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It turns out Kickstarter is just what it says: a start. Don’t let the countdown timer – 30 Days, 7 Days, 48 Hours – fool you into thinking this is anything remotely close to a month-long sprint. The Kickstarter campaign is like the montage sequence in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke trains with Yoda. An awful lot happens in a short, condensed period of time, but there’s a long buildup before and even more action afterward. It’s a short, hectic month in the middle of a much longer process.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the buildup to a Kickstarter campaign and my mental model for understanding it: the Artist-to-Audience Ratio. I tried to debunk Seth Godin’s  statement that a Kickstarter project is the “last step” but I didn’t go into much detail. Now that we’re in the thick of the after-Kickstarter-craziness with the OpenROV project, I thought I’d take some time on the topic.

First of all, it’s crazier than I expected. I think this is probably true for every Kickstarter project that gets funded, but especially so for those who are building actual, physical products. To give some context, there seems to be a spectrum of options based on how many widgets you need to produce.

On the one end, there are basically handmade goods, like The Floating Globe Lamp. In this situation, the next steps are pretty straightforward: build and ship them. Other platforms and tools seem to be a more common option – Etsy, Unique, Craft Fairs – but there’s certainly a long tail of low-volume projects on Kickstarter. In either case, if the demand grows past a certain threshold, the bottleneck eventually becomes the maker’s ability to make things fast enough.

On the other end are the Pebble watches of the world. Projects and products that go crazy on Kickstarter and clearly need a full-on manufacturing strategy. As complicated and intimidating as that may appear, my understanding is that the next step is fairly straightforward in this situation: work with PCH International or Dragon Innovations to navigate Shenzhen, China.


Of course, this is overly simplistic. Running your own handmade business or working with a manufacturing partner can be unthinkably hard and strenuous. I would never intend to downplay that. However, I’m more concerned with the middle of that spectrum – the handmade business-gone-crazy or the small-batch manufacturer that doesn’t have enough volume to justify one of the big manufacturing partners. That’s where OpenROV sits. And so have a lot of the other maker businesses I know.

It’s a strange sort of no man’s land that hasn’t been fully explored. Companies like MakerBot and 3D Robotics are blazing a trail, and companies like TechShop and Ponoko are busy trying to provide the right services to support this new type burgeoning enterprise, but there’s still a long way to go.

One thing I do know: we’ve had to learn a whole lot in a short amount of time. From all the business administration stuff like legal and accounting, to sourcing parts, to managing inventory, to finding space. It’s been (and continues to be) a whirlwind. Eric and I unloaded everything we were thinking about onto a whiteboard in his garage. After a few days it was covered with part sources, lead times, design changes, testing needs, and anything else we could no longer keep in our cluttered heads. At one point, we spent a few minutes just staring at the board, then at each other, then back at the board. We’ve got it under control, but it’s a lot.

As has been our philosophy, we want to be as open and transparent about OpenROV as possible. For the sake of the project, as well as the off chance we can make the process a little easier for any groups that come after us. I plan to write a series of posts that deal with each of the issues on a more in-depth basis: basic business administration for makers, sourcing and inventory management, packaging and shipping, finding space, etc.

As always, let me know if you have any specific questions. I’m not an expert by any means, but I’m happy to share anything we’ve learned.

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Keep up with all of David Lang’s posts on MAKE

David Lang

Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!


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Comments

  1. Strange to say but luckily my Kickstarters have been on the left hand side of the graph. My Robotic Minion Starter Kit turned out to be harder to make enclosures for than I predicted. I was hoping to outsource the laser cutting, but it turned out to be way more cost effective to do it in house. Next time I will be sure I have a more solid 1x-10x-100x manufacturing plan!
    Best of luck shipping your ROV’s.

    1. Keep looking ahead! Sounds good! All the Best!!!

  2. Britta Riley says:

    David- So very exciting to hear you echoing my team’s thoughts and inside conversations. We are just about to start shipping–finally!!– but it would take a Proust-length book to explain what we have gone through to get here. We love our backers and are so grateful for their support and faith in us. But the back story that is difficult to communicate succinctly to a wide audience that it requires a lot more than backers to make it through crowdfunding alive as a small company, even when you appear to hit it out of the park. It takes finding amazing vendors, a horde of loyal and driven new employees, and– yes– traditional funders who really believe in your company as well. Crowdfunded manufacturing breaks all of the traditions of manufacturing and business. Pre-sales themselves are wholly divergent business case from the current economic models built to support small business. Several of our team members and advisors have had plenty of experience in traditional manufacturing businesses and they are astounded by how we have to do everything completely differently & from scratch: from ecommerce to inventory to customer relations. That extra energy costs more than anyone can foresee at the outset. When you have customers numbering in the thousands, it is most assuredly a different story from packing boxes and answering emails in your garage. You start to need things like enterprise level software for data management because the crowdfunding sites do not provide basic ecommerce support. We are a company that is committed to transparency and lives by the motto, “release early release often,” but at some point we were faced with the realities of the $$ cost of transparency and frequent publishing. Updates on Kickstarter take someone’s time and energy to craft and you really want to be certain about what you’re promising. We found that every time we made a post, it created huge customer service loads. With each post, we would get a flood of hundreds of emails from people who wanted to change their address, ask us a question about their specific cases, or even just rant about how awful we are as a company for being late and let us know they were reporting us to the Business Bureau. Customer service became a full time position that we had no way of estimating in the advance. We started to adopt a policy of accumulating documentation to publish after delivery rather than issuing create more customer service work before. We were not proud of this, but it was absolutely necessary. Every vendor who increases pricing for the additional packaging need to ensure parts don’t scratch in shipping by $.35 an order or for freighting rate hikes since you negotiated pricing pre-Kickstarter, creates new costs that multiply by the thousands. Through the process, we just gave out refunds to anyone who was not clearly a true backer. In the end, we are going to make it, thankfully, and be amongst the fiesty & –frankly– lucky (or maybe blessed) few Kickstarter manufacturing projects that make it through to fulfillment. We have whittled our customer pool down to our core believers. I cannot wait to get these good people in particular their windowfarms and begin a journey into urban agriculture and citizen science with them. We’ve added to our list of backers another list of backers– our new employees, investors, and a hand-sourced cadre of US manufacturing partners who have pulled out all the stops to help us succede: Harbec Plastics, Stelray Polymers, the Mid-Hudson Workshop for the Disabled, & Angola Wire. We now have a business unlike any other, built from the ground up for continued customer-driven funding and small batch flash sales made in the USA. We too are eager to share our experiences with other manufacturing entrepreneurs entering a brave new world of Making.

    1. Thank you so much for chiming in here. You’ve been a huge inspiration for us, and I’m really excited to hear that you have made it to the light on the other end of the tunnel.

      It’s been a crazy time for us. This is all so exciting, and yet terrifying at the same time. Whenever I talk to other makers who’ve been through the process, I hear a similar story to the Proust-length book you describe. We’re having to learn too much, too fast, and with too much on the line.

      I feel really strongly that the only way to do this – to figure out how to make these micro-manufacturing operations sustainable – is to do it together. It shouldn’t take a lucky break. Hopefully, us trying to go through the process in public will shine an honest light on the pitfalls and opportunities and, hopefully, make it an easier path for others to follow.

      You’re our hero!

  3. Very interesting, the Maker black hole! It’s a tough spot but it’s certainly better than under-estimating the amount of money necessary to build the product at the first place.

    As you mention every maker projects are different and will show a strong variation of that curve since it can be somewhat predictable (even in electronics), require a very simple mechanical movement or just need a 3D-printed enclosure. It’s a different thing than building the Millennium Falcon of the submarines… Not all makers are equal ;-)

    One of the great point coming out of the article and comments is that as soon as you take the decision to hit KS, you have to change your mindset from “I am building a product” into “I am building a company”. This was different last year, at times when the word “pledge” had a different meaning, but for better or for worse this is how things are today: you are expected to deliver a finished product, and while your ‘backers’ will cut you some slacks as they know the KS drill, your ‘customers’ have low patience and high expectations (not sure where is the threshold, but KS comments are a good barometer when you are announcing your first delay).

    Once you are in that mindset, the next step is to avoid being hit by reality (and that is pretty common since entrepreneurs are optimistic!). You should ask yourselves ahead of time: are you ready to build a small/medium/big company? Want to attract VCs? Want to sell a product and go build another one right after? Want to sell a product only and don’t need the cash for production? Or just want to run an experiment and meet new friends online? It depends on your initial objectives, and that’s a thing which should be crystal clear in every minds from the beginning as this will help you build the most appropriate organization (staff, equipment, expenses, space needs, etc…) to fulfill YOUR goal (essentially what Dustin mentions). You could easily cap the number of units and sort out the pledge limit if you have enough data and discipline, then get ready to execute. Of course everybody has a plan till they get punched in the mouth, but you can avoid uppercuts while getting jabbed in the left eye every other minute (hey, it’s hardware!). Britta’s comment is great about the most overlooked time sink that customer service is.

    Ref “making it through the black hole” part, there is no silver bullet: OpenROV needs to be nearby salty waters, has defined team skills, requires some testing equipment and has a certain amount of $$ to spend. All this will impact the decision-making process. But there is definitely some common denominator in the fields you mentioned and we should all help digging into this, by surveying a good bunch of makers on their current set-up. It sometimes goes as far as asking your backers to help you assemble units during their week-ends!

    Other than that, if you’d like to push the experiment even further you could do a full monty on OpenROV and distribute all the data points to everyone until you get to the finish line. On top of getting help from readers (eventually :-)) this would be the first real-life case on which other makers could reflect on. I’ve been dreaming about this for a while.

    In any case… Go David!

    1. Thanks, Cyril!

      You’re exactly right! We talk a lot about this: Life After Kickstarter (LAK). We tried to make decisions that set us up for longer term success. We thought ~120 kits was near the ceiling of what we should reasonably handle for the first batch. Luckily, we hit almost exactly that number.

      I think you play a really important role in this whole ecosystem. There needs to be a better roadmap for this, both before and after the Kickstarter campaign. I think Haxlr8tr knows how this, especially for the higher demand products like Nomiku. It will be great to get more of your feedback on this “Kickstarted” mini-series.

      1. Logan K says:

        This article and the upcoming series you alluded to is awesome! I will be watching and waiting!

        1. Logan K says:

          Wrong spot… meant to post that at the bottom.

  4. Anton Willis says:

    Great post David! I feel like we’re in the same middle space with the Oru Kayak, and pre-planning for Kickstarter now. We’ve been looking at a number of options for the final assembly stage- the volumes are too small for most contract assemblers, but too large for us to do in-house. One option we’re excited about is setting up a small assembly operation in Willits, my hometown- it’s a rural town with chronic unemployment, and lots of vacant industrial space that used to serve the wood products industry. There are a lot of places like this in the US (even close to our high-tech and financial hub cities), and this gets back a bit to your “plumbers” post- how can we leverage the underused resources around us- in terms of people, space, and manufacturing equipment- to move forward with the more small-scale, decentralized, dare-I-say democratic model of design and manufacturing that the Maker movement espouses?

    Anton

  5. [...] read this article over at Make Magazine about the question of “now what” for folks who 1) successfully get funding via KickStarter and 2) are in the ramp up stage between a [...]

  6. [...] the piece Kickstarted? Now What?, Anton Willis remarks: Great post David! I feel like we’re in the same middle space with the Oru [...]

  7. [...] as being grossly underestimated. Britta Riley of Windowfarms mentioned a similar issue in the comments of the last post. What are best practices around that? Has anyone done anything that’s particularly effective? [...]

  8. [...] as being grossly underestimated. Britta Riley of Windowfarms mentioned a similar issue in the comments of the last post. What are best practices around that? Has anyone done anything that’s particularly effective? [...]

  9. [...] as being grossly underestimated. Britta Riley of Windowfarms mentioned a similar issue in the comments of the last post. What are best practices around that? Has anyone done anything that’s particularly effective? [...]