Business Profile: Ellen Gunst of

by Bobbie Mayer

A common question posted on the ICS forums is "I'm looking to buy my first cello. I can get a Brand X cello for so and so $ including bow and case. Is this a good brand? " And almost equally commonly is the answer given, "Check out Cellos2Go." In fact, newcomers are so often referred to Cellos2Go that one irate poster complained that the only answers to his post were from people advertising for a "certain company." But the multiple posts aren't paid infomercials for Cellos2Go. The referrals come from Ellen's satisfied customers, many of whom are ICS members.

As Ellen Gunst frequently tries to explain, it isn't about brands and it isn't about getting the cheapest cello. Ellen is the founder and owner of Cellos2Go, a unique store catering to the needs of cellists via the internet, by telephone, and in person. She has done business with cellists from South Africa to Alaska to Singapore to Greece and almost everywhere in between (although she hasn't- yet- shipped anything to Antarctica.) Ellen's philosophy is that whatever she doesn't like when she shops in other stores, she isn't going to let happen at Cellos2Go. It's a successful business strategy, evidenced by her many happy customers.

Ellen is a cellist herself and the mother of two teenaged cellists: Stephanie,15, and Andrea, 13. Ellen herself started playing the cello the summer after second grade in an innovative school program that gave new students a brief, intensive period of instruction in the summer before starting regular music in the third grade. Ellen played through grade school and junior high. But none of her friends were into orchestra, and at 16 she dropped the cello in favor of other pursuits. She returned to it when Stephanie, then in the third grade, took up the cello. Ellen bought herself a like-new Engelhardt cello, listened to Stephanie's lessons, and began remembering how to play. A year later second grader Andrea joined the family cello society. All three have taken lessons from Monica Wilson Roach, who now teaches lessons in the Cellos2Go shop in Schenectady, New York.

Between shopping for cellos for her girls and trying to turn her own Engelhardt into a better-sounding instrument, Ellen learned a lot about what makes a cello good. She discovered the Internet Cello Society soon after Stephanie began playing, and became a participant on one of the earlier message boards first as "E.G." and then as Ellen G. As Ellen read post after post about rentals and cheap student instruments, she got interested in the problem of finding a decent cello. At the time she was a self-employed court reporter, but she had never run a business with an inventory before she decided to open a small cello rental business. Cellos2Go started in 2000.

Renting cellos quickly led to selling cellos. And since cellists need cello accessories, Ellen developed a line of products. She is always researching new and interesting items. If something is mentioned on the ICS forums, she looks into it, and if it is a good product, and she can get it, she sells it through Cellos2Go. Every product is thoroughly tested by cellists. Through her own experience and the experiences of her customers and other contacts, Ellen can quickly tell you which soft cases protect a cello on the school bus, how long it takes to get music from a particular publisher, or which is the smallest half-sized cello and which metronome has the best wood-block sound.

Ellen gets feedback on cellos and cello products from customers, too. When she sends out three bows on trial, and the customer prefers one, she pays attention to what the customer has to say about the other two bows. Ellen gets lots of feedback from parents. "I make mental notes of everyone's comments." She knows which cases fit smaller cellos as well as which backpacks will bang into the back of a shorter child's legs. Having her daughters' feedback is important, too. "For example, the kids will notice things like high bridges much more quickly than adults."

Through renting and selling cellos, Ellen got into the "consumer reports" angle of the cello business. She has tried many of the cheap cello brands, but, as she says, "If I can't get a good sound out of it I don't carry it." When one school music program could only afford a poor quality cello, Cellos2Go did buy some of these instruments, but redid the setup completely from soundposts to bridges to strings to make the instruments playable. More realistically, the cheapest entry level cello Ellen carries is about $1000, and she sells many more in the $1500 to $3000 category. Now, as many of her early customers are starting to trade up, she is moving into higher-priced instruments as well.

Ellen is quick to point out that the brand of cello does not necessarily relate to the quality of the instrument. Dealers buy cellos from manufacturers and then set the instruments up to their own specifications. That setup can make an immense difference in the sound of the instrument. For example, many smaller sized cellos are equipped with cheap steel strings, but Ellen has found that most will improve in sound and playability with a string upgrade. Every cello she sells is set up to maximize its sound and playability without sacrificing affordability. "When an adult beginner can make an instrument sound good, you know you really have something," Ellen observes. Not only can the customer try a variety of cellos, but Ellen often demonstrates the instruments for them so they can sit back and judge the sound. "I thought of people who expected this professional cellist and they got me, an adult amateur. But I think that's what makes it comfortable for them to play here. I can't break out into a Haydn Cello Concerto and impress people. "

Although Ellen started Cellos2Go out of her home, it didn't take too long for the business to outgrow the house. She was at home for the "exploratory phase," she says, but then the business took off. The actual physical shop of Cellos2Go "used to be a hair salon," Ellen explains, "Right across from the post office." It is a two minute commute from her home, "So I can run home and check on the cats." Ellen is usually in and out of the shop all day.

A typical day starts early on email because Ellen deals with people in all of the time zones. Then she usually has to get some items shipping out by a certain time and deal with "emergencies"-like someone who needs a new string by overnight mail. Ellen spends a lot of time tracking things down for people, and keeps catalogs of music in her car so she can peruse them during those times when, like every mom, she finds herself waiting in the car. The shop opens mainly by appointment, but in the afternoon is busy with cello lessons, parents waiting in the comfortable area provided for them, and often a quartet in rehearsal. Ellen says, "I keep strange hours but everybody's accustomed to it. If I'm conscious and not doing anything, I'll pick up the phone."

The Cellos2Go website is not an automated shopping cart experience. "That type of site does not fit with our idea of personal service." Ellen prefers to correspond with customers by phone or email. Instead of clicking "Add to shopping cart" next to the metronome that might have the desired features, a customer can exchange several emails or talk to Ellen on the phone about her exact needs. I found out how personal the personal touch can be when I ordered several items as gifts last Christmas. When another customer whom Ellen knew was a friend of mine ordered one of the same items, Ellen checked with me before shipping it to make sure he was not the intended recipient- in which case she would have been conveniently "out of stock!"

The Cellos2go philosophy is "a lot of things. Trying to get people on the best instrument they can afford… Education as much of anything." On the website, a primary mission is education, with information such as types of cello construction and renting vs. buying and how one string is different from another and how that affects the sound. "I do a lot of measuring and take a lot of digital pictures- anything to make the experience up close and personal."

Ellen recently added sheet music to her growing inventory, and she makes certain to give critical information such as what positions will be required, and whether or not the music uses tenor or treble clef, and even makes notes about unwieldy page turns. Her copies of Schroeder, a popular etude book, but one that is thick and hard to make lie flat on a stand, come with a spiral binding.

And there is a lot of return business. "Adult students write periodically to let me know how they're doing in their lessons! It's not a typical store where you buy something and never talk to the guy again. I get pictures of people's kids, CD's they've recorded if they're budding professionals, etc. It's amazing. Well, to ME it is. Parents let me know how their kids did in auditions with their new cello or bow. A lot of growth is by customers who tell colleagues, or a student whose teacher sends them for something they find here. Then the teacher's other students are calling me. I don't really advertise; I prefer word of mouth. It eliminates a lot of bargain hunters. That's not what I specialize in. I want people to take the time to understand what they're getting, and why."

Ellen is busy enough with Cellos2Go to wish that she had more time to play the cello. "I thought I could sit in the shop and play but it doesn't work out," she says. Ellen has played in two different orchestras, but often could not get to rehearsals. She works on solos only as it helps her chamber music technique. Occasionally she gets to sub for her daughter in a quartet. She takes regular lessons and has also learned a tremendous amount by watching her daughter's lessons. "Stephanie has some wonderful experience through youth orchestras, music camps, etc. She has the ability to sit there with me and finger passages multiple ways and show me the merits and pitfalls of each. In fact, I have the benefit of two other cellists in the household who are able to correct me if I have a rhythm wrong: ‘Mom, you're not holding that dotted note long enough' and ‘Mom, did you know you missed that e-flat?'

"I'd like to do more intergenerational playing," Ellen says. "Chamber music is often a lot of older people. I'd like to play more with my munchkins. I'd like to promote cello for recreation." She is trying to get a chamber music camp for adults or possibly a cello camp going at the site where her daughters have attended music camp.

I asked Ellen what role the ICS has played in her life. "Those guys really gave me an education. It was like being a fly on the wall as they talked." From the long-time professional ICS'rs Ellen was turned on to chamber music and recordings and videos. "The pros on the board really gave me an education." Ellen also gives back, and not simply in forum advice: Cellos2Go is a corporate sponsor of the Internet Cello Society.

But while "Check out" is good and frequent advice, it is never posted by Ellen herself. She is careful to avoid advertising her business or soliciting sales on the ICS forums, but she is an active and valued contributor to the boards. I'm looking forward to the day that I can meet Ellen in person and drop in to visit Cellos2Go, but for now I'm happy that in this era of dotcoms that go out of business as fast as they started, Cellos2Go is here to stay!

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