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Once a physicist: Tom Wanne

Tom Wanne is the chief executive officer of a saxophone-mouthpiece manufacturer, Theo Wanne Classic Mouthpieces.

Tom Wanne

Why did you choose to study physics?
I have always been attracted to observing and modelling things, thriving on visual feedback. Back when I was 12 years old, I did not see my long nights of programming my Commodore 64 computer as physics, but they were, and that experience gave me the same excitement that I still get from many things now. I love the intuitive and building-brick nature of physics, mathematics and computer science - diving into the heart of a matter, laying out all the pieces for the big picture. And I love lots of data, especially if I can turn an uncomfortable hurdle into an easy stepping-stone for the next challenge. When I was an undergraduate at Harvey Mudd College in California, I also enjoyed philosophy, and fortunately the physics course there offered room to integrate other studies. I enjoyed the synergies between physics theory and philosophy, which offered different perspectives on the nature of existence.

What did you do after your degree?
I wanted to take my science skills into the business world. I saw business as a complex physics problem, and I felt I had some great modelling tools to offer. At the same time, though, I was looking out into some pretty uncharted areas. It was uncomfortable, and I almost became a ski bum. But instead, I went to work for a company in Seattle called Informetrix for five years. It produces multivariate statistical software that is used for pattern recognition in analytical-chemistry applications. It was a great fit: I had plenty of opportunities to apply physics and programming while learning the dynamics of a small business. I also completed my MBA at nightschool during this time, focusing on entrepreneurship.

Why did you decide to go into the saxophone business?
I played saxophone until my second year of high school, until I took a physics course that I absolutely loved. The first time I calculated and confirmed the trajectory of a launched metal ball, I was hooked, so I shifted away from music to focus on science. However, my twin brother Theo picked up the tenor sax in high school and has since become a world expert on saxophone mouthpieces. About five years ago, I was visiting Theo in Philadelphia during the holidays when he proposed the idea of going into business together. He had a computer-aided design (CAD) model for a mouthpiece, a hand-worked prototype, and a vision for what he wanted to do. It was good timing for me; he had been living on the other side of the country for 15 years, and as a twin, I felt it was time to create things together again.

What do you see as your role in the business?
Initially, there were lots of hats to wear, and Theo and I often exchanged them. But I have primarily been responsible for sales, marketing and operations. Theo is really the guru behind each mouthpiece; he is a tremendous musician and has over a dozen years of experience in hand-refacing mouthpieces for the best musicians in the world. He can make the smallest tweak to a mouthpiece and then hear the difference. Now he works hand-in-hand with a CAD design/machinist (who also plays saxophone) to hone each model. They go through many iterations of tweaking and prototyping before they end up with the final model. I am not involved much at that level, but I love being part of new concepts and product ideas. The marketing and sales side of the business is quite interesting. Our customers range from students through to the very best professional musicians. Serving these customers presents many fascinating puzzles, and there are lots of different media to work with now, from websites to print publications and social media like Facebook, blogs and Twitter.

How has your physics background affected your approach to business?
Physics is a huge part of how I do business. A business plan to me is an evolving model, where you are constantly observing, hypothesizing, predicting, experimenting and then reaching conclusions that start the whole process over again. The levels of inputs and interactions for observing and predicting can be completely overwhelming and at the same time remarkable simple and intuitive. To me, the beauty is that a business plan is just a living tool, like all the models within it and all the models it will be part of.

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This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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