Durango musical instruments firm exports its products to the world

By Jordyn Dahl Herald staff writer

TKO Residential Hong Kong Swirl

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Zay Hernandez, 4, son of Randy Wallace, pounds on one of Freenotes Harmony Park’s musical instruments at Durango Discovery Museum. Freenotes Harmony Park is finding new markets overseas, and that effort is aided with the help of several government programs.

Freenotes Harmony Park’s business for outdoor musical instruments serendipitously expanded through the years into international markets.

Now, with the financial assistance of government programs, Freenotes is better able to exploit its international opportunities.

“When Richard first started designing outdoor instruments, it was a fanciful idea he had as an experiment. The first time we sold one, he was perplexed if it would ever happen again,” said Richard’s wife, Christy Cooke – co-founder of Durango-based Freenotes Harmony Park.

Not only did the instruments continue to sell, they can now be found in London, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Scandinavia. The company is looking at expanding to Chile.

Freenotes originally sold indoor and outdoor musical instruments. But the operation grew so big the company split into two separate businesses in 2011: Freenotes, which sells the indoor instruments, and Freenotes Harmony Park.

The expansion could be attributed to the firm’s success in exporting, which U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, recognized at an “Export 101” event he hosted Aug. 10 along with Colorado’s U.S. Export Assistance Center.

Tipton presented Freenotes Harmony Park And Chinook Medical Gear with an Export Achievement Certificates.

“We have innovative people with great exports,” he said upon recognizing the two Durango-based businesses.

Freenotes never sought overseas partners. Instead, the firm has always been approached by international companies who discovered the instruments online.

The first overseas company to seek Freenotes was Hand Made Places – recently renamed Freenotes Limited – in 2008. Hand Made Places specializes in outdoor education and asked the Cookes if they would supply the company with the instruments.

Freenotes Harmony Park didn’t have the resources to manufacture that many instruments at the time, so Hand Made Places manufactures the instruments to sell them, and Freenotes receives a minimum royalty of $50,000 annually.

But the company will soon enter uncharted waters with its expansion to Chile. It will manufacture the instruments in the U.S., and Urbanplay – a Chilean company – will buy them wholesale to sell to their customers in Chile. This means Freenotes will have to learn the ins and outs of exporting and tariffs.

“We’ve been a little bit intimidated by the complexities of shipping, mainly, and customers and all the paperwork,” Cooke said. “But we’re realizing with resources through international trade offices that we have more support to pursue those things, and we benefit more by exporting.”

The “Export 101” forum brought in two experts in the exporting field to discuss the resources out there for business looking to jump into international markets, including financial assistance.

Businesses that apply for the Colorado Export Development Grant could get up to $4,500. The grant, available through the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, OEDIT, provides financial help to qualifying companies in developing new export markets.

“We want to see that (businesses) know the industry in that market, and they understand a way to enter their chosen market,” said Sandi Moilanen, international division director for OEDIT. “We want to see that they did their homework.”

Moilanen estimates the office will provide about 15 grants; though they probably will not be for the full $4,500. If a business has a great application and requires the full $4,500, the office will fund that amount, Moilanen said. But if the business needs only $2,500, that is the amount it will be awarded.

Companies have until Sept. 14 to apply for the grant.

OEDIT also has the Next Step Program, which is for businesses requiring extra funding to break into an overseas market. For every $1 a business puts in, OEDIT will also put in $1 up to $3,500.

Cooke applied for the Next Step Program, and she says Moilanen recently indicated she would receive about $1,500. Cooke plans to put this money toward reprinting Freenote Harmony’s product catalog in Spanish. The grant will cover about half the cost.

The U.S. Export Assistance Center of the U.S. Commercial Service does not offer grants, but it does have other resources for businesses either exporting for the first time or those looking for extra guidance.

Sandra Necessary, director of the center in Santa Fe, spoke at the forum and touted a program for those interested in traveling abroad to find an international partner.

The office sets up meetings with potential partners, obtains a translator who goes to all of the meetings and takes care of transportation.

“I think this is where we shine,” Necessary said.

Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, frequently directs businesses looking into exporting to these programs and resources.

“Trade is important in La Plata County,” he said. “Businesses can only grow so much if they sell in La Plata County. If they want to keep growing, they have to look outside the county.”

The 3rd Congressional District earned about $569 million in total merchandise exports in 2010. La Plata County earned almost $98 million.

Freenotes Harmony Park is certainly growing, and the instruments could go mainstream if a contract with Angry Birds works out. The Finland-based video game took the country by storm last year.

One of Cooke’s employees is moving to Helsinki with her husband, who was recently hired by Angry Birds. While on a recent visit, the employee discussed the musical instruments with some Angry Birds employees, and an executive contacted Cooke earlier this month to see if she would be interested in developing products for the company’s educational division.

It’s this type of sheer happenstance that has become a bit of a trademark for Freenotes.

“Opportunities find their way to us. It’s amazing,” Cooke said. “We just have to be ready to field the opportunities, and we’re more ready for international opportunities like this than ever before.”

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