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The Potter Violin Company officially started in 1996 when Dalton Potter, the senior repair technician at the Violin House of Weaver, took over the retail and service operations that Herman Weaver founded in 1898 and was maintained by four generations of Weavers.

When Herman's grandson Bill was running the shop, he recognized that the student violin market was key to the professional market, according to Potter. "Professional violin shops used to be hoity-toity places, and you just didn't think about bringing kids there," he said. "But Bill took a different approach -- he recognized that violinists of the future will start out as kids today."

That insight dovetailed with the blossoming in the United States of the Suzuki musical education program designed for children. The program spurred a demand for high-quality student-size instruments rather than the big clunkers that initially were offered to young students. Bill Weaver began importing partly-finished German factory instruments and finishing them himself so that they sounded like totally handmade instruments.

Potter recalls that Weaver turned to him and said, "I'll make 'em and you sell 'em."

Today, Potter Violin employees 18 full-time staff and three part-timers with two locations 50 feet apart in downtown Bethesda, Md. It offers violins, violas, cellos and basses. About 60 percent of its business is for fractional-size instruments for students who are younger than 10. It also rents about 3,000 instruments across the country every year and sells a couple thousand at retail annually.

The company also has embraced technology -- using a Facebook page and Skype to connect with customers and show them products when they can't visit the store.

And while the company will customize an instrument for you -- such as a purple violin with a dog's head carved in it -- most people identify with and want a traditional-looking violin, said Potter.

"We pretty much do things the same way they did 300 years ago," he said. "When it comes to a violin shop the best way to stay current is to stay with the old way of doing things."

What it all comes down to, according to Potter, "is being honest with yourself about what you're good at, what you have that has the potential to become profitable."

But entrepreneurship means learning on the job: "I stubbed my toes and got bloody noses on more than one occasion and made decisions that I had to recover from, but the biggest failure is someone who's never failed," he said.

For example, Potter learned that making the guy who is a good instrument maker -- but not very social -- to run the counter doesn't work. "Trying to fit people into the wrong niche just because that's what you need right then usually isn't a very good idea."

He's also found that a small firm must recognize its real customer base. "If you're a shoe store, auto dealership or somebody that sells pottery -- know your clientele. Make sure you're making decisions about inventory and that you're helping the people you need to help," said Potter, who noted that a big part of his business are private studio teachers who teach lessons from home.

He also realizes that he's not the only violin shop out there. "Really focus in on what it is that you're doing that makes you different than other people," he said. "There are a lot of people who sell violins, or sell them online or there are big warehouse companies that shovel stuff out the door like sneakers in a box -- what is it that makes you different?"

For Potter, "it's recognizing we sell a feeling, an emotional experience that comes from the parent and student who have gotten what they need at a fair price and are well enough informed that they have confidence in their decision... What we're servicing is the aspirations of the student, the dreams of these adolescent kids to achieve their goals... The violins are essentially just a vehicle to achieve that goal."

By Sharon McLoone |  March 18, 2009; 11:25 AM ET How Do I... , Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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