Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt had a concept for a new product — a plastic holder for Apple Corp.'s iPhone that served as both a stand and a way to attach the phone on tripods during video recording.
They also had financial support, thanks to more than $130,000 raised for the stand, which they called Glif, through the Kickstarter online financing business.
What the two partners in New York-based Studio Neat did not have was a traditional product development background that would guide them in bringing it to market.
“We just started cold calling manufacturers,” Gerhardt said during the Industrial Designers Society of America's annual conference, held Sept. 14-17 in New Orleans. “We literally just did a Google search on injection molding.”
Their success in creating and launching the Glif — with more than 10,000 units sold less than six months after they came up with the idea — not only provides an example to other potential entrepreneurs, but also is showing how molders open to a nontraditional product development process also can build new business opportunities.
“I realized right away that these guys were going to be successful,” said Joel McCue, a design engineer with Premier Source, a unit of Falcon Plastics Inc. of Brookings, S.D. “These weren't just people coming to us and saying, ‘I have a dream to invent something.' They had money, and they had a built-in sales base.”
They also were following a new path that is being used by more people who believe they have come up with the “next big thing.”
Kickstarter.com has only been in existence for a little more than two years. The concept began as a way for filmmakers and musicians to “crowd-source” financial backing for their creative projects, said Yancy Strickler, one of the co-founders of the New York-based site. Designers and people like Gerhardt and Provost quickly found the site and its potential to back new products as well, and design has become the third-biggest project category on the site.
Using Kickstarter, individuals introduce their projects — typically through a video and Web post. They must set a specific target and limit the number of days open for backers to pledge support, so failed concepts do not linger on the books forever. If the project fails to meet the goal, no one has to pay up on a pledge, and creators get immediate feedback about whether their idea holds merit in the marketplace.
But while pledges may start at as little as $1, Kickstarter can open the door to major investments spread across its users.
Scott Wilson, the founder of Chicago-based design group Minimal, was hoping to raise $15,000 when he went to Kickstarter with an idea for the TikTok and LunaTik, which use the iPod Nano as part of a multifunction watch. The TikTok places the Nano inside a polycarbonate housing attached to a silicone watch strap, while the LunaTik's housing is aluminum.
Within hours, Wilson had met his $15,000 goal. By the time the pledging period ended, the project had raised more than $942,000. It is the most successful project on Kickstarter.
“From a $200 prototype to $1 million in 30 days,” Wilson said, “and we had instant global brand awareness.”
Many of the 13,500 backers who saw Wilson's video describing the project committed enough money to pay for their own TikTok or LunaTik — which guaranteed a minimum sales base. Minimal shipped 21,120 units within 90 days, working with suppliers in China.
Minimal was an established design group that already had created projects before for established brands before it approached Kickstarter. Gerhardt and Provost, however, were starting as raw beginners. Neither had experience with product design. The two friends had studied architecture. Gerhardt worked mostly as a software developer and Provost helped create retail and museum spaces.
Provost had just bought a new iPhone 4 in 2010 and was using it to shoot videos when he decided the phone needed some way to mount it to a tripod for steadier filming. He immediately sent Gerhardt a text message saying he had an idea for a product.
They brainstormed on concepts until they landed on a simple one-piece Santoprene thermoplastic elastomer part that the phone would snap into, with a screw hole that would attach to a standard tripod mount. They used three-dimensional printing to develop prototypes, then went to Kickstarter hoping to raise $10,000 to move them toward manufacturing.
They tripled their goal amount the first day, finally ending with $137,000 in pledges.
One of McCue's co-workers in South Dakota found a blog post noting the Kickstarter buzz for the Glif. He brought it to McCue's attention at Premier Source, and McCue thought it would fit into the company nicely.
Falcon is a family-owned injection molder with four facilities. Premier Source, one of two locations in Falcon's hometown of Brookings, specializes in low-volume, specialty and prototype production. McCue followed a link through Kickstarter to contact Studio Neat.
At the same time, the partners — who still had full-time jobs outside Studio Neat — were encountering problems with their plans to move into full-scale production.
While the response for the Glif was far bigger than they had dreamed of, it was still too small of a volume to get the attention of large-scale molders they contacted. The few that did respond were firms with a U.S. presence, but manufacturing was all in Asia.
“For guys like us, it doesn't make sense to go to China,” Gerhardt said. They wanted to work with U.S. companies both to support local manufacturing and so they could learn from the process rather than just handing it off to someone else and hoping for the best.
“Especially at the beginning, we didn't know anything,” Gerhardt said.
Once Premier Source introduced itself to the pair — receiving the best response McCue said he had ever received from a cold-call contact to a potential customer — the learning process began both for Studio Neat and for molders that were about to teach themselves a new way to communicate and develop parts with people new to the process.
“Prior to this, we had done a few small projects,” McCue said. “One of the things we specialize in is in getting new molds developed, but we had not really encountered the amount of a learning curve with a customer as we did this time. We had more typically made molds for companies who had molds made for them previously.”
Studio Neat learned about parting lines, sink, gating and ejector pins. The pair weren't even sure if there was a way to insert-mold the tripod connector into place, or if they would have to add them by hand, one at a time.
Premier Source, meanwhile, had to learn to clear out common assumptions about what their customers knew, and even replace industry terms with language that was easier for novices to understand. Even software does not always translate perfectly between the standards used in plastics and those used in art and design, McCue said.
The whole time, though, Studio Neat also had to focus on its requirements for the Glif that could not be changed if the product was to work, while tweaking those that had to change for molding. Gerhardt said he and Provost went through another five or six design changes before finally settling on the one that went into production.
“There was pretty healthy give-and-take on both sides,” McCue said.
Studio Neat documented the process with blog posts and video showing the mold making and the first parts coming off the line. Working with Premier Source gave them a lot of information they can use in future products, Gerhardt said, while Premier Source has learned more about the new generation of product designers through the process.
Studio Neat now is developing its second product — a stylus for use on tablet computers. And Premier Source is reaching out to more nontraditional product developers like Studio Neat. McCue regularly checks Kickstarter now, looking for other projects that make sense for it. The company has new work in the pipeline through connections there.
“I've been in touch with people from all over the U.S. and even in Africa and Indonesia,” McCue said. “This gives a small company like us an opportunity to reach out to companies that we never could have thought we could access from South Dakota.
Gerhardt said there are plenty of other product creators like Studio Neat that are looking for manufacturers willing to reach out and help them bring their projects into production — creators who are committed to sticking close to home, if they can just make the right connection.
“It's like there's this mini rebirth of interest in manufacturing in the U.S., especially among young people who grew up with the idea that everything had to be made in Asia,” McCue said. “They're now realizing that it's still here.”