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What do you do if your crowdfunding campaign fails? Break your product down, figure out what actually works, and try the whole thing again.

That’s what Zach Supalla and the Spark team have done. Quite successfully, too. You may remember Zach from his valiant (but not quite successful) attempt to kickstart his internet-connected lightbulb last year. For most of us, raising $125,000 would be a huge success, but it was only half of what Zach needed to manufacture his lighting device.

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Founder Zach Suppalla and the Spark Core

The shortfall was an opportunity, though. Zach was able to go back to the drawing board and re-think his strategy. The end of his first Kickstarter project coincided with a move to Shenzhen to take part in the Haxlr8r program. While there, he spent a lot of time thinking about how he could make his project work for less money. He had so much interest from the original project, he thought, surely there was a way forward.

The first change they made, at the urging of Zach Hoeken Smith (program director of HAXLR8R and one of the founders of MakerBot), was to move to a “digital fabrication only” mentality, meaning all of their products would be easy to create in small volumes: PCB designs, laser cut parts, CNC machined or 3D printable. Instead of requiring thousands of dollars in tooling, a product that is made with the digital fabrication tools can be produced in very small batches, and can be changed quickly to accommodate new ideas or customer feedback.

When they arrived in Shenzhen, the team thought they’d be making lamps. But they quickly realized that they could never design a lamp that fit everyone’s taste, so they shifted their focus to the PCB that powered the connected light experience, which they called the Spark Core. The Core was originally designed to be sold to lighting manufacturers, but as they began giving them out to beta users, they realized their board had uses far beyond lighting, so they readjusted their strategy again and turned it into a development tool — an Arduino-compatible Wi-Fi development board. The latest revision of the Spark Core aims to be a platform for all sorts of connected devices.

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Zach and the team’s journey is a perfect example of a lean hardware startup mindset. Taking advantage of digital fabrication tools and the market feedback of Kickstarter backers, they were able to pivot away from a device that sort-of worked into a new product that has raised over $450,000 in pre-orders.

David Lang is a co-founder of OpenROV. His book, Zero to Maker, will be out in September. 

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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