Teneia Sanders-Eichelberger and Benjamin Eichelberger are the wife-and-husband co-founders of the soul/rock music duo, Heart Society. Based in Jackson, Miss., they tour and perform internationally with the goal of sharing positivity through their music.
The beginning of Heart Society
What inspired you to start your business? When?
We have both been musicians in various capacities for the past two decades, but for the purposes of this story, we will describe our partnership in its current form.
We became a fully mobile, full-time music duo in June 2015. Up to that point, we had been playing music together for two years, based on the catalog of original material Teneia had been writing and performing since 2004. We were having a small degree of success and slowly building a fan base around our home in Phoenix, Ariz., but we were getting restless.
Our fan base and popularity wasn’t growing as rapidly as we wanted. Teneia felt like she was playing the same venues for the same audiences every week, and Benjamin felt trapped in a flight instructing job that was unfulfilling.
We had great passion for spreading a message of love and equality through our music, and we realized our true desire was to travel and perform for audiences everywhere. We also realized that we were mistakenly waiting for some sort of external validation, a “big break” of sorts, before we really tried to become nationally touring musicians with a positive social message. This situation needed to be rectified.
In spring of 2015, we decided it was foolish to put our dreams on hold any longer. We felt we were in our prime, and that the time was “now or never” to take a shot at being the musicians and social-change agents we had always wanted to be.
We made the bold choice to sell 90 percent of our possessions, move out of our Phoenix apartment, and crowdfund a travel trailer so we could tour and perform full-time. We performed under Teneia’s name until 2017, when we rebranded as Heart Society.
What first steps did you take to launch the business?
Our first big step was a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo during May 2015. We had already committed to move out of our apartment, so we needed the money to afford an SUV and travel trailer for our new nomadic lifestyle.
We had no experience with crowdfunding, but we had put ourselves in a “do-or-die” situation, so we looked at as many successful campaigns as we could find and picked out our favorite attributes to copy.
We shot a video with a cell phone, and Benjamin edited it on Windows Movie Maker since we didn’t have any sophisticated editing software. But the end product was effective! With the help of more than 140 contributors, we raised more than $22,000 in four weeks and were able to purchase a 32-foot travel trailer (dubbed the “Tiny Musical House”) and a diesel Ford Excursion with 224,000 miles on the odometer.
What obstacles did you face as a startup, and how did you overcome them?
The biggest obstacle we’ve had to face is gaining exposure. The proliferation of technology and the home recording studio has enabled thousands of other musicians to make their music commercially available, and it can be difficult to “cut through the noise” and stand out from the crowd.
We’ve found two solutions to that problem. The first is to hone our craft and be able to deliver a world-class live performance.
If we can deliver an inspiring live performance, we separate ourselves from a large number of other acts.
The second solution is to develop and nurture relationships with industry members, supporters and fans. People love doing business with you when you are genuinely kind and caring, and you’ll find yourself getting opportunities you never imagined because of those relationships. Our professional and personal demeanor has probably afforded us just as many opportunities as our technical ability!
How did you identify your niche in the market?
Early in our time performing together, we received a huge amount of positive feedback from our songs and stories centered around love, equality and social justice. We knew that, as an interracial couple, we were in an ideal position to be advocates for all types of equality initiatives, and we have embraced those opportunities whenever possible.
From the stylistic standpoint, we both gravitate toward blues, soul and groove-based music, which has also garnered a significant amount of positive feedback. Our sound is a natural extension of our musical personalities.
Tell us about your business model.
We provide musical entertainment for various types of events, ranging from large festivals to intimate, private concert settings. Our main revenue source is through live performances and appearances, with music and merchandise sales filling the secondary role. With the evolution of digital music streaming, most musicians earn a vastly larger proportion of their income from performances than they do from music sales.
What are the goals for your business?
Our goal is to be internationally recognized as talented musicians and advocates for social justice. Practically speaking, some of our goals are to win a Grammy, perform on the main stage at various international music festivals, and record an Austin City Limits special. We would also love to be spokespeople for organizations like Human Rights Campaign and Equality Now.
We are all about making amazing music that positively impacts marginalized and disadvantaged people around the world.
We are proud to report the recent crowdfunding campaign for our EP Wake the Queens enabled us to donate more than $2,300 to Equality Now.
Goals and philosophy
What’s your guiding business philosophy?
Love, Equality and Music. Our guiding business philosophy is to make music that allows people to get out of their heads and feel something in their bodies. If you can get people to stop thinking and truly FEEL something, then you can make an impact.
Specifically, we strive to raise awareness about racial/ethnic inequality and social inequality. Many of our songs and music videos address both issues squarely. Through our words, melodies and images, we show the world that people can love each other deeply regardless of race, cultural origin, sexual identity or gender. We believe that violence and hatred are products of ignorance and fear, and that being exposed to people of varying cultures and belief systems is critical to a more peaceful world.
As an interracial couple, we are aware that several decades ago it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for us to be married in the United States. We recognize that same struggle in many aspects of today’s world, and we put forward a positive message that understanding and appreciating differences is the key to eliminating inequality.
Whether it is issues of gender, marriage, culture, or ethnicity, we seek to open hearts and help people be more tolerant and loving to every human on the planet.
How does your music play into your mission?
Our upcoming EP, Wake the Queens, fits squarely with the equality aspect of our mission. This record is about empowerment — specifically, the empowerment of women and girls in our modern world.
Each song is an encouragement for listeners to acknowledge their true selves, find their voices, and step into their power.
Wake the Queens embodies a sound and an attitude that is unapologetic in its boldness and uniqueness. It is an invitation to shed convention and become a powerful force for good, while celebrating the beauty of individuality. This record breaks down internal and external barriers, and creates real conversations about the impact of female empowerment in society.
What three words epitomize success in your book?
Organization, flow and fun!
What strengths do you bring to the table as entrepreneurs?
As a couple, we feel like we have the ability to relate and connect with people from all walks of life. That strength helps us generate more opportunities for our business. We feel it’s very simple: if people like you and believe in you, they will do business with you.
We also bring separate strengths to the table. Teneia tends to be more of a big-picture visionary who comes up with concepts for videos and photoshoots. Benjamin is good with day-to-day details and likes to work on editing video and audio. Between us, we keep the dream alive!
Where do you see your business in five years? Ten years?
We definitely see our business expanding past strictly music. We envision ourselves doing motivational speaking, teaching people about wellness, and talking about RV/tiny house living. We currently volunteer to feed the homeless in the Jackson community, and we would really enjoy feeding more people over the next 10 years with high-quality foods.
Tools for success
What tools do you use for business? How do you use them, and why is each important?
We have our domain name through GoDaddy. Domain registration, especially the automatic renewal feature, enables us to affordably maintain our registered domains without fear of ownership lapsing. We also love how easy it is to purchase domains, especially when we think of new business ideas. If we have an idea and the domain name is available, it’s simple to park it for later development.
GoDaddy email has also been indispensable. We feel like it’s a mark of professionalism to have email addresses with our own domain name. Plus, we utilize the storage to keep all communications for later reference. We love the web mail feature, which lets us access email from any browser. It has especially come in handy in the recording studio when we’ve needed to log in remotely and access file links that have been stored in our email.
What difference have these tools made to your business?
Without having our own domain, and associated email addresses, we wouldn’t be able to impress potential partners with a high-quality website, electronic press kit, or reliable email communication.
Advice and personal
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since starting your business?
The most valuable lesson we’ve learned since starting Heart Society is that genuinely engaging people is very important. Stay active and in direct conversation with your audience. That will help you grow faster.
What’s your best advice for other entrepreneurs?
Starting a business is a marathon, not a sprint! There’s a popular quote that says, “Most people overestimate what they can do in a year, and underestimate what they can do in a decade.”
If we had given up after the first year of marginal success, we wouldn’t be giving this interview today.
Make sure to give yourself credit for the small accomplishments, because the small things really add up. Also, check in periodically to make sure you’re still passionate about your business. Teneia has been a full-time musician for 15 years, and she is still as passionate about it today as she was at the beginning. Stay passionate, take note of the small victories, and do the things that need to be done on a daily basis. You might surprise yourself.
How do you unwind?
We love trying new restaurants, getting exercise (hiking in the Arizona mountains is our favorite!), going for leisurely drives, and watching a movie or comedy series (30 Rock is at the top of our list). We are actually the most comfortable and relaxed when we are moving around and touring. New adventures help us feel unconstrained, relaxed and free.
Was there a turning point in your life that led you to where you are today?
One of Benjamin’s fellow flight instructors was killed in a mid-air collision in 2012, and it led us to the realization that life is too short and fragile to settle for mediocrity. Three years later, in 2015, it helped us take the leap of faith and buy our RV. That’s when we put it all on the line. Now, in 2018, we can see how taking that leap of faith is starting to pay off!
How do you balance the needs of your business with your personal life?
Both are so intertwined for us because we work together and love together. When you work for yourselves and share a tiny space, it’s easy to be in work mode all the time. We think our biggest thing is being intentional about scheduling downtime with each other and creating memories with the people we love. That makes us feel refreshed and gives us the spark we need to go back to our business with new eyes.
Thanks, Teneia and Benjamin! Your story is truly inspiring. If you want to learn more about Heart Society, be sure to visit their website. You can also follow them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. You can also discover their musical stylings on Spotify, iTunes and Bandcamp.
All images courtesy of Tom Beck at Beck Photographic.
Also published on Medium.