An extraordinary year for The Great British Banjo Company

Posted by on December 20, 2013 in History, News, Shackleton Banjo | 1 comment

An extraordinary year for The Great British Banjo Company

With Christmas fast approaching we at The Great British Banjo Company have been reflecting on what can only be described as the most exciting and important year in the history of our little business.

We actually put our toes in the fast-moving waters of manufacturing in 2012 with the launch of the Islander Ash Leaf banjo (handmade for us by Brighton maker Malcolm McLeod). But the creation of The Shackleton Banjo concept was the key step into serious manufacturing. So many people told us it wasn’t possible to manufacture an affordable banjo in Britain.

“Import cheap ones from China with your name on,” said some.

“If you make in Britain it has to be at the luxury end, with a price tag to match,” said others.

“There aren’t enough banjo buyers in the world to make this work, and anyway nobody wants a British banjo,” said a few more.

But we decided not to listen to all that nonsense. Instead we decided to go out to the marketplace with the idea of an affordable British banjo by putting our plans on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. We hoped that we might raise ¬£30,000 in pledges (and we weren’t really convinced we could actually get there). In fact we raised nearly ¬£50,000 which put us in the top 2% most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever.

The really important thing about that result was getting pledges from over 200 people, around 130 of whom pledged for a Shackleton banjo.

This gave us the confidence to invest in all the things we needed to actually go into production, and we have been encouraged ever since by new orders coming in on a daily basis.

The Kickstarter campaign attracted support from another angle too. We were approached by the marvellous Seb Coulthard, a member of the Shackleton Epic¬†expedition (subject of a fantastic book and TV series) and an expert on all things Shackleton. Seb has been a huge support to us and his enthusiasm led in turn to us making friends with the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Centenary Expedition 2014 (known as ITACE) who are setting off to the Antarctic in November 2014 to attempt to follow Shackleton’s unfinished route across the continent. These amazing people will be taking a special edition Shackleton Banjo with them: right across the continent!

Part of the excitement of our banjo manufacturing journey has been meeting and working with inspiring, skilled and passionate people who have helped us so much on our way. They include highly skilled crafts people in companies large and small, from the British drum makers of Premier Percussion to the CAD designers at Performance Engineered Solutions and many others.

And closely related to that great pleasure has been engagement with the people (now numbering in their hundreds and located quite literally all over the world) who have supported us as customers, as friends on social media, as journalists in the traditional media, and simply as people who have taken the time to contact us and to wish us luck. They are far too numerous to mention and we are grateful to them all. And we are grateful in particular to those who said yes, when they could have said no, when we talked to them about our banjo and its inspiration. Notable amongst those people is The Honourable Alexandra Shackleton, President of The James Caird Society and grand-daughter of Sir Ernest himself.

And I cannot forget (and we never shall) the extraordinary support we have received from people who have given us time, skills and effort in so many other ways, without any hope of payment or reward. They’ve helped us because they believe in what we are trying to do. Banjo players like Mike King, Martin Johnson and Solomon Amos. Film maker Anna Marie Ramm and her great crew. National broadcasters like Mark Radcliffe, Bob Harris and Mike Harding. World class musicians who supported us on Twitter like Bela Fleck, Martin Simpson and Eliza Carthy.

We started 2013 as a tiny company: a handful of friends, most of whom were able to work on the business for only part of their week. We end it as a slightly bigger company, with two full time staff, several part time, and numerous closely-connected suppliers of one kind or another who are essential to achieving our aim.

At the beginning of 2013 we were well known in the banjo world as an online retailer under the name Banjos Direct (and even that brand had only been launched in October 2011). But we approach 2014 with a dramatically higher international profile as The Great British Banjo Company, and with our flagship product The Shackleton Banjo causing a stir of interest right around the globe.

We are still a small gang of family and friends: though we are a growing gang.

We still believe passionately in the same things we did when we began the banjo manufacturing adventure:

  • that banjos add to the sum total of happiness in the world
  • that building a British banjo that is both excellent and affordable is a pretty cool thing to do
  • that customers who are respected and treated as friends will behave as passionate fans
  • that hard work, honesty, imagination and a little bit of faith makes seemingly impossible things possible
  • that making stuff is an adventure worth going on for its own sake

It’s been a ride, one might say. Not always an easy one. But we have heeded the family motto of Sir Ernest Shackleton: By endurance we conquer.

The days are long, but rather wonderfully they never seem long enough.

We’re all going to take a well earned rest over Christmas, and we will see you on the other side.

Meanwhile, on behalf of everyone in The Great British Banjo Company team (Nigel, Sheila, Emily, Mark, Clare, Geoff , Jess and I) may I wish all our friends, customers, supporters and fellow travellers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

And yes, I promise, you will eventually get your Shackleton Banjo!


Simon Middleton

Simon Middleton, Managing Director of The Great British Banjo Company