1-Year Anniversary Mega-Update (Part 1 of 2)
It’s exactly a year after the end of our Kickstarter campaign. It's been a long year of hard work, many late nights of taping boxes, many panicked overnight-orders of missing parts, countless inquiries of when we’re going to ship rewards. At last, we’re done shipping kits! (The handful of domestic backers who are missing toroids right now will get a free upgrade to spun toroids; more at the end.)
This is the massive pile that went out today:
We haven’t posted for a long time because we wanted to update you with good news, but in all honesty the last many months have been a long, frustrating slog. We should have been better about writing updates, but every day all we would see is a never-ending list of unshipped addresses and no end in sight, and it was tough to write anything meaningful. Last January, we put the brakes on our Kickstarter campaign a quarter of the way through because we were concerned that we couldn’t handle the demand; looking back, we wish we had taken on even fewer initial reward commitments. It has taken an enormous amount of work to set up a production facility, and there are many things that have taken time to learn from experience.
We want this post to be something that we wish we had read before we had started. We want to share our struggles and experiences that we can better understand in hindsight. We hope that this is not only valuable to our backers who believed in us and supported our project a year ago, but also to other entrepreneurs and hobbyists wanting to share their passions but not knowing exactly how.
- Have a serious contingency plan for various sales volumes. When we were starting out, we didn’t believe that demand for our kits would be so high during our Kickstarter campaign. Tesla coils are a niche product for experienced engineers, why should they be so popular?! We really thought we would be lucky to barely meet our goal in four weeks, so we weren’t prepared to take leave from school for a semester, which would have helped. While we always took our responsibilities seriously, it took a while for it to sink in that we really needed to consider it more than a side project.
- Be as well-prepared as possible before the start of your campaign. This is something we feel we did well with regards to product design, as our Tesla coil prototype was completely finished, tested and documented in advance. We also had quotes for all components and a few options for where we could source them. But our fulfillment plan had much room for improvement. We had designed projects before, but we never managed a supply chain, dealt with bulk shipments, or packed boxes before, so we had no idea what would be involved. For a month, we received thousands of dollars of shipments at Heidi’s dorm, which slowly filled half her room, while frantically searching for a better space. We did not keep good records of what we ordered in which quantities, which became problematic later when we started running out of parts at different times. We could go on.
- Decide what you actually want to spend your time on. Do you want to design hardware or run a fulfillment company? It might be more efficient to contract out work early than to try to do it all yourself. We wish we had sent out the kit packaging early on to avoid needing to manage the day to day activities of a packaging army for many months. However, it was a challenge to outsource anything while we had so much trouble with performing the kitting well ourselves in the first place -- reasons will be described further on.
Workspace and Workforce
- Be realistic about the size of the workspace you need, and get in there fast! At the beginning of the Kickstarter campaign, we figured that between MITERS and our dorm rooms, we’d have enough space to package the hundred rewards we expected. Well, that plan didn’t last long. We are fortunate to have had Artisan’s Asylum close to us. “The Asylum,” as we call it, is a huge makerspace with a long waiting list for space, but we knew someone who was leaving and were lucky to take his spot in the “robotics co-working area.” The idea was that the area was a flex space, where projects could expand when necessary and contract back down when finished. Unfortunately, a wide open area tends to fill with clutter, particularly from the renters who don’t show up often, so the co-working utopia never really worked out. We were confined to a 10ft x 10ft square space in the crowded warehouse, in which we put some shelving, chairs and and a table. Pallets of bubble wrap and some large crates of our parts were put on some borrowed racks nearby. Because the space was extremely small, we would have to work in shifts with no more than two people there at a time.
- Be smart about how you manage people. While everybody who worked for us has been wonderful, we should not have segmented our workforce as much as we did. Then again, in the tight space we were in, there was no other choice. Since only two people would fit in our tiny workshop at Artisan’s Asylum at a time, one shift would pack small parts, the next would make boxes, the next would print shipping labels and put them on the boxes, etc. The shifts accommodated people’s varying schedules, and no one would have to spend more than five hours at a time in the intolerable workspace right next to a metalworking shop with an air compressor running half the time. But no matter what we tried, the shifts didn’t communicate well, and they didn’t always work productively when there was nobody there to manage what they were doing or answer questions like “where the heck did the power adapters go?” It was very frustrating to see manpower wasted because we could not be there constantly to supervise.
- The search for commercial real estate is long and painful. We kept thinking that if we just pushed harder and pulled longer days, we’d be finished with Kickstarter soon. The Asylum was cheap and conveniently located, and included wood and metal shops that we thought might be useful. But at the beginning of the fall, we knew we needed to go somewhere else. We started to undergo the very time-consuming process of visiting potential new spaces and negotiating with realtors, without a car and during the middle of the semester. It was a massive headache. At last we signed a lease and moved into a 600 square foot space in the building of a family-owned knife & culinary supply company last month, but this is still not our final workshop. Next week we’re moving into yet another temporary space while the one we’re in is rented to someone else, and in another month or two we will move into another portion of the building that’s being subdivided.
Part 2: Manufacturing and sourcing, coming soon!
To the Round 4 backers who are missing a toroid, if you don’t hear from us tomorrow, you are getting a free upgrade to a spun toroid with a beautiful surface finish! The shop that does the stamping doubled their price for an already-expensive part that they deliver very slowly, so we bit the bullet and paid for tooling at a spinning house. ETA is 2-3 weeks.
To anyone with questions about tuning: if your secondary measures under 228 ohms, you should use a 5-turn primary. Otherwise, keep the 6-turn primary as described in the manual. After much scratching our heads, we learned that the manufacturer had switched from signal build wire to heavy build, which has thicker enamel and therefore fewer turns in the same length of wire.