The story starts at the end of winter, 2014. Patrick and I were both working in the Bizdom office space in Downtown Detroit, doing our best to get our startups off the ground. Patrick was building Gridpar and I was hammering away at my nutrition startup, SunDaily. We had both been through a very traumatic experience in the Bizdom accelerator program but continued working in their office for a few months after it was officially over.
It was only happenstance that Patrick and I sat near each other. I had a friend that worked for Bizdom before coming into the program and he strategically set the seating chart such that I was near him as was another person he liked, in this case, Patrick. It was me, Patrick, and Brian in one end of the room sitting across and next to each other. We kept our days interesting by talking about all kinds of random topics, primarily to take our minds away from the stress that was our startups.
Patrick has since become one of my best conversation partners but at that time I was far too entrenched (i.e. stressed) on my startup to allow myself much time to chat across the desk.(A) Even so, some discussions slipped past my focus. One of them was about writing. This was probably in February 2014 but I don’t remember exactly. I know that we got kicked out of the office approximately 6 months after the start of the program (Sept 2013) so it had to be sometime between Jan and early march.
The discussion that led to the Freewrite started simple enough. Patrick was telling me about a piece of software that he used while journalling and essay writing. I was intrigued because I found the fact that he journaled and wrote essays interesting but also for one peculiarity of the aforementioned software: it disabled the backspace key. ‘Ridiculous! That seems awfully masochistic. Why would you do that to yourself?’ I was the first skeptic.
The conversation continued on and I tried to keep an open mind. He explained to me how he is his own worst enemy while writing and by removing the ability to backspace, it pushed him forward. Drafting first and then editing later was a well-established method for writing and is often taught in MFA programs. Huh, that is interesting!
I couldn’t help but think about my own challenges with writing growing up. Everyone has to write while in grade school and I was no different. But I did always struggle and I never quite pinpointed my finger on why that was. One theory that I came up with well after college was what I call vertical vs horizontal thinking. I am a horizontal thinker and thus have a tendency to get pulled into elaboration and clarification for the perceived benefit of completeness. Whereas, vertical thinkers do not get mired in details when they are not critical to the story. The more I read good stories, the more I recognize the value of vertical narrative development. As a reader, I have more tolerance for horizontal divergence but even I can see my interest waning in these cases.
But I digress (see what I mean), Patrick introduced me a to a completely new concept in writing, this write first, edit later methodology. It’s like living your whole life trying to set nails with a log and then someone handing you a hammer. I often wonder what my relationship with writing would be if I was taught from the beginning to write first and then edit later.
During that first discussion, I learned that there are many different programs that modern writers use to help them stay focused. The software Patrick used was only one variety. There was another called ‘Write or die’ that would start deleting words if the writer paused for too long. There are many like iA Writer and Ommwriter that try to provide a pleasing writing canvas with a curated blend of fonts, desktop, and even music. The overarching concept was that the design of these environments affected the writer enough such that writers preferred them over Word to get work done. If each element of the experience was carefully thought about, the writer could get into a flow state quicker AND stay there. Distractions were the enemy, whether they were edits or email notifications or displeasing fonts, each piece of software had a method for smoothing the experience. There was a lot of room for optimization and the prevalence of these apps revealed that to me.
Just knowing that there were all these different types of software out there and that so many writers were using them was enough for my brain to start thinking creatively. ‘What if we created a piece of hardware that takes the distraction-free concept even further?’ That’s what I thought about ~20 minutes into the conversation. That may seem like a big jump to make but that’s how my brain works as a person that likes to make physical things.
In that very first conversation, we had established the vision for the eventual product. It would have a mechanical keyboard, E Ink screen, and would save all your drafts seamlessly to the cloud with Wi-Fi. The software would be pared down to a very basic writing experience. The device would turn on instantly and there would be no browser or ‘software’ to open/close.
How did I know these features would be the right choices without research or customer testing or more knowledge into supply chain? Let’s take them one at a time.
Mechanical keyboard – At some point previous to the conversation I had become aware of the mechanical keyboard community on Reddit. They are an incredibly passionate group of people, mostly gamers, that buy and customize mechanical keyboards costing between $125 and $300. Since I was never a gamer, I looked on as a curious observer. In the forums they talked about how pleasing it was to use a mechanical keyboard because of the tactile feedback, the amount of travel in the keys, and how reliable the keyboards were. Once familiar, a typist could fly across a mechanical keyboard with more precision and comfort.
I vaguely remembered what it was like to type on an older desktop keyboard and I also knew the difference a high-quality keyboard can make, in general, through my experience with Thinkpads. My first laptop was a Thinkpad and even though it was a laptop, the keyboard was so good that it actually reminded me of its awesomeness every single time I used it. Even now I am typing on a ThinkPad keyboard connected to my desktop! Writers, even more than gamers, are entirely dependent on their keyboards. They deserve the best possible typing experience. A side benefit is that a mechanical keyboard is visually interesting compared to all the laptops and external keyboards that modern writers are currently using. Maybe we could facilitate bringing mechanical keyboards, for which there was always an incredible community of gamers, into the mainstream for writers. The fact that these keyboards were legitimately better in virtually every way was nearly universally accepted. The downsides are the cost (greater than 10x a traditional membrane keyboard) and potentially, size. For this concept, it absolutely needed the best possible keyboard for writing and that meant a mechanical keyboard.
Screen – After the keyboard, the second most interacted with element of the device is the screen. Both Patrick and I love the Kindle from Amazon and first-hand know the experience that comes with an E Ink screen. Looking at text on an E Ink screen is significantly more pleasing and less straining than on a traditional LCD. What the Kindle did for reading, we could do for writing. Similar to the requirements of an e-reader, we wanted to facilitate writing anywhere, indoors or outdoors, and at any time. The E Ink screen is a step change above LCDs when it comes to readability in all environments. It’s no competition with other technologies. E Ink was the clear choice.
In practice, there were some things that we were worried about. We had never seen an E Ink display pushed to refresh as quickly as possible and thus had no idea how it would look/feel when we are trying to use it as a writing display. E-readers have a different requirement because page turning is intermittent and the user doesn’t mind waiting 500ms. Writers expect their words to show up on the display immediately and we knew that was not an option with E Ink displays. It is generally considered that a refresh rate of at least 60hz is required to show ‘instantaneous’ updates. We didn’t even know the exact refresh rate limit for E Ink but our best guess from what we read online was something like 1-10hz. Even at it’s fastest, it would be 1/6th of the speed needed to show no lag. Would that be good enough? We didn’t know but I was confident that the known benefits outweighed the potential downsides. When spec’ing the screen, we also had to contend with increased cost, lack of available information on driving the display, limited hardware support, oh and one more thing, the MOQ (minimum order quantity) was 1 million displays. There were challenges but that didn’t stop us from knowing that E Ink was the best choice.
Cloud syncing – This was a no-brainer. Again, both Patrick’s and my own experience with Dropbox showed us the light on the power of the cloud. Dropbox is by far the best cloud service, by the way. I transitioned completely to the cloud such that I could drop my laptop in the trash and not worry a minute about having all my files where I need them. They are accessible on all my computers and mobile and I just don’t worry anymore about moving files from computer to computer or syncing. Backups are a thing of the past and good riddance! But I know not everybody is as technology-forward. For the modern writer, many are still managing USB keys or risking their documents on unbacked-up computers. SCARY! We can fix that and more by incorporating a robust cloud service that is constantly saving locally and syncing to the cloud. Even better, it can integrate with Dropbox and sync files there at the same time. This is a game changer and in practice, is quite strange for how simple it feels.
In high school I had a Dymo label stuck to the bezel of my computer monitor that said ‘Save Now!’ because I had so many experiences losing work or having to work from recovered documents. To hell with Word! Pressing ctrl-s as frequently as possible became a force of habit. That’s no longer needed. In fact, nothing is needed. If you can see the writing on the display, it is saved. There is something truly powerful about this. And the fact that it is simultaneously saved to the cloud as long as you are connected to the internet is game changing. The idea is that a writer can draft on the device and swivel his/her chair to the computer and continue working straight away, no manual saving or syncing required. With Dropbox, the draft is already there waiting for editing, publishing, etc. Every element of worry, doubt, and general friction in the process that we can remove is a win for the writer.
That’s it. All of the core components of the Freewrite were chosen during the very first conversation when the concept was ideated.
What I hope is also apparent is that the origin had nothing to do with typewriters. In no way did we want to create a modern typewriter or recreate the typewriter. Typewriters are terrible! We made the decision at some point to call the Freewrite a ‘smart typewriter’ but I am still on the fence as to whether that was a net positive idea. The one thing that I find funny is that people will come to us with a feature request and try to make an argument for it based on the fact that typewriters could do it. Sorry friend, it doesn’t matter if a typewriter could do it or a word processor could do it or a pencil could do it. The only features that made it into the Freewrite or would ever be added to the Freewrite are those that can stand on their merits alone while at the same time holistically improving the experience for the user.
Written on Sprinter