Up, not North

Pianocade post-mortem: lessons learned starting a maker business

March 6th, 2013

Six months ago I launched my first commercial project: the Pianocade synthesizer. Several months behind schedule and significantly above budget, I’ve finally managed to ship all the preorders. Needless to say, things did not go as planned.

If you’d asked me a few weeks ago whether I would ever do this again, I’d have laughed (and then maybe cried a little). But as I finished off the last few units, I started thinking about how much I’d learned from the experience. I was surprised to find myself getting excited about giving it another try and seeing if I could make things run more smoothly. I’ve even, heaven help me, started designing a completely new product!

In the meantime, I hope others can also benefit from some lessons I learned while turning my hobby into a business (or at least have a laugh at my expense).

The problem is supply, not demand

Though in hindsight it seems hopelessly naïve, I thought that taking preorders was the perfect business model: it removes the need for any sort of external investment, while simultaneously demonstrating that demand exists for your product at your price point. My faith in preorders reflected a belief that selling things would be the hard part of starting a business, but in my experience that wasn’t the case: selling was easy, it was actually making things that was hard.

Murphy was right

It’s not that I thought manufacturing would be easy, it’s just that I believed I had anticipated the potential problems and addressed them reasonably well. I believed that, unlike sales, manufacturing was something over which I had direct control. And, foolishly, I believed that things would mostly go as I had planned. I was very, very wrong about all of this.
If you’ll forgive a little self-indulgent venting, here’s a selected list of problems that arose: the enclosures were delivered several weeks late; the assembled circuit boards were delivered several weeks late; the fastener supplier sent the wrong screws; my original Chinese arcade parts supplier fell through; it appeared as if my replacement Chinese supplier ripped me off, but it turned out that my bank had messed up the wire transfer; even after admitting that it was their mistake, my bank refused to return my money for several weeks; because of the delay I had to switch to a much-more-expensive local arcade parts supplier; the local supplier took weeks longer than promised; the stickers were misprinted; the reprinted stickers were misprinted; and postage rates increased dramatically, an expense that I had to swallow.
If I hadn’t taken preorders, these delays would have been frustrating, to be sure, but I wouldn’t have had customers waiting for them to be resolved, so the pressure would’ve been much lower. In several cases, being able to wait would’ve allowed me to save a significant amount of money.

The plural of “quick” is “slow”

Part of my manufacturing plan was that I made an effort to contract out all the big tasks, leaving myself just a few “quick little things” to do for each unit before shipping them. What I soon found was that a few “quick little things” soon combine, Voltron-like. Unfortunately, their combined form is not an awesome robot, but rather a much larger task. As a result, I found myself taking weeks to finish assembly, rather than the days that I had assumed it would take.

Time is inversely proportional to space

The less space you have for a task, the more time it will take to finish. I assembled all of the Pianocades in my apartment. Every spare bit of space was filled with parts, with boxes literally stacked to the ceilings. When I needed something from a box on the bottom (or the top or the middle, for that matter), everything needed to be rearranged. That takes time. Furthermore, all of the clutter also meant that I could only work on a couple of units at a time, which meant that I couldn’t take full advantage of assembly-line techniques, which also slowed everything down.

Think small

“Small” means a few things here: physical size (see the previous paragraph), complexity (see the entire rest of this post), and also number of units.

I originally wanted to do a Kickstarter campaign. I had dreams of far exceeding my goals, selling hundreds of synthesizers, and it all being awesome. My friend and business advisor Henry Faber urged me to take my own preorders so I could keep things small, work out the kinks, and grow at my own pace. I only listened because I wasn’t given a choice: Kickstarter doesn’t allow projects based outside the United States, and I couldn’t make an American partner work. Boy, was I lucky. Doing around 100 units was hard; I shudder to think about what it would’ve been like to do more.

My customers are awesome

Not all the lessons were so harsh: every time I announced a new delay I got multiple messages from my customers. They weren’t complaining, though: they were voicing their support. I couldn’t believe how nice everyone was about it! People were genuinely enthusiastic about supporting a one-man boutique business. Now, I’m not saying that I will rely on the goodwill of my customers in the future, but it was still awfully nice.

My friends are awesome

When I had fallen way behind, I had several friends who essentially insisted on helping me assemble Pianocades, and who asked for nothing in return. Nick, Shaun, Patrick, and Oren: thank you so much!

Do not start your first business at the same time that you have your first baby (or My wife is awesome)

My babies

My babies

This one should have been a no-brainer. In my defence, I had planned on shipping before my son was born, but delays in the launch meant that everything kind of happened at once. It would’ve been wise to have delayed the launch, but I was not wise. (On the other hand, if you wait for the perfect time to do something terrifying, it won’t ever happen.)

I can now tell you from experience that being up all night with a baby does not mix well with assembling electronics all day. Thankfully, I have a very supportive wife who never got too angry at me for spending time working on the Pianocade instead of helping raise my son. On the bright side, we miraculously managed to avoid getting spit-up on any Pianocades!

Entrepreneurship is just another set of problems to solve

I worried that I would hate running a business, and, much to my surprise, I didn’t (although I did hate aspects of it); In the end, it’s just an interesting new set of problems to solve, and for me, problem solving is part of the fun.

I could write endlessly about the experience, but I think those are some of the most important lessons I took out of this. If you’re interested, I’m happy to discuss more in the comments, or you can get in touch privately.

§ 20 Responses to “Pianocade post-mortem: lessons learned starting a maker business”

  • Matt Heins says:

    I can relate. I did it the Kickstarter way and I also felt incredible pressure to get it out as quickly as possible which caused me to make many mistakes. Then,you look at something like the Pebble watch which took nearly a year to ship and think “why didn’t I just relax and get it right?” Live and learn. I also had a baby when launching my first synthesizer. That was rough. But, I’d do the whole thing again because it’s been such an amazing ride. Best of luck and thanks for publishing your experience.

    • Thanks for your comment, Matt! So nice to hear from someone who had a similar experience.

      I think the Pebble watch is a bit different: they had so many orders, they didn’t really have any choice but to take their time and do it right; after all, they weren’t going to fill all the orders by hand! My big fear with a Kickstarter wasn’t about selling 1000 units, because if that happened I would’ve just hired people to do it for me. The scary thing would be selling 200 or 300 units, where there isn’t that much money to hire people, but where it’s also very difficult to do it yourself.

      I agree, though: I’d do the whole thing again. I’d just do it a bit smarter. :)

  • Steve says:

    Great write, thanks for the expertise!

    We are launching a product soon (but we’ve been delaying it for almost a year to fine-tune things) via kickstarter, we are only aiming for 100 units.. However unlike you, we will be using our own CNC machine and wood working skills to do ALL of the manufacturing. If you say that little amount of work takes that much time, should I stretch my “due date” further out? I’m like you, I think I’ve accounted for everything, even murphys law (We are extremely used to it as we do a lot of 48-72 hour competitions together – stuff always goes wrong)

    • Well, as I hope my post demonstrates, I’m hardly an expert! I’m tempted to say that if you’re asking, you should delay it, but of course I know nothing about your product or your ability to build it.

      Realistically, there are two sources of delays: external and internal. For external, think about things like how many different outside suppliers you have and how reliable they are. Ask them specifically about their timing for what you need, and if they offer guarantees. And add two weeks to any delivery time that you get! :)

      For internal, if you’ve timed everything out well, taking into account how different your workspace will be when you’ve filled it with parts for 100 units of your product, and figured out things like how long packing and shipping will take, how long testing will take, how often testing will reveal a problem, how long fixing that problem will take, and so on… if you’ve done all that and are confident in your estimates, then you’ve done a better planning than I did!

      That said, I would strongly urge anyone to consider self-funding if at all possible. That way, the only person to whom you’re accountable is yourself, and if there are delays you don’t risk upsetting your customers.

      Whatever you decide, best of luck with your product!

  • That’s a great article, thanks for sharing your experience, and good luck for the next big thing!

  • Paul James says:

    Wow I sympathize.!

    I have 4 different products in design development at once, with hardware and software designers in 4 countries, a patent attorney, and an investor as well.

    Nothing ever goes completely to plan. Luckily we are only about 10% over budget, but we are 30% over on time.

    Had a failed developer, a EE design mistake picked up late for one project, difficulties sourcing economical housings in China so back to the US. 18hrs a day over 6 months, and only now just getting close to production.

    I am sure you have the bug now though. You have learnt so much, you can now leverage that knowledge.

  • AWESOME story, and interesting to read. One of the things I maintain in starting some of these product businesses is that all the things you did weren’t impossible, they just took time and effort. (As opposed to say, basic science research, which in some cases may be learning what is and isn’t possible.) If you work at it diligently, like you did, you will eventually make it. I’ve been going down a similar path, although I never had the pressure of a presale for my first project.

    I’m using the experience from my first project to get ready to launch a Kickstarter. (very soon, too… submitted and waiting for kickstarter approval)

    I’d be really excited to chat offline, too, shoot me an email

    Anway… here’s OUR story of how we got off the ground.


  • Bob Alexander says:

    I have a project that I’ve thought about using Kickstarter for, but I worry about the same issues you encountered. Another approach I’ve been thinking of is building them at my own pace and selling them on eBay as they’re made.

    There are drawbacks to this: I can’t confidently purchase in quantity and it’s tough to advertise something that appears on eBay once a week or so. On the bright side, if I have it as an auction instead of a Buy it Now, I can get a feel for how many people want it and what they’re willing to pay.

    • d3ad0ne says:

      I am in the same boat. My hope is to get all the bugs, and problems ironed out before hand. However I’m sure there are going to be tons of things that I didn’t even think of.

      Congrats Jonathan for at least getting a product out. I’m sure it’s a wonderful feeling to actually see your idea come to life and be used by so many people.

  • anonymou says:

    Thanks for posting your experience, it’s really fascinating to get some of the behind the scenes details.

    Can you speak about how you developed your clientele? Did you advertise? Did you rely on word of mouth? Or were the pre-orders mostly from friends and friends of friends?

    • I’ve found that, with my past personal projects, I get a lot of traffic (100k+ views) just by having popular blogs post about them. So, I guess I relied on word of mouth, with the assumption that certain places would probably pick up the story. As it turns out, this was only partially right: I didn’t reach the target audience of musicians as much as I would’ve liked, and I get emails almost every day from people saying “I just heard about this and want one!”

      My biggest problem was not having demo units to send out to music blogs and magazines; this is another pitfall of the preorder model!

  • bandit, Albuquerque says:

    I was part of a startup – about a 50 beer story, and this is not the right place…

    One of the major things we were told, and it came true was: ALWAYS HAVE 3 WAYS to do something. you are *guaranteed* the first two will fall thru, and the third has at least a 50% failure rate.

    This is one of the reasons I use Digikey and Mouser for low-volume production (100 units) for clients. They have a *very* high availability and reliability rate (ie I know i can get the parts). They may be more expensive than overseas (read: China), but I can get the parts.

    Local firms are also more reliable – at least I can drop by and make them feel bad just walking in the door.

    Thanks for sharing your stories. Kudos to your wife. A small child is a *wonderful* stress tester, both of parents and products. I used my son for exactly that role. Sometimes the products can stand the wear and tear better than the parents :^)

    Success to y’all!

  • Brian says:

    I have been through this a couple of times with different products, and while I always love the story I have at the end, the first production run is always a hair pulling experience. It gets easier, and there is a real sense of accomplishment when you get a big order and everything goes smoothly. The fun is in solving the maze for the first time. :)

    One bit of unsolicited wisdom. You mentioned “assembly line” techniques. Take a look at the power of small batches and see if this applies to your situation.


    I had a hard time believing the assertion that assembly line techniques are slower until I actually tested it. But in my case it was.

    If you are anything like me, now it’s time for version 2.0. :) Good luck!

    • That’s really interesting! I did end up doing small batches, but the real problem was that each step of the way I needed to pack up certain parts and tools and unpack others, because I didn’t have space to keep everything out. In a sense, I had the worst of both worlds! I do believe that it might be faster, though, so I’ll keep that in mind when I have more space.

      And I guess I am like you, because I’m working on getting 2.0 off the ground! :) Thanks!

  • Brian says:

    I have a lot of friends who have done this kind of stuff, their creativity for low cost production space is amazing! Cheap hotel rooms with outside access, storage units work if you are in a mild climate. (Make sure you have power!). It also tends to lower the wife’s stress level. :)

    If their culture supports it (some of these are anti-commercial), hackerspaces are ideal. Check out http://hackerspaces.org/wiki/List_of_Hacker_Spaces.

    The bonus with a hackerspace is you find a community of engineers, and another set of eyes is always a plus. My friends who are engineers have talked me out of some very bad ideas. :)

    • I’m very much aware of Hackerspaces: I co-founded one! As far as I’m concerned, though, they’re not suited to hosting a startup, at least not a hardware one. It would mean taking up ALL of the workspace and most of the storage space for several months at a time, meaning that nobody else could make proper use of shared facilities. I agree, though, that the community is a HUGE asset, and I never would’ve gotten to where I am without that.

  • James Garry says:


    If your post had consisted of purely the comment ‘time is inversely proportional to space’ then I would have cheered.

    Insightful, generally true, and well-written. I shall endeavour to use your learned lessons.

    Thank you.

  • William says:

    Great write up. I was worried about doing a kickstarter and not being able to produce all of them. I yourself I ended up taking it slow and doing a smaller first run using Tindie. Its been a great learning experience and I am loving every minute of it. This weekend I will be building my 2nd fundraiser product and I have a few left on my third.

    Tindie is great since you can do a smaller fundraiser in 2 weeks.

    Here is what I have been working on:

  • bolke says:

    Nice article.
    Thanks for the writing.

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