The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here.
Front and Center: Vice President of EarthQuaker Devices, Julie Robbins
By Lina Bhambhani
One of the most respected manufacturers in the guitar effect pedal community, EarthQuaker Devices started in a basement in Akron, Ohio and is now an international phenomenon employing 50+ proud guitar nerds.
EarthQuaker has received numerous awards, including NAMM “Best in Show,” Guitar World Gold Award, and Premier Guitar Editor’s Pick, with the goal to bring their unique effects to tone-hungry and experimentally-inclined guitarists worldwide.
The company could not have reached this level of success without Vice President Julie Robbins. As the wife of company founder Jamie Stillman, Robbins has assisted her husband since the beginning in making EarthQuaker the premier pedal builder it is today.
Find out Robbins’ story below, and for more on EarthQuaker Devices, visit earthquakerdevices.com.
The WiMN: Tell us about the path that led to the creation of EarthQuaker Devices. What kind of work did you do prior to starting the company?
JR: It was a pretty long one! My husband Jamie Stillman and I have been involved in the music industry for a long time, but on the other side of it. I think EarthQuaker was a natural extension of our skills and interests. We were both always entrepreneurial and started our first business together in our teens.
When I met Jamie in the late ’90s he was running a record label called Donut Friends out of Kent, OH and touring in bands. I was going to college at Baldwin Wallace University via their SPROUT (Single Parents Reaching Out for Unassisted Tomorrows) Program. At some point, I met up with his band for a tour of the West Coast he had booked himself and thought I could do better! I started a booking agency called Musical Adventures and at one point was booking around forty bands.
After college, we did all kinds of stuff to make ends meet. I have done everything from gift wrapping wine bottles to selling silverware on eBay. Jamie did freelance graphic design and tour managing.
After a serious health scare (a DVT!), I felt that I needed stability and benefits, so I got a job at a local bank as a banker. I eventually worked up to a position as a financial planner, getting my Series 7, 66 and life and health insurance licenses, and was halfway through certification as a CFP. I worked with a lot of small business owners and really absorbed as much as could – about what to do and what not to do. I always respected the business owners who were hard working and generous, and that is how I try to be.
It was when we had our daughter Sylvia in 2005 that Jamie was home with her and while she slept he started tinkering with pedals. For a few years, he was completely obsessed with understanding circuitry and experimenting with designs. Actually, not that much has changed!
In 2009 we hired our first employee, Jeff France, who is still with us today as Production Manager. We gradually started hiring more people who were working out of our basement. I was always afraid to leave the bank because it was our source of health insurance.
In 2011, I had one of those midlife wake up calls – the suicide of my son’s father. I decided life was too short and I wanted to have more control of my life and decided to go all in on EarthQuaker. It was the best decision I ever made in my life.
The WiMN: What were the early days of the company like? What was it like to be such a small operation?
JR: It was a very small operation! Jamie would tinker and build all day. I remember him spray painting enclosures in the garage and staying up all night soldering. I would come home after work to help with the books and assembling/boxing. Then when we hired Jeff things really started moving. They were super dedicated and worked like crazy. I remember those two were cranking out 100 pedals a week!
After that, we hired an employee or two just about every six months. At one point there were seven or eight people working in the basement. They all still work for us today! We didn’t listen to the advice you always hear and hired a lot of our friends. The important thing is to hire your friends who are super smart, responsible, hardworking sweethearts who will give you 100%. All of our employees feel invested in our company and it shows.
Things actually aren’t too different from the early days. We still do things in a very similar way, just on a larger scale. We never really took ourselves too seriously and like to keep things fun. I think it might be a Midwestern thing. You don’t really worry about being cool or what anybody thinks of you, you just work super hard and let everyone else decide what they think about it! Life is rough so try to get in some good laughs.
The WiMN: Give us an idea of what kind of company EarthQuaker has grown into — what is a typical work day like for you now?
JR: In 2015, EQD moved in to a 15,000 square-foot building in downtown Akron. We were bursting at the seams crammed into our old shop and had no room to hire any extra office help. Even after the move we had to do serious work to get our infrastructure set up to support a company of our size. Once we had the infrastructure ready we brought in more administrative roles.
I like promoting from within, and my senior management started as builders and showed enthusiasm for the positions we were creating. They understood the products, processes and culture. Coming from a punk rock background, we don’t care about stuff that isn’t important. We direct all of our energy to what is critical for us.
My work day involves a lot of meetings! I have meetings with my production, management, marketing, international sales and party planning teams on a weekly basis. I also have one-on-one meetings with key managers weekly or bi-weekly. So I live by my calendar!
I spend the rest of my time paying bills and solving problems of varying degrees of complexity. I try to fit in Pilates twice a week. I get soup delivered once a week by Splendid Spoon, which has been a game changer for me! I don’t need to think about lunch and can eat healthy. Because I work with my husband, we are never really not working. Mornings and evenings are great times for us to talk things through and brainstorm.
The WiMN: Do you play guitar or another instrument(s)? What is your favorite pedal made by EarthQuaker?
JR: No, I don’t play any instruments. Unless a spreadsheet is an instrument and then I am a virtuoso!
My favorite pedal is the Avalanche Run. It was an idea for so long, and it came to fruition exactly as awesome as we wanted it to be. I am super proud of that one!
The WiMN: Outside of EarthQuaker, what do you like to do in your free time?
JR: In my free time I like driving my kids around, cooking dinner, and doing Pilates. I also love traveling, and we are very fortunate that we have a lot of opportunities to do that.
Lately I have gotten into a lot of great podcasts. I never have time to read books anymore and podcasts have begun to replace them, for me, in terms of that kind of distraction or information. If I am pondering a question or problem, I like finding some relevant podcasts to give me perspective. I am a total news hound and love the coverage of podcasts like Democracy Now.
So, yeah, I’m pretty exciting! Woooo!
The WiMN: Tell us about your experience as women working in this industry. Have there been any challenges you’ve had to overcome?
JR: Having a child so young was very difficult. I was 18 and had my son a month before high school graduation. I didn’t have the support of my family so I had to do it on my own. I was really lucky to go to Baldwin Wallace. The SPROUT program allowed me to live on campus year-round for the price of room and board. There was a great daycare on campus. I lived with other women in the same situation and we supported one another. That experience also really set my mindset. I think I felt like I was ultimately responsible for myself and my child, and I hold myself to high standards. But I can’t worry about what anyone else really thinks about what I’m doing. I have to do what is best for us and it’s not my problem if you don’t like it!
There were definitely challenges as a woman in the banking industry. The glass ceiling is real. The whole system really did not accommodate being a mom. I was completely underpaid for the work I was doing. There was no flexibility.
The music industry in general is very male-dominated on every side. I think about it a lot – why it is like that and how it can change? But I am pretty insulated here in Akron. I’m the boss so nobody is going to discriminate against me. My employees are super respectful and total sweethearts. When we were small, I used to be the only woman. When we started growing I was able to hire more women, and I think that is really important. We are not as balanced as I would like but its closer than it has ever been.
When we are doing our marketing, I am always pushing my team to present the world we want to live in. So it isn’t all white guys with beards. I am really proud of our most recent product launch for the Erupter. We did some teaser videos leading up to the announcement featuring some of our employees as bad-ass Viking women sacking our factory to build the perfect fuzz. I want to do away with the labels “female musician” and bikini models. I want a culture that is inclusive of all kinds of people, so that is what I try to create internally and project externally.
The biggest challenge I have right now as a woman is running a household and business with your spouse and maintaining your sanity and sense of humor. I now have the flexibility to do stuff like take my kids to the dentist or whatever. That is something I pass along to my employees. We offer very flexible shift scheduling so people can juggle things around the way that works best for them. If you have the right people, this works really well.
The WiMN: Can you share some advice for young women looking to enter this industry?
JR: YES! Young women, please join the music industry. We need you. Don’t let anybody fuck with your confidence! You got this.
The WiMN: What’s next for you and EarthQuaker Devices?
JR: I am really focusing on our infrastructure and growing our international markets. EarthQuaker Devices just launched our latest pedal, the Erupter Fuzz on May 10.
There are a lot of videos we are working that I am really excited about. As far as new products, we have tons of cool stuff in the works, but it’s all still a secret!