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