When you're launching a product that your market isn't familiar with, especially through a Kickstarter campaign, it's better to focus on those customers who would be the first to fully embrace it and advocate for it.
In this episode you’ll learn from Brian Min of Qwerky Toys, the creator of Qwerky Writer: a typewriter-inspired wireless mechanical keyboard.
Find out why he focused on winning over early adopters, before looking at the entire market, in order to successfully launch his product.
- How to manage all the feedback you’ll get when running a Kickstarter campaign.
- Why you want to go after the hardcore early adopter demographic first before promoting your product.
- What should you do if you encounter copycats.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
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Felix: Today, I’m joined by Brian Min from qwerkywriter.com. That’s q-w-e-r-k-y-w-r-I-t-e-r.com. Qwerkywriter is a typewriter inspired wireless mechanical keyboard. It was started in 2014 after a successful Kickstarter campaign and based our of San Francisco, California.
Welcome, Brian, tell us more about qwerkywriter.
Brian: The company was built around the kickstarter idea, right? Qwerkywriter, let me first say that I’m a huge proponent of talking about how the qwerkywriter was made, just because I think people will be pretty fascinated about it. At the same time, it’s something that … it too some extraordinary efforts, but I think a lot of folks out there can do that. A lot of that has to do with how badly you want to be persistent to a [throwaway 00:02:03].
Besides that, yeah, just the business itself wasn’t really the first idea. It was just something that I had different feelings about. One day, I was just cleaning up my desk. There’s many different stories and anecdotes to this, but it came down to a point where I was cleaning out my desk and also, I spent a lot of time, like a lot of us, on the desktop and interfacing with computers. I bought new monitors, a new desk and everything like that. I looked at my keyboard, and this really … I won’t say the name of the company, but it’s just this really horrible beige keyboard I had, and I’m like, there’s gotta be something better than this and did a search and just realized there was nothing that was cool, something I thought was going to be the centerpiece of my new cleaning up of my desktop.
I had this … I’m not sure why, but I just had thi8s crazy notion about wanting to build something for myself and I had this notion about some things I’ve seen online about people modding their keyboards, so I thought I would do the same. In the garage, it was a perfect time in my life where I wanted to have some kind of a hobby that had some purpose. Again, there was no intention of turning this into a business or any kind of thing like that. It was just a pure hobby creative exploration thing. For some reason, it just took a hold of me. I have a personality to be pretty tenacious and I like to finish things.
I did this one little thing. I posted it online. I’m not sure why, and people thought it was really cool. For some reason, that particular picture … I can’t remember. It got shared on one of the blogs. I think it was lifehacker. I can’t remember. Next thing I know, there was like 60,000 view on that one particular thing I did. People really seemed to like it. That was an early version of the qwerkywriter. I built another one, just because I’m like, “Hey, cool, people liked my stuff.” No intention of any kind of business just because the thought hadn’t occurred to me. Then, I did another [rev 00:04:32], and then the response was … there were people that sort of lean on, you know, there’s plenty of people that hate on everything you do, but generally speaking, it was great.
I’m like, “I wonder if something like this could actually be viable.” That’s when the thing about, “Well, how am I going to raise funds? I’m not going to take out a loan and do this kind of thing. It’s really tough.” At that time particularly, before kickstarter and indiegogo and places like that … it’s a really different climate right now, and it’s very different and very challenging in its own thing, but back then, it seemed like there was some optimism left. I wondered if I could raise some funds so I could just build this thing. Again, not really thinking anything about business. It was just a passion driven thing. It had a lot of social traction.
Did it, and of course, it was actually successful, my kickstarter, and then moved forward there. That’s when I realized that you really needed some kind of a business plan and that’s the long of the short of it. I formed a business plan, again, just around the product and we continued to be pretty successful for a very small company. We keep our operations very learn. We’re at a very vulnerable stage right now, still, just because many things. A lot of people have different thought about how you start a business, different preconceived notions. I have my own take on how I wanted to run this business. This is a passion, creative project foremost.
I like it to be sustainable, so all those philosophies [inaudible 00:06:15] embedded with how I present the qwerkywriter and my company. This is the result.
Felix: Okay, so you mentioned, this sounded like this idea … not the idea, but the traction started with a blog post on lifehacker you posted of a prototype you created? What did you actually put up there?
Brian: Yeah, it was actually the very first. In fact, I’ve been working on the origin story of the qwerkywriter for like three years now. Every time I have some bandwidth left on the train or something, I write it and then I get off … I’m like, “Okay, I have to do something else.” There’s so many things that went into it, but the earliest things, I’m a creative person in general. I have a music degree from UCLA, I film composition. I approached a lot of the … excuse me … I approached a lot of my creative thinking and process the way you would write any kind of piece of music or any kind of art piece really.
It really started with trying to get something like a prototype in the easiest sense possible, right? You really7 don’t want to be like, “I’m going to build … CNC mill this and 3D print that.” That’s a huge mistake, right? What you really want to do is just … I took off the shelf keyboard, like some old mac keyboard I wasn’t even using in my garage. Then, I got a [drumble 00:07:44] tool and shaped … at that time, I wasn’t a 3D modeler, so I used what I had in the things that are available. Very cheap, very affordable, but just prototyped things. I didn’t go out and mill things.
I went to Joanne’s a lot or Michael’s and played around with it. I had a visual concept in mind, so really early prototypes are just old mac keyboard that I put literally … I think it was buttons that I had bought and superglued it on top of things just to get a sense of what it would be like. That early, really cheap prototyping and getting people to look at it, whether it was Facebook or twitter. It could just be your friends and family, and just see what their reaction is like, because you’re trying to early vet your ideas. If people are lukewarm, or especially … I actually posted this on reddit too, which is quite courageous of me. Now, that’s the ultimate test really. You want to go there with maybe third or fourth rev.
They can be very harsh, but they can also be very frank about where you’re really at, so not that you want to hear and just be driven by negativity, because there’s a lot of negative things. You want to be positive, but that early few vetting process should be quick and fast. I did that, and that wasn’t hosted, but that got enough of an insight when just friends and family came buy and my personal Facebook. “Hey, that’s pretty cool, man. That looks really cool.” It was juts universal. There was no sense where, "Okay, why are you wasting your time? Even friends who are … especially ones that are very truthful and tends to tell me how it is.
Then, at that point, I spent a little bit of money. Again, I didn’t go crazy and do fabrications or anything like that. I took, I think it was some off the shelf razr keyboard at the time, you know, a lot of mechanical keyboards. That’s a different thread I don’t want to go into, but I was a huge mechanical keyboard fan. The clicking nature of it was really cool to me, so I just took that and spray painted it and did some cool stuff to it. That’s the one that … excuse me. I think I posted this on Flickr. I don’t know if that’s still around.
Felix: I don’t think so.
Brian: Yeah, it was the … oh, okay, so I submitted to the desktop show and tell that lifehacker does, but it was posted on Flickr, and somebody shared it. One of the bloggers, one of the staff writers at lifehacker picked it up. It may still be around online if you do a search on … I don’t think … it wasn’t called the qwerkywriter, it was like steam punk something lifehacker. All that’s to say is that I got a lot of early positive validation from a lot of people that was not within my sphere of influence. Again, very little money, but I knew that’s when the idea was strong.
Felix: You put this up, started spreading it out, you maybe didn’t have the intention of making it on lifehacker, but people shared it and eventually started picking up virality. When you went into creating this prototype for the first time and putting it out there, what was the goal that you had in mind? Were there certain things you’re looking for? What was the next step you determined based on what you were hearing?
Brian: When they lifehacker thing went up, people were saying, actually just emailing me directly on Flickr, “How can I buy this? Can you mod my keyboard for me?” That was when I knew that something more than just a hobby thing happened. At the time, I had to really decide for myself exactly what I wanted to do. I just knew that I didn’t have the means to be able to fund this and goof around and spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars trying to do whatever. Back then, when I did this, there was no … there are a lot of company … even shows like shark tank and things like that that are around these days all really built. … actually, I have a thought on shark tank in general.
I think it’s really hugely problematic. Although people tell me that I should go on it. I don’t think … those are products that are made for the sake of business as opposed to product that’s made for passion. I know some of them mean well. Anyway, beside that point, going aback to what you were saying. I think that particular thing about where people … there was some commerce aspect of it, which I just did not consider. I started toeing with it, but again, I did not engage that, but rather, I thought, “As a creative, I want to make something that’s wholly original.” Before the last two revs, including the piggy back thing I did on an off the shelf keyboard was still somebody else’s design that I tweaked.
It’s kind of like taking a Honda Civic and tricking it out or whatever, but the car itself is not your car, right? I took the creative approach and tried to build something from scratch. I got parts and did spend a little more money and got that going, but that particular object itself, I wanted to make something new. Again, not with the intention of selling or anything, but definitely, there was something in the back of my mind at that point, which is I would say prototype three where maybe it could be. What I did was I started building this, and then now, I sought out some real intense people feedback.
I took this to reddit. I found some keyboard enthusiast blocks, really do a few search online, and you’ll find some crazy, intense communities that are into keyboard. There’s people that are into anything these days. That’s what I did. I just … I put ti out there as the last, “Hey, guys, you think this is actually commercially viable?” There are people that gave me really good feedback. “I don’t know about this. Sounds like it’s going to be really expensive, but if you really like it, I think it’s going to go great.” On reddit, there was plenty of negativity, but overwhelmingly, very positive. “Dude, if you can pull this off, I would totally support you.”
There was a lot of social traction and awareness that happened then. Then, that’s when something just took … talking to my wife and things like that, “You know what, I think if I spend this amount of money and I capped it and got … there’s this thing called 3D prototyping, from shape way, you can do these things really cheaply,” … I knew some colleagues, friends of mine that did 3D modeling and things like that. "I think we can actually maybe give it a shot. I have no idea. This is going to be really expensive, but this is what it’s going to cost to do something like that.
That’s when I built the fourth one, which is what you see on kickstarter. I took it there, and that’s when it got funded. That’s the beginning.
Felix: Awesome, so the popularity you got out of nowhere, was it possible to capture this demand somehow? I think this is a story I’ve heard before where people just created something, scratched their own itch, or just as a hobby, and all the sudden was asked, “How can I buy this off of you?” You don’t have a product yet. This might not be the case for everyone that’s listening, but I think other folks out there might relate a different way where all the sudden a popular blog or popular influencer started talking about their product. All the sudden, it blows up, and you might not have a system in place to capture that demand. It could fizzle out and go away before you get the chance to capture it.
What was that experience like for you? Did you go through this? How were you able to hold on to some of this popularity until you were able to create the product?
Brian: Yeah, that’s a really tough one. I don’t know. I think some of that is pretty much … you definitely need some good luck. You need some timing added. I think at the time I came out a concept of crowd funding was still kind of fresh. It was something that … some of the hate started to happen, just because they realized that when people actually said they were going to make something, it was very difficult to actually execute. We can probably do a whole podcast on just that alone, post kickstarter, but that’s a huge scope. Going back there, I think who knows, right? It’s a really difficult thing.
I just knew that the reason why I felt like it got the attention of the bloggers, and again, the social media and also traction that I saw was … I took for granted back then, but was really remarkable, just going to that particular piece. It was not only lifehacker. I had an interview with the wall street journal a few months down the road. A whole bunch of different people just really prominent people. You name every large blogger, I know somebody there, from Gizmodo and Gadget, Mac, PC gamer, or PC magazine, Tom’s Hardware, all these companies that I truly admire and looked up to. They were contacting me.
I’m not … who knows how that works? I do know, in terms of the listeners, the thing that was important was really your photograph and your design. That’s just to say that I really … I was trying to dissect, as a creative, what is it that made people pay attention and want to reach out to you. By far, when you saw pics of the qwerkywriter at that time, you just couldn’t ignore it. Again, this is not something I’m trying to be full of ego or anything like hat, it’s just that at that time, maybe it’s saturated now, and there’s a lot of cool things to see online, but when people saw that, it just popped out. You couldn’t ignore it.
I just knew when I was making this, and when I was looking at it, man, I was able to take myself out of a person as a creative and try to look at it as a bystander, that creative objectivity that you seek so much. Is this thing I’m painting, is somebody going to like it? I try to really do that and make sure the shapes, the form factor, the colors that I was designing was something that would just be … you couldn’t ignore it. I really focused on beauty and form more than function, because a lot of the people that I see, and this may be the secret, I’m not sure, is that a lot of folks that are doing kickstarter programs or hardware programs, whatever cool idea that you and your grandmother had to do it, they focus on function and features so much.
Then, they don’t really pay attention to beauty and form, which is something … if you’re going to try to do function and form, you’re just not going to win. There’s companies called … like Apple, if you’ve heard of it. They will destroy you. You can’t compete with their function and features. Their software alone with just billions of dollars. What I tried to do is I’m just going to try to make something that looks really cool and something that I’d want. Trying to compete asymmetrically. I think that was the secret. Again, who knows? Time will tell. For right now, it was being really strategic about it too.
I didn’t just kind of say, “Well, I’m just going to do this.” I think that’s intuitive. No, I really got behind that concept and tried to make everything, whether it was picture, any time people see … we spent a lot of time selecting our pictures too, just because that’s the only thing we can do. I can’t advertise how cool it is for Bluetooth or it’s all made out of metal, which it is. Return bar is solid metal. You just can’t compete there, because people are going to argue with you. I’m going to say, “Look, that just looks amazing. If you want it, you can buy it. It’s a unique product.”
Felix: When you say that you’ve competed asymmetrically and focused specifically on the beauty, the design, the form, does that mean that you cannot focus as much on the functionality and more of the, I guess, quantitative aspects?
Brian: Yeah, sure, you try your best. You don’t want to be the double talking politician where they feel like, “You can have this and do,” no. You have to sacri- there’s going to be certain things that I sacrifice. I wanted … the keyboards need to be more ergonomic, and that’s one of the things where there’s an inverse graph that the more ergonomic it looks, the more hideous it looks and the more uncomfortable it is, the more beautiful it is. I think that’s in fashion. Look at high heels. It’s beautiful, but man, that is really uncomfortable.
I think those kinds of things still exist. That doesn’t nullify that, but again, those are the trade offs I had to make in order for me to make the qwerkywriter a reality.
Felix: I think that’s a perfectly logical, I guess, approach to is. Did you receive any kind of backlash from customers or anything because of that? How do you make sure that you emphasize-
Brian: Backlash from customers? Yeah. I mean, you know, I was also fortunate, because working in the field that I do as a day job and just understanding how social media works, you really have to pay attention to negativity and then quash it and make sure you’re responsive. That’s a tough one, and I think either … there’s a balance. If you get to obsessed and too … there are people that are just constantly so socially aware that you’re paralyzed by it. At the same time, on the other hand, people are like, “I don’t care what they say. I’m just going to do my own thing,” especially the creative types like me. I don’t care I’m just going to do my thing and ignore it.
There is a happy medium where you have to pay attention. A lot of those feedback is absolutely legitimate. There’s truth to all those kinds of things. We got a lot of criticism for the fact that it was very expensive, which it is. People don’t realize why it’s expensive, but they’re just going to say it. There’s truth there. They talked about some ergonomic stuff. They had the really … once this is out there, there are people that are multi-order of magnitude smarter than I am that is looking at this thing. People from NASA or MIT or old school professors. They take it apart, and there’s a lot of things that are challenging, but I think what we did was one of the great gifts of the kickstarter that I think people forget, and people forget to leverage, is the fact that I had a very long kickstarter cycle.
What that means is that I actually developed this product during kickstarter. Now, there’s a tension, because kickstarters are notoriously bad, especially with hardware, for delivering. All these delays and things like that, so now, the way a lot of the original kickstarter guys are not coming out. They literally have everything, tooling, everything ready, and then they just want to get funding, right? I think there’s a huge mistake. I know there are business realities [inaudible 00:22:52]. The reason why that’s a huge mistake is for me, I was still building the project, and I got all the negative feedback early on from my backers, like thousands of people that go, “Dude, change this. Do this.”
It was an actual creative vetting process. If you look at the qwerkywriter that I delivered versus the very early prototype, it’s quite different, and internally, very different. There are things I stuck too. There are things I couldn’t change, but there are a lot of things I wanted to cut that the backers reminded me, “Dude, if you cut that, you’re cutting the soul out of it. Dude,” they wanted something, and they were able to give me some really great, unbiased, critical feedback. You know why, because they gave me money. They’re in this. I could trust that their feedback was good.
Yeah, so because of that, when the product got to market, I, first of all, was really prepared for any kind of negative feedback that was going to happen. Also, the qwerkywriter really did go through the gauntlet, so a lot of the major issues was already addressed. Also, addresses that I’ll find, I scale small in small batches. For example, I didn’t go gang buster and leverage my house to make crazy amount of units. I made small batches for my kickstarter first and then made some firmware revisions. I had outlets to do revisions, which is very difficult for hardware, but we built that in for this very reason.
That’s why I think when the qwerkywriter’s out there, it’s resilient. It’s still selling well. It’s doing, despite the backlash, because there was an iterative process that you built in, but nowadays, I see a lot of new products just come out and get funding. Dude, your product is not ready. There’s a lot of problems with your … you haven’t thought all of it. You haven’t gone through the gauntlet like the way some of the larger companies do. In my case, I was very fortunate to have a long kickstarter, and my backers were so passionate that they were patient with me.
I think they lose the very thing that why I think crowd funding is for, so it’s an unfortunate situation.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, so let’s go over the details of the kickstarter. The original goal was $90,000, and breaking through that goal, raising almost $130,000 from 469 backers. Obviously, it was a successful campaign. You mentioned you had a long cycle. How long did this campaign run for from the start of it to the end of the campaign, and then how long before the products were delivered?
Brian: Yeah, so the campaign actually was too short. I put it as 30 days. Again, back then, there were all these conventional wisdoms. I could have done it for 45 days. It probably should be 45–60 days. I’m not sure what the right number is these days, but I just knew I could have probably raised a bit more if I did. Then, the delivery cycle was a year, so most typical hardware delivery schedule was six months. I just doubled it. Surprisingly, that still wasn’t enough. In fact, I delivered it two months late, which is apparently a miracle, because most hardware, they could be years late, which is insane to me. I didn’t realize that the fail or success rate was that low, which is just a cautionary tale.
From that point on, the lessons you learn about that was insane, but to the point that long cycle and the expectations of my backers knowing it was going to be long. There was still people that were quite antsy. I was able to take my time to get it done. I realized that I thought I was going to deliver them maybe actually in nine months. I needed every one of those months. Making hardware is insanely hard. If you never done it before, good luck. I don’t even know what to tell you. We really shouldn’t have made it, but I think I didn’t know any better that I wasn’t supposed to make it.
Again, I was really fortunate to just … I tend to be somebody who likes to learn. I like to get a lot of advice from people. Instead of thinking that I knew what I was doing, I really sought out … I tried to seek out the right advice, and that combination of that and just tenacity and unwillingness to fail, a lot of sleepless nights allowed me to be able to ship it.
Felix: Did you find that people were hesitant to back a campaign that had a long deliver date? Like you were saying-
Brian: Of course.
Felix: -it was twice the length.
Brian: Of course they did, so the way we remedied that, because again, $130,000 is a lot of money. Excuse me, is a lot of money, but not enough, so that’s a shock to people, but it is the truth. What we did was we knew, first of all, that we ended the kickstarter too early, because we saw the traction and the way it was trending, so we were very fortunate to convert those people over to the people who are now beginning to start to hear about it through a pre-order program. There’s different things about that. Pre-order is not something that you think is a no brainer. There’s a lot of challenges.
For example, even though … we were successful in transferring people over to a pre-order program, but the problem is banks don’t like that. Pay pal doesn’t like it for example. Pay pal, they held our funds for a year. We couldn’t even have access to it. The point was that we were able t still capture the traction we felt through a pre-order program. We continued to raise a lot more money, which we absolutely needed. It’s like whatever you need, you think you need, whatever time you need, you probably need to double that. That’s what I did. Again, there were people that … it’s just very funny.
Most of the kickstarter backers were super patient. I would say maybe one or two people wanted their money back, but overwhelmingly, it was really successful. Sorry, go ahead.
Felix: I was going to ask, if you could go back, would you still keep that long delivery? Would you make that delivery, I guess, time line, realistic, or do you think that hurts in the long run? You think it helped you in the long run by making it-
Brian: No, I think it needs to be … it could probably be shorter, but only because I know better. I know what to do. If you’re somebody who’s never done this before, you want to try to buy as much time as possible. I don’t know what the right answer is, because this is a tense thing.
Felix: Right, makes sense. You mentioned earlier that one of the keys to … one of the biggest benefits of having a kickstarter campaign that you think others are making a mistake today when they’re doing crowd funding is that you’re able to learn from your customers, get feedback early on as possible so that you could implement that into the designs. Tell us about this process. It sounds like it could get pretty hairy, get complicated if some people were giving you feedback and you maybe were already pretty far along in the design or the manufacturing. How do you manage all that, the feedback you’re getting?
Brian: Yeah, that’s really tough. What you do is there are certain things we couldn’t change. I couldn’t make this into a skateboard or whatever. There are certain parameters you do, but there’s certain things … I think what I did was there were a handful of things, like price point. That was something we talked a lot about it. We tried to go back and forth. Guys, this is what it costs to make this thing. We need to have at least 2x of that for distribution and things like that, so there’s a lot of dialogue about what it could cost, and they give you good feedback.
Then, a lot of people like, “I think this is valuable this way,” so that’s helpful. There’s some soft things not directly related to the actual product that they can [help 00:30:43], but that’s a really important component. Yeah, things like some of the features, like I remember the return bar, I wanted to get rid of it. It was so expensive, that solid. A lot of the things in that initial prototype I did, again, it was so featured prominently, but it was really threatening to sink the whole thing, because we had no idea what this was going to cost.
We finally figured it out, but that is a solid piece of metal. That is chrome plated. Either we went big or we didn’t do it. I said, “We can’t do it.” There was a huge backlash from the backers and pre-order people. There was pitch forks at my front door almost. That’s when I realized that it really meant something to them. That’s actually one of the biggest reasons why we were delayed two months. We took two months to redesign, re-factor, resource, and spent a lot of money and a lot of time to figure out how we’re going to make that thing cost effective and still feel like it’s a piece of jewelry.
It came out that way, but I mean, boy, those were some of the darkest moment on my journey.
Felix: Yeah, I mean, hearing you talk about it sounds like somebody that is recounting war stories about their experience of building a company. It sounds like it’s all very still fresh to you. It has only been a couple of years, so I can imagine-
Brian: Yeah, I remember that very distinctly.
Felix: Yeah, so the campaign, when you first set it up, the 90k goal, how did you set that number? How did you come up with that figure?
Brian: I mean, some of that was just definitely foolish, right? I’ll be the first one to admit, because I did the due diligence as much as I could based on what I knew. Again, from the circle of people I talk to, I factored in mostly the cost of the tooling, the parts, but in the most conservative side as possible, because I wanted to get funded. I felt like we could figure things out later. A lot of that had to just do basically … and there wasn’t really room for, like, failures, having to reiterate and redesign the return bar. That’s a tough one. I would just say I factored in what I knew about what it would cost to tool and do the basic cat engineering, man hours, estimates, but those were all just real estimates.
Ultimately, it ended up costing two, three x more than what it was funded for. That’s just the reality.
Felix: Once the campaign ended, did you have the final design ready to go for manufacturing, or was there still more to do after the-
Brian: No, like I said, it was another six months of R&D after that. We took the prototype and then I had enough funds to be able to engage. There were three competing industrial design house that I interviewed that I had in line. Now, I was able to … I hired, out of the three, it was a combination of two different companies that I work with, so that’s when I was able to afford them to be able to do a CAD word, a solo works design of the qwerkywriter prototype.
Felix: Makes sense.
Brian: Then, at that point, we started to do material test. I really wanted the [aluminate 00:34:13], the finish, there were certainly things I wanted to do, things like I wanted this to be metal. Obviously, aluminum was the most affordable, and then anodized aluminum and how are we going to do this solid shape? Our industrial designer came up with the idea if we bend these things like the way they bend steel, you can still have that form factor. In fact, a lot of the design stuff that’s here, I actually feel like some other companies have taken notice of that.
I’m not saying they’re copying what I do, but I don’t know. It’s very peculiar that a certain larger company looks like, “Hey, that looks very similar to what we do.” There’s, of course, blatant copycats in trying out that we’re dealing with legally right now. We made a lot of really interesting innovations to try to do things like making metals shapes but in the most affordable way possible. If you look at the qwerkywriter design, we highlighted that instead of hiding it. That came out during the design process, because before, it was going to be this solid piece of CNC aluminum.
That was just not scalable.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You mentioned earlier that that crowd-funding, whether it be on kickstarter, indiegogo, it’s just a different climate today. What did you mean by that? Would you launch another product on kickstarter today?
Brian: Oh boy. Actually, we are planning to do something similar. One of the things that makes this … and again, I’m not sure whether we’re going to get there, but our plan is that we do have two new products that are in the can right now in early development stages. I would engage my kickstarter backers just because we’re one of the few success stories. A kickstarter is kind of weird that way, because they face so much harsh criticisms about failed harsh kickstarters that they’re kind of gun-shy about promoting companies, which is a bummer for me, because I love kickstarter. Obviously, I couldn’t have shipped qwerkywriter without them, but they’re a bit cold shouldered these days, but I think still, for us, we have a loyal backer … I still get letters from people about … which is kind of weird.
They talk to me about their … when I look at the qwerkywriter, it reminds me of my grandma, because she used to type away, really just touching stories, which is really bizarre. It’s just a peace of thing, but I know that that’s another things with this typewriter form factor. There’s an emotional engagement that was not quite intended, but it had that kind of result. Going back to that, I would absolutely do that. Obviously, I’m a graduate, a kickstarter or crowd funding graduate, so I absolutely know a whole lot more what to do and what not to do. Doesn’t mean I won’t make mistakes, but I definitely want to do that. I may actually engage with both platforms. I know some companies have done that where they would do kickstarter and then go indiegogo.
There’s obviously things like equity funding, a bunch of different tools that are available that wasn’t there when I started. I would absolutely do both of my projects on those platforms first. I would add a lot more things into it.
Felix: Yeah, I’ve heard good things about launching on multiple platforms just because the demographics are a bit different. The people that are in kickstarter are kickstarter people. People at indiegogo are indiegogo people. You can reach a larger market, maybe not necessarily getting overlaps by being on two different platforms. I’ve heard good things about that. You mentioned there are certain things that you must do that you would definitely change, so what’s something that you, based on your past experience, you definitely want to do again for this upcoming campaign. What’s something you definitely need to fix and avoid or make sure doesn’t happen in a future campaign?
Brian: First of all, I think our hardware kickstarters, they need to be longer in terms of the duration of the campaign. That’s definitely one concrete thing I’d change. I’d probably change it to 45, maybe even 60 days. It takes a long time to get traction for people to know. You just have to let it simmer. I would change that. Obviously, doing multiple platforms and things like that, that’s definitely important. Press, I think that’s something people just don’t realize how time consuming that is. A lot of folks, they reach out to me, because I’ve done kickstarters before, or a kickstarter before. They want my open advice.
They want me to post things on our social media and our websites. I’m more than happy to help out aspiring folks. They come to me, “Sure, no worries. When is your product launching.” “Oh, next week.” I’m like, “Oh, man, dude. No. It takes months, like three to six months.” There’s still a piece that I don’t know what’s happening with gawker media now, but on gizmodo or somebody that still hasn’t written the piece yet, and it’s been like six, whatever, months.
Tom’s Hardware is another one. Now, these guys are people that love our product. They have it in their hand, and they still barely have time to publish these things, so now that I know how, and I established some relationship with really good PR press people, good guys out there that are trying to keep people honest, I know how they work, and I realize that you need to do your PR work way in advance and you can’t count on that. It’s just let’s hope it works out. It’s PR, it’s not marketing, right, so different things. it’s easier for me to say these things, because second go around, I do have a lot more resource, so I don’t know what to tell you in terms of the secret to the mistakes.
I know a lot of the things I’ll o is the things like that, like preparation up to it. Those kinds of things.
Felix: Let’s talk about that, whether you launched on a crowd funding campaign or just launching a product for a first time, what kind of preparation, PR-wise, do you have to do to make sure it’s a successful launch?
Brian: Yeah, and I think some of that … my approach, obviously, and some of the things I can tweak, but I think it’s a combination of the two. I think one, you really should engage the hardcore demographic, the real advanced users and get their feedback. It shouldn’t influence what you do, but that’s one way to do it. It’s things like Reddit. If you’re launching an … I don’t know, bikes, find those kinds of … those guys that are just really really deep enthusiasts with a particular demographic you’re trying to hit, whatever you’re trying to make, and really mind them for it.
Now, they’re really terrible for consumer products, because those are the kind of people that’ll spend ten x money on a piece of toy that somebody would never do. They’re the kind of people that would spend a crazy amounts of money on car parts. That’s another analogy I like to use. The reason why that’s important is because you can get a lot of good will from some of those folks on their forums, because you would post them months in advance. “Hey, I’m thinking about kickstarting this. What do you think?” If you get some hooks, like, “Aw, man. I know some people. I’ll post this. I’ll let the word out.”
There’s this underground awareness, so that when your product comes, basically, you’re trying to avoid the hate, because if you just come out as brand new, reddit will just be like, “What the heck is this?” It’s all … they don’t know you, but then, what I did with qwerkywriter, and accidentally, but now that I know it was a really good thing is that people … everyone knew about my crazy idea, so when people like, “What the heck is this?” Then, a lot of the forum, like [Elvers 00:42:08]. “Guys, I know this guy. He means well. He’s not some unscrupulous guy trying to make a quick buck. He’s a cool dude. I know him. I’ve even seen his stuff. He came out to our meetings. Yeah, his idea is a little wacky, but I think we should try to throw him a little bit of support.”
There was a lot of organic defense to get the negative press out of the thing, because I see every time somebody launches, then you go to reddit or some other place, and they’re getting destroyed. There’s nobody defending them. Negativity train just piles on, so that helps a lot. On the other side, it’s the difficult one again. I was fortunate enough where this was a product, and the images I selected was enough of a click draw that it made it worth while for large companies and large bloggers to pay attention. Having really great pictures, having really good presentations of your product, and being thoughtful about it and circulating that out beforehand to people and hopefully you cross your fingers that they may pick up on it.
It’s a tough one, because if they don’t, yeah, it’s tough. You can’t count on that, but that’s what I would do.
Felix: Yeah, the first point you made, I think, is super important. It’s crazy how quickly sentiment can take off, essentially, based on just how the early reactions. I think that-
Brian: Oh yeah.
Felix: I’m not sure this is something you had studied before launching ,but the idea behind a product adoption curve is exactly what you’re getting at, which is the way it’s laid out is there are different, I guess, groups of people, that pick up on a product or get interested in a product at different stages. You have your innovators and early adopters at the beginning, and then there’s this idea that there’s this great chasm between the early adopters and the majority, the rest of the consumers out there that might be interested in it.
The early adopters aren’t like them. Like you’re saying they’re super hardcore, and they might want certain things that the general public doesn’t want, but the majority of people out there look towards the early adopters for basically how they should feel about the product. That’s exactly what it sounds like you experienced, people were coming in and maybe they were hating on it at first. Then, they always look to the early adopters of people that are heavy into this space, look at their opinions, and adopt the early adopters’ opinions. I think that’s a great point you made. I think it’s super important for people to hold on to this, not just for kickstarter, but for any product launch, anything in your business.
There’s going to be this break up, or break down, of different groups of people that are going to be interested in your product. They all rely and work off of each other to adopt your new product. I think your case is a perfect example of how this all works out.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely.
Felix: Yeah, so I want to talk about … I think you mentioned earlier was dealing with a copy cat. This is, I think, another, sometimes, a realistic concern people have. Other times, maybe they just fear that someone’s going to eventually copy them, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m not sure how much you can go into this, but tell us about your experience so far with that.
Brian: You know, it’s flattering. It’s really ridiculous. Again, I think you go back to, as a creative, what are you trying to do? Certainly, my idea is not original. It’s not some kind of … but there was enough of an original form factor and packaging, visualization, whatever you want to call it, that it makes it … it’s in the internet conscience, globally. They know what this keyboard is. Oh, that’s the qwerkywriter. We’re really fortunate that’s in place, but you know, to be frank, our product, this is a very niche product. It’s very expensive. What the qwerkywriter’s allowing me to do is potentially give me a shot at building new products. The more consumer, more wide, like you said, somebody said you can sell a thousand of anything on kickstarter.
There’s that niche in place, and that may be the case for my design. Although, I think it was a little bit more … I was surprised at the traction it’s having and the continued resiliency of sales, but just to say that with the design of the qwerkywriter, it was something that was unique enough and it was just interesting to me that that whole concept of somebody actually copying what I did never really occurred to me. I knew that there was in the back of my mind, because the whole point was look, the whole kickstarter thing is an open thing.
There was no contract or NDA, although some of the people that I did work with, we do have a work for hire NDA kind of thing just to protect my interest and just different kinds of things that make things easier to work. I’ve always thought it was an open thing, so the great thing about the internet, because of that, is just that people know that’s your product. As long as you’ve been, you’ve went through the gauntlet with the early adopters, because those guys catch copy things exactly, but the consumer are not as informed. The bottom line is 90% of the time, from my experience and what I’ve seen is that people are not really going to copy your stuff. You just really don’t worry too much about it. If they do, it’s just one of those things that it’s a very difficult thing for you to deal with.
The idea always has been you want to build a product that’s difficult to compete against. The word of caution, though, is that that’s the kind of startup talk that you do when you’re trying to be a billion dollar company. When you’re just a hobbyist, I see a lot of hobbyist, they have this startup kit, and they’re trying to build in any kind of product that is going to try to compete with us is going to be really difficult, because I have all these things built in. I’m like, “Dude, you’re never going to be able to build that. That’s too hard.” We’re going to have software and cloud integration, all this … you know how expensive cloud integration is? You have no idea. It’s so expensive.
In that sense, I made a contract with myself. Look, it is going to be pretty easy to copy my design just because it’s nothing new. I didn’t invent any of these products. I have to use off the shelf things. Even the chrome plating on the thing, that was a really nifty trick, but it’s nothing that the manufacturing … if any guy who made keyboard from Logitech or wherever, like, “Oh, I see this. We can just make this. This is nothing.” The reason they don’t is because this is … consumers are not going to buy a million of these things. It’s too expensive, and the parts he’s using is too expensive. By the nature of the fact that it’s really expensive and is really hard to make and is manual labor that I do.
That was a protection for us, but I never really thought of that as something that … but, at the same time, I didn’t realize how resilient it was going to be, and how popular, especially the Asian countries, in China, and in Japan. They love this thing. We have some really great loyal fans over there, but now, we’re dealing with a case where I’ve seen some people, they go, “Okay, really what the reason why qwerkywriter is cool are the cool caps.” People started to typewriter key caps and switchable mechanic switches. They started t copy that. Then, some of it I saw, the very early stages of it, somehow, one of our factories leaked my tooling. I saw, when I saw the pictures of these key caps these people were selling, and they were doing that, it was exactly our key caps.
Guys, we try to deal with that, and I think that was a Taiwanese company. We were actually able to curve that and at least delay them. What we did was some of the social media, our backers actually, from Taiwan, they got furious at them. I didn’t do anything. I just posted saying, “Guys, this is clearly … you bought a qwerkywriter, you took the key caps off, and you put it on a keyboard, and you’re trying to sell it.” Got a lot of backlash and a lot of good will. What they do is had to make their own mold and change a few design and then I think it started coming out just the key caps themselves.
They’re selling it pretty cheap, but if you add up the cost, it’s not much cheaper than … they might as well just buy my keyboard. Anyway, it was kind of an interesting thing. That definitely kept me up at night a little bit, just because I’m like, “Oh, man, this is happening, but what are you going to do?” Now, however, we have a company that’s just outright copying it. It looks exactly like my keyboard. We’re in litigation with them. That’s a really tough thing, because it’s expensive. We’re still weighing the pros and cons of what we can do. We do have design patents. We do have copyrights, but that’s something that I felt like I should have … I have that in the U.S., but it’s a difficult question, because should I have it in every country?
Even if you have U.S. patent and copyrights here, it doesn’t give you protection internationally, so I did the Chinese and international copy design protection, which is really hard, because I don’t speak Chinese, and I have to hire Chinese attorneys. Now, we have a really good team that’s protecting our interest. Boy, that’s just something that … that’s a luxury problem ultimately.
Felix: Yeah, I think what you’re getting at, too, is there’s really no better defense against copy cats than having a super strong brand and the loyal customers that you have to give this backlash at these companies. If you did have to step it up, what’s the first step? You’ve identified someone that’s outright copying your product. What is the first step towards, I guess, legal recourse?
Brian: Yeah, s I think what I recommend is that when you do it, it’s going to cost you. It’s going to cost you five, 10, $15,000, and it’s very expensive to get your … it’s going to be hard to get utility patents. This is probably no the forum to get into the difference between design and utility patents, but the point is that get some kind of a patent. I recommend design patents if possible, but to do that in the states, in your domestic territory, and then try and see if you can get one in China. China actually, fortunately, they actually have some really good recourse for patent and design protections. They’re doing a really good job over there. It’s just that you have to take advantage of it. That’s the thing we didn’t do. We were just like, “That’s also expensive,” and frankly, if you don’t have the funds, what are you going to do? You have to roll the dice.
We engaged them a little bit too late, which is why I’m seeing the copy cats coming out now. Again, I should have done that first in a sense where if you’re going to launch a product, do one in Korea, do one in China … I’m sorry, do one in China, and do one in the states, r where your domestic territory, just to protect that trade market and do those things first. Second, the goal of the legal action is really you’re not going to win things. It’s very difficult and very expensive to do that. What I recommend is just try to slow them down, and you just continue to make a better product and better customer experience, like you mentioned. Build your loyal brand, focus on that, and you’re going to get ahead.
Felix: Makes sense. One thing you mentioned during the pre-interview was about building trust. You mentioned that one of the key pieces of advice you would give out is you need to build trust in your business relationships and not building fear because fear-driven businesses leads to wasted opportunities and lifeless innovation. Can you just say more about this? Is this based on experiences that you’ve have? What does this mean to you?
Brian: I mean, that’s the pillar of my business and my creative process altogether, the thing I learned. If you think about the way the keyboard was made, it was built on trust, not fear. It was built on trust because 469 people thought that what I had to do was really cool and they gave me their trust in the most tangible form possible. It was built on trust. I’ve always, in my experience, I want to tap into that and make sure that’s the kind of philosophy I have throughout this experience. It has to do with some of that. Some of that may be naïve, but I think actually served us well, especially for a very small company like us who need people.
The reason why trust is important is because trust tends to fill in a lot of gaps that you haven’t thought of. If you’re driven by fear, there’s going to be a lot of gaps. What I mean by that is now that it was built on trust, now let’s try to find … I have to build a team. I have to go and find our industrial folks, our manufacturing team, our supply chain folks. I’m not building a real … I don’t have the resource, so a lot of these people are weekenders, part timers, contractors, they’re not full time employees, because we can’t afford that, but by trying to constantly project a sense of trust and relationship building with them guys, thank you for working on this and showing them respect, giving them a lot of leverage.
You’re not the next Steve Jobs telling people about being a tyrant, although later on years, he did definitely soften up from what I understand. The point is that by doing that, it really gave back, so our manufacturing team, for example, was a lot of fear. When you end up selecting the people, and our contracts could be completely bloated, but I tried to trust my instincts. Again, some of them have come to haunt me, and some of them have paid off, but overwhelmingly, I think when I extend trust t even the people that are the most fear mongering, I found that they go the extra mile for you, things that are not visible, not spelled out ,but they will do things for you.
I’ll give you an example. Going back to that chrome bar thing is a great example where I really struggle with this, and it was difficult, but I’ve shown our manufacturing team a great sense of trust. I didn’t have multiple bids and trying to .. .was harsh, but there was a really good sense of rapport. When that came up, they basically figured it out for me, because they deserve all the credit for it. “You know what, Bryan, I see you’re struggling with this. Don’t worry about the cost, we’re going to make it fit. If it needs to be a certain cost, we’ll make it work,” and they did. There’s an example where the product could have tanked, but because instead of harping on my manufacturing team so much and examining everything due, I wasn’t this tyrant and constantly panicking that I tried to exude a sense of trust and calm, that team just came and just solved it for me.
I can list many instances like that where great, like my industrial team, figured out this thing for me, and filled in those gaps that I couldn’t, because it was a business relationship based no trust, not fear and layers of contracts.
Felix: Makes a lot of sense. One thing I wasn’t to talk about that I noticed on your site was that you do sell also refurbished products. Can you talk to us about how your, I guess, refurbished program is set up?
Brian: Oh yeah. We’re fortunate enough where now we’ve sold enough units where some of the units, a lot of the stuff, for example, with electronics, if it’s something that a customer returns to us, and again, our customer return rate is very low. I mean, like less than one percent. Most of that stuff had to do with they didn’t want it or there was a mistake. A lot for the … like right now, we’re doing a firmware upgrade, so some of the earlier backers that had some of our older firmware, in the future, we’re going to be able to release the firmware that people can download, but I’m still … that process is actually a little bit janky. What we do is we take it in and we would upgrade the firmware, but occasionally, we have units that don’t meet our standards.
In fact, we do, again, part of the premium product experience is we have to make sure that when you take it out of the box, it’s just gorgeous. That’s really hard for us in terms of fancy packaging and things like that. We do our best. We too try to do is make sure that the product itself is really clean visually and things like that. When we get products like that, maybe a key cap replenishment or some little scratch, we’ll fix all that and then it’s basically a brand new qwerkywriter. It’s just that we have them in stock, so occasionally, I think we have just a few more left. We allow people to take advantage for that pricing.
Felix: Do you find there are any downsides to listing a refurbished product? The reason I’m asking is I don’t think many stores I’ve seen have taken this approach you’ve taken. It looks like a great opportunity based on what you’re saying about it. Talk to us about maybe the pros and cons of having a refurbished program.
Brian: Yeah, this is going to be … we’re running this program because we started to have a bit of a stock pile and need … we were wondering what we need to do, so this is a very short promotion. In fact, I think we put this out maybe two weeks ago, and it’s probably going to be over in the next few days actually. I think we’re almost out of it, so it’s just a very limited thing. There’s, obviously, it may contribute to hurting your premium brand, things like that. It’s just … I would say it’s more of an anomaly. We don’t plan to do this throughout. It’s just a short promotion.
Felix: Awesome. Yeah, I think you mentioned earlier that you have a couple other crowd funding campaigns coming up. Anything else that’s coming up, I guess, that you have planned out for the next year that listeners can look out for?
Brian: Yeah, it’s too early to say any of those things. I would say it’s more like in the next … look for us maybe some time next year. We’re not quite sure exactly when it’s going to launch. Again, the product line is hugely difficult in terms of trying to figure out what the right thing is, but every time I struggle with that, I just go back to the roots of why … what is qwerky toys, and just to wrap that portion up. I put the word toys in there just because I wanted to make sure that I don’t take what I do too seriously. It is kind of like a toy. It’s this beautiful thing, but it’s a toy. Just like a Porsche really is a toy. Isn’t it? Like Ferrari. They have all these ostentatious print ads and stuff like that.
It’s a toy. It’s a thing. You’re not saving the world, so look for products like that. It’s going to be beautiful. It’s going to be something that wow, that you will not be able to ignore, because it’s so unusual, because I just work like that. It’s going to be fun and gorgeous.
Felix: Awesome. Thanks so much, Bryan. Again, qwerky toys. You can go to qwerkytoys.com or qwerkywriter.com. It goes to the same site. Anyone else you recommend our listeners check out they want to follow along with what you’re up to?
Brian: Yeah, no, just you can follow us on qwerkywriter, @qwerkywriter on twitter or look us up, qwerkywriter on Facebook. We do a lot of cool promotions. We have giveaways occasionally. We let people know, so like us on Facebook and follow us on twitter.
Felix: Awesome. Thanks so much, Bryan.
Brian: Thank you so much.
Felix: Thanks for listening to shopify master, the eCommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start you store today, visit shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30 day free trial.
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