This post is part of a series in partnership with New York's Next Top Makers, a community-sourced incubator dedicated to connecting innovation with local production.
We’re catching up with this year’s fellows from the NY Next Top Makers program. Up first is Oscar Pedroso and David Brenner of Thimble.io, a monthly subscription service of electronic kits to help you learn to code, build, and hack on the regular.
The founders initially met on Hacker News, went on to receive a great deal of customer feedback via Reddit, have six Maker Faires under their belts, and are wrapping up a successful Kickstarter campaign at the end of this month. They shared how the initial idea came about, and some of their secrets to crowdfunding success.
How did you come up with the idea for Thimble?
The idea for Thimble goes back to a previous startup I was working on called GradFly. GradFly was a tool that helps engineering students document and show off their projects to increase their chances of landing an internship or job. I built a team, raised money, and even had a few universities that bought into our product. Unfortunately, the market was saturated with similar products and the sales cycle was way too long. In the end, I had to close shop and move on.
Like they say though, when one door closes, another one opens. Before I shut down the site, I noticed there was a small group of users on the GradFly site that identified themselves as electronics hobbyists and makers. Their conversations centered around project ideas, where to buy parts, and how to acquire the knowledge to build really cool hardware. I took a leap of faith and did some customer discovery around this group.
Right around this time, I met my cofounder, David Brenner. Dave and I belong to a couple local Makerspaces and several maker-type meetups so he very much understood the space. Over time, we kept hearing people at these spaces complain about how difficult it was to start tinkering with electronics. It turns out that there is a large audience out there that wants to learn electronics; they want to understand how hardware and software work together and use new technology to improve the way we live. We learned that they were intimidated by three obstacles:
- Lack of projects ideas (do you start by building a robot? a drone? an alarm clock?)
- Lack of electronics parts (where should you buy parts? eBay? Digikey? Sparkfun? Radio Shack? China?)
- Knowledge needed to assemble everything (Scattered content across the internet but nothing substantial that guides you along the way)
We looked at the market and there wasn’t a solution that was addressing these problems the way we envisioned it. Meanwhile, we noticed companies like Birchbox, Barkbox, and other subscription-type businesses succeeding in other verticals. Who doesn’t like receiving a package delivered to their door? We decided we could do the same; we could create a project idea, source the parts, and provide the education to help people learn – all in one box. And that’s what exactly what we did.
Has the initial idea evolved at all based on feedback you’ve received throughout development? If so, how?
In the beginning, Thimble was just a box of electronics for people to gain exposure to hardware. Now, it’s a lot more than that. We’ve received a ton of feedback through reddit and our kickstarter campaign. Although we haven’t shipped our first kit yet, the concept has evolved thanks to the feedback we’ve received on these sites and events like Maker Faires (We’ve been to six!). People are definitely excited about receiving a monthly project – there’s no question about that. Where we get the most feedback is frequency of delivery, how the projects relate to one another, and overall quality and experience that people get from the learning app.
For example, will kit #1 have anything to do with kit #2? Do they build off one another? Will they be opened-ended so that when you’re done building them, can you add sensors to each completed project and make it your own? The answers to these questions are most definitely yes. Another BIG part of our offering is our learning app. So when you receive your first kit, you’ll be able to log on to our learning app and follow step-by-step instructions to build your kit – regardless of experience or background. We’ve also learned that people want a community to engage with one another, share ideas, exchange best practices, show off their projects. A lot of this feedback has come in spurts but we’re paying close attention to everything our backers are saying.
It’s not about random junk in a box, it’s about learning and gaining confidence so that eventually, people can build their own projects without hesitation.
How have startup competitions and events like Maker Faire impacted the success of the company thus far. Were there any stand-out events you’d recommend to other startups?
When you’re starting a company, it can feel like it’s you against the whole world. When you enter competitions and attend conferences or trade shows, it puts you on the radar and creates the opportunities for you to win people over – one at a time – something that can be as simple as getting someone to subscribe to your email list. It’s a beautiful thing and you should never forget what that feels like.
Competitions are a good way to get feedback. It forces you to think critically about all aspects of your business and it is a good measure for how well you can handle critique. One risk for competitions is putting too much focus on chasing all the opportunities out there and not enough on developing your product, business plan, and customer base. At one point we were working on applications to 4 or 5 different accelerators and startup competition applications. We realized we hadn’t done anything but fill out applications for almost two weeks. We decided to step back from all the applications and instead focus on growing the business.
Maker Faires are pretty unique because they attract the type of customer we’re looking for. It’s a beautiful thing when someone stops by your booth and they’re ready to buy (and you still haven’t produced your final product yet!) It was instances like that that made us realize we were onto something.
How do you think Thimble stands out from your competitors?
- Monthly delivery
- Projects that focus on using connected devices to make things move
- Learning app that provides educational content and contests
- Tight-knit community of other makers to exchange feedback.
You launched your Kickstarter with the goal of $25,000 and are (at the time of writing this) well over $200,000. On the one hand this is incredibly validating, but are there any challenges that this kind of success presents for your plans?
Definitely – we were only planning on selling 300 kits on Kickstarters and now have close to 1500 – that is one helluva jump. This has pushed us to really think about shipping that many units on time. We did our best to get quotes from our manufacturing and fulfillment partners to try to plan for this kind of success beforehand. And, fortunately, we have an army of advisors that is helping us figure out the logistical side of the business which includes design-for-manufacturing, sourcing, assembly, fulfillment, shipping, etc. We’re already working with a highly recommended manufacturer and fulfilment house that are ready to pull the trigger when we are.
Kickstarter and similar platforms have been a popular method of raising funds for makers, can you share some of your secrets to success?
low-ball your goal. Originally our goal was $50,000 (based on manufacturing 1000 units) but we decided to go with $25,000 (500 units) because part of us wanted to play on the safe side just in case we didn’t meet our goal. The faster you can achieve your goal, the faster you can talk about a success story and the more people will want to talk about it.
We had 1500+ people on our email list (generated through reddit and attending Maker Faires. It took us about 8 months to build). We started communicating about our kickstarter 5 weeks out to get them excited about our launch. We send updates every other week.
Launch party on first day (100 friends/family which created an initial ripple and helped us raise our first $5,000.)
Engage local press. This is really important because if you can’t create success stories in your own community, it’ll be harder to do that outside of it. Target newspapers, TV, art and technology publications, and tell them about your story, not just your business/product.
Create a share page and it make super simple for people to share your Kickstarter. People are either lazy or need help writing copy to share, so creating something like this does the trick: www.thimble.io/share
Make and/or find a list of journalists that work for big, relevant publications in your space. Email and tweet out to them.
Our biggest article to date has been our Engagdet article which brought around 250 backers in two days.
We haven’t spent any money on marketing (no digital advertising to date). We also didn’t hire a PR agency and have been trying to manage it ourselves. People always say running a Kickstarter is a full time job, and it is very true. It is tough to do everything by yourself. Between answering customer questions, media inquiries, business inquiries, and trying to do all the day-to-day, you can easily run out of waking hours.
Did the amount you raise come as a surprise or were you prepared for this amount of success?
This was definitely a surprise. Our pie-in-the-sky goal was originally $100,000. Now that we have more than doubled that, we’re shooting for $400,000.
What advice do you have for makers looking to launch a Kickstarter campaign? Any big lessons or take aways that you’d now consider sharing as best practices?
Don’t spend money if you don’t have to. It is possible to launch a Kickstarter and be successful without spending a dime on spammy services out there promising they’ll market your campaign to the world. I think what made us successful is engaging our email list and surrounding ourselves with friends, family, and supporters looking to help us reach our goal.
Have an amazing video. We reached out to a friend with a professional video production business to help us by creating a video to tell people about our story. I think that is one major reason our Kickstarter has been as successful as it has been; our video to date has over 50,000 views. We captured the team, the product, the experience, successful milestones, and our candor.
What does being a NY Next Top Maker fellow mean for Thimble?
I would say it means us becoming part of a community dedicated to the success of its members. We feel a close connection to all of the fellows going through the program with us. We love reaching out to them to discuss challenges we have. Some of those are common across all of our companies, but even when they are very specific to our business or someone else’s, discussing it with other entrepreneurially minded folks has yielded a lot of opportunities for all of us. In addition, the excellent network of content experts and super mentors have been super helpful. We have been connected to so many people with experience, ideas, and services.
We try to add in a section on the “business of making” so that our audience can see how projects get off the ground. We have three questions we ask as part of this:
1) How have you been funded up until now?
We received a $20,000 grant through a local university, raised a small $20,000 friends and family round, and did a couple summer programs to teach kids all about electronics. I also bartended and served at a restaurant for a little bit to make ends meet. (OP) Besides that, everything has been bootstrapped from our savings.
2) What materials/tools do you use in order to manufacture and prototype your product?
On the software tools side, I’m a huge fan of open source software, so I try to use as many open tools as I can. I use kicad to design our circuit boards, librecad for 2D CAD drawings, gimp for graphic design/editing, inkscape for vector graphics and some CAD cleanup, the Arduino IDE and many of the excellent libraries out there for “firmware” development (along with vim and a couple of makefiles when I get frustrated with the Arduino IDE), Android Studio for Android app development, and Xcode for iOS development.
We’ve taken advantage of many of the maker-friendly prototyping manufacturing services: Oshpark has been awesome and there’s plenty of other great PCB services out there if you are more flexible about delivery date (seeed studio, dirtypcbs). Ponoko and Shapeways are also great services for laser cutting/3d-printing. We have also used our local makerspaces for laser cutting and 3d-printing in addition to getting feedback about our designs.
3) Have you partnered with any organizations in your city (Makerspaces, small-batch manufacturers, schools) that have helped you in your process?
Shapeways, pcb.ng, The Foundry, Boys & Girls Clubs, Next Top Makers, Play-with-New-Tech NYC Meetup, Buffalo Museum of Science, WNY STEM Hub, Launch NY, Startup Next Toronto.
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