This is another interview my series with founders who make physical products.
In this interview I want to find out how a founder who got frustrated with the iPad built a *profitable* and innovative keyboard.
Steven Isaac is founder of Touchfire, which makes an elevated keyboard that allows people to touchtype on an iPad.
Steven Isaac, Touchfire
Steven Isaac is founder of Touchfire, which makes an elevated keyboard that allows people to touchtype on an iPad.
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Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner, and I am the founder of a little site called Mixergy.com. You ever heard of it? And in this interview I want to help you out with this fascination that I’ve noticed that you in my audience have with physical products. Just like years ago, we used to get excited about the latest start up to build a web app. And then after that when we got our iPads, we got excited about what apps were on there and what companies built those apps. Today I feel when we have an iPad out, one of the first things that people look at is the case. Who made it? Was it one of those cases that look like books? Who did it? How did they create it? What keyboard do you have?
It’s the entrepreneurs who are creating physical products that I think are on the cutting edge and, frankly, they’re getting heard along the way. I want to learn from their successes and I want you and I both to learn from some of the struggles and the pains that they’ve had in ideation, manufacturing, shipping, all that. And to help us do it, in this interview I’ve got Steven Isaac. He is the founder of Touchfire. Which makes an elevated keyboard that allows people to touch type on the iPad. Steven, welcome.
Steven: Thank you.
Andrew: You do not have a background in physical products and manufacturing. Your background is in software.
Steven: That’s absolutely correct.
Andrew: What company…
Steven: I’ve been doing software for 30 years.
Andrew: 30 years of software?
Steven: That’s right.
Andrew: Great. What company were you in just before you launched Touchfire?
Steven: I was at Microsoft before that. And then a little startup called Earth Class Mail, between Microsoft and Touchfire.
Andrew: I totally know Earth Class Mail. They’ve got an office over here. The idea is instead of having your mail go to a mailbox, it goes to Earth Class Mail. They scan it, put it online, and you can look at your mail on the Internet.
Steven: That’s right.
Andrew: That’s the thing. That’s where you were. Alright, I want to know how you went from there to here, but I want to find out where here is. How many Touchfires have you sold?
Steven: We’ve sold a little over 12,000 at this point.
Andrew: Okay, and what does a Touchfire keyboard sell for?
Steven: It sells for $49.95.
Andrew: Okay, so I’m looking at roughly 600 thousand dollars gross from selling Touchfire. And this is outside of your Kickstarter campaign, right?
Steven: That included the Kickstarter campaign.
Andrew: Oh, that includes Kickstarter.
Steven: That includes our first Kickstarter campaign.
Andrew: Okay. So what kind of profit can you make when you’re selling 12,000 keyboards?
Steven: So profit all depends on what sort of yield you’re getting in manufacturing. What you’re initial costs are for tooling, for design, etc. So the beauty of manufacturing is that there’s a lot of upfront costs. There’s massive upfront costs compared to the world of software. But once you have a process down, and you’re cranking out products at a high yield, well, then you can be relatively profitable. So it’s all about…
Andrew: So are you profitable yet?
Steven: …how much can you get out of a particular set of tooling. When products change quickly, which in the world of mobile computing, especially the world of tablets, there’s a lot of change that happens very fast. If you do product design that’s dependent on a particular version of a phone or an iPad, you could burn through your initial investment very, very quickly because you got to change every time. So one of the things that we did with Touchfire is that we made it work with iPad on, iPad to, iPad three, iPad four. And that was one of the things that was key to being able to make something that actually can have some profit potential.
Andrew: I see potential, but no profits yet?
Steven: For us we’re definitely still paying off our initial development expenses.
Andrew: Okay. All right, fair enough. This whole idea that into your head as the result of an interview that you had at Amazon.
Steven: It’s true.
Andrew: What were you there to do an interview about and how did that spark your curiosity?
Steven: Well, I was at a company called Go and Silicon Valley in the late 80s and we built one of the world’s first tablet computers. This is when laptops consisted of something actually that looked more like a sewing machine like a compact. So we came out with this tablet computer with both hardware and software, we built an operating system from scratch. It was quite an experience, it was fabulous. The operating system was called Pinpoint, I wrote a lot of that quote myself. AT&T ultimately bought Go and shut it down.
One of the things that became a very, very big lesson for me was input. We used a stylus. We were one of the first people to use a stylist and it turned out to not be the best sort of thing for doing all of the input. Right hand writing, you know? Was just a lot of work to get anything and handwriting recognition of course was not the most accurate at the time. So I use a lot of tower computers in that era and then I went to Microsoft where I was the group project manager for a research project that became Microsoft’s first mobile operating system, Windows E. So again, input was always a factor when you’re looking at a mobile device.
So the iPad came out as we know in 2010. I had left Earth class maybe around that time and I was interviewing at various companies and one of them was Amazon and they asked me about my experiences at Go and I mentioned how the iPad was like amazing. It was everything that we had ever possibly imagined a tablet computer could be and oh my God. Multitouch, now you can do input with 10 fingers instead of you know? Instead of basically one, the ability to be able to detect multiple touches at the same time opened up the door for touch typing which is really if you look at it the most popular by far way of getting information into computers and it has been for you know? For forever. So but then I said you know?
You’re still typing on a hard piece of glass with no tactile feedback whatsoever, and that’s just not an ideal situation. So there’s probably still some more to go, so the interviewer being a good interviewer said well Steve. What would you do? And I didn’t have an answer, you know? It was kind of like stumbling around a bit and I was kind of embarrassed and well I didn’t get the job. So, you know? I’m kind of…
Andrew: Why was Amazon interested in your ideas for how to improve the keyboard?
Steven: Well I think it was really just a side question on a side question. I mean, the main reason I was interviewing at Amazon really had nothing whatsoever to do with that area. It was just one of those things that came up in an interview and of course a good interviewer always drills down on something that somebody says or you know? That sort of on the side, so that’s really what it’s all about.
Andrew: I see. They were just looking to see how does this guy Stephen think and I see and since you brought it up they asked you about it. It wasn’t that Amazon wanted to know how to build a better keyboard for the iPad.
Andrew: You’re a guy who cares about puzzles like this and you’re going home thinking why did I have a better answer? When you come up with this answer that leads to this beautiful keyboard.
Steven: Exactly. That was it, I was just going gosh, you know? There should be a way to make this work, there should be a way to make tactile be part of something like a tablet. So the summer of 2010, I just started to prototype what became Touch Fire. I had some time on my hands, you know?
So I literally got out my Exacto knife and started getting various pieces of flexible material of various sorts and then I became kind of fascinated with this idea of adding a tactile layer onto a tablet. You know a tablet is like a software dream, right? It’s just a blank field that you can fill with whatever you want and you know?
Hardware solutions to this sort of problem involved raising up little tactile elements out of the LCD screen, but to me that misses a very, very important piece of it, which is comfort, which is making something actually feel good to type on. That involves reducing the acceleration of your fingers. Your fingers accelerate very quickly when it types.
Now what a good keyboard does is, it actually reduces that acceleration at the bottom of the keystroke, and turns it around. It’s a little trampoline, a little bounce, and that’s what makes a keyboard feel lively. That’s the kind of thing that the typical mechano-solutions don’t provide. Whereas doing something as an external layer arouse at least in theory, at least I thought a way to provide comfort as well as feeling, and techno where the keys are.
The other thing that’s so important is being able to rest your fingers on a keyboard, because that’s how you orient yourself. People, when you’re touch typing constantly return to the home row.
Andrew: Let me do it now. Yeah I have my hands on my keyboard, and yeah you’re right. They don’t hover over the keys the way I think we were learned to type. They sit on top of the keys to rest, and then my fingers move around.
Steven: That’s right, and you constantly return to that home row. The little nubbins on the F and J key help you find out where those are. That’s how you really, really type. So we needed to be able to enable people to rest their fingers comfortably on a tablet. Well a multi-touch tablet that’s going to cause everything to be activated.
Andrew: Right, if my fingers are on every key, it’s going to confuse the iPad. I can’t wait for you to reveal this keyboard to the audience. I’m not going to ask you to show it now. Let’s let them imagine what the solution is, and then watch the unveiling afterwards, because I guarantee you that someone listening to this who hasn’t seen the product isn’t going to know the solution that you’ve come up with, it’s so different, and it works.
So, I see that you’re now thinking about this problem. What’s the first thing that you do? Do you start to create it out of stuff you have at home, or are you just imagining and drawing it at this stage?
Steven: What I needed to prove out the concept, what I was really after because I’m obviously not an Industrial Designer, Mechanical Engineer was just to come up with proof of concept. Just to make myself, and well perhaps somebody else believes there was something within this idea. I went out and got material. All sorts of different kinds of material, and again it was a little bit of being so unknowledgeable in the field that I really didn’t know what not to use, what not to do, and so I ended up finding things like keyboard covers which have certain properties that allow you to say this might be what would work if you did it, if you come up with something.
Andrew: You mean you bought actual covers for keyboards. You know those plastic covers that we sometimes see at the grocery store. Put it on top of the keyboard, and when people. I see.
Steven: I started modifying them. I got out my Exacto knife, and I started to try and build structure around those things, around those materials. So basically, I actually succeeded in putting together a prototype that showed that this concept had some legs, that it was going somewhere, and then I went looking for Mechanical Engineers, Industrial Designers, people who were experts in this field who could then see we could take this concept to an actual product.
Andrew: I wonder where you do that. If I’m looking for a developer today, I have several ways to find one. If I’m looking for someone overseas maybe I’ll go to oDesk or Rent A Coder. If I’m looking for someone local, I might go to a bunch of meet ups, maybe I’ll ask some friends. I don’t know where I’d go and find an Industrial Designer. Where do you go?
Steven: I didn’t know either. So, what I did is I just started Googling around, and I looked in Seattle, and I looked in, which is of course where I’m at right now, but I also looked in San Francisco, because I figured that’s where there would be more of them.
Andrew: You’re Googling Industrial Designer, San Francisco, Industrial Designer, Seattle, that basic.
Steven: Mechanical Engineers, exactly.
Andrew: What’s the difference between an Industrial Designer, and a Mechanical Engineer?
Steven: So, it’s sort of the difference between in our world in the software world, it’s the difference between a UI Designer and a Software Developer who’s perhaps working on back ends. The mechanical engineer is an engineer. They’re the guys who decide, who make sure bridges don’t fall down. An Industrial Designer is much more concerned with the user interface, how somebody is going to use a given product, how does it feel, how does it work. Typically what you have in the same way almost that you have a software developer, and a user Interface Designer working together as a pair, as a team. In the chemical world you have that same sort of parent typically.
Andrew: I just did that search right now Industrial Designer, San Francisco. I came up with the job listings on Indeed dot com, LinkedIn profiles, there are a collection of them. I see Yelp reviews, or Yelp results, I see Industrial Design, California College of Arts, and I see what seems like a studio here Miken and Mieke? So that’s the kind of results that you might have come across.
Steven: That’s right, now you’re starting to get close. Then we start searching for consultants. We add consultant into the mix, because you know just like anything there’s companies for hire to do that sort of thing.
Steven: So here’s what happened. I found a group in San Francisco that was sort of an inside group. I mean they typically didn’t work for people that were coming off the street. They were like Mechanical Engineers, Mechanical Engineer. They would be the ones who would go handle a hard problem. I told them about what I was doing, signed NDA’s, the whole thing, and the person I was talking to said, “You know, we’re really focused on solving very specific problems.
Give us a case problem around how to close something, and we’ll solve that problem, but what you’re talking about is doing some very basic research, and we’re just not the right people really to do that. However, you might want to talk to this guy who was the best man at my wedding who moved to Seattle from San Francisco not too long ago, and he’s just opened up a consulting practice. He might just be the guy for you to talk to.”
Andrew: I see.
Steven: It turned out through a complete stroke of luck really, and from somebody who was a business development person this firm I found Brad, my current co-founder. I talked to some other industrial design companies as well along the way, but there was something about Brad that made me just go “Wow, this is somebody that I can really work with.”
Andrew: Brad Mellman[SP]
Steven: That’s Brad Mellman, Yes.
Andrew: I see, and how do you convince him to join forces with you when all you have is an idea that basically he can take and go with?
Steven: Well, you don’t. What you do is you start off and you start making progress towards a goal. You don’t talk about “All right, we’re going to change the world, come join me ” You say, ” Well look, let’s see what we can do over the course of two weeks, or three weeks to make some progress in this area, ” and then you sit down and you do it.
Andrew: Are you paying him or did you initially say, “Hey let’s be co- founders in this business together, and I’ll…”
Steven: No, no. I was initially paying him. [SS]
Andrew: I see. Okay. How do you know what to pay for an Industrial Designer when you’re coming in from the software world?
Steven: Well, it turns out that, that world also has some pretty standards sorts of rates that people charge. They’re in the, you know $75.00 to $125.00 range per hour typically. It’s pretty cut and dry actually.
Andrew: So you’re telling him your vision. You’re giving him some of the prototypes that you’ve put together, the mockups I guess you’d call them, and you’re saying ” How do we do it?” Does he then take it from there, and go back and create it, or is it more of a collaboration for you?
Steven: Much more of a collaboration. In this case, you know I’ve actually been a product guy my whole career. I started off as a software developer, and I ended up when I came to Microsoft as what’s called a Perma [??] Manager is basically somebody, you know product designer, that sort of role when you’re trying to figure out what it is the user needs, what is it that you have to do to turn a technical product into something that’s usable. That’s always been my thing.
So, I worked literally hand in glove with Brad to figure this out, because I did have kind of the division thing. I did have this idea of what this should be because of the deep experience that I had with tablets, and that whole world, and you know. So I sort of knew deep down what this could be, and where it should go. So when we sat down, and tried to Brad actually had a lot of experience designing mechanical keyboards, thought “Oh yeah, this is easy. I’ll just basically build a mechanical key switch without the key switch,” and that was his first attempt at it.
Now the thing that’s tricky about what we were doing is that we’re making it out of silicone, so we realized we needed an elastic, or flexible material. There’s a variety of them. Silicone in many ways is the best. Silicone is absolutely pure. Nothing sticks to it. Once it’s molded into a particular shape it does not drip from that shape. You can just crush it, do whatever you want with it. Silicone is really an amazing material. We decided to use that.
The downside of silicone is you cannot machine it. You have to mold it which means you have to machine something else to get out of aluminum or steel, and that becomes a mold that you pour silicone into which then shapes the silicone, and then you have your thing. So now, imagine a compiled time of two weeks. That’s what we’re dealing with. Every little change in this product you have to rebuild this mold, and this mold is typically built in a CNC machine. Essentially a drilling machine that’s computer controlled that runs around spewing out cooling fluid, and it’s a very time, and expensive process.
Andrew: Can we see what the finished product looks like?
Steven: We can. Here is Touchfire.
Andrew: That’s it. The keyboard it sits on top of the IPad screen. Do you have an IPad next to you?
Steven: Yes, I do.
Andrew: Let’s show what it looks like on the screen.
Andrew: There it is, and it’s right there on the screen. You can go and type. It usually doesn’t go up like that, but we don’t fold the keyboard like that when we type. When we hold it on an angle the way we type, it stays put. When we want it out of the way it slides down, and it’s meant to slide down, and out of the way easily, and the other thing I love about it is it folds into the smart case that Apple sells. If you’re reading the IPad like a book with the case all rolled up there it is, it just folds right into it.
Andrew: I tested it. It all stays in place where I don’t know why it’s not doing it right now.
Steven: It’s because I’ve got prototype case here that we’re just designing.
Andrew: Now you’re getting into cases.
Steven: Now we’re getting into cases, and yes we’re always the ones who are probably fussing around with the prototypes [SS]
Andrew: [SS] prototypes. As I understand it from your pre-interview with April Dykeman [SP] at Mixergy, 50 prototypes to get to the finished product you told her it was very costly. How expensive is each cycle of tooling the mold, putting silicone in and then creating a prototype?
Steven: Several thousand dollars.
Andrew: We talking maybe five?
Steven: You know, two, three, something of that nature.
Andrew: Two, three thousand per shot, and it takes a couple of weeks. Does that mean that it took you, no, it had to take less than a couple of weeks if you made 50 prototypes, or there were some going concurrently?
Steven: There were some variations. One of the things you can do is once you’ve made a mold, you can modify the mold, and that of course is a much faster and cheaper process.
Andrew: So how are you testing it? Is it all just you by yourself, or did you bring people in to try it out?
Steven: We absolutely brought people to try it out. Everybody has a very unique typing style when it comes down to it. There are of course are classes, and categories, but we have seen, you know, we’ve seen it all. We’ve seen people with just the craziest ways of typing. We did quite a few tests involving other people. We actually filmed a user test for the first video that we did for Kickstarter. We filmed on of our user tests, and yeah it’s fascinating.
Andrew: Can you give me an example of a change that you made based on user feedback?
Steven: Oh gosh, so, so many. So one of the things we had to figure out, and I’ll get to that a little [??]. We had to figure out how to let people rest their fingers on the keyboard, and at the same time the silicone that we used for Touchfire is incredibly thin. It’s point three millimeters, and it has to be that thin in order to let your finger to actually meet our touch screen underneath.
Andrew: Because it’s your finger that the iPad is looking for to know where it’s being pressed. You can’t use an eraser, you can’t use plastic, it has to be your finger.
Steven: Now some people do. Some people actually use conductive material to trigger the iPad screen. That’s how all the Stylus’s that are used with an iPad work. We decided we did not want to go that route. Partly because we wanted to make Touchfire transparent, and also it’s much more direct. It just feels much better when you can directly interact with the touch screen. It’s more accurate.
So in any case, we needed to be able to let people rest their fingers on those homeware [??] keys, and on other keys. So Brad came up with this idea because normally silicone at this thickness, it’s almost like saran wrap. It barely, barely exists almost. It’s a very, very thin layer. He came up with the idea, he was inspired by corrugation, by corrugated boxes to come up with a corrugation method to put little structures inside in the keys.
They’re small enough so you really don’t even feel them with your finger, but they provide enough structure to allow you to actually have force resistance when you rest your fingers on the keys. At the same time, they break away when you press hard enough, they break away, and then you get this sort of forced character instead of a regular keyboard has.
Andrew: This is what an Industrial Designer does. Come up with solutions that you and I could not come up with.
Steven: Absolutely. Exactly, and you know Brad is both actually a Mechanical Engineer, and an Industrial Designer. So imagine an UI Designer that also is a killer coder. That’s what Brad is.
Andrew: The first thing we do is we come up with our idea. Second thing, maybe we come up with some easy prototypes. In your case, you took covers for keyboards and you started playing around with that, and the next thing sounds like fun and Industrial Designer, then a Mechanical Engineer, and maybe the Industrial Designer introduces you to the Mechanical Engineer, right?
Steven: Yes, or the other way around, or find somebody that’s both which are fairly rare. Then you have to work very, very closely with them. What some people like to imagine is that you can kind come in, and say, “Well, we want to get this,” you know smoking a big cigar. “We want it to look like this, so I’ll see you in three weeks. ”
Andrew: That’s what I would think. He’s the expert, I’ll go let the expert do his thing, and I’ll do my thing.
Steven: That’s right, except that just again in product design, you know in any sort of product design whether it’s software, or mechanical there has to be somebody who’s really figuring out what’s right for the end user, and what’s right for the end product, and how do those things meet in the middle. That’s my thing.
We ended up working hand in hand on this project, because what we would then do is look at what users were doing, and that’s the whole thing. We then would do a user test. We’d see oh goodness, some users when we try this initial structure that we thought, well it actually gets in their way. It doesn’t allow them to type, so then you have to analyze well, what’s going on both at the macro level and at the micro level. You have to really understand what’s happening with people.
The space bar, the space bar was something that initially you’d think you just put another key there, but it turns out that the iPad changes the keys under the space bar tremendously, depends on how you’re using that keyboard. So, just a simple key just wouldn’t work, because the keys essentially change. So we ended up trying a gazillion things, and watching the way people type. Watching the way people typed angular keys. Not [??] but the keys that are at an angle.
Somebody has a callous on their finger that can get in the way of [SS]
Andrew: Where are you finding all these people that you’re testing with?
Steven: We find them with the usual thing. Friends, friends of friends, friends of other friends. People who are just part of our lives in some way.
Andrew: I see.
Steven: …some way.
Andrew: And this process seems so fun and so creative, Steven and still 50 prototypes is tough on a person both financially and mentally taxing. You almost gave up.
Andrew: What was the feeling that you had when you said, “That’s it”? How close did you come?
Steven: So we were, before Brad figured out this corrugation idea, we were just so bedeviled by this tension between needing to have something that was super thin and needing to be able to allow people to rest their fingers.
The first prototype that Brad did where he tried to build something that was just like the way that you would build a mechanical key that just didn’t work.
The sidewalls of the key, he just made them very stiff. Well, they were way too stiff. And they were, it turned out that normally the sidewalls on a mechanical key are what buckle. So you have a hard surface on the key, and then you have sidewalls that can basically compress and buckle. You know?
Steven: With this kind of a thing, you don’t have a hard surface on the top so that whole approach doesn’t work.
So we had to come up with just a completely way of thinking of how to do, how typing works.
So in a sense we actually reinvented the way typing works, the way a keyboard works because you know a normal mechanical key just, the whole goal of a mechanical key is to move a plunger vertically and then make an electrical connection. So whatever angle you’re hitting that key with, it all, the force just all gets transmitted to a vertical plunger going down.
In our world, we had to build keys that would directly provide the right sort of force resistance no matter what angle you hit the key at. So our little inner structure…
Andrew: So frankly, I’m ready to give up right now, and I’m not even going through all this.
Steven: [laughs] Yeah.
Andrew: So did you really say, “That’s it, I’m done with this, this is taking too long, I can’t make it work?”
Steven: We…yes. I ended up with, you know we were both getting pretty fried at this point.
We were going along a sort of line that was started with my prototype and we got to the point where we said, “You know what? This isn’t working, so let’s try, let’s just do a Hail Mary pass. Let’s just come up with every possible thing we can think of for a key structure and make one last keyboard” that had each key, each key was different, each key was actually a minor little thesis in key construction in a certain way.
And we tried microdots. We tried, you know, just all sorts of approaches. We tried big structures. You know, we just tried everything.
So we had this keyboard. It was the craziest thing. We still have a picture of this thing. It was just everything that you could imagine. And two of the keys were actually the grandfathers of the keys that we’re currently using.
And when we get this keyboard back, and you know it comes from our prototyper via FedEx, I mean, you know here it is. This is it. We’re either going to, it’s either going to make it or not.
And we’re sitting there trying each key. And, you know, we have our little Excel spreadsheet. You know, key number one, no. Key number two, no. You know?
Oh, my gosh. Key number 14. Wait a minute. There’s something there. Holy cow. Look. This actually works.
Key number 27, that one works really as well. And look, here’s key number 14 and 27, they’re basically the same idea with a slight variation. So that’s what happened.
We got desperate enough to say “we’re just going to try everything we can possibly think of, throw it up in the air,” and if that hadn’t worked, I think we wouldn’t be here today.
Andrew: So you need funding for this. You tried investors. What was investors’ feedback when you told them you wanted to make a physical product? You’re smiling already.
Steven: Yeah, yeah. That’s didn’t work. That didn’t go over too well.
Now here it is. We’re actually self-funded up until this point. We got to the point where we said, “Alright, we now have something that we believe is going to work so let’s take it to production, and let’s get investors, and let’s roll this thing out as a real product.”
So a lot of my old buddies from Go are now venture capitalists down in Silicon Valley. They’ll all gone on their career paths. So I talked to some of them and told them what I was up to and said “you know, look. We have something here that could really change the way people use tablets. This is something that could actually make tablets comfortable to type on. You know, that’s kind of a good thing. We took out a patent.
In fact, we got an issue, a utility patent. In one year, two phase which is really fast, incredibly fast. So we have IP. We have something that people are testers, like, on my God, this is amazing, but, yeah, it wasn’t software. So my friends looked around. We really talked to a bunch of super angels and came back saying, “No. No. Not for us.”
Andrew: Your friends said no.
Steven: Some of our friends said no. Not to take it personally, they said, “Look. There does not seem to be any way to get traction, investment traction in this idea because it’s not software. And that’s what Silicone Valley is. Again, this is 2010, ancient date of 2010 when this mechanical world, this revolution, hadn’t happened yet.
So there was this other thing called Kickstart which just at the time was really emerging as a potential place where you could do a physical product. And so we put together a Kickstart campaign, and we also actually had a very big Silicon Valley, had Touchfire in a Monday morning meeting. So this was serious, on my God. And it was that day. So here it is Monday and are they going to go thumbs up with some data. If they go thumbs up we’re going with them. If they go thumbs down, we are literally pressing the launch button on our Kickstarter project. And so thumbs down, we go in launching Kickstarter.
Andrew: In retrospect it seems to me like that was the better thing to have happened to you because now you guys own the company outright. Your customers feel like they helped bring this business about, almost like investors, and it puts you more in touch with your end users including – as we’ll find out during the rough periods. Am I right or am I over-glorifying this tough situation?
Steven: No, you’re 100 percent right because what Kickstarter has for us what has turned out to be was just the most fabulous experience and the toughest, of course, but when times get rough. The thing is we now have fairly direct contact with thousands of customers, thousands of end users not techies. They’re early adopters, of course, but for a lot of them this is their first Kickstarter project. Maybe they just became enamored with the idea.
So we went on a bit of a journey with our Kickstarter backers as many Kickstarter projects are, and so we launched our Kickstarter project in October of 2011 and it went through December. So it was seven weeks, and we went through some interesting times. We changed manufacturers. So originally we were going to manufacture in China. Brad has actually had a lot of experience manufacturing in China. He lived in Shanghai for two years, started up Spec Products at a Chinese design house. So he was very familiar with the manufacturing in China.
We were looking at doing that. Then we were contacted by a U. S. manufacturer. We ended up deciding to give them a shot. So we initially manufactured Touchfire out of Los Angeles. We also learned all about supply chain. We learned all about creating a supply chain because in LA you’ve got. . .
Andrew: Let me see. Up until now I get it the prototyping at home. I get the finding of an industrial designer, a mechanical designer working together to try to create the first prototype that actually works. I get how you get a prototype that works that customers, because they’re not users yet, love and it works for them. And now it’s time to start manufacturing. What’s the next step in the manufacturing process? Is it finding the factory? And if it is, how do I do that?
Steven: Right. So there’s a couple of things involved. You have to take a prototype design, one that can be built with prototyping tools and then turn it into a manufacturable design, one where you can spit out multiples every few minutes. It turns out that that is a very, very unique transition. And that’s where a lot of people on Kickstarter get hung up. That’s where we got hung up because again the software analogy is taking a prototype that works.
Perhaps written in a very dynamic language, not the most efficient, and trying to scale it up to a hundred thousand users. And that’s a similar process with manufacturing. You’re essentially scaling up a prototype into something that’s high volume, high scale sort of thing. Very often, design has to change. Very often it has to change dramatically.
Andrew: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Right, right. Just because it works with one offs, doesn’t mean that it will work when you’re manufacturing thousands. Okay, so who does that?
Steven: Well, yes actually, it was Brad. And it’s done in conjunction typically with the manufacturer. So a good manufacturer is going to give you feedback. They’re going to tell you, you know, they’ll whisper in your ear or emphatically say, “You know, this is not going to work in a high volume manufacturing environment.” So for manufacturing, you build tooling. Prototypes, you know, they’re one off, they’re hand built, they’re whatever you can do to get them going. In manufacturing you need to have big stuff. That’s the best way to describe it.
You have to have, in our case, you need molds. That are, again, made with large CNC machines that can handle constant flow of silicone. And they are in a press. They are in a device. Again, a very large device, bigger than a car, that handles the flow of material, exerts pressure and heat, to make a plastic, to make a silicone. So you have to basically formulate these things and then make them in some fashion. Heat and pressure are how you make things. So this is something that software folks don’t ever get to see. You know, it’s a fascinating thing. How does things get made? How does that coffee cup that you just drank out of, how did that get made? Right? And how did ten thousand of those get made over the course of a few day?
Andrew: I have tons of them in the office, they all look exactly the same.
Steven: Yeah, so what happens…
Andrew: You said something earlier that I should have asked you a follow- up question on. Which is a good manufacturer, a good factory will tell you that you need to make changes. How do you even find the right factory?
Steven: So now you get into the dark world of manufacturing. And by dark, I mean dark in the sense of it’s a fairly closed community. There’s not a lot of visibility from the outside. So people who are in the manufacturing world, they believe that a good manufacturer is a trade secret. It is not something that you go out to a bulletin board and say, “Hey, guess what. I think this guy is great and this guy sucks.”
Andrew: So your manufacturer, Steven, is supposed to be a trade secret where you’re not supposed to tell me about it. That’s the way that the industry works.
Andrew: Interesting. I was just going to say, someone should create a Yelp for factories so that we all could trade feedback on them. And you’re saying it wouldn’t work. Why? Is it a legitimate concern?
Steven: Yeah, I think it is a legitimate concern. Because a good manufacturer is gold. And not every manufacturer is a good manufacturer. So breaking…
Andrew: With this veil in place, how do you figure out who the right manufacturer is?
Steven: Well, that’s where a Brad comes into play.
Steven: That’s where somebody who’s had spent their career in this space and has had experience. Really what it comes down to is you get experience. You make things. And then you manufacture them. And you get to know the manufacturers and you get to know the ones that are good and the ones that aren’t. So having 20 years of experience actually making things is what allowed us, Brad having that experience, is what allowed us to choose manufacturers with liability.
What Brad also can do is he can go visit a manufacturer and poke around and ask questions and see what’s really going on on the floor. And that’s another way to qualify a manufacturer. So there’s a concept, qualify the manufacturer. Where you decide, is this manufacturer the right one for you?
Now there’s a lot of third parties, a lot of intermediaries, that are advertising. Like if you do a Kickstarter project, one thing that will happen is you’ll get a lot of friendly people who say, “Oh, hi. I see you’re doing a Kickstarter project. Perhaps we can help you get that into manufacturing.” Those intermediaries, some of them are great guys. Some of them aren’t. But they are guides and of course, guide for a cut of the cost, who take you into this wonderful world of manufacturing. So you either start off with somebody who knows that world or you have to find your way into it.
Andrew: If I didn’t have a Brad and needed to manufacture something that uses the same material as your product, but is completely different. Would you be open to talking to me. Is this the kind of environment where I can email someone and say, “This is what I’m looking to build. Who do you think I can trust in this space?”
Steven: So this is what’s so interesting about what’s happening in the physical product space right now. The physical product space, say in five years ago, certainly ten years ago, is dominated by large companies who are cut throat competitors with each other. Wait until we talk about the retail environment. Getting into retail. It’s an absolute…
Andrew: You know what? We have so little time left and I want to talk about retail. I want to talk about promotion. So, you’re right. Let me let you finish that question, that answer and then I’ll move on.
Steven: So what’s happening, just like any time that there’s this sort of new wave of people who are essentially novices coming in, you get a support system. You people, you know, I’m very interested in hearing from people who are doing interesting things because I think that there’s power in groups. And this world is evolving so quickly that it’s really interesting. So, yeah. You’ve got to find people who are willing to chat. And go from there. Or take your chances and try to hook up with somebody who knows what they’re doing.
Andrew: One more thing about manufacturing actually before we move on. One of the factories you talked to asked you for an exclusive. I didn’t even know that they would want an exclusive, but you said no. Why not?
Steven: That’s some other fun things in the wonderful world of manufacturing. Here’s the ideal customer from a manufacturer’s perspective. Somebody who says, “I’m going to make X units every month.” And X is always the same. “And I’m going to do that for the next five years. And nothing’s going to change. And oh, by the way, you’re my only guy. You’re my only manufacturer. Which, of course, means that you have all of the wealth power in that relationship.”
Andrew: That’s the way they want it.
Steven: That’s the ideal scenario from the manufacturer’s point of view. Where that manufacturer has something unique that no other manufacturer has, that allows them to have that kind of a lock in. It’s a lock in. It’s just like any other lock in in any other situation. So, in our particular case, we were very uninterested in locked in situations. We have a product that’s so unique, no one else is doing it.
We have something that we think can really, really spread out very, very far and wide. And the last thing we wanted to do was lock ourselves into anything. Whether it’s a distribution situation or manufacturing situation. So yeah, we said no to that.
Andrew: I’m on your Kickstarter page. First of all, congratulations on trying to get ten thousand. That was your goal. You ended up getting 201 thousand four hundred dollars from 31 plus hundred backers. So it was a huge success. I remember people talking about it. I remember people getting excited about it because it was a new way to input text into an iPad. But the other thing I’m noticing is, it says estimated delivery 2011 and if I click on the comments, I see it seems like you answered every single freaking comment down here.
But it seems like, yeah it’s you and Brad, every single one, I think, got a response from you in the comments. And some you said, “We’ll send you a message privately.” But it seems like they didn’t get their product until April and in some cases maybe even later. July.
Steven: Oh yeah, July.
Andrew: So what happened? You did everything right. You had an expert on your side. And still it took longer than expected. Where was the breakdown?
Steven: It took massively longer than we expected. So the breakdown was this transition from prototype to production. So we chose some materials that were the wrong materials. Now, we’re doing something that’s totally new. That was really the issue. So, we were only able to prototype it just to a certain extent. You know, you can only take it so far as a prototype. As we got into a production environment, we had to change materials. For example, the plastics along the bottom here. Along the ears here.
You know, when we were prototyping, we were just 3D printing these plastics. Easy right? Well, obviously not a production type of thing. So what material do you use? We originally thought that we could use a harder silicone. We could use a higher durometer silicone. Well, that turned out not to be true. It turned out that that didn’t work. The only way we could test that though, was with production tools. So now we’re building production tools. We’re using high strength silicone. Oh my God, it’s not working. We need to come up with a different material for this product, for this plastic. We ended up using nylon.
Now, that change-over is a huge change over. Nylon on silicone have very different shrink rates. So now you have to rebuild the tools. Oh, so you’re rebuilding the tools and that causes a ripple effect of all sorts of other things. And then Apple releases the iPad 3. We built this for the iPad 2. The iPad 3, the speaker magnets in the iPad 3 were different polarities depending on which particular tablet you had. In other words, for the first time ever, Apple did randomization of something. We had to go back to the drawing board for that. So basically, we went through several total redesigns in very key areas during the period from December to June. And we kept our Kickstarter backers very, very involved in that whole process. That was cool.
Andrew: First of all, let me just say something to the audience on a philosophical level. One of the things that I notice that other sites do is, when an entrepreneur makes a mistake or has a problem, they jump on it. It’s like, aha, we got them. I want to be very clear that, I want to say, aha, I got them, I get to learn from them. it’s a completely different approach. It’s why didn’t it work? What can I learn from it? As opposed to how can I catch him and have people come and how can I use it for click bate?
It’s how do we learn so that the rest of us can use it? And the only way that I can create that environment for the next entrepreneur who come on here who might be a little bit shaky because something happened in the past, is to do it for you, Steven, and to do it for everyone who’s come before. And that’s my philosophy here. And I love that you feel comfortable talking about the challenges here. I only say that because, I wonder if my tone earlier to make it sound interesting, if it sounded like, aha, I got you, instead of aha, I get to listen. I don’t think it did, judging from your feedback. But I want to make that really clear.
Right from the start, back when other sites were flinging startups that failed into what they call the dead pool, I said I was going to not put them in the dead pool, but put them in the learning pool. How do we learn from their mistakes and just honor the fact that in our space in the tech world, we do talk about our mistakes and we do learn from it with an intellectual curiosity.
Andrew: So all this is going on. What can the person listening to us who says, “I want to create a physical product.” What can they learn from your experience to maybe cut down on the time that it takes to manufacture?
Steven: Well, at the core of it, you have to have an idea that you really, really believe in and that you’re willing to take through whatever crazy twists and turns that it goes. You have to kind of assume that it is going to take those twists and turns. So being prepared for that sort of drama is perhaps at the heart of it. And to do that, you have to believe enough that this is worth doing to be able and willing to do that. The thing is if you look at a lot of Kickstarter projects, many of them are late. And that’s because they often hit issues very, very similar to ours. So instead of seeing that as an aberration, see that as that’s just going to happen. It’s part of the process.
Andrew: I see. Just like software is buggy, hardware takes longer to create than we expect. First version software is buggy, excuse me.
Steven: Exactly. And that first version of software, that’s essentially a scaffold prototype. Trying to get that into something that scales successfully, that’s a pretty big transition. And you’re going to find there’s going to be problems. So I think partly, number one is you have to assume that’s the case. A lot of people when they move from another field into physical manufacturing, think it is magic. Think it’s just like, yeah those other guys kind of like you were saying.
Yeah, those other guys couldn’t really handle it. And well, guess what? They’re just like anybody else. They’re trying to figure it out as well. So you have to also have a certain flexibility. You have to be able to make trade-offs on the fly. What is really important? What is not? You’re constantly making those sort of trade-offs. We probably don’t have time, but we could give lots of examples of some changes, some fundamental changes, to the product that we made along the way. We did it in collaboration with our Kickstarter backers.
This is the other thing that is brilliant about Kickstarter, now, that we’re kind of getting into this. One of the things that, I think, really helps to go through this process, is having a group of followers who are behind you.
There’s going to be certain personalities in every Kickstarter product, who are going to be pissed off as hell, with everything that’s going on, if it isn’t right on to plan.
There is also going to be a lot of people who are in the middle. They’ve signed up for this thing. They’re along for the ride. They really want to believe in you, but it looks like you’re being arrogant.
It looks like you are trying to hide what’s really going on, or not listening to the majority of backers. They’re going to be unhappy with you, as well. I’ve seen that happen. Sometimes, Kickstarter projects can go bad, when your backers turn against you. That doesn’t work out well.
What you have to do is to be able to explain in human terms, in nontechnical terms, essentially, what is going on. For the most part, if it’s a legitimate thing, your backers are going to forgive you.
In fact, people have said this to me, over and over. You know the ride alone was worth the price. Just being able to see you, every week or two, publish this really interesting explanation of what’s going on.
You’re not trying to hide stuff. You’re not trying to pretend that you actually know what’s happening. You’re really showing your warts and all. That’s what makes the whole thing fun.
You have to be able to do that, if you want to use your backers successfully. What you have to be able to do is say to your backers, ultimately, here are the choices. We think we’re going to go with this one. What do you think? To be able to get an honest answer out of them, that’s the key.
Andrew: Let me say this. There is someone on Kickstarter. I’m going to name him right now, Scott Starrett. He has been trying to build the Jorno Keyboard for, I think it’s years, had write ups in Gadget and Gizmodo, and the New York Times, I believe.
It didn’t work out the first time. He went on Kickstarter and is struggling to launch it. I can see that he is well meaning. I can see that he is struggling, and that his backers are turning on him. I want to put this out there to you Scott, if you’re listening, or maybe someone knows Scott, the guy behind Jorno.
I want to help. If there is anything I could do to help you talk to your backers, if there’s anything I could do privately, maybe even introduce you to [SP] Steven, let me know. I feel, just watching from the background, from the sidelines, he is going through the trials of Job right now, and I can see his backers turning on him. I don’t think he has to go through this alone.
I think his vision for collapsible thing, is different than yours, completely different philosophy. I just wish that he was as open about his issues as you are with yours. I can see his people are completely turning on him.
Steven: I don’t know that particular Kickstarter.
Andrew: You can see, actually, I thought, as I was telling you about it, that you’d see the recognition. You guys, on the other hand, you are much more engaged. I can go back, and I can see that engagement. I think it’s the personality that you have.
I watched you as we turned on the cameras. You had this big smile on your face. Most people have this feeling of intimidation. Oh my God! What is he going to ask? I have a couple of things that I say to get the guests comfortable, but I saw you were good to go.
Let’s continue here. Now you have the product. Everything is good. Can you just walk into a Best Buy and say, I got backers? They’ve bought this from me. This product works. You don’t have to take my word for it. Go into the comments.
You can see the people, like, where is that? People like, John [SP] Tinto, not only left a positive feedback on it, but John Tinto thought that he lost his positive feedback on Kickstarter. He apparently retyped it in on June 26, 2012. I’m saying this, just by looking at your page.
You can show, real people love it. Put it in your store, and all these iPad lovers are going to do it. Isn’t it that easy?
Steven: Ha ha! If only it were. So, the thing about retail is it’s, literally, a zero sub-game. Best Buy has only so much shelf space. If you are going to put a new product into Best Buy, well guess what? Some other product has to go out in order to make room for your product.
Steven: It’s kind of like a steel cage match. There is only one person who’s going to walk out of that steel cage, and that is the situation with retail. And what a retailer has to do in order to take your new product, is they have to kick somebody else out. Who wants to get kicked out of a retail space.
So sometimes it’s natural when an iPad 3 come out, the iPad 2 cases are going to probably leave of their own accord. So there is a natural sort of phase out of products. But at the end of the day, you are replacing something. And typically the guy who’s manufacturing those iPad 2 cases, they have an iPad 3 case that ready to go to replace it. So any good manufacturer is going to replace themselves on a very regular basis. So to break in, number one, you have to be able to replace something. And what a store looks like is revenue per hook.
How much revenue are they getting from that particular place in the store? And what they look at is turnover. That is a key thing. So what is a buyer? The buyers are the ones who decide what goes in and what goes out. What is a buyer measured on? If you’re a buyer, what’s your boss going to be talking to you about? Turnover is a lot of what buyers are measured on. How fast does something sell?
Andrew: It’s not just how profitable it is, but how often do we have it get swiped off the shelf by customers who are paying for it and then replaced. And then the more it gets turned over, the better the buyer [??]…
Steven: The better. That’s right.
Andrew: So how do you prove to them ahead of time that you have the sales, the turnover, the revenue, etc. that they’re looking for when you’ve never been in a store?
Steven: You can’t.
Andrew: So what do you do?
Steven: There is the problem. It’s sort of like the problem that a new actor has. How do you know if a given actor is going to resonate with a given audience until they’re in a feature film that shows that?
Steven: What you have to do, it’s just like anything in this sort of space. It’s like, how do you get funded when you’re a new start up when you don’t have a track record of proving something? You have to find a lead retailer or a lead investor. Somebody who is actually willing to take a risk with you because they sense there’s something there. That this is actually worth doing. And once you’re in one store, once you’re in one major chain, you’re in pretty good shape. Because everybody else, of course, looks at everybody and says, “Oh, look. That guy’s over there. Well, we’re going to do it.” So that’s called breaking into retail.
Very few people actually succeed in doing that just like very few people succeed in getting a lead investment. What you have to do is, again, it’s the same thing, you have to be incredibly persistent. At a minimum, you have to have something that has the potential for appeal and you have to be able to articulate why that is the case. Having a product line helps a lot. So one of the things that’s very, very tough is for a single product to get into retail.
Andrew: Why? I would think that would be easier because then they’re only kicking out one other single product versus bringing a line to retail where you might have to kick out multiple products.
Steven: Because for a retailer, there’s a very large startup cost with any new entity. You have to sign them up. You have to figure out how distribution is going to happen, etc. And if you have multiple product, that startup cost is amortized all over all of those products.
So the other thing is as we said, products are constantly, new products are constantly coming out. If you have a new product line, then you have some options about when this product gets replaced, when that product gets replaced. It’s much more of a system. Where if you have a single product, it’s a big risk that you’re not going to be able to update that single product. So those are the dynamics. So you have to if you have a single product, it had better be an absolutely killer product. Or you can find a way to develop a product line. Which of course it the tact we’re taking. We just launched a Kickstarter project today that introduces another version of Touchfire. Touchfire for the iPad Mini. Why, here it is.
Andrew: Oh. Wow, that looks so small.
Steven: Yeah, here’s the other guy. Here’s this guy.
Andrew: Can people really touch type on the iPad Mini?
Steven: Well, they don’t do a lot of it today. But they will do a heck of a lot of it tomorrow. If we have time, we can talk about the eight months it took us to get from here to here. We had to redesign a whole lot to figure this out. It was very hard.
Andrew: I have to say, as soon as the mini came out, I said, “Let me see if they’ve got one for that.” And you didn’t. And I didn’t realize that you guys had started working behind the scenes on it. So did you ever get into Best Buy or any other retailer? No.
Steven: We are still, right now, trying to get into retail.
Andrew: Which entrepreneur that you know of, who’s roughly your size, has gotten good distribution and I should be interviewing here on Mixergy? Who do you admire who did this well that I can have come on here and talk about how he did it. Or she did it.
Steven: Well, Scott, I forgot his last name. The designer in Chicago who bought the first million dollar Kickstarter with and iPod watch. He’s certainly figured it out. And of course he is a designer. This is what he does. He’s designed things for Nike, etc. He was able to do it. There’s a guy in…there’s something called the pad…
Andrew: The watch is Tick Tock. I don’t know how I didn’t come up with it.
Steven: Right, there’s Tick Tock. There was an iPad stand or rather a tablet stand called the pad something that managed to get in to Best Buy. The designer of that is actually a Seattle guy. I should give you this information offline because of course I can’t remember it.
Andrew: I’d love a follow-up with you to get that. I’ve got to get these guys on here and hear how they did it so we can learn from them. Do you network with them and talk to them to say, “Hey, Scott. How did you get all this distribution? What kind of feedback can you give me?”
Steven: Yeah, absolutely.
Andrew: You do?
Steven: I organized back when we were doing our Kickstarter thing, I actually organized a live in person meet up with a bunch of Kickstarter people. We had the Pad Pivot guy who’s nice. His company is called Nice. We had the Robo guys. Remember the guys who did that little robot with the iPhone in it?
Steven: Romotive. Yeah, they were there. They were in Seattle. So we did this really fun little thing. So yeah, I definitely try very hard to chat with people who are in this world. You know the guy…
Andrew: Scott Wilson, I’d love an introduction. I’ll follow up.
Steven: Yeah. You know those guys who did the hidden radio. Which is a really, really cool, very designy speaker and radio that you just sort of twist and it opens up.
Andrew: I love that radio. It’s a Bluetooth radio that looks beautiful. You want to actually put it as a center piece in your house. The way to raise the volume is to twist it. More of the speaker is exposed and the volume gets raised. John, one of the co-founders of the company, came here to Mixergy and did a course about how to get people to pay attention to your Kickstarter campaign.
How to promote it, get PR. How to understand that there’s apparently some sites that if your Kickstarter really takes off and do really well, at that stage they don’t want to talk to you and blog about you because they only want to cover people who hadn’t hit their target number. Which I wouldn’t have expected. Anyway, I should say to the audience, if you want to take that course, it is really good because John is really good. He obviously knows a bunch more than I do.
It’s at Mixergypremium.com, where entrepreneurs like John come and teach how they do what they do especially well. In his case it’s how did he get so many people to buy those hidden radios on Kickstarter. How did he get PR that let to that. If you’re into PR, that’s one of the courses you should check out. I guarantee you’ll love it.
Steven: There you go. You’re already talking to them.
Andrew: Two things before we go. First of all, I want to know Amazon and then I’d love to know about the iPad mini campaign you have now. First of all, Amazon. You’re on there. It’s easy to get into Amazon. You do something very interesting, though, there. When people return, is this an irregular basis when they return the keyboard, you contact them personally?
Steven: We do. We, and by we I mean I. We send out an email to somebody if they happen to do a return. You know at Amazon, people do that. It’s easy, so people do.
Andrew: Why? Why have the heartache of talking to someone who wasn’t happy? What do you learn from it? Or what do you get as a company?
Steven: It’s fascinating. We learn so much from the people who actually are not as happy with our products as we do from people that are happy. So for example, we’ll hear from somebody who says, “Oh, I’m returning this because I thought that I was getting an iPad mini version.” Or we’ll hear from somebody and say, “You know, I’m having a really hard time typing on this with touch phone.” So we then say, “Well, that’s really interesting.
Maybe we could talk to you a little bit more about that.” Because that is how we really learn what’s going on. That’s how we learned about all the edge cases. That how we learned about the guy who broke his finger and has this bone sticking out and that’s why he can’t hit the space bar. We just love talking to people, frankly, who have problems with our product. That is the ultimate way to learn.
Andrew: I can tell you, Steven…
Steven: The hardest part…
Steven: Let me just say this one thing.
Steven: The hardest thing is to talk to people who decide not to buy your product. Or to talk to people who decide to return your product. They don’t want to have anything to do with you. They just want…
Andrew: I was going to say, I tried doing it for Mixergy Premium. When people cancelled, they don’t want to talk to me at that point. They’re too embarrassed. So how do you get them to respond?
Steven: We’ve, over time, just figured out how to talk to them with email. We’ve just found out what works. And usually what works . . .
Andrew: Actually, you know what? I take it back. I don’t know that you should say what works because I don’t want people taking advantage of . . . I have to protect my guests as much as I have to take care of my audience. And I think what we should say is, there’s some trial and error in it. You talk to everyone differently so we can’t go through this process and see the magical solution. But I don’t think we should get into the details of what you do. There you go. I won’t edit it out if you say it but I have to always keep my guests’ interests in mind.
Steven: I think you’re right because this is one of the things that we seem to be doing fairly uniquely. And so, yeah.
Andrew: Our [inaudible] can’t figure it out by just going and buying and returning because who knows what experience they’re going to get. Here’s the reason why I wanted to bring it up and why I think years from now, when you come back and do another interview, I’ve got to ask you about it. It’s a very human experience that gets you to . . . And that’s why it’s not so easy to explain here.
Anyway, let’s go on to the iPad Mini. You’re now seeing that this Mini comes out, you can’t just shrink the whole freaking thing and say, “Let’s do everything that we’ve done big. Now let’s make it smaller. Now we have a product and we’re good to go.” Why not?
Steven: We tried that. The thing that happens: the Mini comes out, we start getting unsolicited emails from people saying, “Can you do a version of Touchfire?” We’re not asking this. People are putting it together. People are finding us who want a Mini and saying, “Look, [inaudible 1:44] like this and my Mini, oh, it just makes so much sense. Surely these guys must be doing it.”
We were certainly interested in doing it but when we started getting all these emails, we said, “Oh, my god. We’ve got to do this.”
Our first attempt was to simply shrink Touchfire, shrink the keyboard, maybe go down to the size of Mini. What happens? What happens is your fingers end up like this. There is literally no spread for you to put your fingers on the home row and be able to move them for somebody who has medium-sized fingers. So, holy cow! That’s not going to work. What are we going to do now?
One of the things about our technology is that it is infinitely more flexible than a mechanical keyboard whose purpose is, again, to push down a plunger. What we found is that the most important thing for typing is to be able to rest your fingers comfortably on the home row. And so, what we did is spread out the keys that you rest your fingers on on the home row. We spread them out and we made them bigger.
Of course, it’s a zero-sum game. In order to compensate for that, we made some keys smaller. The keys we made smaller are the ones that you hit at an angle. So, the keys sort of in the middle here, we made them much, much smaller.
And it turns out that for the kind of system we have, you need much less surface area on the top of the key in order to effectively strike the key. So, we found that we could make the keys that you hit at an angle smaller; the keys that you needed in order to orient yourselves bigger and wider. And that is the key to where we were able to make touch-typing on an iPad Mini work.
Andrew: And, again, it sounds like it’s a lot of user tests, prototyping, get their feedback, update. I see. And so, now it’s done. It’s on Kickstarter. How much are you trying to raise right now for this one? I don’t remember.
Steven: Well, we thought that raising another $10,000 would be nice since that worked out last time.
Steven: So, it’s not been 24 hours yet since I shut down my browser and you’re more up-to-date than I am.
Andrew: Oh, the time! I was going to keep it in suspense and say to the audience, “Go and see if by the time this interview’s published they hit the . . .” You guys are going to hit the target in a few minutes now. So, the target isn’t the question. I would suggest if you’re going to go and take a look at it, the suspense comes from how much are they going to raise, not will they hit the target or not. You guys are going to hit it.
Why’d you create a case for this one, where you didn’t for the first one?
Steven: After we got the basic keyboard figured out, we then started looking at cases. We figured we’d do the same thing as we did with the current one: make it work with Apple’s cases . . .
Steven: . . . make it work as much as we could with third-party cases as well. Well, it turns out that the typing scenario on an iPad Mini is not something that a lot of case manufacturers really care about. I don’t know if “care about” is the right word. But it’s just not so usual. So, we found that typing wasn’t really all that good on third-party cases.
For example, the Apple case has an elastic hinge. When you triangle to fold the case and it attaches to the IPad; the IPad bounces around like it’s on a trampoline.
Andrew: I see. It looks the same but you’re saying it’s not the same because the hinges are springy. Okay.
Steven: That’s right. So now your typing accuracy is nowhere near as good when you’re doing intense touch typing. We decided that we needed to make our own case because a lot of the other cases just weren’t very good for typing. We found that the angle, the typing angle for the iPad was critical. It makes a very big difference. But lots of different people wanted to have different angles. It worked better with different angles. Most cases have a single angle for typing. Our case has three typing positions with different angles.
Andrew: It looks the same as the Apple Case but I can see that it has three different ones. One of them is not a triangle like the Apple, but a square, and the other one is pressed up. It’s hard to explain. I think we’re going to have to link over to it so people can see it. I got to tell you. This whole process seems so much fun when we start out. You make a product, great.
Then as you’re talking I’m realizing, I’m making a product, maybe I better not. I don’t want to end it on the challenges. I want to end it on an upside. I think the best way to talk about it is in this thing that you said to April. I’m looking here at her notes from your conversation with her in the pre interview. What’s the most personally satisfying part of this? It has something to do with seeing the actual product. What’s that like when you get to actually see what you’ve made?
Steven: It is unbelievable. It’s almost like the baby thing. All of a sudden, it a way that software doesn’t quite have, because software is beautiful too for God’s sake… But it’s kind of castles in the sky. With a physical product that you can hold in your hand and you can watch people actually use, that is something else. That’s a whole other dimension of wonderfulness that you just can’t replicate with a nonphysical product. I started out as electrical engineering so I’ve had that background.
There is something absolutely wonderful about seeing what your physical product does when it’s in the hands of actual users and getting feedback around that and being able to see those things, being able to use something like this in a restaurant and everybody is like, ”What the heck is that?” That’s kind of fun too. It’s absolutely worth it. Having a vision for what something could be then taking it all the way to reality, that’s pretty fun, too.
Andrew: It’s got to be inspiring. And you take so much pride in it right down to the case that you ship it in. It could have been just a brown box; no one would have known the difference. It comes in this case that to me frankly I said, ”Maybe this guy loves the product more than he loves profits.” Because the case has got to cost you money… I’m going to leave it there. I don’t even think we should show the case. If someone wants it they can get it.
The reason I’m saying so many nice things here is because I’m proud to have you on here to talk about your story because I get no commission or affiliates from any of this frankly, but I love hearing how new industries are created. This is something that is a lot intimidating but I know it’s a curiosity that a lot of people are wanting to find out more about. How do you create physical products? What’s going on when they buy physical products, behind the scenes and it takes a little bit longer? And I think the more accessible this becomes, the more people are going to get into it. We’re cutting edge here.
Steven: Absolutely, it’s inspiring.
Andrew: Thank you so much for doing this. The website is touchfire.com, and if someone is really serious about making a product and they want to reach out to you and show you or get your feedback, is there a way for them to contact you?
Steven: Touchfire.com, we say to write us at Info@touchfire.com, that will get to me. Truth be told, there is a phone number on touchfire.com, it’s my personal phone number. I’ve been handling all the calls and it’s really turned out to be not much of a problem. I just love talking to customers. It’s kind of crazy but it’s been working so far, so give us a call.
Andrew: Alright. Congratulations on the success. Thank you for doing this interview. Thank you all for being a part of it. If you build anything, please send it over, let me see it. Send me an email with a photo of it and if you remember, and I hope you do, send Steven a photo of what you’ve created. Or better yet, send him a product. I’m sure he would be proud that this interview helped get you there. Thanks for doing this, thank you all for being a part of it. Bye, guys.
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