“Don’t half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”
Sometimes it feels as though we’re in business by accident. Our original intention was simply to make a useful product, little did we know that six months later we would be quitting our jobs to focus on Studio Neat full time. As such, we’ve had to learn as we go, but we don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
Our design and business philosophy stems from who we are as people, but it also derives from observing and following people in design and business we admire and respect. None of what we discuss here is altogether new or revolutionary. It is simply what we believe in. Take what is useful to you and leave the rest.
Simplicity is ingrained in everything we do at Studio Neat.
First and foremost, we aim to design products that are simple. Simple products benefit more than just our customers. The fact that the Glif was relatively simple to manufacture meant we could deliver the product just over a month after the Kickstarter campaign ended with few hiccups along the way.
Simplicity extends beyond the design of the products we make. Especially when it comes to logistics and operations, we try very hard to keep things as simple as possible, and as a result we’ve been able to remain a two-person shop even though we’ve steadily expanded our product offerings.
Focus and simplicity go hand in hand. For a company as small as ours, it’s imperative to stay as focused as possible. Not every idea, even an idea you’ve put a lot of work into already, is worth pursuing. Taking a cue from Apple, we are as proud of the things we decide not to do, as we are of the things we decide to do.
Simplicity is not easy. It takes a great deal of effort to try to arrive at the simplest solution to a problem, and often involves some level of sacrifice or compromise. Simplicity must be always on your mind, and something you are always intentionally striving to achieve. It’s easy for things to get “accidentally” complex if you lose focus on simplicity.
So why is simplicity a goal for Studio Neat? Don Norman, design and usability guru, has said that “simplicity is highly overrated,” arguing that when faced with a choice, consumers will choose the more complex, feature-packed version of a product. In other words, simplicity is a nice enough design goal, but bad for business. We take a different approach. Our goal is to design something that is continually delightful to use, not something that looks fancy on the store shelf but frustrates in actual usage. We want customers to love our products, and to become repeat customers and fans. The pursuit of simplicity is how we aim to achieve this.
The most notable champion of this ideal, of course, is Apple. Here’s Jonathan Ive, head of industrial design at Apple:
Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that’s a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That’s not simple.
The quest for simplicity has to pervade every part of the process. It really is fundamental.
This is not to say a complex product cannot also be well-designed, but in our experience, consumers value simplicity, and weigh it in their purchasing decision. Perhaps Einstein said it best: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
You Can’t Please Everyone
Our ability to achieve focus and simplicity in our products comes from an understanding that you can’t please everyone, and that it’s futile to try. Let’s take the Glif as an example. Not only is it designed for a specific device (the iPhone 4), but it requires that device to be completely naked, i.e., with neither case nor screen protector. For many people, this is a nonstarter, as they refuse to carry their phone around without a case, and don’t want the hassle of removing it every time they want to use the Glif. We’re ok with that. We regret that we can’t have them as a customer, of course, but making a tripod mount that accommodates all the varying cases dimensions would clutter the elegance for which we were striving.
More recently, as we have stepped into the world of software with Frameographer, it is quite common to receive feature requests via email, Twitter, or App Store reviews. This can be a glittering lure, but we always approach with caution. It takes a great deal of restraint to slow down, and consider how the addition of a feature would affect the app as a whole. If we can’t figure out a way to incorporate a feature in an elegant way, we don’t add it.
We are big fans of the folks at 37signals, and as we mentioned earlier, consider Rework to be one of our guiding lights. One of the key things we have gleaned from their philosophy is the idea that it’s OK to intentionally stay small. We work hard to keep business operations as simple as possible, so even after three successful products and almost two years in business, we are still the only two employees of Studio Neat.
The advantages of working this way are numerous.
In “start-up” culture, there are basically two trajectories: become super successful so you can become the next Twitter or Facebook, or aim to get acquired by a larger company. There are very few new start-ups that have the goals of staying intentionally small, building great products that can be sold for a profit, and growing organically.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Indie Capitalism is that there is now a middle ground. Instead of the “go big or go home” approach of most start-ups, it is now feasible to “go small and have complete autonomy over your products and not work crazy unreasonable hours.” That’s probably a little too long to catch on, but you get the idea.
Scratch Your Own Itch
A key component to the products we make is that we seek to scratch our own itch(es). Everything we design fulfills a need that we, ourselves, have. The Glif was born when we realized how awesome the iPhone 4 camera was, but didn’t have an ideal way to mount it to a tripod. The Cosmonaut was born when the two of us were sending design sketches back and forth to each other from our iPads, and none of the styli we tried felt great to use. Frameographer was born out of our childlike desire to make neat little stop motion and time-lapse movies, and our corresponding inability to find a simple, exquisite app for that.
A huge benefit to designing things for yourself is you are the perfect judge of whether it sucks or not. Better yet, the two of us have very high standards and are not afraid to poop (constructively) on each other’s ideas. After all, we want things to be perfect.
People sometimes ask us what kind of market research we did to determine the price points for our products. The answer is: very little. Instead, we think we are pretty good judges of what the product “should” cost, if we were the consumers considering a purchase. It’s really that simple.
Some might find this approach irresponsible. Certainly we can’t make every decision on gut intuition, right? This is a fair point, but staying small affords us the opportunity to make decisions quickly and course correct as we go. We trust that if we do something wrong, our customers will tell us. They, in a sense, are our focus group.
That said, it is important for us to execute decisions thoughtfully and confidently. It is very easy to be influenced by a vocal minority of naysayers, but we try to stay the course. If what we are making is truly valuable, it will find an audience.
Tell a Story
“Storytelling is one of the most efficient communication methods we’ve devised. Its effectiveness is why so much of the wisdom and insight about what it means to be human is wrapped up in fables and parables.” – Frank Chimero
Everyone loves a good story. Humans have told and retold stories for as far back as we know. For some reason we seem hardwired to seek out, and tell, stories. Also it’s easier to connect with something on an emotional level if it reaches us in the form of a story.
For this reason, we try to tell a story with each of our products. Whether it’s the story of how the product came into existence, how the product fits into our little ecosystem, or how the product fits into the lives of our customers—the story is important.
People want to know where things come from and who is behind the design. Products do not exist in a vacuum; they are designed and created by humans, which we sometimes forget. On Kickstarter, project creators are able to put a face to their design via the project video. You, as the consumer, are not buying a thing, you are buying a thing made by this person. This is a subtle but important distinction.
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.
As long as your goal is to create something great, everything else is cream cheese. Maybe it will turn into a full time business. Maybe it will just be a cool side project that fizzles out in six months. The point is, wouldn’t you want to be working on something you are passionate about, regardless of the outcome?
If you are as fortunate as we have been, and your passion project turns into a full time gig, the introduction of new business pressures will threaten to suck the passion right out of you. Having a business changes the game, as every decision feels like it needs to be legitimized by its ability to make money. Fear and anxiety can set in, and you might feel suffocated, and like you’re no longer free to experiment. The best way to overcome this feeling is to try to remember how you found success in the first place: by working on something you love. You are going to make mistakes, and you will create things that are unsuccessful, either creatively or financially. Don’t let it paralyze you. Instead, let your passion be your guide.
“Perhaps it sounds ridiculous, but the best thing that young filmmakers should do is to get hold of a camera and some film and make a movie of any kind at all.” – Stanley Kubrick
That’s good advice. When we launched the Glif on Kickstarter, we had no industrial design, manufacturing, or retail experience. But we had a good idea, and the confidence that we could figure it out as we went along. As we’ve said (and will say again because it bears repeating), there are going to be missteps, hiccups, and miscalculations—even the best-laid plans by experts never go smoothly. Your idea is not doing anyone any good by remaining only an idea.
This is not carte blanche to simply throw stuff out there with no research or prior knowledge, but you’d be surprised how quickly you can learn something when 5000 people are waiting for you to learn it. Jump off the cliff and build the plane on the way down.