Kickstarter vs. Indiegogo – A Creator’s Perspective

Since we launched our most recent campaign for Traveler on Indiegogo a lot of people have asked me why we chose Indiegogo (IGG) instead of Kickstarter (KS). I thought I would detail the reasons we had for making the choice we did and some of the considerations you should have when making a decision for your own project.

  1. Agency preference – For our Traveler campaign we worked with a full service marketing agency that specialized in crowdfunding to help us create, launch, and build our campaign. While they have done campaigns on both platforms, they prefer IGG and are generally known as the premiere IGG agency. Our contact at IGG said, ‘if you have the money, they are the ones to work with.’ They have a close relationship with the IGG team and also prefer the additional marketing and advertising features that IGG has and Kickstarter doesn’t. More about this below.
  2. Our last Kickstarter campaign for Clapboss flopped and we were a little bitter. I don’t blame Kickstarter itself but I have a relationship with one of the hardware managers there and he totally dropped the ball on us. The campaign likely wouldn’t have fared much better but he had made promises to us for support but instead went radio-silent. After the fact we heard that the KS editorial team didn’t like the style of our video. Ok, well we liked it but if our contact would have let us know that when we sent him early cuts, that would have been wildly helpful and we likely would have changed our strategy. Again, the campaign had other things going against it but this experience left us looking for something different.
  3. Indiegogo support – In contrast to our experience with Kickstarter, the folks at IGG came out of the gate swinging with ways that they could help us with our campaign. Whereas Kickstarter is traditionally wary of providing even the faintest hint of a promise from their team, Indiegogo goes as far as writing a contract that details all the promotional promises they will deliver during the campaign. The IGG team and platform was not new to us either. John Vaskis, IGG’s current VP of Sales and former head of hardware, was one of the very first people we met in NYC when we were showing the Hemingwrite concept at the Engadget Expand competition in 2014. Initially, Patrick and I wrote off IGG because they were the underdog and we wanted to stick with the industry leader. That’s why we launched Hemingwrite on Kickstarter but despite that, IGG folks have stayed in touch with us and were always positive, helpful, and encouraging, never spiteful. Their persistence, good nature, and willingness to concretely say how they would help our campaign ultimately won us over. Interestingly, Julio at Kickstarter, their head of community and a friend, reached out to me when he saw our Traveler landing page wondering what he could do to get us to launch it on KS. At this point we were leaning to IGG but the decision wasn’t final. I let him know about our previous experience in very clear terms and to his credit they put together a proposal that was very impressive. I didn’t even know Kickstarter did that kind of thing. We had to seriously consider it but in the end we wanted to stick with our agency’s preference since that is why we hired them.
  4. Marketing and advertising features – Kickstarter and Indiegogo are more similar than not but the differences are quite important. The history is that IGG has been nipping at Kickstarter’s heals for years and they do everything they can to woo creators. That has resulted in a number of creator focused features that can ad up to big $$$.
    A. Facebook pixel – this is a big one. IGG lets creators put their own FB pixel on their campaign page. This allows for conversion tracking and the ability to do remarketing. I told Julio that this was our biggest single feature request of KS and supposedly it is in the works over there but he wouldn’t give me a timeline. There is just no way around the fact that every campaign over 300k relies heavily on FB advertising and without a pixel, those campaigns are much more difficult to run. If KS wants to continue to win the biggest campaign creators, they need to be able to provide as many advertising tools as possible.
    B. Secret perks – Indiegogo allows creators to create secret perks that are only available to people with a specific link. This allows for creators to offer special pricing or bundles to groups without showing the general public. You can also run sales using secret perks. In a KS campaign, all perks are public and must be made prior to launch. Indiegogo  allows you to adjust perks as you go which gives a lot of marketing flexibility. For example, you can send an email to your house list to give people a second chance to get an early bird deal even though all the public early bird deals are sold out.
    C. Multiple rewards – IGG allows backers to buy multiple rewards. It’s not as straightforward as adding multiple items to your cart like in true ecom stores but it’s better than nothing. This simplifies the perk tiers a lot and also allows for cross-sells. Kickstarter requires creators to make specific reward tiers with every combination of perks which forces people to have a very simple reward structure or on the flip side requires complicated calculators and hoops that the backer must jump through to calculate their pledge amount. From what I’ve seen in IGGs backend, it also keeps track of SKUs in addition to backer levels which I think will greatly help the nightmare that is crowdfunding campaign fulfillment.
    D. Extensions – IGG allows creators to extend their campaign. There is a hard cap on any campaign to be no longer than 60 days but an additional ending provides a second urgency period that provides a good bump to sales. Kickstarter does not allow you to extend or change the period of the campaign once it starts.
  5. Potential for flash funding and partner support – Indiegogo has relationships with Arrow and Ingram Micro on the electronics and fulfillment side respectively, and both offer some form of flash funding. We’re aren’t banking on it but there’s a chance that we could get some money from them. That would be a cherry on top. Even if we don’t get anything, those two companies are big names and maybe they could help us. 
  6. Curiosity – I’d never done an IGG campaign before and this seemed like a good time to try it out.

So we decided to give Indiegogo a shot. It wasn’t without apprehension though. Kickstarter has at least double the traffic and is without question the industry leader. Their reputation among consumers is better and the word Kickstarter is virtually genericized at this point.

It’s now November 9th. We are over 30 days into our campaign and have raised over 530k. I thought the very top end of a reasonable estimate would have been 500k when all is said and done. We beat that and there is plenty of time left! We’ll never know what the campaign would have done on Kickstarter but by any objective measure, the campaign has been a success on IGG. Both our campaign strategist and sales manager have stayed in close touch with us and have provided great support throughout including weekly catch-up calls.

So should you launch on IGG or Kickstarter? It’s hard to say. Do you have relationships at IGG or Kickstarter that you can leverage? Are you working with any agencies? You also need to consider that IGG is more lenient when it comes to the types of campaigns it allows on its platform. If you are trying to crowdfund anything related to sex, drugs, weapons, etc. IGG may be your only option. KS also has a much more creative crowd. If you are making creative tools or something artistic, Kickstarter is almost certainly the best bet. We had a unique situation that led us to IGG but for most campaigns, Kickstarter is still probably the best choice. I hate to say it since we have had such a good experience with IGG but the size of Kickstarter’s platform is very hard to beat. Even with all the hamstrung advertising features of Kickstarter campaigns, all the best digital marketers that focus on crowdfunding overwhelmingly prefer Kickstarter. That’s saying a lot. If they ever added the ability to have a FB pixel or launch secret perks, it will be that much harder for IGG to differentiate. I wish both platforms the best and hope that they continue to coexist so creators and backers have a choice.

SAAS stack for business

I was talking with a friend the other night about all of the software tools we use to run our business (Astrohaus) and how they are immensely helpful. He is the CFO of a holding company and has to manage multiple operating businesses that all use different systems, many of them not taking advantage of new software available. See below for our full ‘stack’ of paid services we use to keep our business running smoothly and with minimal interaction. If I missed something that you think would be helpful to us, please let me know!

Virtual Mailbox

Traveling Mailbox – They provide a virtual mailbox with a real mailing address. All our company mail goes there and a picture of the envelope gets uploaded to a web portal. I can decide if I want them to open and scan it, shred it, or forward it to my real address. They automatically trash any junk mail. We initially got the service because we were moving to New York and we knew it was unlikely we would be at any one office address for too long. It’s always a hassle to track down mail from previous addresses and this service provides a great solution. Never worry about missing important mail. It’s very affordable and well worth it. 

Payroll

Gusto – Pay yourself and your employees on time and correctly. It does automatic employee onboarding. The UI and UX is well thought out. The price is reasonable and it just works. All your payroll taxes are automatically paid and the reports filed. It’s easy to see what was filed on your behalf too. You can manage employees and contractors. You can even add benefits and manage them there. It also syncs with QBO without fuss. 

Employee Expense Management

Expensify – Another really great piece of software. Use the app to take pictures of receipts or forward them via email. Employees quickly create expense reports, classify expenses using QuickBooks categories, and submit them to a manager. The manager can quickly review the report, see all the attached receipts, approve the report and even reimburse employees for cash expenses directly through Expensify. Expenses are synced to QBO and journalized properly so you can push expenses to the right categories while maintaining the ability to match with a payment. A link to the expense report is added to the journal entry in QBO so you can quickly get to a receipt right in QuickBooks.

Cap Table

Carta – We don’t have a complicated cap table but Carta still provides a great service. I would highly recommend it for any company that offers equity to employees or has more than a few investors. I would also recommend it for anyone that needs to do 409A valuations because it is far cheaper than other sources. It gives you, the employer, a view into your cap table that can quickly get very confusing when tracking on your own. It also gives employees the ability to check on their vesting schedules, review agreements, and exercise options. It’s not expensive and well worth it.

Company Bills and Expenses

Bill.com – Forward invoices to bill.com and it will create vendor profiles, manage payment due dates, and provide an approval and payment process. If you have more than one person in the organization that receives bills and if you need an approval process to pay, bill.com is great. It also syncs with QBO and makes sure that invoices are easily tracked to bill payments. We actually stopped using bill.com only because I am the only one receiving bills and paying them. If my organization was just a tiny bit bigger I would sign up again.

Accounting

Quickbooks Online – When choosing small biz accounting software it’s basically QBO or Xero. We chose QBO and I’m happy with it. It keeps improving and all our other services integrate with it. I have heard good things about Xero too.

Amazon Transaction Journalizing

A2X – This was referred to us by our new bookkeepers. It pulls reports from your Amazon seller account and packages them for QBO. From what I’ve seen it’s awesome and works exactly like it should. Without this, properly booking Amazon sales is a pain and leaves a lot of opportunity for errors.

Sales Tax

Taxify – Managing sales tax receivables, payments and filings quickly becomes unwieldy even with a modest sized business. Did you know there are sales tax rates at the state, city, and county level in some places? The state of sales tax laws in our country is a disaster and not at all friendly to modern ecom businesses. That’s where Taxify comes in. You tell it where you have nexus, connect your shopping carts and it takes care of the rest (you also need to make sure your tax collection settings are correct in your shopping carts and marketplaces). Taxify quickly shows how much tax you are collecting versus your liability. It also automatically files with the relevant agencies on your behalf. 

Password Manager

LastPass – Security is important and there is no worse thing than using the same or similar passwords on every site. When a site you use has a data breach, and they will, its possible that your username and password combo will get leaked and sold. Hackers then try that same combo on every other site. Just recently I have been getting phishing emails with one of my old passwords in the subject line. The phishers got my login combo from a websites data breach and is now using it to scare me into thinking that I need to give them money, etc. That’s why you need a password manager, so you can keep track of unique passwords for every site. It also allows you to have long passwords that would otherwise be hard to remember. LastPass also works phenomenally for businesses that need to share login info. You can setup shared folders and allow certain people access to specific passwords. You can then easily manage access without emailing credentials and trying to remember who has access to what.

E-Commerce Shopping Cart

Shopify – I don’t LOVE shopify but it is very good and right now, it’s the right choice for the great majority of e-commerce companies. Magento is the devil and should be avoided at all costs. Shopify is great because the checkout flow is well designed and they are constantly improving. It is also hosted which means you get robust infrastructure and don’t need to worry about downtime. The reasons I don’t love it are that it’s easy to outgrow the base features and costs quickly start escalating. If you can get away with features in their normal plans, it is well worth it.

Email Capture

Sumo – We’ve been customers of Sumo (previously SumoMe) since day 1 at Astrohaus. Actually, even before Astrohaus we had Sumo running all of our email opt-ins on our original Hemingwrite wordpress site. Their products are what allowed us to get 9000 email addresses from all our initial traffic prior to launching the Hemingwrite Kickstarter. We’ve come a long way since then and so have they. Sumo is very powerful and still provides some of the easiest/best tools to add opt-ins to your website. 

Email Marketing and Automation

Klaviyo/Sendgrid – Both are great and I would highly recommend them. For us, email has been a major pain point for a long time since there was no perfect solution. There are three categories of emails we send: 1. broad campaigns 2. transactional emails and 3. automated emails. Campaigns are emails that go out to a list such as a newsletter. Transactional emails go to individuals such as order confirmations. Automated emails are also transactional but I’ve separated them out because they are a huge focus area for any ecom business. This is where Klaviyo shines. It allows us to do sophisticated sequences based on triggers. For example, we can send an email to a customer if they recently opened a newsletter, visited our website and then didn’t make a purchase. We can also send specific emails based on purchase behavior such as offering a cross sell if their recent order didn’t include an accessory. When we first started using Klaviyo a couple of years ago, it was a recent entrant and had a long way to go to making their email delivery reliable. These days it is great and I have no problem recommending it. The only issue is that it gets expensive if you have a large list. Klaviyo is now our largest recurring monthly expense except for rent. Ouch! It’s powerful and it works though. If you have an online business, email should be a major focus.

Helpdesk

Helpscout – I have already raved about this software in a previous post but it’s really great. We use it to manage our primary group inbox and it also powers our knowledge base at support.getfreewrite.com. It works exactly like you’d want it to. Assign conversations, write notes to other staff, respond from your email, quickly access knowledge base articles, keep track of previous conversations, and much more. They also just rolled out chat which we haven’t implemented but will soon (sorry Olark!). 

Fulfillment

Shipstation – We do most of our fulfillment through 3rd parties but the few things we fulfill from our office, Shipstation manages. If you run your own warehouse, no matter how small, Shipstation or something like it is invaluable. 

Hosting

AWS – Of course we use Amazon web services. Does any startup not? We also use some other hosting services but none worth mentioning in more detail.

We also use a variety of other hosted services on the software side of our business including Docker, Redis, Zapier, PaperTrail and Sentry, which are all invaluable. For SSL we use SSLMate and Letsencrypt. For DNS we use DNSimple.

Cloud Storage

Dropbox – In my Great Software post, I already elaborated about what makes Dropbox great. It still is and in my opinion the best cloud storage provider. It’s even great enough that we still pay for it despite already paying for Office 365 that includes OneDrive storage. However, I have a feeling that OneDrive may be worth reviewing again in the near future as a replacement for Dropbox. Dropbox is still great but Microsoft products are improving and the potential integration with the rest of the Office suite and windows could be a game changer.

Fax

Hellofax – I hate that we still pay for this but we do. I have no complaints about the product but the idea that I have to fax something in 2018 irks me. 

Phone

eVoice – We pay for a virtual phone line through eVoice. This is a new subscription for us and it works fine. Haven’t used it much but we needed to post a phone number clearly on our website to be approved as a Google Merchant.

Business apps

Office 365 – I don’t do Google apps so Office 365 is the only real option for business apps. Real Word and especially Excel are impossible for me to leave behind. We have been using Outlook which has thus far been fine but it is actually improving on a regular basis with Microsoft’s updates. 

Notable Exceptions

Slack – Technically we started using it recently because one of the agencies we are working with suggested we use it to communicate with them but its very limited. I tried to stay away from it as long as I can! I am still on the fence as to whether I think it is good or not but I think I am probably being old fashioned. One thing I definitely don’t like is how slow the app is on my desktop and phone. There is nothing more annoying than clicking on a notification only to see that the app hasn’t updated yet. Don’t send the notification if the app can’t keep up!

Inventory Management software – We run a hardware business and you’d think we’d have a better system for this but we don’t, at least not yet. We don’t have a lot of SKUs and Freewrite production batches are painfully infrequent allowing us to get by with general tools. 

Final Thoughts

All in our monthly recurring costs for services and software runs to about $2k including hosting and bookkeeping. Not bad at all considering how much value they provide. The biggest thing is giving employees the ability to self-administer as much as possible. Providing certainty that all the various administrative functions are working allows me to focus on driving sales and the rest of my team to do their job. 

Special Burning Man Survival and Thrival Guide for First Timers

Burning Man provides an environment that is unlike anything I have found elsewhere on the planet. The ethos of the community combined with the ruggedness of the environment present equal parts challenge and opportunity for exploration.

As I prepare for my second Burning Man experience in just a few days, I put down some of my thoughts to help the first-timers in our camp. If it helps others too, great!

Every experience at Burning Man is unique. As you’ll see, the immensity of Black Rock City (BRC) is incomprehensible until you get there. Even if you were to attempt to chart a specific path, the environment with its sporadic dust storms, bouts of heat, fluid nature, and even rain will challenge any attempt at planning.

This is why one of the first things you learn at BM is to go with the flow.

Trying to meetup with people at other camps is usually a huge waste of time and typically very frustrating.

If you’re at BM, chances are you know other people there that are not in your camp. Trying to find them is a challenge and can easily eat up a full day with no promise for success. Cell phones typically don’t work and even when they do, most people correctly choose not to use them. Communication is tough and in a place as rugged and flowing as BM, depending on people being in a certain place at a certain time is a bad bet.

Same thing goes for activities. Upon arriving on the playa, you will receive a dense book filled with all the scheduled things going on around the playa throughout the week. It’s daunting. Peruse the book and pick one or two things to check out, if you’d like. Trying to schedule the whole time there is a mistake because inevitably you’ll get diverted leaving you with a sense of ‘missing out’. Know this: YOU WILL MISS OUT ON MANY THINGS! You can’t possibly be everywhere at all times so you may as well embrace it from the beginning.

The alternative, meandering through BM using only serendipity as your guide without expectation, virtually guarantees success. There is no other event in the modern world where leaving experience to chance is the preferred method, especially for first-timers.

The differences between the Default World(1) to BM are significant. It is hard to describe how rugged and inhospitable the playa is. Given that every single thing needs to be transported in and out for the event, the question of whether there is a less ideal place to hold a 60k person event comes to mind frequently. It’s hard to imagine as a newcomer because you only hear positive reviews of the experiences from devirginized burners but make no mistake, the playa is as extreme natural environment as it gets.

Surviving is the first step and thriving is the second. You can’t thrive if you can’t survive first.

Survival is about preparation and thriving is 100% attitude.

Mental Prepation

Read the damn Survival Guide. Yes, it’s long but it is also concise given all that you need to know. There are some very important things to understand prior to arriving on the playa in order to be mentally prepared. It’s important to know how big the event is, how well it is organised, where you will poop, how to arrive, how to exit, what’s frowned upon, what’s encouraged, where to turn if you or someone needs help, personal safety, etc.

Read the frickin Survival Guide! If you don’t recognize the importance of spending 20 mins required to read the guide before heading into one of the most unusual and challenging environments, you don’t deserve to survive. But you also shouldn’t come because then you are relying on the community to support you without doing your fair share.

Know what BM is not! This may even be more important than knowing what Burning Man is because the public perception of BM, while understandably perceived, doesn’t begin to capture what the experience is or what life is like on the playa. Burning Man is NOT a music festival. Burning Man is not a drug fueled sex fest. Burning Man is not about nudity or celebrities or fashion, even if some elements of those things exist on the playa. Burning Man is not about bartering for food and experiences. Burning Man has not become commercialized despite what people tell you.

Burning Man is a time and place for like-minded people to live among various forms of expression while eschewing certain elements of the Default World (transactions, social status, judgement, to name a few). Expression is in the form of creating art, experiencing art, and being among art. Art is huge at BM and in a way, BM is one huge participatory art piece.

Music is one form of artistic expression which means there is music at BM. But it is in no way central and if you don’t want to hear anything louder than personal music, a burner could easily do so.

Art cars and mutant vehicles are another form of artistic expression and are a core element of Burning Man. Art cars are cars/trucks/buses/boats that have been converted to rolling art pieces. Some shoot fire, most have lights and others are small, 2-person transports. Many of them form their own intimate party and can be hopped on and off as you choose. They don’t have a specific route but roam the playa through the night.

Nudity, female AND male, is common at BM but by no means is expected. People choose to be nude or partially nude in order to express some part of them but that’s all there is to it, a personal expression. Nudity is not consent. BM is meant to be a safe place for all expression and nudity is no different.

Physical preparation

You don’t need to go on a diet before BM, that’s not important. What is extremely important is bringing the right gear. The playa is unforgiving. Every year the weather is different and it cannot be predicted.

You MUST be prepared for any environment that include extreme heat, cold, sun, dust, and wind. You also MUST have good shelter and enough food and water for the time that you are there. There are no stores or places to run out to if you forget something. You will not be able to leave the playa outside of a true emergency. Read that last sentence again. You cannot simply run out to the store if you forget something or need something last-minute. Yes, other folks on the playa are ready and willing to help but you shouldn’t rely on them.

There are countless gear guides online so I won’t go into the depths of what you need. Experienced burners have their opinions but until you develop your own opinions AFTER attending, you should consider the following list of items mandatory:

  1. Dust mask
  2. Goggles
  3. CamelBak
  4. Travel mug
  5. Bike and lock
  6. Bike lights
  7. Headlamp
  8. Clothing for 40 deg weather
  9. Clothing for 90 deg weather
  10. Food and water for days on playa
  11. Shelter
  12. Sun shields (hat, sun screen, sunglasses)
  13. Shoes that you can stand and walk in for 5+ hours a day

Great outfits add some fun to the Burning Man experience but they aren’t critical to surviving. All the pictures from BM look like everyone is professionally styled but the reality is that it is very mixed. People there are mainly very comfortable with free flowing clothes that they can wear day after day and night after night. Then they have a couple of funky accessories for style but that’s about it.

As a first timer, you are probably going to buy and bring too much stuff. On the playa, you’ll probably only wear a couple different outfits. Or maybe even just one!

If you are going to bring some fun stuff, bring real clothes, not Halloween costumes. Note, everything you bring to the playa will be consumed by dust, sometimes irreparably. One good tip is to bring street clothes and put them in a Ziploc bag that you only open once you are off the playa. That way, you have at least one clean thing to wear on the flight back home.

Thriving

It’s all about attitude. Burning Man is an ideal place for personal exploration. Some people have transformative experiences but don’t put it on yourself that that’s what you need to make Burning Man worth it.

Just getting there is a success! To maximize your time, here is what I would suggest:

  1. Be conscious of the 10 principles while you are on the playa and do your best to uphold them. Prior to getting on the playa, they can be a bit abstract but each one will have context provided after spending some time on the playa. By upholding the principles, it is one way of giving back to the community. You will also experience the event as the organizers intended.
  2. Try to leave as much of the Default World in the Default World as possible. Specifically, don’t carry your cell phone around, don’t talk about your day job or ask other people about theirs, and try to stay away from current events. What you do also affects other people so even if you are okay talking about your life, others come to Burning Man precisely to have an alternative experience. If you don’t know how to start a conversation without pat questions like where are you from or what do you do, try asking how many burns a person has been to or offering that it is your first time and if they know of any must-dos.
  3. Default to yes. Do you want to ride this art car? Yes! Do you want to check out that nail painting camp? yes! Do you want to learn Bangra? yes! It’s very okay to have boundaries, it’s your experience and nobody elses. But, BM is a chance to try things that you probably wouldn’t have in the Default World.\
  4. Hug instead of shaking hands! Meet people and don’t hesitate going to say hello to strangers. BM is the best environment in the world to meet new people. Likewise, be open to strangers saying hello to you.

First timer FAQ

Q: What do I use the CamelBak for and why a travel mug?
A: It’s very hot during the day and since there are no water fountains, a CamelBak provides a convenient way to carry enough water on your person for the day. Or else you dehydrate and be miserable or worse. Not everybody has a CamelBak out there but most people do. The travel mug is to take advantage of the myriad of food and beverages offered by camps on the playa. They expect you to have your own mug/bowl because disposable stuff is bad for the environment and liable to become MOOP.

Q: What’s MOOP and do I need to care about it?
A: It’s Matter Out Of Place and is basically trash. Yes, you need to care about it or else people will be yelling MOOP at you and eventually you’ll be shamed into realizing that it is easier to just be conscious about your trash than getting yelled at all the time. Plus, it really is the right thing to do.

Q: How dusty does it really get out there?
A: It varies from year to year but the year I went (2015) was insanely dusty. Like, you can’t see 10 ft in front of you dusty. Dust gets EVERYWHERE. It’s hard to describe but as long as you get good goggles and dust mask, you’ll manage fine. Have them with you at all times!

Q: Why do I need lights on my bike?
A: Lights prevent you from being run over by an art car or other bikers. They are very important! It’s dark in the desert and if you aren’t lit, you won’t be seen. It’s also important to have distinct lights on your bike because you’ll park your bike at night and finding it can be very tricky. There are thousands of bikes all around the playa! Anything to differentiate your bike from the others helps.

Q: How should I go for my first time? With a camp or by myself?
A: I would highly suggest trying to find a camp to go with. There is a special section in BRC for single campers but the vast majority are with a camp. IMHO, everything is better with people who you can share it with. Having a camp also greatly improves the planning experience because you can rely on more experienced people for the majority of logistics while you can focus on just getting there and living.

Q: Who goes to BM?
A: All kinds of people. Most of them are interesting. The range of people on the playa is surprising. There are couples in their 60s and 70s that just hang out at their RV all day and on the other side of the spectrum, there are even kids. There aren’t many kids but you’ll definitely see some. There is everything in between!

Q: Where do you pee and poop? What about showers or bathing?
A: There are plenty of porta potty stations throughout BRC that are diligently maintained by organization staff. There are no public showers on the playa unless you bring one. Some camps have showers but also remember that all gray water (i.e. shower run-off) must be contained and disposed of properly. People without showers typically use wipes to clean themselves.

Q: If it’s not a music festival or a drug-fueled sex fest, how would you describe Burning Man succinctly?
A: It’s an organized week of camping in the desert with 60k people focused on art and personal exploration.

Q: What’s the deal with bartering?
A: There actually isn’t that much bartering going on. Because everyone is radically self-reliant, most things exchanged between people are just given away and are part of the gifting culture.

Q: Isn’t Burning Man commercialized now? I heard it is really different from it used to be.
A: Brands of all kinds are shunned on the playa. People go so far as to cover the U-haul logo on their trucks so as not to inadvertently advertise. I don’t know what BM used to be because I wasn’t there but I am sure it is different now than before. It has evolved and some things like infrastructure are certainly better now than before. There are also a lot more people which means more art and more things going on. Honestly, I think that burners perpetuate the commercialization myth to protect it from people who probably wouldn’t contribute to the experience.

Q: Is Burning Man safe?
A: It’s a lot safer than a typical 60k person city but that doesn’t mean it is danger-free. With that many people, it’s inevitable that crimes are committed. Just because it feels safe, doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be conscious of their own personal safety. Be conscious and maintain a reasonable level of vigilance.

Q: Are there police or event staff around? What if there is an emergency?
A: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the primary government agency that protects the land which BRC is built on. They setup a special outpost during BM and definitely have a continuous presence in BRC. They generally keep to themselves unless there is a reason to get involved. Supposedly there are undercover police around too so be mindful. They bust camps not IDing people and serving alcohol to minors. Their presence may be a myth to keep people in check but it might not be so may as well be aware. BM also has volunteer rangers and their own staff that roam around to provide support to burners. Help is usually never too far away. They all have radios and can get support to people quickly.

Footnotes:

  1. The easiest thing is for people new to BM to refer to the rest of their life by saying things like ‘when I get back to normal life’ or ‘in the real world, blah blah blah’. Burners hate the idea that the rest of the year should be called normal and instead challenge that notion that it is normal by referring to it as the Default World, i.e. the world we have settled to live in but is in no way ideal or more normal than the world as we experience it in BRC.

Kickstarter’s a go for launch – Creating Freewrite, Part 5

The decision to create a Kickstarter campaign was made (read more in part 4). But when? And how?! We needed a deadline. We also needed to figure out how to do a Kickstarter campaign with some chance of success. Neither of us had done anything like this before! There were a huge number of decisions ahead of us, how much to set our goal at, how much to price the Hemingwrite (scary!), how to get a video made, and the list goes on.

I felt a ton of pressure to launch the Kickstarter as quickly as possible in order to keep what momentum we had at the time. If we waited too long, people would start forgetting about our little project and move on with their lives. We needed to strike while the iron was white hot.

Hemingwrite on Uncrate.com

Seeing my creation on the front page of Uncrate was one of many mindblowing experiences

And it was actually quite hot. From mid-October to mid-December we had received ~125,000 visits to our basic af WordPress website. We were converting those visitors to opt-ins and by the time we actually launched the campaign, we had over 9,000 email addresses on our list. That was all organic, unpaid, unoptimized, and earned traffic! It was super crazy watching a big press hit drive thousands of visitor to our site in a single day. There were days where we had 150 people on the homepage at one time! I had never done anything in my life that had received that much attention.

Getting this much interest was starting to cost us money!

 

We knew we had something on our hands. And from Patrick’s and my view, we were anxious to see if this was worth continuing to work on. At each step of the way, and even now, we have tried to maintain a very high bar for deciding whether this project is worth our time. Even though I am a bit older than he, we both fully understood that making the decision to spend our time on something is not to be taken lightly. The Hemingwrite project was just a thing we made. Could it really be something bigger? Even if we had a successful campaign, that would tie us to at least 18 months of working on the product to get it into production. It’s almost like enrolling into a graduate program with no certainty of a degree.

The press was very interested in us (and mostly complimentary), and random people on the internet were relentless in telling us their opinion. More than a few posted memes ‘throwing money at us’ and some told us the Hemingwrite signaled the end of willpower as we knew it. That’s right, the mere notion that any so-called writer would pay $$$ for a device that does less than the devices they already had in front of them was the tipping point; we were all fucked. In my view, anything that divisive deserved to be made.

Creating a successful crowdfunding campaign

Google this subject and there are endless resources to help creators with their first campaigns. There is a whole cottage industry setup to support crowdfunding. There are countless consultants, marketing agencies, and PR firms catering specifically to crowdfunding campaigns. Some of that existed in 2014 but a lot has changed in the past few years. In general, campaigns have become much larger and there are now serial creators that have become true professionals. One dirty little secret is that all the big (>$500k) campaigns nowadays are heavily reliant on paid traffic.

We had zero budget to hire any consultants and thus didn’t explore hiring any of them. We also didn’t do any paid advertising. But that’s okay and ultimately (spoiler alert) we had a successful campaign.

What are the critical aspects of a campaign? Some people say the video is the most important thing. Some people say press or getting a huge email list. In my opinion, from doing our campaign and paying very close attention to other campaigns before and since then, by far the most important things are what you are selling, how clear you are in telling people what it is, and whether it is a good fit for crowdfunding.

Here is what we had going for us:

  • Large email list of over 9k people – important note, these were very high quality leads since they opted into a page that very clearly discussed the project. They didn’t opt into a teaser or get gamed into giving us their email. Nor did we buy or rent lists. Quality is very important with leads.
  • Lots of buzz from press in the months leading up to the campaign with potential to get press coordinated on launch day – I had tons of press inbound to me leading up to the Kickstarter and I was very diligent about keeping track of them and beginning a relationship. Ultimately, I knew the goal would be to have a few major pubs agree to an embargo for launch.
  • Visually striking prototype that invokes interest and multiple conflicting emotions (old and new, minimal but slightly garish, sorta typewriter but also sorta computer, stark).
  • Holiday season – it was November and if we launched quickly, we could capture the excitement around the holidays. Even if people weren’t going to be able to receive the Hemingwrite in time for Christmas, people are generally spending a lot more money during the holidays and we could capitalize on that trend.

Scary stuff:

  • Price – Revealing the price scared us the most, and was the source of many heated conversations between Patrick and myself. We had very purposefully been quiet on what we expected the MSRP to be throughout the project and what it would be priced at on Kickstarter. It was hard too because this was the question that every single press person and interested party asked us, “how much?” We knew it would be higher than most people’s expectations. We also knew we would get A LOT of backlash no matter how aggressive we got in minimizing our margin. The most vocal people on the internet have extremely unrealistic expectations on price. Some people think that everything in China is $0.02 and thus should be free! They also compare whatever a tiny manufacture like us would make to something that Amazon makes in the millions of pieces that is in its 7th generation. Even with all the great press received and emails we collected, we were very concerned that the price we needed to set would have such a strong chilling effect that it would kill our campaign. We had no idea what would happen!
  • Video – Both Patrick and I had made videos in our past but neither of us had made a decent video in a very long time. Everyone talks about how important the video is for a campaign. I knew that hiring people to film and edit is a huge expense that we couldn’t afford. I was very unsure about how we were going to make a suitable video on a micro budget.

Writing the Kickstarter campaign copy

Patrick got started drafting the copy after reviewing some other successful campaigns. The key is to get to the point as quickly as possible by answering the question, “what is it?” Once the question is answered directly, you can unwrap the story, how it works, and who it’s for. Also critical are adding visual elements that explain various aspects of the product. We didn’t hire a graphic designer so we had to make do with my poor Illustrator and Photoshop skills.

I created some laughably amateur graphics but saved face with some decent gifs that showed the prototype working. Good gifs are really critical and these days they are stupid simple to make. I used my DSLR on rapid fire to get a series of shots that were then compiled with Photoshop into a gif. That’s the hard way. Now you can shoot a gif, edit it, and publish it right on your phone in seconds.

Patrick and I went back and forth on the copy a couple of times but that was about it. I think it took about 2 weeks from start to finish which is an extremely compressed time frame.

One pro tip: Kickstarter backers LOVE features. No, don’t add tons of features since that’s how Kickstarters fail but DO try to make as many features as possible out of the product. It’s all about presenting as many aspects of the thing as features. Get it? Get it!

Aside from the gifs and a basic graphic or two, we invested in professional product photography. It just so happens that a neighbor of mine in Detroit is a very high end product photographer and overall very awesome guy. We just walked the prototype over there and worked out a very reasonable deal to get 4-5 critical shots. I think it ended up costing about $4-500ish for the shoot. The overhead shot he took ended up being used in tons of materials from the Kickstarter to press to other marketing materials. Even though I probably could have taken usable photos with my full-frame Canon 5D Mark II, he had the studio setup and knew how to use lighting to showcase a product. He used a 50MP multi-shot Hasselblad too which was probably unnecessary but at least we knew were getting the best possible shots. Even given our budget, it was well worth the money.

Reward Tiers

Kickstarter is not a store, that’s core to their ethos and they have made that very clear. But it sorta kinda acts like one, at least in limited circumstances (sorry KS!). As part of the campaign, we had to set reward tiers that correspond to funding thresholds. For a campaign that results in the production of a physical product, those tiers typically correspond to receiving one or more of the products. Generally, it follows this structure:

  1. $1 – $5 tier for people to just say that they support the project with a nominal amount.
  2. Swag tiers for people to get a branded thing like a t-shirt or pen.
  3.  Early bird Q1 tier that is the lowest price for a single piece of the final product. This is meant to get the campaign started with as much momentum as possible.
  4. Regular bird Q1 tier – this is the regular price for a single piece of product. The majority of a successful campaign usually has the most backers at this level.
  5. Q2 – Q10 tiers – this is for people to receive multiple pieces of product, usually at some kind of bulk discount.
  6. Fancy tiers – to capture big spenders, there are high price tiers that typically include customization or other perks like meeting the founders.

Yes, this is simplifying things a bit and some campaigns have gone to crazy lengths to workaround Kickstarter’s limitations of not being a proper store. The issue is that backers can only back at a single reward tier and they are not able to ‘add to cart’ like you would during a normal e-commerce checkout process. That means you can’t up-sell backers on accessories or allow them to choose options unless you provide a specific tier that includes exactly what they want. That’s not practical for every single permutation of product choice so it makes some reward tier structures very complicated.

We stuck to a fairly straightforward reward tier model similar to the one I outlined above and didn’t even try to add color options to the basic tiers. One thing that I really wanted to do was have a crazy ‘halo’ tier like a solid gold Hemingwrite for $500k but I quickly learned that Kickstarter limits tiers to $10k :( I even went through the exercise of calculating the cost of our housing if it was made from solid gold at market prices!

Here is the tier structure we ended up with:

We didn’t get anyone at the tiers above the Beta Testing Special which I was a little disappointed about. Actually one person had selected the Color Custom tier but then they cancelled before the campaign was over! I was really excited to make custom Freewrite’s for people. In the end, it was more than fine because making custom anything takes a ton of time. That’s why we priced the tiers so high but it still would have been a huge amount of work to fulfill them.

Fulfillment dates, Shipping, and Taxes

Suprise, these little details are monsters! When can backers expect to receive their rewards? How many countries did we want to ship to? How much would it cost at each tier to ship to each country? How much would a backer in each country have to pay in duties and taxes to receive their goods??

No matter how you cut this problem, it’s painful and extremely difficult to figure out. For most people, it is virtually impossible to forecast accurately. For starters, you need to know the precise dimensions and weight of a package in order to properly quote it for shipment around the world. All we had were best guesses!

Thankfully, I have been selling goods online for at least a decade and have good friends that are true logistics experts. Even so, it took a while to work out estimates and even with that experience, I added in some buffer to international shipping to cover our butts in case we couldn’t get better international rates than I expected.

How did we do with our estimates?

  • We correctly estimated US shipping charges but ate the upgrade to air for everyone. We ended up sending all of our US shipments via air instead of ocean/ground due to our delivery tardiness. In hindsight this would have been easy to predict. Every Kickstarter is late! Especially first-timers. May as well just assume that if you are building overseas that all rewards will ship via Air unless you are very experienced or are already in production at the time of the campaign.
  • We over budgeted European shipping charges. We ended up finding a Hong Kong based fulfillment solution that had better rates than we expected to Europe.
  • Canadian shipping was about right.
  • More international folks backed us than I had expected. The split was about 30% international and 70% domestic, with a clear concentration in English speaking countries.
  • Shipments were sent internationally as DDU resulting in customers paying VAT upon receipt. Even though we very clearly indicated that this was the case in the campaign, some people were not happy. I am not 100% sure if this was the right decision (versus DDP) but I am still leaning towards yes.

I’ll have to write another post about international hardware logistics because there is just too much to put here.

Making the Video

I was seriously dreading this part of the campaign. We needed a good video. Not just something that was entertaining but also something that properly explained the product and fit the format for a Kickstarter campaign. We watched a ton of other Kickstarter videos from other campaigns. This is the format we came up with:

  1. Say what the product is
  2. Explain the product
  3. Cut in some b-roll of people using the product
  4. Ask for support

One thing that we did not do and I am not even sure why, is introduce ourselves or talk about our background. Maybe we didn’t think anybody would care since we were first-time creators and weren’t even writers! It probably just fell off the priority list as we ran out of time.

To get our video shot and edited, Patrick contacted an old filmmaker friend of his in northern Michigan about helping us out. He liked the idea and was in! And he didn’t care much about the money, he just wanted us to throw him whatever we could. I think we ended up settling on something like $500. Deal! He had his own camera, a pro-quality but older Canon, and even a crane that we used in a coffee shop. It was pretty hilarious rolling into a local coffee shop in Traverse City with this huge camera crane. They were very accommodating and I think the guests were all excited to be part of the action.

So we made the 4 hour drive up there with the plan that we would shoot everything in one day. Even though it was a trek, our thought was that it would give us the necessary focus to get it done. We had a clear mission and we would be completely undistracted.

Once up there, we started writing the script. We probably should have done that before hand but we didn’t. In fact, our filmmaker had already wrangled some actor extras for us to use in the shoot and they were waiting for us in his apartment while we were writing the treatment!

We shot the video on XX Nov and he spent some time editing it.

On XX he sent us the first cut. I think I nearly lost my mind at that moment. It was terrible. The music was cheesy as hell. A lot of the footage was 2-3 stops too dark. I couldn’t even fathom publishing this video.

After calming down a bit, we sat down and set about trying to get something usable with the footage that we had. Yes, the first cut was bad but it was workable. It had to be because we weren’t driving back up to northern Michigan to shoot more.

We went back and forth and after another edit or two ended up with the final video you can see on Kickstarter. I still think it’s cheeseball and doesn’t show any of our style or creativity but the days of being squeamish about it are long gone. It did the necessary things of clearly showing the product and explaining what it does. That’s the most important part and I will just have to step it up for my next Kickstarter video (coming soon!).

Setting the funding threshold

The funding threshold is the amount at which our campaign becomes successful and we, as creators, receive all the money raised. If the campaign is unable to reach the threshold, the creators get zero and the campaign fails.

We landed on $250k based on some very basic projections of how many Hemingwrites we would ‘sell’ through the campaign and how much we thought was the bare minimum capital we needed to build it. The cost of each unit and the development needed to be factored in. This is the right way to do it and shouldn’t be too controversial. It’s a little tricky because estimating demand ahead of the campaign is very hard. The last thing you want to do as a creator is only get enough money to do half the development.

Wow, was I wrong! You wouldn’t have believed how many people told us to put an artificially low number  ($50k) in order to say at the end of the project ‘we met 5000% of our goal’. Unless the campaign is simply a marketing gimmick and you are already fully committed to investing the required money for development and production, setting a very low threshold is reckless and borderline unethical. I also don’t think the marketing value of saying ‘we met 5000% of our goal’ is valuable at all. So to risk the entire campaign on a valueless marketing line would be a terrible tradeoff.

Most people we talked to, including other creators, thought we were insane to put a $250k funding threshold (they thought it was so high that it would be a deterrent for backers). We understood that it was a big number but didn’t agree with lowering it. We only wanted to work on this project if we had the money to do so.

In the end, was $250k enough? Hmm, maybe but it would have been extremely stressful, at best. We raised additional funding that allowed us to build things the right way but it also cost a heck of a lot more money. Honestly, I can’t imagine doing this project on a 250k budget but maybe we could have pulled it off. It would have taken every trick in the book and then some.

Timing and launch day

Just before Thanksgiving I was invited to be on a podcast in Detroit. While chatting off air with the other guests, who had themselves recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, I let them know our plans to launch our campaign in a couple of days. “You know that you have to get your campaign approved once you submit it, right? it can take 3-5 days!” That was one of many “oh, shit” moments.

Our original plan was to launch the campaign on Black Friday 2014. It was turning out to be a perfect storm because our big feature in the WSJ on the Hemingwrite was scheduled to publish on that Saturday, i.e. 2 days after launch. It all was a little too perfect! Who launches on Black Friday and gets a huge feature in the WSJ that weekend with no PR team and zero budget?!

It didn’t happen, either thing. I got notice that they were holding the WSJ piece for another weekend. It was a good thing too because the campaign was far from ready. Oh well.

After a couple more delays, we got approval and finally went live on December 10, 2014. We were told that launching on a Tuesday around noon eastern time was the best time to launch which is what we aimed for. We missed Tuesday but Wednesday the 10th at 1pm should be fine, right?!

Scary!

It’s done! A sigh of relief. But actually this is the very beginning.

Press Embargo for Launch

We had the great benefit of having a lot of press reach out to us and cover the Hemingwrite prior to the campaign. I did a couple of outbound emails at the very beginning of the project but quit after not getting anywhere with them and getting swamped with inbounds. Sounds ridiculous but that’s what happened. There were multiple cases when I had so many reporters emailing me with questions that I couldn’t get to them all in a timely manner. And instead of not publishing, they would still publish a piece even if I didn’t respond to their email!

To maximize our launch effort, we teed up press to go out at the same time that our campaign went live. How did we do that? With an embargo and some friendly reporters.

An embargo is a well understood industry term that means a reporter will not publish anything using the information you give them until a specific date and time. There is no formal contract (in our case, at least) but I think the concept of an embargo is familiar enough and the implicit trust between source and journalist keeps everyone honest. We haven’t had any issue except for one tiny incident of a reporter breaking an embargo by accident. In that case, there was a time zone issue and they didn’t realize they were breaking the embargo and promptly took the post down.

I reached out to about 5 friendly reporters (people with which that I already had a running email chain) and simply asked if they would be interested to get early access to our launch press kit in exchange for them going on embargo.1 I think all said yes at which time I told them about the specific timing of the embargo and forwarded them the materials.

For those wondering, our press kit consisted of a press release that we drafted, pictures in various resolutions on white backgrounds and in settings. Pretty simple actually. I didn’t understand this at the time but after working with hundreds of journalists over the past couple of years, I understand the process of working with press quite a bit better. Journalists are under a ton of pressure. Constant deadlines and the push for better and more exclusive content is always on their minds. The point of the Press Kit and any outreach is to serve a story up on a silver platter while also giving the journalist some confidence that it would be interesting to their readers. There is a huge barrier between startup people and press because they don’t speak the same language and their interests are not inline. In my experience, once you have become a solid source of a story for the reporter, the barrier goes down significantly. Then it is up to us to keep the communication tight and friendly.

A hidden benefit of working with Press on an embargo is that once they agree and you send them the press kit, the clock starts ticking, loudly. Because as soon as the time comes that you said you would launch, they are publishing whether you are ready or not. So you better be ready! Of course, you could always go back to them and push the launch but aborting leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

We managed to get coverage from TechCrunch, CNET, The Verge, and Huffington Post for the launch of our Kickstarter. Once those hit, much more followed including international press from around the world.

It was as great of a launch as we could have ever dreamed of! Just months prior I had thought of a feature on TechCrunch as the holy grail and here I was setting it up at a time I dictated as a general matter of business.

Just like that, on December 10, 2014, our campaign was live and the backers came pouring in.

Footnotes

(1) I didn’t realize it at the time but a seemingly minor omission of one blogger (Nate Hoffelder otherwise known as PNG1) turned into a full-on vendetta against us that has continued to this day. He was left out because he, out of 100+ journalists that inbounded, was insolent to me via email from the very first interaction and continued to be ruder with each email. I didn’t reach out to him for our launch because he was rude and his blog wasn’t as big as the others I had lined up. We even tried to convert him back to our good side when Patrick went out of his way at CES to give him a personal demo. He pretended to be nice in-person only to return back to the shelter of the internet where he published article after article in an attempt to ruin our business and reputation. Since then he has consistently gone out of his way to find negative opinions, exaggerate them, and push them as fact. I don’t like Nate for the material impact he has done to our business but I also feel bad for him because spending that much time on negativity is no way to live life. On the positive side, we learned a very valuable lesson in that it is not worth our time to convert haters like Nate. Instead, time is much better spent finding new people which haven’t already cemented their opinions, and there are always more people.

The Path to Kickstarter – Creating Freewrite, Part 4

In the last post, Part 3, I discussed the process of building the Hemingwrite prototype. It was an arduous process made more difficult given the time and budgetary crunch. Nevertheless, we got it done and the final result was all too real. Without too much hand-waiving, it looked and felt like a real consumer electronic device. The overbuilt aluminum housing gave the device a lot of rigidity. The keyboard felt amazing and all the basic features of the device worked. You could ‘turn it on’ by pressing the red button. You could type on the amazing mechanical keyboard and the letters would magically show up on the E Ink screen. The insides and electronics stack were as far from production-ready as you get but nobody could see that, it worked!1

I am getting a little ahead of myself though. The first deadline for the Engadget hardware competition was September 26th, 2014 and on October 2nd, I was notified that we were one of the top 20 applicants! WTF?! Our submission was poor by anyone’s measure. Remember, for this first submission, we had an extremely rough prototype with jagged contours on the body and ‘gravity’ secured electronics. Our video was cobbled together in the last minutes before the submission deadline. We figured it was probably best not to question their decision too much.

As a result of us moving to the next round, a representative from Engadget sent us this huge email with a ton of information and multiple forms we needed to fill out. We needed to fill out a W9 in case we moved on to the next round and earned some prize money. We needed to tell them more about the project so that they could promote it. We needed to sign an affidavit of eligibility and release. It was a lot of stuff and the project was quickly turning into something more real. We were interacting with a very big, public corporation (technically, it’s a subsidiary but you know what I mean).

Social Voting Round

The next phase of the contest that we needed to get through was a social voting round. We had never done anything like this before but it was basically the 21st century version of  a popularity contest. Each project would be given equal exposure by Engadget and it would be up to the project creators to promote it. Each person that ‘liked’ our project would count as a vote. At the end of the contest, all the votes would be counted and the top 10 would move on to the next round.

The lack of rules or enforcement of rules should have been our first clue that this contest was not for the benefit of the contestants. I learned a big lesson through participating in this contest that I’ll touch on later.

The social voting round would last from October 8th, 2014 to October 15th, 2014. We needed to put everything into getting the word out and encouraging people to vote. At this point, Patrick and I were just messaging people we knew and one by one asking them to support us. After a lot of hustling, we heard on October 17th that we made it. WE WERE GOING TO NEW YORK!!!

New York City

Each team that made the top 10 was given a $1000 stipend to come to NYC on November 7th and demo at Engadget Expand. The contest final was one part of their Expand conference alongside other tech showcases, panels, and discussion.

Patrick and I were super pumped. This thing just kept going in the right direction, and fast!

We had only a few weeks to prepare for the show and besides the Hemingwrite prototype, we needed to have marketing materials, a small booth, and a 5 minute presentation that would be done on the stage in front of the judges. We also needed to get our demo ready for showtime. It wasn’t exactly there yet. How were we going to show a working prototype when we didn’t even know how long the batteries would last?! Yes, there were multiple batteries.

In order to save some money, Patrick and I decided to drive to NYC. It’s about 11-12 hours from Detroit which isn’t too bad and it would be a fun road trip. It was fun until I got a ticket for using a phone without a hands-free headset in the city. We were stopped at a light and I was checking a voicemail but I digress.

By driving, we were also able to take a couple other people to help out at the show. My girlfriend and her friend also came along. We piled in my mom’s old white minivan that I was driving those days and hit the road.

As most people could guess, it’s not hard to go through $1000 on basic travel expenses for two people to NYC for the weekend. We were very careful with the money and everything was accounted for. Thankfully, I have friends and family in NYC so finding a couch to sleep on was easy.

We were effectively soft launching with the opening of the social voting round so there were a few things that we needed to do. This is what I consider the absolute minimum for a highly effective launch.

  1. Basic website – when I say basic, I mean basic. Ours was a WordPress site with the stock Editor theme. It cost $0. I played with the styling to get a couple of fonts and colors I liked but that was all the development needed. It had a simple homepage with a description of the product, a couple of paragraphs on why we thought it should exist, and a couple sentences on Patrick and me.
  2. Press Kit – I had read somewhere that a launch should always have a press kit because this is where the press could find all the information they need to write about you. Seemed like a good idea to me so the second page I made on the website was a press page and on that page was a downloadable Press Kit. The actual Press Kit was a zip file which included pictures of the product at high resolution (at this point, they were actually just renders, eek), pictures of the prototype in use, and a press release. All of these materials were made by either Patrick or me. I also listed myself as the press contact with my email and phone number (Google Voice).
  3. Opt-ins – Let us not forget that the point of the website was for one thing, to capture people’s information that are interested in our idea and save that information until we had something to sell. To do that, we needed a way for people to tell us that they wanted to find out more about the project and that they wanted to ’opt-in’ to our mailing list. I setup a free MailChimp account and got Sumo up and running on our WordPress application. It takes about 5 minutes. I configured a couple of basic opt-in forms, one that comes in from the side when you scroll and another in a bar that stays at the top of the site. This gives a visitor multiple chances to decide that they want to give us their email.
  4. Robust hosting – from a lot of trial and error in my previous job, I finally had found a low cost, highly reliable hosting service that was more complicated than the typical c-panel managed service but simpler than what it would take to spool an auto-scaling EC2 instance. The service that I used and continue to use is called Cloudways and I love it. They have quickly deployable applications like WordPress that are expertly pre-configured and launch on robust Amazon or Digital Ocean infrastructure. It’s also stupid cheap for what you get. My little 1gb server that I paid <$15 a month ended up handling all kinds of crazy spikes in traffic with zero issues. It was fantastic. Patrick loves making fun of me for how much I like Cloudways’ managed hosting but I don’t care. It was one less thing for both of us to worry about! The last thing I needed was for our website to go down when we had a press hit.

The Hardware Contest

We needed to prepare a few things for our trip to New York.

  • The prototype – we brought the prototype and some spare parts to make sure that everything goes smoothly. One thing that had happened to us already was the Micro SD card accidentally coming out of the RPi while running which caused a corruption of the disk. Considering that it only took the slightest of nudges along the perimeter of the RPi board to pop out the card, this was very scary! Funny story, Patrick complained for the longest time about how annoying it is manage burning the Micro SD cards because the adapters are always getting lost and the cards are tiny until I revealed that his Surface actually had a Micro SD port built-in!
  • A display – we had our own small booth at the show for us to demo the Freewrite with passersby. The organization of the contest was a disaster which meant that they told us we had one size booth and gave us something completely different. It’s hard to argue with free but it’s really stressful coming up with a booth design in a couple of weeks and then having everything change last second! Thankfully, we ended up with just a small space to customize. I bought a wood coffee table on craigslist for $30 whose legs I removed and used as a pedestal for the Hemingwrite prototype. I also borrowed an awesome articulated halogen table spot light that we could use to put some light on the proto. The E Ink screen under direct light looks amazing and is sometimes hard to believe that it is a real screen. People always get a little freaked out when they see the ‘dummy screen’ update.
  • Marketing materials – I designed a simple 4″ x 6″ handbill that featured the Hemingwrite render on the front on glossy white with some press logos. The back was matte black with white text which described the Freewrite with some simple markdown thrown in. We had them printed at a local detroit-area printer for cheap.
  • A presentation – as what has become typical, Patrick and I cobbled together a presentation the night before and were anxiously tweaking it just before going on stage. Patrick was freaking out a bit from all the stress of keeping the prototype working during demos which didn’t help!

Bump in the road

After our presentation, the judges decided who were the top 5 finalists. We were not one of them :( That hit us pretty hard. It’s funny how quickly perspective changes. We started this project thinking nothing much would come out of it and now we were down on ourselves that we didn’t make the top 5.

Being part of this contest was very revealing to me. Mostly, I realized that it is all nonsense; it wasn’t a real contest. There are no real metrics upon which the judges were scoring. Engadget did not care about helping the contestants or providing them a platform to elevate their new product idea. They are not a VC or incubator. Maybe this is all obvious but at the beginning, it really felt as though we were entering a legit competition where there were strict rules and the winner would be decided in as objective a way as possible. In participating, I realized that the whole thing was just one of the many marketing tools Engadget was using to attract tech people for the low cost of some prize money and part of someone’s time to manage the contest. It sounds like I am bitter but actually I am super thankful for the experience because I learned not to stress about the dumb contest and instead focus on getting peripheral benefits from participating. I also now know for future ‘contests’ that they can and should be manipulated by clever social engineering.

The benefits of participating in the contest were enormous and it didn’t matter one bit that we didn’t make it into the finals. We met someone who turned out to be our first and primary angel investor. From Engadget’s extremely basic coverage, we went viral multiple times and were exposed to tens (maybe hundreds) of millions of people via various press outlets worldwide. We also were able to chat with one of our fellow contestants which led us down the path of running a Kickstarter campaign. These were all formative experiences that created our company and led us to where we are today!

Quick aside: after we found out we were not a finalist, we were all feeling a bit down. We also were wondering if it made sense to still be there. At almost the exact same moment, I got an email from a senior WSJ reporter with detailed questions about the Freewrite. That’s how fast things change! I went from dejection to elation in the time it takes to read an email. Very quickly, we stopped feeling bad about ourselves to trying to figure out the logistics of getting the prototype to the WSJ photoshoot that was requested. The Wall Street Journal wanted to feature the Freewrite in an upcoming newspaper complete with quotes and a large picture. Wooo!

To crowdfund or not to crowdfund

In the days leading up to our New York trip, we had received enough interest online that it was clear to me that we should do something with this project. There were a lot of paths forward at this point and it wasn’t clear which to take:

  • Raise money from friends and family
  • Try to raise from angels or VCs
  • Crowdfund on Kickstarter or Indiegogo
  • Run our own crowdfunding campaign through our own platform or something like Tilt

Part of the reason from the very beginning that I chose to pursue this project was that I thought it could be a good Kickstarter project. It was visually interesting, demonstrably unique, designer-y and useful for a niche audience. I also thought the mix of features would play well to the Kickstarter crowd. Raising money from friends and family felt silly for this project because of how many people were messaging us about trying to buy one. Raising money from angels or VCs sounded painful.

We thought a little bit about going on Indiegogo or running our own campaign2 but both of those seemed to be trading a marginally reduced fee for potentially a much more difficult marketing problem. I tried talking to other project creators and they all had very positive things to say about Kickstarter. The advice that tipped me was from the aforementioned conversation with another serial Kickstarter company when we were in NYC. They said that the 5% you pay to Kickstarter was the cheapest marketing money we’ll spend and that they find there are huge benefits to being on the platform. As soon as the campaign is over, pre-sales drop significantly (like 80%) and that says a lot about the value of their platform. That conversation was enough to convince me that a Kickstarter campaign was the next move.(3)

Footnotes

(1) We were so incredibly uncomfortable about revealing the insides of the Hemingwrite prototype that we would try to change batteries and do any other internal work far from the public. We would go sit in an empty corner before opening it up. It is quite funny in hindsight!

(2) At the time, the Coin card had been crowdfunding on their own and they were crushing it, from all accounts. Yet another example of early success not equaling future results!

(3) Why not Indiegogo? Kickstarter is the original and they have the best reputation of the bunch. Yes, we could have saved a little money on fees by going with Indiegogo but would we have raised as much? We’ll never know but we are happy with Kickstarter. That said, Indiegogo is super interesting and I’d love to do a campaign on their platform in the future.

Haute Route Trip Report – April 2017

The trip on the Haute Route is 7 full days from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. It’s one of the most famous touring routes in the world and is on many mountaineer’s bucket list. I found myself on the trip after an old friend of mine mentioned that he was putting a trip together with his friend and a local guide. This was a discussion over drinks about 5 months prior to us leaving.

Initially, we were just talking about our former and future mountain pursuits; there was no talk of me joining the trip. After talking a bit more over the coming weeks, he (another Adam), asked me if I had any interest in coming along. Admittedly, I had actually never heard of the Haute Route, despite its fame, but if anyone describes a trip as one on their bucket list, it is worth further examination. I did a very brief Googling to find out what the trip generally entailed but it didn’t take long for me to agree. I didn’t want to to read too much for fear of scaring myself out of the trip. It’s a full 7 day backcountry skiing trip and I had never done a single day of skinning in my life!

The best part about joining the trip is that I didn’t have to run point. Adam knew the guide from a previous trip to Chamonix and he took care of the major logistics. I just had to gear up and physically prepare myself for the expedition.

I had some gear from my previous mountaineering trips but somehow I still found myself buying a lot of stuff. Of course, I did a lot of this last minute but the hidden benefit was that by the time I got around to buying gear, it was the end of the season and I found some great deals. I had to buy a new shell, backpack, merino base layers, AT boots, and a whole lot of other odds and ends. I ended up buying most of the gear from backcountry.com which was an overall great experience. They carry just about everything and a lot of stuff was on sale. Their service is also amazing. The AT boots I bought from a bootfitter while I was in Whistler a few weeks prior to leaving for Switzerland.

Buying gear for a long backcountry trip like this one is a constant optimization battle: weight vs. price vs. versatility. There are trade-offs with everything! Lorenzo, the other member of the group and the person with the most touring experience, was very keen about having the lightest gear he could get, within reason. I generally don’t care to that level but he kept emailing us with a new piece of gear that saved 3 ounces! In the end, I tried to be reasonable and buy some gear that saved weight (e.g. the Shaxe) but also didn’t re-buy anything that I already owned. I also knew I was probably going to have the heaviest load anyway given that I was adding at least 3lbs for a camera kit. My philosophy is that minimizing pack weight is great but everyone should be conditioned properly to carry significantly more. Things can happen on the mountain, someone in your group could get injured and you may need to carry parts of your friends pack or worse, you may need to carry your friend. I also always bring emergency gear including a blanket/bivy and a first aid kit. If carrying an extra pound or two is going to be the difference between finishing the trip or not, you shouldn’t be doing the trip.

Read my very detailed post about gear here: Haute Route Equipment Guide

The trip was to start on Monday April 3rd from Chamonix. The three of us flew into Geneva on the Friday and Saturday to give us some time to take care of details and settle in. The hotel we stayed in was called Hotel de L’arve and was a great little spot. It seems to be popular with many groups doing the Haute Route because we saw a few other folks coming and going from the Route while we were there.

Chamonix, if you haven’t been, is a really awesome town. You can just feel the vibes the moment you step foot within the city limits. There are gear stores everywhere and well-outfitted people coming and going from their latest adventures. It’s not even remotely strange to see folks wearing a harness or ski boots all around town. Aside from snow sports there are also other sports that are very popular like trail running, paragliding, and cycling. It’s a very active town. It’s also very beautiful. Look up and you can see glaciers climbing up the mountains and jagged peaks in all directions. It is definitely a special place.

On Saturday, our guide, Serge, came to the hotel to say hello and discuss the details for Monday. I actually missed this meeting because I was still on my way to Cham from the Geneva Airport. In what is now part of our trip lore, the only knowledge we gained about the itinerary for the trip was when Serge told us that ‘every day was up and down’.

Once I arrived in town later that night, I met up with the guys who had just sat down to dinner. We ate and drank well throughout the entire trip and it started with the first meal! The red wine was flowing.

Everybody was pumped up to get started. On Sunday, Lorenzo encouraged us to get a few runs in on Brevent to warm up the legs and feel out our gear a bit more. The conditions were poor to say the least but Lorenzo was very keen to try out his new tele boots. I only had a day in my new AT boots so I figured I could benefit the same.

Other than my boots, I rented my ski kit (skis, skins, ski crampons, poles) from a local ski shop, Ravanel, in Chamonix. If you have never been to Chamonix, gear shops are aplenty! A week prior, when I had decided that I wasn’t going to buy a full setup and that I would need to rent in Chamonix, I called around to the local ski shops to secure a pair of suitable AT skis. Ravanel said they would put a pair of lightweight skis aside for me but I would need to go through their website to reserve a pair online with a deposit paid on my credit card.

Picking up the gear was easy enough even though they hadn’t actually put any skis aside like they said they would. Ravanel! However, they had a pair of 175cm Scott Cascades which I had never heard of before but seemed suitable for the trip. They had a pair of Dynafit Radical ST 2 bindings mounted which were perfect. Included with the rental was matching skins, lightweight poles, and ski crampons. You know when you are in a serious place when touring gear automatically comes with ski crampons! I had never even heard of ski crampons before prepping for this trip.

On Sunday, we took the 5 minute bus ride from the hotel to Brevent. Skiing on Brevent was a good idea but the conditions were very poor and the visibility equally as bad. It was just enough to try out our new gear.

Monday morning! It was time to start the trip. The three of us met up with Serge at 8 am with all our gear at the bus stop about 5 mins walk from the hotel. Our destination was the Grands Montet ski area. All of our city clothes we left in storage at the hotel and would pick it up on the way back.

The start of the trip began with a rush to get in line for the cable car at Grands Montet. Apparently the line fills up quickly and can easily put the trip back an hour or two. But that ended up being the only real rush on the trip! Once we were at the top, the pace was normalized.

From the top, the first leg of our journey was skiing down to the Argentière glacier. Getting used to my new boots that were much more flexible and spacious than my old boots took some work. I had also forgot/not realized that wearing a heavy pack would make the boots feel even softer! The Scott skis I had rented were also full rocker which was not what I was used to either. Everything was new! It wasn’t too surprising that I ate it within about 200 yards of leaving on Monday morning. Not a good way to start the trip! As the trip went on, I figured out the new kit but I was not expecting the skiing to be more difficult to adjust to than the touring.

Our Haute Route

We ended up doing a slight variation of the ‘Verbier Route’. As it turns out, there are quite a few variations that can be done depending on preference, weather, hut availability, etc. (The route notes below are from Lorenzo with small tweaks from me).

Day 1:
– Up the Grands Montet gondola and cable car
– Ski down to Argentière Glacier
– Up the Col du Passon
– Through the Glacier du tour
– Night at the Albert Premier hut (2702m)

Day 2:
– Back to the Glacier du tour
– Col Supérieur du Tour
– Down to the town of Champex
– Drive through Orsiere
– Le Chable
– Gondola to Verbier. Short skin up to Mont-Fort.
– Night at the Cabane du Mont-Fort (2457m)

Day 3:
– Col de La Chaux
– Col du Momin (3005m)
– Summit the Rosablanche (3360m)
– Night at Cabane Prafleuri (2657m)

Day 4:
– Up the Col de Roux with ski crampons
– Across la Grande Dixence Dam
– Le Pas du Chat
– Lunch on rock facing Mont Blanc de Cheilon
– Night at Cabane Dix (2957m)

Day 5:
– Ski down to glacier
– Go through serpentine, the steeper part of hike
– Summit the Pigne d’Arolla with views of Matterhorn and Mont Blanc (3796m)
– Ski down to Vignettes Hut (3157m)

Day 6:
– Ski down from Vignettes to 3005m
– Col de l’Evêque (3,386M)
– Ski down through Haute Glacier d’Arolla (2,500m)
– Across the Plans de Bertol
– Skin up Col de Bertol
– Night at Bertol Hut (3,311m)

Day 7:
– Tete Blanche (3710m)
– Ski all the way down the Stockji Glacier to Zermatt
– Ski onto the resort and down for a beer!
– Minibus back to Chamonix

The Huts

Hut life in the Alps is a unique experience that is really special. You have 50 to 150 people from around the world co-lodging in the same small building, all on some kind of adventure. Not everybody is doing the same route but by the huts very nature, everyone that arrives there is an explorer.

The huts themselves are each unique with their own dormitory situation, refectory, and location. The word ‘hut’ is not even a good word for what they really are because these days the ‘huts’ are very well built lodges. They are real commercial buildings that happen to be perched on mountains in the middle of nowhere. As a result of their remoteness, all of them receive their supplies from regular helicopter drops.

The most enjoyable part of the huts is that the views are typically incredible and the food great. Importantly, they have copious supplies of wine and beer. They are fully staffed and have a kitchen that provide meals and snacks. At the end of each day, we would arrive at the hut and order a round of beers and some food, usually rosti. It was amazing!

Bathrooms were a bit hit or miss. All of the huts have bathrooms but they ranged in quality from outhouse style to proper toilets. The one common trait was that there was always a line for the loo in the morning because there weren’t enough stalls. But what about showers you ask?? A couple of the huts we stayed at had showers and I used one once during the trip. A shower costs a few euros and what it got you was 2 minutes of hot water and a towel. You have to take a military style shower where you turn on and off the water else you run out with soap in your hair. It actually worked quite well and the water was hot and had great pressure. I would have been fine with no shower at all. The icebreaker gear did its job! Plus, taking a shower and then getting back into dirty clothes is not so enjoyable to me. To each their own!

One thing that was interesting was the mix of personalities of all the people staying at the huts. Generally, I think the level of people’s conditioning determined if they were going to be amiable or not (and if they were having a good trip). In many cases, people that were poorly trained or completely untrained (insane!) were very surly in the huts (surprise!). More than once did we find ourselves walking on egg shells around some very haggard people. The four of us all managed to have a great time though. We talked to a few folks sitting around us for dinner or in the huts but otherwise we kept to ourselves. Everyone was on their own personal missions.

Typical Day Routine

Each hut would provide a simple breakfast in the morning, usually starting around 6:30am. We would wake up around 6:20 and saunter down to the refectory to eat. Breakfast usually consisted of cereal, milk, bread, jam, butter, coffee and or tea. We may have had eggs one of the days too, I can’t remember. In the dining room, we would also typically pick up our thermos of hot tea that we gave to the staff the night before. All of the huts will fill up your bottle or thermos with tea if you leave it with them overnight. This is a nice service because then you get hot tea on the mountain! The three of us shared one S’well bottle full of tea each day and Serge had his own tea.

After breakfast, we would go back to the rooms and get ready for the day. This meant putting our gear on, packing our backpacks, and making the bed. In our packs we’d be sure to have 1-1.5 liters of water for the day, snacks, and food for lunch. Snacks were usually a couple of Snickers bars or similar. Usually we’d be out the door and on the mountain by 7:30am. Serge would do a quick test to make sure all of our beacons were on and functioning and off we’d go!

After a full day of activity, we’d usually arrive to the hut somewhere between 2:30 and 4pm. At the hut, we’d park our skis outside and leave our skins and boots to sit in the sun to dry out. Ice axes and crampons must be left in the gear room. Also in the gear room were Crocs to wear around the hut.

Once checked in with the staff at the hut, we’d settle in for a round of beers and some food. Each hut has their own menu but rosti was a common attraction. It’s almost as if rosti was created specifically for a late day meal on the mountain!

We’d hang out for a bit and maybe take a light rest before dinner at 6:30. Dinner is a communal affair with everyone eating at group tables. I always thought dinner was excellent, especially given the remoteness of where we were eating. The general format was a soup starter, sometimes a salad course, main course with meat, vegetables and a starch, then a dessert. If you’re a picky eater, you should probably stop being that.

One thing I have learned from all my trips is that the guides always eat a lot, especially at dinner. And they usually aren’t huge people. Eating a lot has never been an issue for me but I make a point of it while on a trip. Being at altitude and working hard can sometimes seriously diminish appetite so it is very important to work through that. When in doubt, eat more! Especially since you don’t have to carry it up the mountain with you. Eating on the trail or before going out is a bit of a different issue because you don’t want to feel super full while doing hard work. Even so, it is important to monitor how much your eating and making sure you get enough calories each day.

After dinner, we’d hang out and chat, usually till 9ish. We’d also take care of our bill and purchase any snacks or water we needed for the next day. By 10pm, we were usually heading to bed and the hut was very quiet. It generally wasn’t the case that there were people hanging out very late. I liked to read at night but fairly quickly I would fall asleep and be ready to start all over again in the morning!

Physical Preparation

The Haute Route is a long trip with a lot of vertical each day. I don’t know exactly what we ended up doing but most trip guides say to be prepared for about 1000m (3-4k feet) of climbing per day. The length of the trip made me nervous and it didn’t help that I had zero experience ski touring. I always like a good challenge though.

The good thing is that I have been on some big mountains and am fairly comfortable with what it takes to climb at altitude. For my training, I borrowed some of my old techniques and augmented them with some new stuff too.

The biggest thing for me was to drop some lbs. I wanted to start my diet earlier but yeah, it didn’t happen until the second week of January. I had less than 3 months to get in shape! The first thing that I did was start on a ketosis diet. I had done this once before for 6 weeks and had been itching to try it again. If you aren’t familiar with ketosis, it is a state where your body transitions from primarily using glucose for energy to ketones. To get into ketosis, one must follow a strict diet that keeps carbohydrates below a certain threshold (20-30 grams per day) and makes up for those calories primarily with fat. It’s a really interesting diet that I’ll write more about in another post.

The diet got me from 191 to 178 lbs which was great at 5’11”ish. Dropping 13lbs is enough to really notice clothes fitting differently. In the last couple of weeks leading up to the trip, I introduced carbs back into my diet in a pseudo CKD style where I had them only on one day of the weekend and then both days. During the trip I was out of ketosis.

At the same time that I changed my diet, I also started training. IMHO, the best thing in the gym to prepare for going up mountains is the StairMaster (this is the one with the rolling stairs, i.e. mini escalator). To make it even more realistic, I wear 5lb ankle weights that represent the boots and skis I wear on the mountain. I have used the StairMaster effectively to train for previous trips and it’s the best. Try it! PLEASE, do not be one of those people that reverse grips the hand rails while locking their arms out to hold their body weight. It’s sad. It also does nothing for your training.

I would spend 20-40 minutes on the StairMaster at a medium pace. If on the short end of that scale, I would accompany it with treadmill intervals. At some point during my training I discovered that my gym has special treadmills called incline trainers that can go to insane pitches (30%!) so I would work those into my routine too. Note, I am in New York City so finding mountains to train on is not so easy. I had to take what I could get!

I also incorporated tricep exercises to help with poling on the slopes. My tris always get really sore after a big ski trip so I wanted to make sure they could keep up with 7 days on the Haute Route. The other thing I did was some focused leg strength exercises like leg extensions and lying leg curls.

I tried to get in the gym at least 3 days a week for 1-1.5 hours and do some kind of activity on the weekend too.

The results were that I felt surprisingly fit on the trip. If my exertion was measured on a scale of 1 to 10, I would say that I was typically cruising around on the Route at a 6. There were some short periods (10 – 20 mins) of higher exertion but I don’t think it was ever a 9 or 10. As a contrast, summit day on Elbrus was a steady 9 for the whole time with spurts at 10. My experience on Mont Blanc, due to much worse conditioning, terrible weather, and altitude sickness, was a steady 8 with extended periods of 10 which eventually did me in. Rainier, my first summit, was probably a 7.5 – 8 but I was well conditioned and we had great weather. So in contrast to my summiting experiences, the Haute Route was very pleasant. I also found that ski touring matches up well with my lazy walking style! Climbing up a mountain with boots and crampons on requires so much more effort, primarily from going up steeper terrain and spending a lot of energy on boot placement in the snow. With ski touring, I found it very consistent and smooth. I didn’t have to worry about foot placement like I do with hiking (note, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the most surefooted person). I also took to the movement very well and found myself feeling very comfortable on the mountain, even when it was icy and steep.

One last little trick that I did to prepare for the trip, I went off caffeine. For 2 weeks prior to the trip, I completely detoxed from caffeine with the hopes that I would reset my tolerance to normal levels. That way when I had coffee on the trip, it would give me a little boost. We were only having a cup for breakfast anyway. Aside from the trip, I think it’s always a good idea to detox from caffeine every year.

Cost

The cost of a 7-day backcountry trip such as the Haute Route can be slightly intimidating. Yes, despite eating ‘normal’ food and sleeping in dorms, all the costs add up quite quickly. It should go without saying but the trip was well worth it!

In case any reader is thinking about trying to budget for a similar trip, I would budget about $2500 + gear + flights for everything. You could certainly spend more (staying in expensive hotels on either end) and could definitely spend a lot less (no drinks on the mountain). We always had at least a round of beers on the mountain each day and wine with dinner. How you want to spend your time is up to you but at least this is a good starting point.

  • Roundtrip flight from NYC to Geneva – $700 USD
  • Roundtrip Shuttle for Geneva airport to Chamonix – $80 USD
  • 7 days & 6 nights of huts, half board, drinks, snacks, water and guide fees – $1600 USD
  • 7 days Ski kit rental – $200 USD
  • Grands Montet Lift – $27.5 USD
  • Taxi to Verbier – $16 USD (my share)
  • Verbier Lift – $30 USD
  • Shuttle back from Zermatt to Chamonix – $53 USD (my share)
  • 4 nights hotel (2 nights on each side of trip) – $220 USD (my share)
  • Food, drinks, and snacks in town – $300 USD

Notes:

  1. Expenses were generally paid in Euro or in CHF. I converted all to USD based on the exchange rates at the time (approximately 1.1 USD to Euro and 1.06 USD to CHF). At the moment, the USD is very strong so if that changes, it could dramatically change the cost of the trip for other foreigners.
  2. Guides stay at most huts for free. We covered our guide’s food and drink on the trip which is included in the total cost above.
  3. The other two guys bought alpine club memberships which gave them half off the room fees in most of the huts. Given the cost of the memberships, I think they only broke even so I am not sure it was worth it. I wasn’t smarter, I just got into town too late to pick up a membership!

Overall Experience

Doing the Haute Route was amazing and without question, one of the best trips I have ever been on. We got super lucky with 6.5 of 7 days of perfect, beautiful weather. We had one snowy/hazy morning, boohoo. Our group was small, cohesive and we all had a great time with each other. The scenery on the trip was incredible from the first minute to the very last. It’s hard to truly describe the expanse of the glaciers and the feeling of being on them without any civilization around. I didn’t get sick of the view for one second. And the nice steady pace of touring without the rush to get to a summit made the trip very enjoyable. Capping off each day with beer, wine, and great food at the huts was magical.

Regarding how much skiing we actually did, it wasn’t much. I would categorize the time spent as 90% skinning, 5% skiing downhill, and 5% traversing. We also did some small stints walking in our boots with and without crampons. There were a couple of chances to do an extra lap to get some more skiing in but given the conditions, nobody in our group was keen enough.

The Haute Route is a long trip but a lot of the experience can be had by doing 2-3 day adventures in the area which are very accessible. Our group is already talking about going back next year for more! BRAVO.

 

Haute Route Equipment Guide

A few days ago I got back from a successful trip on the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt. We left Chamonix on the morning of Monday, April 3rd 2017 and arrived to Zermatt on the afternoon of Sunday, April 9th.

While preparing for the trip, I found some equipment guides but all of them were quite old. In this post, I will lay out exactly what I took on the trip and some commentary that may help future travelers.

The Haute Route is one of the most famous ski mountaineering traverses. For good reason! It was truly incredible.

Equipment

Backpack – Dakine Poacher 36L (3.1lbs) – This pack was perfect. It was comfortable, the right size, and had all of the features needed for ski touring. Some of the other equipment guides I had read recommended packs as small as 25L which I think is insane. I think I packed fairly well and I can’t imagine going to a pack much smaller than this. Even with a 36L, I still found it easier to strap some stuff on the outside during the trip instead of trying to get it all crammed into the pack on the mountain.

Reservoir – MSR DromLite Bag – I have an old DromLite reservoir that I put into the Poacher. I prefer to have reservoirs than bottles because it is easier to get small sips of water on the trail without waiting for water breaks. Even though the Poacher has an insulated sleeve, the hose and valve are still liable to freeze in cold weather. I forget about the blowback trick until about the third day of the trip! Even so, it doesn’t always work well and sometimes I had a frozen tube. Thankfully, we had a lot of sunshine and that usually took care of things. In general, we would each carry about 1 – 1.5liters of water for the day. The Dromedary was plenty big enough for my needs.

Thermos – S’well Bottle (0.7lbs) – I brought my swell bottle to use as a thermos and it was money. All the huts have some method to fill up a thermos with tea in the morning and the swell bottle kept it piping out through the cold morning/day. Adam (not me) ended up carrying the S’well bottle but we all shared the tea on the trail. I would highly recommend bringing a thermos to share tea among 3-4 people on the trip.

Puffy Jacket – Patagonia Down Sweater Hooded Jacket (15.1oz) – This is a really great jacket! It has 800 fill down and is very warm. Given our weather, I could have gotten away with a lighter weight synthetic jacket but I like to have a little extra warmth available in case of surprise bad weather conditions. I ended up wearing this jacket around the hut at night and in the morning. It was great to have a super warm jacket to throw on. I didn’t end up using it at all on the trail but that’s just because of our weather. Typically, I would throw on a puffy jacket when it is really cold and/or when we are stopped on the mountain.

Hard Shell – Black Diamond Liquid Point Shell Jacket (14.6oz) – We lucked out with 7 days of fantastic weather so this jacket actually didn’t see that much use. I think I put it on twice during the trip. That said, I am still very happy I had it. It worked great during those couple instances and in the more likely case that it rained, snowed or was very windy, this jacket would have come in very handy. The jacket runs a little small so I got a size up which was perfect (I am generally between a M and L for jackets).

Soft Shell – Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody (1.25lb) – This is a piece I had in the closet that was purchased 5-10 years ago. It’s pretty good and the new ones are probably even better. I actually don’t think my version is very warm or windproof but it’s what I got! For the majority of the time on the trip, I just wore this and a base layer on top. I wore the hood a lot, primarily as a sun protector.

Base Layer – Icebreaker Oasis LS Half Zip – I wore this every single day of the trip. Yup, seven days straight which included a whole lot of physical activity. Not once did I feel gross in it. I actually had never owned a piece of Icebreaker clothing prior to this trip but it came highly recommended so I went all-in. It was definitely the right decision. I would HIGHLY recommend this piece or a similar one from them to use as a base layer. I run in Patagonia Guide Shorts and those things stink after one use. Polyester is no bueno for this trip!

Base Layer, alternate – Icebreaker Tech Lite LS Crew – I brought a second base layer to use as a ‘hut shirt’ to be worn at night and could double as a backup top in case I wanted a change or the primary piece got dirty/wet. I ended up changing out of the Oasis half-zip and into this crew shirt a couple nights but then I got lazy and just stayed in the Oasis at night. I also bought a heavier base layer but ended up not bringing it on the trip.

Underwear – Icebreaker Anatomica Rib Boxers w/Fly– I brought 2 pairs on the trip but wore one throughout the entire trip. The second was a spare in case the first got dirty/wet or if I wanted to change mid-trip. Again, this merino stuff is incredible and I can’t recommend it enough.

Gaiter/Buff – Outdoor Research Catalyzer Ubertube (1.5oz) – This buff is a blend of merino wool and poly. It was great on the trip to provide a little warmth as well as to block the sun, depending on the situation. I didn’t start wearing it until the third or fourth day but then I couldn’t take it off!

Warm Hat – Uniqlo ‘wool’ Hat – I brought a warm hat but ended up not putting it on once. Instead I used a combination of a hat or helmet and buff and/or hood.

Sun Hat – Patagonia P-6 Trucker Cap – You can see this hat in virtually all of my pictures. It was on my head any time that I wasn’t wearing my helmet, which was virtually all the time. A trucker hat is probably not the best idea since the back has holes but it was just fine for me. Our guide had a bucket hat that he wore and others wore other types of sun hats. On some level, it is style preference. Bringing a hat of some kind is highly suggested.

Ski Helmet – Smith Holt – This was an item of big debate before the trip, to bring or not to bring! All of the gear guides that I could find on the internet did not mention bringing a helmet. Our guide said it was up to us if we wanted to bring one. He didn’t bring one. I ended up bringing my ski helmet but it was on my pack for about 90%+ of the time. I would estimate about 20% of the people we saw on the trail had a helmet.

Light Gloves – Mountain Hardwear Fleece Glove – I wore these 95% of the time on the trip. They served their purposes to shield from the sun and provide some warmth. I already had these so I brought them but I think there is probably a better option on the market now.

Warm Gloves – Marmot Randonnee Gloves – These are really great gloves that I bought for my first mountaineering trip on Rainier. I was glad I had them but didn’t use them a whole bunch except during a couple cold mornings.

Long Underwear Bottom – Uniqlo Heattech Long Underwear – I have some more high tech long underwear but these were clean when I was packing! They worked well and I wore them every day of the trip under my soft shell pants. Some guides say that long underwear bottoms are optional but I disagree. These were great to have on and during any other weather than what we had, I would 100% say long underwear bottoms are mandatory.

Hard Shell Pant – First Ascent – I brought my hard shell pants but never needed them so they stayed in my pack the entire trip.

Soft Shell Pant – Mountain Hardwear – These formed the outer layer of my bottom half for the entire trip. There were a couple of instances when the other guys went to a single layer on the bottom but I kept these on with my long underwear the whole way. It was a little warm at times but opening the zip vents helped and heat was more easily managed by changing layers on top than on bottom.

Socks – SmartWool PhD Ski Medium Sock – I wore these all 7 days on the trip and also brought a second sock of the same type but in the light weight. I opted to wear the medium sock primarily because of boot fit, not warmth. I also brought a pair of Uniqlo synthetic wool socks to wear in the hut. Bringing these ended up being a great idea because I could then hang up my sweaty ski socks to dry (or put them in the sun) without going completely sockless. It was also nice having a pair of warm, dry socks for the hut. I probably didn’t need to bring three pairs of socks but I think bringing at least two pairs was a good idea.

Skis – Scott Cascade 95mm (2.9lbs) – I rented skis, skins, poles, and ski crampons from Ravanel in Chamonix. They are a well-respected outfitter in the area and the rental process went very smoothly. They had a couple of skis to choose from but the rental agent suggested the Scott’s as the best mix of weight and flexibility. In the end, I think they were a great choice (even though Scott is not exactly the first name I think of in touring skis). There is a lot of talk about what is the ideal width for a multi-day ski tour such as the Haute Route on the internet. We also talked about it a lot on the trip. I think this 95mm was great but definitely at the wider end of the spectrum of what is needed. Anything wider is totally unnecessary and is just extra weight to carry up the mountain. Most of the guides I saw on the route were rocking 85mm to 95mm waist widths. Our trip was 90%+ uphill, 5% traverse, and 5% downhill. None of the downhills were in waist deep powder! We had some good snow on a couple sections but any ski above 85mm would have been great. Even if it was snowing like crazy the whole trip, I still don’t think anything above 95mm would have been worth it. The Scott skins that came with the package worked fine. I don’t have much experience with other setups so I can’t comment much on the details.

Bindings – Dynafit Radical 2 ST (1.3lbs)- These were part of the ski package that I rented so I didn’t exactly have many choices. When looking at purchasing bindings prior to the trip, these seemed to be one of the most popular. My experience is that they worked well and I never had any issues. It was easy to flip up or down the heel lift while on the go. On the trail, I saw all kinds of bindings including frame bindings and ultra-minimal tech bindings with no brakes. I wouldn’t suggest either of these if you can help it. Having a brake is worth the extra weight and frame bindings are just a drag.

Boots – Dynafit TLT7 Expedition CR (2.5lbs each) – I bought these boots a couple of weeks before the trip and had a grand total of one day in them before heading out to Chamonix. A bit risky, for sure. I was on the fence as to whether I wanted to buy a complete touring setup or rent. In the end, I decided to buy the boots and rent the rest. We spent A LOT of time in our boots and it was definitely worth it to get my own boots. I tried on at least 5 different pairs at the boot store and the TLT7’s felt the best. The standard insoles didn’t provide any support for my high-arched foot but I fixed that with a new footbed. There was also some pressure on the top of my foot but this was relieved on the mountain when my foot flattened out and the insole packed out a bit. I opted to buy 1 full size larger than my (very tight) alpine boots which provided the right amount of space for extended touring. At first, I felt super wobbly going downhill in the boots but I got used to it and also dialed in the buckle pressure as I skied in them on the trip. In general, I liked these boots a lot. They are very light and have some unique features. The walk mode is excellent and are quickly switched from walk to ski. I never had a problem of accidentally going from one mode to the other. The longevity of the cable system concerns me a little bit but everything worked as expected on the trip. The boots are definitely not super stiff but that’s to be expected from a touring boot on the light side of the spectrum. One thing that I forgot to take into account is how much having a 25lb+ backpack changes the pressure on the boots and skis. My first downhill section in full gear was a big wake-up call! I could put a lot more pressure on my boots and the lighter flex was much more apparent. Again, I got used to it but it is something to think about. Fun fact, our guide also had TLT7s and wore them throughout the trip! One important thing with these boots that I am very glad I caught is that they need an adapter to work with ‘automatic’ crampons. The crampons I own were of this style so I needed this adapter kit to make my new TLT7s work with them. I bought the kit ahead of time but putting them on was not super easy. The hardest part is removing the stiff front wire bail of the crampons which is, at best, a bit treacherous without the right tools and equipment. I would suggest getting the ski shop to do this on their bench or doing it in a workshop that has a vice and a large screwdriver or prying tool. I had neither so I was stuck doing it in the hotel room with a Leatherman.

Insoles – Sole Performance Thin Insoles – I bought these at REI the day I flew out to Geneva. The folks at Ravanel helped me get them cut and fit into my boot once I got to Chamonix. These insoles felt really really good from day 1. I didn’t have any major foot or leg problems on the trip and I didn’t get a single blister! The bottom of the insoles are cork and they both have cracks near the ball of the foot so I am a little worried about longevity but we’ll just have to see.

Crampons – Black Diamond Sabretooths (1lb 15oz per pair) – I had these from previous trips. As I previously mentioned, I had to modify them with the TLT7 Crampon adapter kit. Once installed, they worked fine with my TLT7 boots. We used the crampon’s sparingly on the Haute Route. They were probably on the boots for less than a couple hours total over the entire trip. Some guides say aluminum crampons are fine and others say steel are mandatory. Given how little we used the crampons, I think either would have been fine. I definitely wouldn’t buy special AL crampons just for this trip just to save grams.

Shovel/Ice Axe – BCA Shaxe Speed Shovel (1lb 11.2oz total) – This is a shovel and ice axe set that shares a common shaft to save some weight. I didn’t use the shove (thankfully!) and only used the axe a couple of times. If you really wanted to save some weight, you could probably skip the axe for the trip (assuming some other folks in your group have one) but obviously a shovel is mandatory. I think the Shaxe is a great option because most of the time you can keep it in axe mode and in an emergency, the shovel is there for you. It also packs up much more nicely than a separate axe and shovel set.

Probe – BCA Stealth 240 Carbon Probe (7.6oz) – I found a good deal on this lightweight carbon probe so I bought it.

Beacon – Ortovox 3+ Avalanche Transveiver – (7.4oz) – Our guide gave me this to borrow for the trip. It was on at all times that we were not on hut premises. This was also the one thing that the guide would check each morning to make sure it was on and working properly.

Harness – Black Diamond Harness – I borrowed a basic harness from our guide instead of using my own. I have a Petzl climbing harness but opted to not use it to save a couple of ounces. Any harness would be fine as long as it is in good condition. Note, we always wore a harness and had our beacons on any time we were outside of the hut.

Sleeping Bag Liner – Rab 100% Silk Sleeping Bag Liner (4.8oz) – I already had a cotton sleeping bag liner but I opted to get this 100% silk version in a moment of weakness to save some size/weight. It wasn’t cheap but it was worth it. The silk liner is very comfortable and compared to my cotton one, it is tiny and super light. I got the standard version that is just a rectangle because the mummy was sold out but if I had the option, I would get one with a hood/pillow. Getting a liner of some sort is mandatory for the huts.

Glacier Glasses – Julbo Micropore Glacier Glasses – I like the old school varieties of glacier glasses with the leather side-shields. These have worked out for me on a few trips but then when we got back to Chamonix I spotted some super cool Vuarnets. Those are coming on my next big trip, for sure!

Ski Goggles – Oakley Ski Goggles – I actually never used these once. The other guys busted out there goggles when it was snowing one morning but it was light enough that I didn’t mind using my glacier glasses. It was still a good idea to bring them though because if it was super windy or precipitating hard, ski goggles are a must.

Toothbrush and Toothpaste – I bought a cheap travel toothbrush and a small container of toothpaste for the trip. Alternatively, you could do what a lot of folks do which is to use a regular toothbrush and cut off the extra length of the handle.

Emergency Blanket/Bivy – SOL Emergency Bivy (3.8oz) – I always like to have some form of emergency blanket on me when travelling in the backcountry. This time, I bought an emergency bivy which is basically the same as a space blanket but you can actually get inside of it. It is very small and not too heavy. This can save you or your buddies life so I think it is well worth the extra ounces in the pack.

First-Aid Kit – My first aid kit started life as a off-the-shelf kit that I have added to and subtracted from over the years.

Diamox – This is a prescription drug that helps mitigate the effects of high altitude. After doing trips with and without Diamox, I don’t mess around with not taking it any more.

Cloth Tape – I used simple tape on my feet to prevent blisters. It’s not as good as moleskin or second skin but it is a lot better than nothing. This tape comes with me on all trips and is something I usually keep in my backpack. I also brought moleskin in case I did get a blister on the trip.

Sunscreen – Sawyer Stay-Put System 2 Sunscreen SPF 50 – This stuff was very impressive. I usually would apply sunscreen once in the morning and maybe some reapplication during the day. As I mentioned earlier, we had A LOT of sunshine with a nearly cloudless sky most of the time. It was a big test for this sunscreen and it held up very well. I didn’t get a single bit of sunburn during the trip. I also tried to use clothing to cover my skin, when possible.

Lip Protection – Carmex – I used a tube of Carmex on the trip but also put the Sawyer sunscreen on my lips each day. This was my first mountaineering trip without destroyed lips, despite 7 consecutive days of sunshine! Most of the credit goes to the Sawyer sunscreen, I think.

Camera – Sony A7R II full-frame mirrorless camera and Sony 16-35mm F4 lens – I have been shooting with Canon DSLRs for over 10 years now and over the last couple of years have been itching to get into the mirrorless game. With this trip coming up, I finally bit the bullet and picked up this class-leading Sony. I rented the lens just for the trip. The benefits of this combo is that it is about a pound lighter than my Canon setup and has a lot more tech. The 42.4 MP back-illuminated CMOS sensor is insane and was ideal for the huge landscapes on the trip. I was also very happy with my choices of lenses to bring. I thought about bringing a prime to cut down on some weight but the zoom offered a good amount of flexibility for the mountains. I also saved some weight by choosing the slower F4 version instead of a much bulkier F2.8 version. I never needed more stops on the trip so I don’t think I was at all limited by a lens that only went to F4. It could have been nice to have a portrait lens for the huts but oh well. One of the big complaints about the camera is that the battery life is terrible and it is slow to zoom review and save to the memory card. All of these things are true but that didn’t stop me from taking plenty of photos on the trip. I kept a second, fully charged, battery in my internal chest pocket to keep it warm and in case I needed it. I also was very diligent about not doing too much review on the mountain, in the cold, in order to limit the time that the camera was turned on. There are a lot of dumb UI/UX things about the camera but I wont go into them here. Maybe I will write a full review in a separate post. I also brought a 10,000 mAh external battery to use to charge in the case that I couldn’t get power in the huts. Even though most of the huts had power, I liked using the battery to charge because then I didn’t have to rely on the irregular power situations at the huts and I also didn’t have to leave my very expensive camera in the public eye next to the visible outlets. Instead, I could charge the camera in the security of my bag and if necessary, charge the boring external battery at the hut outlets.

Camera Bag – Mindshift Ultralight Camera Cover 10 – This was a new bag setup for me on the mountain. The camera and lens combo just barely fit in the case but I probably needed the next size up. The case is very simple and has almost no structure to it. It was okay on the mountain but not great. Frankly, I dont think there is a great solution out there and I am tempted to fix that by making something myself! The whole camera setup is a bit much to juggle with the cold, gloves, lens cap, etc. on the mountain but that is part of the fun. It is important that the camera is ready to go quickly and not sitting in the pack. I also attached a very light nylon cord to the camera and clipped it to my pack and harness. This way, it was impossible for me to drop the camera and lose it down the side of the mountain!

Memory Card – SanDisk Extreme 64GB SDXC U3 Card – Given all the commentary about how slow the Sony is to save files, I wanted to make sure I had a suitably fast memory card. From what I read, the U3 designation is very important. This SanDisk card worked very admirably and I think maxed out the bus of the camera.

Tripod – Pedco UltraPod II Lightweight Camera Tripod – One of my weaknesses as a photographer has always been my laziness when it comes to using a tripod. I bought this lightweight travel tripod in the hopes that I might use it on the trip. It came out once or twice and I was able to capture some long exposure night shots which I wouldn’t have been able to get without it. So I guess it was worth it. It also has the functionality to be strapped to a pole but I never tried that method.

Ear Plugs – Military-Style Flange Ear Plugs – Unless you don’t mind sleeping around a bunch of snorers, ear plugs are a must. In my dopp kit, I always carry a pair of military style silicone ear plugs with the flanges that work quite well.

Head Lamp – Petzl Tikka XP2 – Having a headlamp is very useful in the huts and going to the bathroom at night. We didn’t need them on the route but some groups were extra eager and were on the mountain before the sun was up. These days, a simple LED headlamp is very adequate for most mountain activities. The headlamp I have has a red LED which is a nice feature in the huts when you aren’t trying to blind everyone, including yourself, with night-vision killing white light.

Cell Phone – I brought my iPhone on the trip which served a few purposes. I didn’t use the camera since I brought the Sony but a lot of other folks use their cell phone as a camera. Obviously, I liked having a phone for an emergency. I also ended up using the Kindle app to read at the hut. There is quite a bit of downtime so I was very happy to have something to read. There are books in the huts but they were almost all in French, which wasn’t very useful to me.

Knife – I brought a small folding knife but I actually forgot that it was in my pack so I ended up borrowing the other guys’. Bring a knife, just about any knife will do.

Food – The great thing about the Haute Route is that you don’t need to carry a lot of food and water. Generally, you just need to carry some snacks for the day and a lunch. I brought a whole bunch of energy gels (Ginsting by Honey Stinger) but ended up not needing them. I tried one on the 6th day just to see how it was (it was great). Otherwise, I brought some Haribo candies and a couple of Snickers. I refilled my supply of Snickers/Twix at the huts.

Cash – Some huts take credit card and some don’t. You should bring enough cash (Euros for France and CHF for Switzerland) to buy room, board, drinks, and snacks each day. Every day when we got to the hut we would have a round of beers and some food (rosti!). We also always sprung for wine at dinner. When in Europe, right?! I would suggest bringing ~1000 Euro/CHF to cover the seven days. If you purchased a package with a guide company, they may take care of most of these fees but we settled up with the hut after dinner each night.

Things I didn’t Bring

Prusik set, Rope, Cordelettes, or extra Biners – This depends a bit on the guide you go with but we traveled pretty light. Among the four of us, our guide carried a rope and glacier rescue equipment. He also gave an extra ice screw to one of us. Some groups had similar setups and others had each member carry full glacier rescue sets.

Pack Towel – There were a couple of huts that had showers but a towel was included in the cost to use the shower. I didn’t see a need to bring my own towel

Sandals – All of the huts provide Crocs for people to wear in and around the huts. Boots are left in the gear room and liners are taken out to dry. After 7 days in Crocs, I have a new found respect for them!

Kindle – If I didn’t have my phone and Kindle app, I would have been annoyed if I didn’t have something to read.

Ski Strap – I probably should have brought one but I didn’t.

Watch or Altimeter – I liked not having a watch. It’s all part of the disconnecting experience. Having an altimeter is fun but unless I am actually navigating, I find it just makes me count down altitude which makes everything feel a lot more like work.

Skin wax

Notepad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building a prototype – Creating Freewrite, Part 3

In Part 2 I discussed why and how we got to the point of moving forward with the Freewrite concept. The idea for the project was clear and both Patrick and I were committed to seeing it through to the next step, a working prototype. We wanted to create a distraction-free writing tool with a mechanical keyboard, E Ink screen, and a connection to the cloud.

The deadline for the competition was closing in fast and we needed a working prototype to show in a video for the submission.

The normal prototyping process for a new product looks something like this:

  1. Determine basic feature set by talking to potential customers and looking at similar products.
  2. Determine basic architecture of the product. This would include defining things like interface (screen, buttons, LEDs), form factor, etc.
  3. Lots of sketching.
  4. Mockups in cardboard. Get out the ole xacto knife and cut some cardboard into a design based on sketches.
  5. Refine and repeat steps 1-4.
  6. Put 1-2 designs into a CAD model with specific dimensions.
  7. 3D print variations of the design to get feel for exact size, shape, and proportions of device.
  8. Refine CAD.
  9. More 3D prints until everyone is happy with design.
  10. Make a ‘looks-like’ model that incorporates as many true materials and surface finishes as the final product would have.
  11. Merge the final ‘looks-like’ model with a ‘works-like’ model to create a finished ‘works-like’ and ‘looks-like’ prototype.

At the same time that all this is going on, there are parallel processes to develop the electronic prototype and the software prototype. Everything needs to come together at the end to form the final prototype(s).

The requirements for the prototype are relatively light compared to the finished product. It doesn’t need to robust in any way. It just needs to communicate the full product design (visual identity, interface, ergonomics, features, etc.).

All of the above steps take 6 months, at a minimum. For big companies launching a new product, it typically takes years to get to a prototype that represents a final product. Our challenge was to get to a prototype in a matter of weeks. Also there was no budget. I was in 10’s of thousands in debt and while Patrick wasn’t in the red quite so deep, he was doing freelance work on the side to pay his bills. Patrick and I were splitting the expenses for this project but I would still need to go in even more debt to build a prototype and get to the next phase, if there was to be one.

If you squinted really hard, my process looked like the above steps except with a few things missing and the rest jammed into just a couple of steps. Looking back on my archives, I did one pitiful set of drawings back in May, 2014. Then there was some googling that took the form of research. I collected images of typewriters, word processors, computers, handhelds, design objects, keyboards, and anything else I could find that looked interesting. But there were no more substantive drawings until jumping straight into CAD where I ended up doing most of my visual exploration. My first CAD models are dated august 8th, 2014.

I hadn’t done any CAD work since college (7 years prior!) which meant that I was more than a little rusty. It’s fun though and I knew where to start, by drawing something that was well defined. I started by modeling a Cherry MX keyswitch. Actually I started by looking for open source CAD models of Cherry switches and shockingly, I couldn’t find any that were suitable. Given how popular they are and how long they have been around (decades), I was surprised that the models available were either poor or in the wrong format. I went to creating my own using calipers and a MX keyswitch that I had ordered.

The overall keyboard design was loosely based off of an off-the-shelf keyboard called the Poker II. It is a 60% keyboard which means that it is 60% of the size of a full size keyboard. It lacks a ten key pad, the function key row, and arrow keys. That may seem ultra minimal, which it is, but there are even smaller keyboards, 40%ers, that drop the number row. I thought the 60% was a good choice because the general layout was well known and it had all of the essential keys needed for our software, without modifiers. We didn’t need arrow keys or home/end keys because the Freewrite’s software wouldn’t allow any cursor moving anyway. Sticking to this paradigm would require other compromises for UX, like requiring the user to perform less intuitive actions, in this case using the number keys to make selections such as a Wi-Fi network, but I liked this old-school feeling anyway. NO ARROW KEYS. The tiny designer in me also loved the 60% because it was very close to symmetrical. More on that later.

I modeled a Poker keyboard in CAD as closely as possible to make sure that the real Poker Keyboard would fit in the final fabricated housing. The keyboard also lends a lot of visual cues to the final design so I wanted to make sure it was accurate. It’s complicated with 60 keys and various key widths/profiles but getting it right informed the rest of the design.

Next was the general shape of the housing. I started with a very basic wedge and continued to refine it from there.

I am asked often why I didn’t go with a folding clamshell design like a laptop or why I didn’t make it smaller:

  1. A solid body design is much simpler. Adding a hinge would complicate the mechanics and the electronics. Snaking cables through hinges and getting the perfect hinge feel was something I didn’t want to deal with.
  2. It needed to be different than a laptop, not just in function or hardware but also in form. Why? Because everyone already has a laptop and that is what people are comparing it to. It needed an iconic design that allowed it to stand on its own.
  3. The solid body design informed the user of its purpose in a very strong way visually. If it was folding, a new set of eyes would not have understood as much about its purpose.
  4. A guiding tenet of the design was that it should be obvious and available. A clam shell is not as obvious as a solid body because it needs to be opened first. A solid body presents all the interface elements to the user right away. A solid body design is the most accessible.

From a marketing perspective, it was critical that the final product separate itself from a laptop as much as possible. The closer the design became to look or operate like a laptop, the closer it would come to being laptop, but a shittier version. Competing with Apple to make a laptop as a 4 person team is insane. It’s an unfair comparison but that’s what the average consumer wants from products they buy. Apple is the baseline fit and finish for all consumer electronics. This design thinking, to distance the Freewrite from a laptop, runs throughout the product. By separating the product from a laptop visually, it enabled it to sit in a different category in a prospective customer’s mind.

As it turns out, modeling a keyboard is not simple! We all interact with keyboards regularly and there are examples all around but the various permutations are vast. I didn’t have time to dig any deeper than required since I knew that I was going to use an off-the-shelf keyboard in the prototype anyway, i.e. I didn’t need to build my own, yet. I would just have to understand all the nuances once the product moved forward, if it moved forward.

I worked on the CAD models from mid August until mid September. In between, I sourced and modeled other components including switches, buttons, knobs, handles, screen, etc. Everything had to be modeled because I knew that I only had one, maybe two tries to get things made and to get them to fit together. Mistakes would take time and would waste materials (i.e. money).

Once I had the component placement and overall design of the housing completed, I started over. It is a lot easier to make a robust, clean (without artifacts) model when the final design is known. I also needed to put the housing through a DFM process based on the way I was intending to manufacture it.

This is where my insanity became even more pronounced. I wanted to CNC the housing out of billet aluminum. Billet is just a fancy word for ‘a big solid block’. It’s insane because generally it is considered the most technical and expensive process. It also requires a giant piece of aluminum and an even more giant machine that is capable of machining it. It also take A LOT of prep, setup, and machining time. If you’ll recall from the steps listed above, normally there are a lot more prototyping steps including drawings, mockups, and 3D prints. I didn’t have time for any of that. I also was poor. Like really poor. I had to do this thing for as few dollars a possible. As insane as it sounded, I figured it would be cheaper for me to machine a billet because,

  1. The housing was too big to print in a consumer 3D printer. I would have to send it out to a commercial printer which would cost between $500-$1000 for one print. If I messed up the design in any way, it was very hard to fix and would likely need to be reprinted.
  2. I could source a piece of billet aluminum from a friend that runs a scrap yard.
  3. I found a HAAS VF-3 CNC milling machine at a local community makerspace that I could theoretically use at my leisure for as little as $50 per month.
  4. Metal is so much cooler than 3D printed plastic. I wanted metal! I also hoped that the final product would also be metal so an AL prototype seemed more fitting. Also, metal is very durable and would survive anything we threw at the prototype.
  5. I needed a challenge and I wanted to spend time in a shop.

And a challenge I got. After I finished refining the model to make sure that I could machine it using a CNC machine, I needed to source a billet. I went to my friend’s scrap yard in Dearborn, Michigan to search for something suitable. My friend Chad, who ran the yard, thought I was insane but was happy to help. I showed up at the yard driving my mom’s old Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan and was ready to put a big chunk of aluminum in the trunk.

We scoured the yard for billets of aluminum that would be big enough for the prototype but not so big or heavy that I couldn’t get them into the car or fit them into the milling machine. It was a tall order!

The Haas VF-3 CNC Vertical Machining Center at i3Detroit is a serious machine. It is old (1990’s era) with a CRT tube but it was designed to run 24/7 in a production environment. It lacks modern niceties but it definitely doesn’t lack power or utility, especially for a hobbyist project. It has a 15hp spindle, 20 position tool changer and travels of 40” x 20” x 25”. The machine weighs 12,000lbs and has another 4000lb pallet changer attached to it. The pallet changer was donated to the makerspace with the machine which was an awesome score since they are rarely found in a model shop. A new VF-3 from HAAS starts at about $70k and the pallet changer probably added another $10k-$20k. It was super awesome to have access to this machine for such a low membership fee.

At the scrap yard, the only piece that we could find which might have worked was a gigantic offcut from a waterjet machine. The billet was about 4’ in diameter and 3.5” thick. The only problem was that it weighed 361lbs. It was too big! I paid a guy at the yard $20 on the side to have him cut it in half for me. They only had a gas powered chop saw so it was well worth my $20! That was not something I wanted to do. Once cut in half, each piece was a more manageable 180lbs. At that weight, two of us could lift it up and put it in the van. Once I got it back to my shop, I cut it in half once more (now I had two quarters of a circle) on my big band saw. I was just barely able to reach the centerline with my 20” Powermatic. Cutting 3.5” thick aluminum on a vertical bandsaw was just the beginning of the fun! Did I mention that I paid just a little more than scrap rate for the aluminum? Even with all the extra aluminum I got, it was still crazy cheap. Was it worth it? Probably not but whatever. Buying a properly sized billet from a metal supply would have been more money but it would have made my life a lot easier machining it! I learned a lot in the process. (1)

I finally had the aluminum and located a milling machine that could process it. The next problem was getting access to the machine. I could join the makerspace without much trouble but they don’t just let you jump on a giant milling machine straight away. Yes, I had some experience and am a quick learner but the machine is dangerous and a lot of damage could be done to the operator and the machine if not operated properly.

After some convincing, the manager of the CNC zone at i3 allowed me to use the machine. He reacquainted me with the esoteric controls of the HAAS machine and I started to commit the process to memory. I find the HAAS control system extremely unintuitive yet it is generally considered one of the most user-friendly CNC controls on the market. There is a lot of room for error in setting up the machine and configuring the tools/work. Error, in this case, could mean a broken tool, the spindle hitting a clamp or the vise, an imperfect part, etc. Almost always the error is catastrophic with the exception of breaking a tool.

The worst part about using a vintage CNC machine was that it was designed to have programs loaded via floppy disk. Even worse, its onboard memory was tiny. For most programs it wasn’t too much of a limitation because G-Code is very lightweight. One can do many complex operations using less than 100 lines of simple text. However, 3D surfacing a large part was a completely different story. My program had tens of thousands of lines. This presented an issue because the whole program was too big to load onto the HAAS’es onboard memory. There was a solution though. I could stream the program into a buffer onboard by using a serial cable via RS-232. There was a special software that I could run on my laptop which would stream the G-Code through a USB to Serial converter into the HAAS machine. In theory, it worked fine. In practice, it was frustrating as hell. It took a while to figure out how to get the two machines from different decades to talk to each other. Remember how to set baud rates and error checking bits? Me neither.  Once I got that going, there was an additional problem in that the line numbers could only go up to 10000, IIRC. Even after I got everything working, it was not very reliable. The only reliable thing was that the program would stall in the middle for some unknown reason. This is where it got super painful. There is no good way to start a CNC program in the middle. So the options were to either start the machine from the beginning and cut a lot of air (the metal was already gone from the previous operation) OR modify the program by hand to have it start just before where it stopped spontaneously. Both options were used with varying effect. In some cases, the program could be hours long meaning that if a glitch occurred toward the end, starting over would require that same number of hours of cutting air to get back to the same spot. I could increase the feedrate to 200% but even so there was still a lot of wasted time. And if I didn’t catch the machine to lower the feedrate back to normal before it was about to cut metal again, my tool would surely break as soon as it touched the piece which meant starting all over again.

Machining this large part with contoured surfaces required many machining operations and using many different tools from 3″ dia shell mills to twist drills to 1/32″ end mills. Prior to machining this housing I had only done 2.5D milling, mostly on Bridgeport style machines. I had to reacquaint myself with speeds/feeds and also learn about the various 3D milling strategies in a brand new CAM software. It was a very steep learning curve. These software tools try to be user-friendly but are truly only user-friendly to operators that are extremely proficient. I was a beginner and attempting to machine a very large, complicated part on my first try.

One of the logistical challenges with any machining operation is ‘workholding’ i.e. holding the metal down during the machining process. There are huge forces on the material while machining and if the work is not held to the machine properly, it will shift or if it comes loose, launch at high speed in a random direction. Use too many clamps or tighten the vise too much and they will get in the way of machining or deform the material.

The housing was machined in two different fixtures because it needed both the inside and the outside machined. This was accomplished by first machining the inside which included tapped holes for screws and reamed holes for guide pins. The partially machined billet was then flipped over and fastened to a fixture plate that I made which very accurately registered the billet based on the guide pins. My program would then use a coordinate system based on the known location of the guide pins and edge of the fixture plate. This is imperative because the machine is dumb and does not implicitly know what the part looks like. It just moves based on distances within a Cartesian coordinate system with no regard to the tool or part loaded in the machine. Yes, it calculates offsets but the operator needs to program them into the machine during setup. [Am I deep enough into the weeds for you, dear reader?]

If I did it all correctly, the resulting part would be exactly like the CNC model on the computer. In reality, it just needed to be close enough for our purposes.

My first attempt was good for a first attempt but not very good as a show piece. There was no time though and we were down to the wire. Our video of a working prototype needed to be posted by 11:59pm. It was 11:55pm and Patrick was waiting for me to take the part out of the CNC machine so that we could take a quick video and upload it as part of our submission. It was really that close.

I finally relented his call, stopped the machine, and pulled the partially finished housing out. It didn’t have any finishing passes on the contouring so the surfaces still had steps and were all jagged. I quickly washed and dried it and shoved all of the electronic parts into it. I didn’t even have time to take out the guide pins so they were left in the part while we took a quick video. We had to prop up the housing on some pieces of flat metal because of the guide pins sticking out the bottom.

After we shoved the electronics into the metal housing, it sorta, kinda looked like the thing we set out to make. It had a keyboard, an E Ink screen and thanks to Patrick, it printed typed messages to the screen. If you blurred your eyes, it was a working prototype.

Once we sent in the application at 11:59pm, we cleaned up and left the shop. I was virtually sleeping at the shop the past couple of weeks trying to get this thing made and I was in desperate need of some rest. Then we waited.

It wasn’t long before we were notified that we made it to the social voting round! That gave us a good chuckle. We submitted an abysmal application and we made it to the next round!! Honestly, I thought we had no chance. In hindsight, I think our luck came from the fact that the competition was very poorly marketed despite it being Engadget running it. They had a lack of applicants which means we made the cut. We’ll take it!

I went back to finishing the prototype that weekend. The finish passes on the contouring were looking ok and it was becoming smooth. And then I fucked up, big time. During one of those random CNC serial glitches I attempted to modify the G-Code by hand and made a big mistake. A 3/4″ end mill went through the back of my beautiful housing!! I hit stop on the machine and started laughing. It was so tragic it was hilarious.

I could fix it though. Let me rephrase, it could be fixed with the right skills and equipment. Fixing it properly would require me to make a patch that was slightly proud of the neighboring surface and then weld it into the hole. Then I could make a new program to machine that area so that it blended in. The only challenge was that I had only welded aluminum once. Also, welding aluminum is much more difficult than welding steel. I did have a TIG welder I could use but I didn’t have the right filler, tungsten, or gas. It was also a bit of a tricky weld because the patch was thin and the rest of the part was very large. Aluminum is an extremely good heat conductor which means that the big piece acts like a giant heat sink pulling the heat away from the weld location disproportionately. My first attempt at welding wasn’t bad but then the weld cracked when it cooled :( I scratched my head and did a lot of Googling and YouTubing. I don’t remember exactly what I did but eventually the weld came out satisfactory. After cleaning it up on the mill, it looked good! Note, the CNC zone warden (the guy who managed the CNC area at the makerspace) thought I was 1. totally dead in the water and 2. insane to even try fixing it. Good thing I didn’t scrap it!

That prototype, affectionately called v0.1, was okay for a few pics but it was not good enough for primetime. I learned a lot though and was ready to try again. This time I was much better prepared. I still had the second quarter of my giant billet remaining from the scrap yard.

Round 2! I got the final piece of aluminum prepared, refined my machining toolpaths and went to work building another housing. It went much faster this time and the resulting part was sexy as hell. On v0.1 I noticed that the toolpaths from the ball end mill made an interesting ‘woven’ surface finish. For v1.0, I rotated the final surfacing toolpaths 45 degrees and the resulting surface finish was a super cool pattern that caught the light in an awesome way.

There were no major screwups but there was one minor glitch that nobody would ever notice except for me. My fixture plate moved a little (it wasn’t clamped down enough) while machining the top which made the wall thickness uneven around the part. This is why I spec’ed my wall thicknesses thicker than they needed to be!

The second housing, v1.0, was finished and then anodized black by a local shop. This black beauty became our workhorse for a long time even though it was a prototype.

The final prototype served us very well as we paraded it around to journalists and potential customers. I was very happy with it but every time someone would see it in person and ask if the housing was 3D-printed, a little part of me died inside. This happened far too often! At least I knew it was billet aluminum, lol.

The majority of this post was focused on the metal housing but that is not the whole story. I also machined a handle assembly that was installed in v1.0. There were switches sourced from surplus catalogs, and selector knobs and custom keycaps made via 3D printer. I trimmed the housing of the Poker keyboard to make clearance for the fat space bar I designed and I put some holes in the side to allow the whole keyboard to be mounted in the aluminum housing. The bottom was the last thing I thought about but it needed a bottom! Actually, I REALLY wanted to make the Hemingwrite without a bottom. It wasn’t reasonable for the prototype though so I quickly laser cut a bottom out of fiberboard and used the same bolt holes in the housing that I used for fixturing to secure the bottom to the housing.

The electronics running the prototype included a small router, a hacked e-reader, a Raspberry Pi, external USB battery, 2x Wi-Fi NICs, and some breakout boards. One day Patrick will write the blog post on how he made it all work. It was quite the feat!

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Great software

It’s painful to see how short this list is. The unfortunate reality is that most software is lacking in either usability, features, reliability, or performance. Thankfully, software is constantly evolving and I am very encouraged by the crossover that is occurring between web technologies and native apps. Below is a list of the software that I think is great and some that I frequently use

Excellent software

Everything Search Engine (Free) – If you use a PC, you should download this tiny utility immediately. It will change your life and make you wonder why every Windows open or save dialog box doesn’t work like this natively. I have it setup to open a new search with alt+space key combination.

HelpScout ($20/user/month) – We use Helpscout’s helpdesk and docs products at Astrohaus. The helpdesk product is their flagship and it is phenomenal. It does all the things that I would hope for in a helpdesk and a lot more. The design is well thought out and it is constantly improving. They throw in Docs for some plans and it provides a simple knowledge base. It perfectly fits our needs and is well integrated into the help desk product. If you run a business, I would highly recommend using Helpscout to manage your communal inboxes and your knowledge base. It’s a real bargain for what you get in return.

LastPass – Patrick suggested we start using this at Astrohaus as a secure way to manage passwords and now I use it for my personal password keeping as well. It is well designed and I am now using much stronger and unique passwords for everything. The mobile app on iOSworks great as well.

Word Flow Keyboard app by Microsoft – One thing that Android got right is that the native keyboard allows you to swipe. If you’re an iPhone user and don’t know what I am talking about, swiping allows you to use a single finger to input words by dragging across all the letters in a continuous motion. It is unquestionably faster than hunting and pecking with two thumbs (or one!) because the keyboard software also applies predictive text algorithms to guess the word as you swipe. For the longest time, iOS did not support third party keyboards but now they do! I struggled with the Swype app for a while before I finally replaced it with Word Flow. The basic idea is the same but there are a couple features with Word Flow that are critical yet lacking in Swype. These mainly have to do with errors in typing and in predicting. In both cases, Word Flow handles them very smartly whereas Swype causes a lot of frustration. The keyboard is also great because you can also type like normal with two thumbs and then swipe without changing modes or anything. It’s the best of both worlds.

Greenshot (Free) – This little utility for Windows does screenshots but with a lot more sophistication. It takes over the PrtSc keyboard shortcut and gives you a lot more options including capturing window, capturing region, and sending to a basic image editor. It’s something I use almost daily.

Dropbox – The cloud is powerful when there are smart people building software on top of it. Dropbox is without question best in class and a game changer. I have also used Onedrive, Sugarsync, Google Drive, and Amazon Cloud but none of them are remotely as good as Dropbox. It just works, instantly detecting changes, and reliably keeps everything in sync. A few years ago I put all my files in the cloud which means that I can access any file from anywhere I have an internet connection. It also means that I could toss my laptop or have my hard drive fail in my desktop without any worry.

F.lux – Flux is a small utility that sits in the system tray and changes the warmth of your LCD screen as day turns to night. The idea is that by blocking blue light, your sleep will improve and it is more comfortable on the eyes. There is lots of research out there but it is far easier to just try it out. I have been using F.lux for a very long time and it is fantastic. At first, it seems like everything went pink but then the color palette becomes completely normal.

Notable exclusions

Chrome (Free) – This is my daily driver browser but it is a hungry, fat pig. Yes, it is my fault for having tons of tabs open all the time but the memory management is still poor. As with most Google products, I feel it getting stale the more I use it.

Windows ($$) – It’s bloated and rife with legacy nonsense. The good thing is that it is quite stable and fast for me these days. But the most basic things (network sharing, file management, window management) are still far too difficult and cumbersome.

Skype (Free) – A nightmare. [2017/1/31 edit: I went to use Skype today and it had a new feature that worked! It is a Microsoft product so maybe there is hope given their new leadership.]

 

 

Brand and company watch list

Best brands – There is no true fundamental or technical analysis here, just a gut feeling from a combination of news about the companies corporate strategy (new products, divestment, new focus areas, capex, etc.) and personal product experience, if applicable. If there is a relatively constant stream of news that I think represents good management decisions, the brand is likely to make the list.

  • Patagonia – This is a mass market company ($600mm revenue) that makes market leading outdoor gear while also maintaining incredibly progressive values. Doing this at a small scale with success is commendable but doing it at a very large scale and for decades is extremely impressive. Every piece of Patagonia clothing is not just good but great. The price you pay is comparable to other brands yet they also are market leaders in sustainability and environmental protection. Go watch 180 Degrees South if you haven’t seen it.
  • McDonald’s – Bring up McDonald’s and I will start raving. Without question, everyone’s faces will start to contort into some form of horror and shock. Yes, I really like McDonald’s. So does MB Kanye. McDonald’s impresses the hell out of me and I study them as a company as much as I can. No, they don’t make the healthiest food, duh. But they have been the market leaders in fast food forever and there is a reason for that. They are consistent despite the chaos of managing 36000+ stores in every corner of the world. They are constantly innovating while their competitors can’t even figure out how to do breakfast. If you are wondering, these are the items that I occasionally get at McDonald’s and am never let down: coffee, vanilla sundae, egg and cheese on a biscuit, french fries.
  • Verizon – They have the best mobile network, that’s clear. What people don’t realize is that they also have a gigantic fiber network that is very important. Where their competitors always seem to be grasping at straws to maintain or grow their footing, Verizon makes it look like selling their premium product is easy. Their branding and products are a little stale but I still think they are one of the best brands out there.
  • Netflix – they have made a ton of tough decisions and it seems like all of them have worked out in a positive way. Their switch from a DVD lending company to a streaming focus was incredibly courageous and visionary. Their investment into original content was equally insane. Both of these big steps have kept Netflix well ahead of any competitor. With Reed Hastings at the helm, I think they will continue to crush it.
  • HBO – They make the best of the best video content, no question about it. Netflix makes very very good stuff but HBO makes the absolute best stuff (Sopranos, Band of Brothers, Game of Thrones). And they push culturally interesting content too, not just huge features.
  • Tesla – I am so bullish on Tesla it’s painful. Elon Musk is one of the best entrepreneurs and visionaries right now and I have full confidence that Tesla will become one of the world’s largest companies one day, if not THE largest. Transportation and energy are two of the most important problems the world has and they aren’t going anywhere.
  • Amazon – Everyone uses Amazon so it is hard to imagine that anyone doesn’t know how incredible they are. They also make a lot of aggressive strategy moves like their investment in hardware, AI (Alexa), and original content. However, I will never forgive them for co-branding their e-readers and tablets under the Kindle moniker. That was a huge mistake and will probably kill the e-reader, eventually.
  • Starbucks – I don’t come across a ton of news about Starbucks but their market dominance is unquestionable. Also, people tend to forget, or not know, their progressiveness as a company. They were one of the first large companies to offer health insurance to all of their employees, all at great corporate expense. That was in 1988! Then in 1991 they were the first private company to offer stock options for eligible part-time employees. Now they are offering funding for their employee’s college education! I also recently had a cup of Ethiopian sun-dried coffee brewed on a Clover at a Reserve location in NYC and it was one of the best cups of coffee I think I have ever had. It was $4.95 for the cup though.
  • Facebook – It’s got 1.8 billion people and it isn’t even allowed in China. I joined the ‘Book grudgingly on March 18, 2004 when my gf at the time signed me up. MIT was the one of the first schools allowed on the platform so there must have been only a couple thousand users by the time I joined. [I just looked it up and FB was launched on Feb 4, 2004]. Since then Facebook has changed a lot but the pace of their growth has never faltered. Facebook has literally transformed our world and I can’t imagine us going backwards. It also has some of the smartest people in the world working there.
  • Costco – they take care of their employees, have super cheap prices, an insane return policy, and a curated selection. If they have it at Costco, you can be sure that it went through a selection process. Because they only carry one or two of any one item, the buyers take a lot of care. The result is that you can buy something there and know it is good quality. If it happens to break on you, take it back! Costco’s CEO is a strong leader and has built the company to the megalith it is today. My only complaint is that they have Pepsi products in thecafé.
  • In-N-Out – They don’t make the news much but in their business its probably a good thing. The food is always delicious and fresh. The staff are all painfully nice. And the prices feel like they were set 30 years ago and nobody remembered to update them for inflation. I respect their very deliberate growth strategy as well even though they completely neglect us east coasters.
  • Dominos – When the current CEO, J. Patrick Doyle, took over in March 2010, Domino Pizza was just another shoddy pizza chain. It was actually terrible. Ever since he came in, there have been a large string of real improvements and a continuous stream of smart decisions that are well publicized. Here are a few: an incredible app, the pizza tracker, the one button app, the Domino’s car, the new pizza sauce recipe, upgrading the cheese, insane cheesy bread, a much larger menu that is not just pizza, dropping the ‘pizza’ from their name as a result, renovating all of their locations, upgrading the cleanliness, making a wedding registry, and more. They just don’t stop innovating and most importantly, the food is much better and walking into a location is not nearly as sad as it used to be.

Very bullish

  • Microsoft – Ever since Ballmer left and Satya Nadella took his place, the company has been making a ton of right moves. Even though Microsoft under Ballmer’s reign only made extremely mediocre products and flopped major opportunities (mobile, AI assistants, etc.), they maintained their market position and huge cash reserves. Now that there is a true visionary and product guy in charge, they have every opportunity to do some truly disruptive things. One of the most amazing things is that Windows and Office are auto updating now and they are actually adding useful features! I have always been a good computer maintainer and upgraded my software throughout the past 20 years of using a computer but NEVER has a Microsoft minor update added anything valuable. More likely it would break something. That changed! The irony is that the one thing that doesn’t work in Windows for me is actual windows management. Clicking on a background window or alt-tabbing to a window brings that window to focus only about 50% of the time. I still have problems with windows going outside of my monitor’s desktop area so I have to shift+right click and use the archaic move command to bring them back onto the desktop. It’s a joke that these things don’t work in 2017 but whatever. Microsoft is on the way up!
  • Xiaomi – most Americans don’t know this company yet but watch out. They are a Chinese electronics company that is crushing it. I bought a Xiaomi phone for my use in China for $200 unlocked and it was really really good. Surprisingly good. All of their new products are interesting and seem to be innovative at a very low price. I think these guys are going to be the Samsung of China and will soon be a household name worldwide.

Notable absences

  • Google – generally speaking I think Google’s products are stuck in the past. Aside from Android, the rest of their stuff is languishing and in desperate need of a redesign. I am alone on this but I think it is high time for someone to make a real run at their search business. The UI/UX hasn’t changed in a decade!
  • Apple – My whole life I was very anti-Apple. Mostly because their customers and marketing were obnoxious, not because their products were terrible. The first Apple product I ever owned was an iPhone 6s not so long ago. No, I never had an iPod. Prior to that I had Blackberry’s and Android phones. Now I have an iPhone 7 and it is great. However, I am worried about Apple’s long term innovation potential. The fear is that Tim Cook is the new Steve Ballmer. It’s probably not the case but there is reason for concern (Macbook Pro flop?). I do love my Airpods though so there is that. Hopefully they can continue creating new categories and focusing on product.