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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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)
(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.