Fig. 1

How Startups Beat the Odds

With limited capital and resources, even success can be a challenge for upstart companies.

Inventing a new widget that everyone loves, enabling the inventor to sail off on a pile of money, is a dream for many people. However, many people have ideas like this; it’s what you do after having the idea that matters.

First, you must come up with an idea that solves a problem, or that people otherwise want. There has to be enough value or marketing hype to get people to give up their hard-earned dollars for it. Obviously this is a huge challenge, as it’s essentially what everyone from massive corporations to some person tinkering in a garage down the street is trying to do.

Many engineering types have even gone the extra step, build a working proof of concept or prototype of an idea. But what’s next? For Specdrums, a Boulder, Colo.-based connected musical applications company, it was to see what the public had to say. In late summer 2017, Specdrums started a Kickstarter campaign. In short, the company’s product is a ring worn on the fingertip that pairs with an app. The ring can be “drummed” on any color where the smartphone app emits a programmed sound to literally drum with your fingers.

Unfortunately, after 30 days, Specdrums had exceeded its goal by 1,250%. While this may seem like a good problem to have, order fulfillment—and finding the right partner—is imperative to success. Select the wrong partner and you might find that your successful campaign still lost money on order fulfillment. 

With orders in the queue, the growing company needed production help. Moreover, it needed that help fast, and in a manner that could scale for future growth. The company was faced with finding a manufacturing partner to deliver the silicone parts it needed to meet demand. Before shipping to customers though, it needed samples to get into the hands of product influencers and educators.

Accelerating a Cool Idea with Digital Manufacturing

Specdrums’ co-founder, Steven Dourmashkin, initially created his own production molds. But with the volume of demand, this quickly became inefficient. The next step was looking into rapid injection molding, a process that created both what Specdrums needed in the short term as well as ability to scale as the company continued to grow.

The process wasn’t without its challenges. When looking for a molding partner, some companies Dourmashkin met with found the design to be problematic. One of the parts had an overhang, which added complexity to the design. Dourmashkin eventually found application engineers at Protolabs who helped improve the design, manufacturability, fit and durability.

Having the resources of a large company accelerated production. Protolabs created 3D-printed samples to nail down the design before developing molds and low-volume production tools for injection molding.

“I admired Protolabs’ willingness to work with my designs and improve the manufacturability. Other manufacturers were worried about the overhang and weren’t willing to improve the design with me,” Dourmashkin said.

During the design process, one of Protolabs’ applications engineers suggested Dourmashkin look into the Protolabs Cool Idea! Award. Entering and being awarded this grant enabled Specdrums to refine its product even further, without delaying time-to-market. With the ability to do on-demand small production runs, Dourmashkin could test colors and materials to create a high-quality product, allowing the company to fulfill all the orders to its Kickstarter backers by January 2018.

With the right partner and design, Specdrums succeeded and was acquired by another Boulder-based company, Sphero, well-known for its connected toys, educational tech products, and Star Wars Droids. Dourmashkin and his team will retain oversight of Specdrums and will have more resources to help with engineering and marketing to further the growth of the product. The ability to prove both the market and the manufacturability of the product was critical in the acquisition.

While it might sound easy to learn a little bit of Arduino and make a Kickstarter, it doesn’t mean you’re even close to making the dream a reality. Knowledge, resources, and collaboration are needed to fulfill orders efficiently and effectively. Otherwise, your dream can quickly become a nightmare.

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