At 12 years old, Ron Menelli (BS CompE ’91) had barely taken any guitar lessons when he began playing around with electronics to make the instrument sound better.
Today, Menelli has turned a hobby into RJM Music Technology, Inc., a company that specializes in electronic products designed for musicians to use in both the studio and live performances.
“We make effects switching systems and controllers that allow the players to switch all of their effects and other equipment,” Menelli said. “Prior to these kind of switching systems, guitar players would have 10 or 20 effect pedals in front of them that they would have to switch during performances. It was known as a pedal tap dance. Our product works to make it easier for musicians to switch between effects without all the hassle.”
After receiving his master’s degree in computer science from Illinois in 1995, he went to work for Qualcomm and soon realized the corporate world wasn’t for him. Fortunately, his stock options and the dot-com bubble provided him the opportunity to leave corporate world behind in 2000.
He and his wife, Sheri, started RJM in 2003 and sold their first product, the Amp Gizmo, in 2005 on eBay. Since then, word of mouth among industry guitar techs has helped grow the business into a thriving company that caters to several big-name clients, including Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift.
For Sheri Menelli, the realization of just how notable RJM Music is occurred two years ago when she was watching the Grammys. About 50 percent of the winners were customers. She attributed the success to the dependability of the product and the quality of service
“There have been times when Ron has tried to talk people out of buying his equipment because he knew it wasn’t exactly the right fit for what they needed,” Sheri Menelli said. “And they were so appreciative that Ron was so honest that they decided to buy it anyway because they just felt so good working with Ron. We don’t even feel like we are salespeople; we only want to match people with the equipment that they need.”
Ron Menelli always had an interest in starting his own business, and his time at Illinois helped develop that entrepreneurial spirit even further. He credits his project-oriented classes like digital systems labs for preparing him most for the challenge of running his own company.
“Having the resources to say, ‘This is my idea,’ and then having the support of professors and TAs to actually make the project happen was exactly what I needed,” Ron Menelli said. “I’m the only technical person at the company, so I do all of the design from top to bottom. That early experience was definitely helpful to tackle something of this magnitude.”
In the future, Ron and Sheri Menelli plan to expand their business to the average consumer who would use the equipment for more personal use or on a smaller stage rather than for a big concert performance. This would require the development of lower-cost and higher-volume products to reach customers who probably haven’t heard of RJM Music Technology yet.
“We have had continual growth ever since we started,” Ron Menelli said. “Even through the recession years, we still managed to get by. We are trying to transition now from a company that only sells to these big-name bands and start selling to just regular guitar players you would see playing in the local bar. We have already started doing that, and it will be a great opportunity for us. Most guitar players don’t know who we are, so there is still a lot of room to progress.”