Earlier this year, Primary Color Music won the KU KSBDC Existing Business of the Year Award. The Kansas SBDC Business of the Year awards honor businesses based on their successful performance and good corporate citizenship. I had the pleasure of interviewing PCM founder Sam Billen for this article.
Lest anyone think that the only exporters in Kansas are either in the aircraft industry or agriculture, let me call attention to Primary Color Music. PCM is a music composition and design firm based in Lawrence, Kansas that has been doing so well exporting its music to Asia that it recently opened an office in Tokyo. PCM composes/designs/produces music for commercials, video games and films and has amassed an impressive list of international clients. Usually the visuals are produced first and then the music and sound effects are the last things added, but sometimes a client will ask PCM to write the music and then design the visuals to go with the audio production.
(Watch this video – and listen! – to a sample of the musical artistry of Primary Color Music.)
When asked, “What would you like people to know about Primary Color Music?” Sam’s initial response was that he wants people to know the the PCM team has a lot of fun doing what they do; but, he added, he also wants people to know that wherever the team goes he is proud to tell people that they are from Kansas. Dealing with international clients, he often finds that they are used to working with companies from mega-cities like New York. Being able to boast that PCM is from Kansas really differentiates Primary Color Music from competitors. Clients love the fact that Primary Color Music has a different story to tell.
Sam and brother Dan grew up in a musical household, playing instruments at an “early, early age”. Their father was a commercial music writer which contributed to the brothers’ ability to recognize and create artistry in this genre. Sam founded Primary Color Music in 2013 and started out writing music for local commercials. A few years later, Dan – a Washburn grad – joined him in the company. Sam is proud of he PCM team’s ability to create objectively good music and of how many people have been exposed to their music through their commercials.
(Watch this fun video of Sam and Dan Billen telling their story.)
While in college at KU, Sam had studied Japanese out of love for the language and culture. At the time, he had no idea that this passion would ultimately intersect professionally with his love of music.
Sam’s wife is from Japan and the family took vacations to that country every summer. As Primary Color Music developed its portfolio and developed clients in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Sam used to wonder what the company could become if he lived in one of those cities; but then he realized that with all of his vacations to Japan and knowing the language, he could keep the company in Lawrence and still dive into the Japanese market. That decision turned out to be a huge boon for Primary Color Music which now derives about half of its business from Japan.
Sam says that he loves working in Japan because there is an artistic quality throughout the culture and throughout every interaction that makes it a “crazy, fun, creative atmosphere for advertising.” Having gotten noticed internationally, the Primary Color Music team now has the freedom to pick the people and companies that they enjoy working with. Understanding the culture in Japan, though, was hugely important to Sam’s being able to get the company’s foot in the door so that PCM could get that international start. The company now has clients in 6 or 7 countries including Singapore and China.
In describing how Primary Color Music got its start in Japan, Sam also notes that he strategically searched for specific individuals to connect with, e.g. searching Linked In for Kansas connections and connecting with U.S. clients that had foreign offices. PCM’s business is built on real relationships and so the ability to connect with people, including other artists, was important – especially in Japan where relationships can take a long time to develop.
There are a few things that Primary Color Music needed to work out about how to do business internationally such as figuring out how to avoid double taxation, invoicing requirements for different countries, managing wire transfers and so forth. Getting a bilingual accountant helped with this. So did developing a relationship with JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization).
Sam came to the Kansas SBDC for help when he was making the transition from being a solopreneur to having employees and having to deal with salaries and administrative duties that he didn’t have to deal with previously. At this time, the company was also growing rapidly and he needed help managing the growth. Sam says that he and Business Advisor Brian Dennis “hit it off from the first meeting.” According to Sam, Brian understood the creative, organic nature of the business and that enabled Brian to help PCM even through its later transition into exporting.
So what’s next? Sam plans to move to Tokyo for a while to solidify operations in that office, but Lawrence will remain the company’s home office.
We at the Kansas SBDC wish Sam and Primary Color Music the very best! We’ll be listening for them!
On July 28th, Certified Global Business Professional John Addessi from the JCCC KSBDC will be teaching The Riddle of The Exporter in Manhattan. This seminar is for businesses that are interested in learning how to export their products or services and for businesses already exporting that want to learn more about realizing opportunities, working with other cultures, handling financial transactions, simplifying logistics and avoiding legal issues. Check here for more information about attending The Riddle of The Exporter. Contact the WU KSBDC for information about using STEP Grants through the Kansas Department of Commerce to help cover the cost for qualifying businesses.
Laurie Pieper, Ph.D.