One day many years ago an idea came to me and planted itself deep in my brain. It was a concept for an electronic scoring system for foam sword battles using magnets, sort of like a mash up of laser tag and Nerf battles. It may seem silly to you, but I became obsessed over it. I searched the internet for plans to build such a device, but found nothing so I decided to make it myself. You can find a photo essay of the process on the Milwaukee Makerspace blog. It shows a long and sometimes painful journey to try to bring a new product to market. I’d like to share with you some classic mistakes I made along the way.
Working without a plan
It took me a long time to make a working prototype, I don’t even want to count the hours. One reason for this is legitimate: I had a lot to learn about making. The system (MagneTag, I now call it) is based on the well-known phenomenon called electromagnetic induction. I studied physics in school and I knew that this would work, but I spent my time drawing on whiteboards, not playing with circuits. Fortunately, a bunch of smart people got together to form Milwaukee Makerspace, which I joined with great enthusiasm. There I was able access new tools I had no idea how to use and meet people with skills I needed to collect. People were quite generous with their knowledge and I slowly learned how to program a microcontroller and etch my own custom circuit boards. This was all a necessary part of the process, but looking back I can see that if I had spent more time beforehand thinking through some of my design choices, I could have avoided months of wasted work. Being exposed to the plethora of tools at the makerspace was both a blessing and a curse. For example, I spent way too long trying to make wearable sensor coils by trying to feed magnet wire into an old embroidery machine. This is a terrible idea for many reasons, but I was convinced I could hack it together. If I had carefully considered the requirements of the system from the beginning, I would have seen that it was not a viable solution. I now understand that failing to plan is planning to fail. I should have struck a better balance between exploring new ideas and design rigor. Sometimes this kind of experience is the only way you can learn which battles are worth fighting.
After about two years in I could play a game of MagneTag and it was glorious; it was as fun as I had imagined. Having a working prototype was enough to convince two of my maker friends to join the project, and we started working on a production model that we could crowdfund. This is where I made the classic mistake of feature creep. For some reason I was convinced that the design would never be complete without Bluetooth and an app. Bluetooth all the things! This is part of the curse of the maker mindset: doing things because you can, not because you should. I had a goal of bring my game to the world, and developing this extra feature cost us another year of wasted work. This app didn’t really contribute much to the experience, it added a big new layer of complexity that could break in the hands of the user. As I said before I was obsessed with building my dream system, and I let it obscure my vision. I now understand how important it is to focus on the key thing you are trying to deliver and make sure you do it exceptionally well.
Not understanding the buyer
When you are so close to your project, you begin to lose perspective. You can’t really see it through fresh eyes. The maker mindset is to build, but if you want to sell something you need to truly understand what people are going to pay for. I made the wrong assumption that what I considered to be a fair price, would be universally acceptable to everyone else. When we kept adding features, we would always rationalize after the fact that it justified the increased costs. When we finally felt satisfied with our first production design, we did the math and saw that we had to sell them for $200 to have a viable business. A wearable battle system is fun, but you don’t need it. Not that many people can afford to drop that kind of cash on a game. When we launched and subsequently failed our first Kickstarter, we were contacted by other businesses that wanted to use our game for profit. This is how we sold our first 200 units. There was a potential market at this price point, but we didn’t understand that until much later. If we had done more market research up front, we would have either changed our design, or changed how we marketed the product.
The Field of Dreams Fallacy
If you build it they will come…No they won’t. We launched our awesome new product on Kickstarter and failed spectacularly. I looked at the site analytics, nobody came to the page. As an engineer I used to make snide remarks about the marketing department. I no longer do this because it turns out that what they do is extremely important. Even if you’ve made something awesome it takes a whole other set of skills to get people to see it. The most frustrating part about trying to build a hardware company is that each phase requires you to learn an entirely new domain of knowledge. Our team is entirely comprised of engineers. I should have been more proactive about networking outside of the maker community to find different types of people to join our team.
Knowing when to quit
Am I still making this mistake after seven years of working on MagneTag? My theory is that we all have a finite amount of emotional energy we can devote to a personal project. Energy is lost in failure, but can be replenished by even small successes like seeing people enjoy the thing you created. When people tell me they love my invention, I push myself to keep trying. My father used to say “It’s ok to fall on your face, at least you are moving forward.” Even though I am fixated on an idea, I make room in my life for friends and family. If I do give up one day in defeat, I can honestly say that I learned some important lessons and gained some interesting skills.
I remain passionate about getting this awesome game out into the world. That’s why we are re-launching our Kickstarter campaign to manufacture the first batch of our new design. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but I believe if you can learn from your failures, they are not wasted.