro? Good to be here.
Boye: I’m stoked to catch up.
Russell: Yeah, it’s been awhile.
Boye: It’s been a while. So, at Curious Provisions you make these amazing speakers. I think they’re so cool. Can you tell us a little about that and what you’re up to?
Russell: Curious Provisions has been running for over four years. We turn vintage, pre 60’s luggage into one-of-a-kind, high fidelity, portable boomboxes. We have smaller hat cases from the 60’s that range anywhere from $400 – $600 and we have larger cases, 21” and up, which also have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc. They’ve gone through several iterations now, but it’s our high-end, flagship product. Those go for a little over $1K up to $2,500 per product, but they’re all unique. We try to differentiate every product. It has been a lot of fun making and running the business.
Boye: Sick! I know this isn’t the only thing you do, but what gravitated you towards making speakers out of luggage and how is it doing as a business?
Russell: I’ve worn many different hats. I didn’t have an audio background to start off. It was just an idea that came to fruition. I used to live in New York and I worked on Wall Street. I thought that was what I wanted to do. It was purely paper chasing. Then 2008 happened.
Boye: What did you do on Wall Street?
Russell: I worked for Jim Cramer at thestreet.com, which is a stock jockey Website. I had some background with exchange-traded funds, and thestreet.com wanted help changing their platform from a stock jockey to implement some ETFs. I was there for a couple years and all of a sudden 2008 happened. I had to figure out what to do. It was definitely a big pivot in my life. Thankfully, I had a lot of really good friends around me, and everyone was like, “Dude, don’t take another job. You know you want to start a company.” After that, I jumped around to a few different start-ups. I actually started shooting commercials for Home Depot in North Carolina.
Boye: That’s crazy.
Russell: So, I started flying out to North Carolina frequently. While I was out there, I happened to meet a bunch of guys from Atlanta. We worked at this warehouse that was like The Matrix of inventory. It had anything you wanted. I could be like, ‘Load up a B-52!’ And boom, it’s there! The set is kind of where the idea came to fruition. We started thinking, ‘Hey, what if we did this with this? What if we made a boombox with a suitcase?’
Russell: I was living in Manhattan and no fucking way could I get a warehouse where I could build inventory, build products, and be loud. So, we partnered up. None of us had an electronic background or any experience, but we started Frankensteining some products together. I don’t even know how the first few worked, frankly, but they did. We made some products, put them out there, and then people start asking, “Cool, how much is that?” I say, “$600” Ka-ching! We got a business! It went from one product to ten products to twenty products. I would bring a bunch of inventory from Atlanta out to Manhattan. I lived in SoHo and I’d walk around in the daytime trying not be the obnoxious, egregious dude playing music out loud. It’s such a fine line to walk because either you’re the asshole playing music out loud or its like, ‘Oh, that’s dope.’ So, I would walk around in SoHo playing Tribe Called Quest. Everyone in New York bops their head to that.
Boye: With the speakers?
Russell: Yep. I love music. I love hip hop. I felt it. So, yeah, I’d just walk around SoHo. One day this guy ran up on me and he’s looking fly as hell. He’s got a dope suit, and two girls on his arm. He goes, “Hey, I like that. How much? I’ll give you a $1,000 and my passport if you let me use that for the day.”
Boye: Woah! His passport?
Russell: Yeah, he wanted to borrow it. I’d take his passport and when he was done we’d exchange. But, I was like, ‘No, no, no. I want to go where you’re going. Keep your money, keep your passport. Where are we going?’ So he’s like, “Alright come on, we’ll go to my rooftop.” Next thing you know, we’re all having a good time, we’re playing music. He’s like, yeah man I work at the Gansevoort Hotel. And I’m like, ‘Cool man. You know, these would be great there.’ He says, “Yeah, they would. You know what, I’ll be in touch.” The next day he copies me on an email to the owner of Gansevoort. He’s like, “Hey, really liked meeting you. Can you come to the Gansevoort tomorrow. I’d really like you to pitch your product to the owner.” I’m like ‘Tomorrow?’ And he’s like, “Dude, make a deck.” (laughter)
Russell: I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ We had just started up. We were just kind of crawl walking through the process. So, he prepped me on everything. It was like: here’s the music he likes, here’s where to stand, here’s how to talk, here’s what we’re gonna do.
Boye: In 24 hours?
Russell: Yeah. So, I showed up prepared to go to this room to play music for the owner. Instead he’s like, “You know what, are you guys hungry? I’m starving.” We go to his restaurant and before we exchange any subtleties, we sit down and the waiter comes up to me and is like, “Oh man, that’s dope!” Because I had one of the products with me. The waiter did not know that was the owner.
Boye: You’re in the restaurant at the Gansevoort?
Russell: At the Gansevoort. It was a total tangent.
Boye: And the guy you met originally worked at the Gansevoort?
Russell: He’s the GM.
Russell: So, we hadn’t even really said anything to each other, and the waiter is like, “Man, that is dope!” I thank him, and he goes on for another minute asking me questions. The owner is just sitting there, watching and observing. I could see him out of my peripheral. The waiter leaves and the owner says “Ok, tell me why I want this.” I give him my spiel, a quick two-minute run differentiation, buzzwords, ‘How do you how do you create a memorable experience in hotel? Everyone’s got the same shit everywhere. These are one-of-a-kind, and no one has ever played with this.’ He doesn’t even see the numbers or anything and he goes, “Ok, we’ll do it.”
Boye: That’s amazing.[vc_video link=”https://vimeo.com/371528467″]
Russell: The GM gives me those wide eyes. I’m like, alright, this is happening.
Boye: I feel like it was that waiter!
Russell: Exactly! I should have gone back and thanked him, but I was too high on an adrenaline rush because it was my first success for the business. And this is what really turned it into a business because it gave us a large P.O. that allowed us to get some cash flow to explore some things. It was also great product placement with affluent individuals because it’s kind of a posh hotel.
Boye: Some lessons I’ve learned from your story: 1. You could have easily taken the $1,000 from homie and called it a day, but you thought on your feet and saw the opportunity to create that relationship which led to the beginning of the business. 2. It’s priceless when someone else advocates for your product and you can see their passion. I was even wondering why the owner asked you to pitch. He saw it moments before in the waiter.
Boye: It’s because it’s cool and it touches people. It’s obvious.
Russell: Yeah. That’s how it flourished. That’s how it started. From ideation to not knowing what to do with this, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this opportunity comes along.
Boye: Fast forward to today, how’s inventory? Where have you been and what do you think about everything?
Russell: It’s been an interesting journey. After that happened I thought, ‘Okay, the sky’s the limit. Now we’re going to do hundreds of thousands of units!’ But, these are all handmade products. At the time, I had business partners and we all had different ideas. One idea was to take this to China and mass it. One was to make the highest quality, most expensive product possible. The ideas were all over the place. Eventually, I took over full control. It was a good separation that we agreed on. I bought out my partners and ran with the business. Then, Hurricane Sandy happened. I was living in New York. I had a gang of homies who were all like, “Dude, let’s go out to LA. Let’s get a mansion in LA!” It turned into 13 friends that wanted to get a spot, which then dwindled down to 4 people. I came out here and opened up an office in Santa Monica.
Russell: Luckily, I found a spot where I can do all this. I can make loud noises. I can build stuff. I wanted to be by the beach. I was really shooting for the moon, thinking it’s got to be huge, huge, huge. Everyone who would ask about the business was like, “Are you gonna scale? How much investment do you need? You need X,Y,Z.” We did a few projects with Bruno Mars, Kascade, Shaq and some other entertainers. It got me thinking so big. Everyone kept telling me, “Scale, scale, scale.” What I learned was that wasn’t the right move. I started to understand that what I liked about this business is that it allows me to create. It allows me to build things that I like. I stopped thinking so much about needing to scale and I started looking at it from a creative standpoint. I started thinking about things I liked to make. I thought I’d make the products that I liked, I would put them out there, and I would do it in batches. So, that’s what started happening with business. Now, we build a batch of products every quarter. I’ll then try to improve the products with newer tech. We have Wi-Fi in all the bigger products now.
Boye: That’s great. Can you talk to your speaker?
Russell: You cannot talk to the speaker yet.
Boye: Is that something you want to do in the future?
Russell: I do. I want to be able to do a ton of things with it. The first thing I really wanted to do was put Wi-Fi in there. I could nerd out on that because it’s not easy. I didn’t want to have to use an external app. If you were listening to your playlist on Spotify, I didn’t want you to have to open up my app and connect there, and then go back to Spotify. I wanted to keep it all inside the app. We’ve gone through so many trials and errors trying to get it to work, and by the time we got to work it was like, “Ahhh!” It was this huge epiphany.
Russell: I wanted it to be Wi-Fi compatible all over your crib. That’s where we’ve been improving the tech, and that’s what I like to do. It’s a challenge. We’re going to continue improving the tech on the product and see where it goes.
Boye: Cool. When you were talking about scale I thought I can definitely see that path. But, I also see a path where scale just means how you think about it. In this day and age, all you really need is the right partner. There’s something about what you’ve created that’s this serendipitous connection that makes the product very cultural. It’s something I know that someone like Gucci, Hermes, or even Supreme would drool all over. You think about people like Kanye and these high-end fashion designers. Have you ever thought about going that route instead of trying to produce a lot of product?
Russell: A limited release, joint venture kind of thing.
Russell: That’s where it’s at right now. I think if the stars were to line up…maybe I got to go back to Soho and walk the streets! (laughter)
Russell: I think you’re definitely spot on. I think that’s that’s the exact right move for Curious Provisions.
Boye: And all these high end companies are investing heavily into streetwear and sneaker culture. Louis Vuitton bought Supreme for $500 million. Gucci partnering with Dapper Dan. Moves like that. Anyway, one thing that you said about the process of buying out your existing Founders and discovering that not everyone was in the same place stuck out to me. I think people don’t often think about how much it takes to start a business. What was the process like for you when you were transitioning from having a ton of people stoked on a direction and then pivoting to take control?
Russell: It was really difficult. I think we all knew and, thankfully, we had the smoothest breakup possible. We’re all still homies. But, it would take us an hour to send out a newsletter because we couldn’t agree on certain words. That part was an eye opener. All of our products are different, so if we had three different opinions on the creative direction it’s would be so tough to move the needle. It was a really good learning experience that I’ve applied to my other businesses. Frankly, I don’t like to work with other people because it allows me to execute really quickly instead of constantly re-evaluating things and never actually executing.
Boye: Because everyone needs to be heard.
“When I have an idea, I try to execute it as fast as possible.”
Russell: Yeah. I think that’s the biggest take away from that experience. When I have an idea I try to execute it as fast as possible. Then I can learn what’s not working, what someone didn’t like, or what I can improve upon versus trying to perfect something and then take it to market.
Boye: Yeah. What are some of the other businesses you’ve started?
Russell: I have an electronics company on Amazon. It’s really starting to flourish. I started a company called vCharged and I have another business called CXO Logistics, which is very niche in the tech world. Then I have a fun event company called Lat42. We’re doing events here once a month. I’m working on another startup called ProGPN. It’s a network company base for online gaming with like 50 nodes across the globe.
Boye: You’re a serial entrepreneur.
Russell: Yeah, I guess. It sounds funny saying that. I just try to scratch all the itches and keep it moving.
Russell: I always used to hate when people were like, “Oh, is this your passion project?” when referring to Curious Provisions. I would have this knee jerk reaction like, ‘No! It’s not!’ But, it is. It really is. And it took me a while, but I have no qualms with that now. I’m super happy with the business. It makes good profit for a handmade, one-of-a-kind product. For larger products, I have to get over 35 different parts from 13 or 14 vendors. Then, I source all of that together, and build it. Then I have to test it and test it. Everything needs to be meticulous. The people who own the product are very meticulous, and I’m the same way. Especially when I have strangers paying $2,500 for something they saw online. They’ve never heard it. They’ve never touched it. That still boggles me. I’m like, ‘Wow. That’s crazy that it sells.’
Boye: Have you ever thought of doing a storefront?
Russell: Yeah, I did think about doing a storefront, but the retail world now…I’m trying to stay away from that.
Boye: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Russell: It’s kind of an archaic model.
Boye: You’re almost like a street artist, in a way. You’re not making paintings, but you’re making these very creative things that people really desire.
Russell: Hell yeah! (laughter) I’ve never looked at it like that. I’ve made so many cool relationships with customers who are all over all over the place. It’s fun, man. It’s so fun. You’ve seen one of the iterations we had a while back. Recently, we were like, ‘How do we improve it even further? Let’s put a mixer in the back. How do we put a mixer in the back?’ Thankfully, my next door neighbor has a 3D print company. I can come to him with ideas and he I can print it out for me.
Boye: Oh, that’s cool!
Russell: Yeah, we put a mixer in the back of this one. We call this one GOAT because it’s the greatest of all time.
Russell: We’ve had performers and we’re doing some live shows here. It really creates a different vibe. People are singing and at ease when there’s a show going on.
Boye: That’s so cool.
Russell: I’m excited to do more products like that, implementing newer tech, and figuring out how far the rabbit hole goes.
Boye: That’s cool man. I also think getting this in the hands of musicians would be so great. If they used it on stage, in the recording studio, or just have it around their house.
Russell: It’s just so hard to do that when the products are one of a kind.
Russell: It’s like it’s such a knee-jerk reaction to want to do that with a mass-produced product like headphones. It’s like, ‘Oh cool, this person’s really dope and they have a huge following. Here’s a bunch!’
Russell: But with these, it’s so tough. I used to have a big emotional attachment with each product.
Boye: How long does it take you to make one?
Russell: Once everything is designed and we have all the requisite parts, two days.
Boye: Oh, that’s not bad.
Russell: There’s actually a 24 hour process where I have to cut. I have to take everything out. I have to make the shapes correct and I have to create an enclosure inside. Then it takes 24 hours for everything to dry. The next day we can do all the electronics.
Boye: So, we always ask what piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur or creative who is working on something compelling and special?
Russell: That’s such a good question. I kind of touched on it earlier. You don’t have to perfect something to take it to market. Keep it lean. I’ve had so many close friends over the last year ask, “Man, Russ how do I do it? I want to do it!” And they have discretionary funds to make an investment. But, I think out of 18 people I tried to help last year, only 2 people did it. And they’re having a lot of success. I hate to oversimplify, but that would be my tip. If you have an idea, get it out there ASAP. Not this, “I need to raise money or it’s not right yet.” Your head always thinks it’s not perfect, but most of the time you’re going to have an audience for it. Just launch it and improve, improve, improve versus perfecting something and then it’s too late.
“You don’t have to perfect something to take it to market…if you have an idea, get it out there asap.”
Boye: I agree. Launching early lets you understand if you even have something of value and what to tweak in that offering.
Boye: It’s really interesting seeing these businesses raise a ton of money without validating products. Granted, a lot of money can help you with R&D, but your approach is smart. Awesome, man. Where can we get some Curious Provisions speakers?
Russell: Curiousprovisions.com and we have an office in Santa Monica on 19th and Olympic. I’m here a lot, so if you’re in West LA come say hi.
Russell: I’m out here.
Boye: Sick. Well, thanks for hanging, man.
Russell: Yeah man, it’s been great.