Why Dedicate the Time?
Junior year of college, I had spent two years in robotics labs helping develop amazing technologies that were so theoretical there was never talk of “How would we bring this technology to market, so it’s immediately useful to an end-user?”
I wanted the opportunity to go through the process of developing a consumer product, finding product-market fit, and learning how to scale manufacturing. I’d never dealt with running a business, Intellectual Property, being a cofounder … any of it. All my previous projects were solo shows, this is how I learned to lead a team.
I chose the simplest-unique product I could create (and even that took some effort). This way there would be no Tech risk to worry about.
All the focus went to building what people want. We did interviews, surveys, test marketing campaigns.
After two years, we’d raised $30,000 from pitch competitions, manufactured $16,000 worth of product in the US, learned how to manufacture in China on 2am phone calls. The experience was worth every second, and I’m thankful for everyone who helped me along the way.
Find a mentor and give them a reason to invest their knowledge in you. At the NYC Maker Faire, I listened to a talk by a Joann Fabrics board member. I then asked her how to sell through Joann Fabrics. She told me a generic application URL, which I scribbled down on a notepad alongside all my other notes. When she saw that, she gave me her phone number and taught me a lot. Show people you mean business.
Attack a market with large margins (your customer pays $100 for your product, and you pocket $50) And sell on value not cost. Giant companies can sell on cost. Our main target market was college students who are very price-conscious and time-conscious, you have to create a lot of new value for them to not go with an alternative.
Start with Design Thinking: Rather than manufacturing a problem to solve, ask people what their largest problems are, then ask if you had a solution to that problem, how much they would value the solution. We manufactured design and forced it on clients who we later found out valued speed over creativity.
People vote with their $$. If someone says “That’s a great idea” ask if they’ll pre-pay for one. If they say no, they don’t really mean it.
It’s okay to move on to the next project. Your project does not define you. It’s not what you have but how far you’ve come to get this far that makes you who you are.
I’m a hobby photographer, if you receive a present from me, it will most likely include a picture. I started with a group of friends designing a better photograph display from string, clothespins, and CNC routed wooden disks.
After talk with friends at 3D printing club, we transitioned to 100% paper made. It took me 3 hours to cut 10 frames and 10 connectors. The resulting photo display was 10X cleaner looking and 100X easier to put together.
We needed a faster way to cut our frames, so we started searching for machines on campus. Early on, we screwed 30 sheets of paper into a CNC machine and routed the outlines. The frames looked horrible, though the speed with which they were cut excited us and challenged us to find a better way.
My hometown librarian introduced me to this machine, and I purchased one less than 24 hours later. It's one of my go-to examples for talking to everyone you know in order to propel a project forward. I never would have found the machine if I hadn't given the librarian a friendly update of what I was working on at college. People ask why a bunch of similar products flood the market all at once after nothing comparable existed. It’s because technology has just become available to allow for similar innovations to be discovered simultaneously across the world.
Clean cut product, name, and packaging. Around this time a peer asked me, "Where'd you buy those picture frames?". We'd hit a turning point. From here on, we started mass producing our prototypes, handing them out and in an unbiased manner asking peers what they thought of this product we'd stumbled upon.
During the three months I spent in Providence for an internship, I iterated through dozens of package designs to explain our frames and take them from concept to market-ready.
Over the summer, we designed an origami-like package to hold our picture frames and connectors in place. The entire insert folded from a single sheet of cardstock and demonstrated the abilities of our product upon opening.
After squeezing four patterns, packaging, and promotional material onto a 26 x 40-inch sheet, we checked and double-checked our artwork before ordering 1000 custom-printed sheets of paper.
After months of artwork, we pulled the trigger and manufactured 1800 eighteen-frame kits.
We tabled in the student union on the coldest day of the year. We woke up at 6 AM Chalked campus in the snow an built a 75 picture display. The day was a wonderful success.
I purchased a laser cutter to prototype designs. We experimented with mass customization. We even wrote a program that would convert a black and white photo into a laser cutting path, hoping people would want to upload their own photo attachments to our website.
We have created dozens of laser-cut attachments for companies and organizations.
While presenting at the World Maker Faire, we helped over 600 kids die-cut their very own photograph display. The displays were then packaged up and sent home as a fun activity to work on with their parents.
I attended my first Maker Faire a month after I started working on Eleframes. I couldn't wait to present. It took two years to create a product and inspire others... and it was worth every moment.
In the end, I reached out to a UConn Alumni at Shutterfly and asked: “In what scenario would a large company like Shutterfly want to buy our product design?” He only had one condition: It had to have an easy to use instruction guide that did not require the internet. I spent 30 days making a new instruction guide every day and testing it with people. Noone understood our product. So I moved on to the next project.
Oddly, near the end of the project (From the maker faire) I learned that 6 and 7 year olds were a better target market, because they would spend the time to learn how it worked even without an instruction guide, and if they messed up … they still thought it looked beautiful. We could have pivoted our marketing and continued, however by that time, I was itching to get back into tech, so I closed up shop, I’d learned dozens of valuable lessons.
We funded our activities with the following.
$4,000 from a UConn Idea Grant (25 hours to write the application)
$5,000 from UConn Innovation Quest
$2,000 from a pitch competition in New Haven
$15,000 from the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. A 3 month summer program where CT based entrepreneurs came and taught us three days a week.
$2,000 out of my pocket when our bank account was low
$1,000 in product sales. Yes, we only ever sold $1,000 of product! We gave away 5X as much.
We were lucky enough to work with the UConn Intellectual Property Clinic, where I helped draft a provisional and full patent that was awarded in 2018.
We probably spent $2000 on legal fees making an LLC and an operating agreement. When you are starting off, there is no reason to spend all of this money until you make money. I’d suggest right before your first large payment comes in you make a Delaware LLC. You can draft boilerplate documents by yourself. Mainly an operating agreement.
I didn’t know anything about equity. I split the company 55-40-5. I did not find this very incentivizing as I did most of the work. However, since I was in it to learn, I did not mind. In the future, I would negotiate much harder about the time and energy each person is willing to commit. And of course vest. I currently hold a minority share in a startup and work full time on it. I know without the leadership of my partner I would not be able to accomplish nearly as much as I am still learning, because of that I am very happy with my holdings. This needs to be communicated among founders in college.