The lure of the startup has been such a prominent part of the American story in the last 20 years, even people who don’t read the business press have some sense of how it’s done. First you have an idea, then you do some market research, then you pitch the idea to raise money. If the idea gets funded, you market it to the public en masse who mostly don’t care in order to find the few that do, and then, finally, you get to sell your product or service to the resulting customers.
This has been the story for startups creating everything from ads on search engines to artisanal soap, and it hasn’t changed much over the years. In different eras, the difficulty of raising money, advertising, or selling things has varied, but the basic pipeline was the same, and because it was the same for so long, businesses adapted. The way products and services were developed shaped the companies that developed them, and vice-versa: marketing became a department, sales became a different department, and so on. It all came to seem so normal that people assumed this was the way the business world should work rather than simply being the way it happened to work.
This book is the story of a different way of starting a business. A really different way. When Tom Gerhardt and Dan Provost wanted to fund the development of the Glif, their iPhone tripod mount, they didn’t think they were launching a company, much less testing a new model for starting a company. They thought they might raise enough money to make a couple hundred of their elegant little tripod mounts and sell them.
Using Kickstarter, they put out an appeal to adventurous consumers who would take a flyer on two designers who had a good idea—people whose desire to own a good tripod mount dovetailed with their desire to see someone trying something new. And it turned out that there were enough such people to support Tom and Dan’s work; they raised enough to make 500 Glifs. Then 600. And then 800, 1000, 3000, 5000 Glifs. By the time their Kickstarter campaign ended, they’d raised well over ten times their initial goal.
Studio Neat was born because they discovered that the things that motivated them—well designed products people need but no one makes—had a much bigger audience than they anticipated. Then they did something remarkable—they did it again with the Cosmonaut, their iPad stylus. The Studio Neat way of launching a product wasn’t just a fluke.
All of this is wonderful for Tom and Dan, of course, wonderful for Studio Neat, wonderful for their customers. But it’s wonderful for us as well because it shows us how businesses can get started in our little corner of the 21st century.
Tom and Dan started with the animating idea of most businesses: “We want to make something we think you might like.” But then, instead of spending time assessing market demand, getting mired in Powerpoint, spreadsheets, bankers, business plans, and so on, they sidestepped all of that. Instead, the key relationship here was between them and us.
They came to us and said: “Here’s our idea. If you want it, we will make it”, and that was enough. We wanted it, they made it. So what part of starting a business did their Kickstarter campaign help them with? Was the conversation between us and them market research? Was it fundraising? Maybe it was marketing? Or sales? To which the answer is Yes. It was all of those things.
The old pipeline—where financial institutions demand approval at every step—isn’t the only way to start a business anymore. It’s just a way, and compared to sharing their vision directly with us, it’s not even a very good way.
In this book, Tom and Dan tell the story of the Glif and the Cosmonaut and Studio Neat, but they also tell the story of how to take an idea and try it out in a world that suddenly allows for such audacity. And they tell us what they discovered along the way, which is that if you go directly to your customers, to your audience, to us, motivation and clarity became essential.
There is no recipe for passion, no 5-step guide to making your idea real, but there is good, solid advice, and this book is filled with it. They speak from real experience when they tell us:
Don't make a product because you want to quit your day job (that can be a reason, but not the reason). Don't make a product because you want to get rich.
Make something great because you care deeply about it. Make something because you stay awake at night thinking about it. Make something because you feel invigorated when you work on it, and anxious when you don’t.
The Studio Neat story is remarkable, but that’s not why they wrote this book. The obstacles between designers and customers are foundering, and there’s a new premium on passion and clarity. What Studio Neat has learned can help others create their own remarkable stories. There’s no monopoly on elegant design. Someone is going to have the next good idea. Could be you.