The TouchFire Chronicles: Still Life With Engineers

Editor’s Note: This week we’re running a three part series by Steven Isaac, a programmer with an amazing resume including stints at Sun, Microsoft, and even a hardware start-up that brought the first (non-portable) tablets. For years he’s dreamed of an easy-to-use device with a full keyboard that slides out when needed and, together with a designer, he built the Touchfire, a fully funded Kickstarter project that has only 10 days to go before production begins.

We asked him to create a series of short posts about his experience with the Kickstarter process and offer you, the hardware hackers out there, some advice and best practices. The entire series appears here.

Brad and I are sitting in his office, waiting for the FedEx guy to arrive with our B39 prototype. The fate of our company lies in the balance. FedEx comes at last, and we rip open the package.

Jubilation! Not just one but several B39 keys had the required behavior. They also feel really good to type on. Is that a tear I see in Brad’s eye? He did it, TouchFire lives! Every key design we have made since descends from one of those B39 keys.

Fast forward a few weeks. Apple announces the iPad 2 with the Smart Cover, and we are back in the depths of despair. Our complex retraction mechanism is clearly not in the spirit of the minimalist iPad 2.

The iPad 2 launch day finally arrived. I spent the day camped out on the floor of the Bellevue Square mall, waiting for the Apple store to start selling iPad 2s. My wife Dena dropped by periodically with snacks. “At least we haven’t shipped anything yet”, I thought. “We are actually in better shape than the accessory makers who are now stuck with obsolete designs on their shelves.”

The Apple store opened and I bought my allotment of iPad 2s and Smart Covers. I raced over to Brad’s office and we unpacked our prizes. Apple had once again designed a brilliant product. Magnets were used throughout the tablet and the Smart Cover. We looked at each other: “What about magnets for TouchFire?”

I immediately ordered a huge assortment of magnets in various shapes and sizes, and we spent the next few weeks immersed in them. We realized that we could use the magnets in the iPad to attach and align TouchFire over the on-screen keyboard, and the magnets in the Smart Cover would allow us to store TouchFire in the Smart Cover. We also realized that TouchFire could be quickly retracted and held in position below the screen if we put magnets in all four corners. There was still a lot of work to do, but we now knew what was necessary to optimize TouchFire.

Completing the new design would keep Brad busy for months. But I could see that we would ultimately succeed, so I started thinking about how we would fund the launch and initial production of TouchFire.

There were really two choices – the traditional angel/VC route, or crowd-funding via Kickstarter. I decided to pursue both in parallel, and then see which one was the better option.

We prepared for Kickstarter by making a video that included TouchFire user tests. No small undertaking, but I felt it was important for people to see TouchFire in actual use. I also approached several Silicon Valley investors that I knew from my GO days. Interestingly, none of the investors wanted to pursue TouchFire, because it was not a software project.

Well, that made it easy. We’d just go with Kickstarter. I submitted our Kickstarter application on October 13th. And heard back the next day that Kickstarter had rejected us.

Time was running out. Thanksgiving and Christmas were looming, and we really needed to get launched. But I waited until our video was ready before applying again, and included a link to it. That did the trick, and TouchFire was approved shortly thereafter. Whew!

I learned that Kickstarter’s Design category is especially hard to get into. Just having a good idea doesn’t cut it anymore. Be prepared to show a live Web site, a video, previous products, or other proof that your project is real.

Now it was time to build our Kickstarter page. Before doing so, I looked at a lot of Kickstarter projects, both successful and unsuccessful. This was a good way to get a sense for what works and what doesn’t. The Kickstarter crowd is very detail oriented, and not everyone will look at your video. Make sure the key features of your project are shown on your page as well as clearly demonstrated in your video.

The trajectory of a Kickstarter project is also very interesting. All of the really successful Kickstarter projects hit the ground running from the very first day. This is not simply good luck. It is up to you to get the word out about your project before it launches, so that you will get off to a great start. Once your project has momentum, all sorts of good things start happening. Kickstarter starts to feature you. Backers feel confident that your project will succeed. The press will begin to take notice.

Brad and I let everyone we knew about our upcoming Kickstarter launch. We reunited with long-lost relatives, resolved old feuds, and talked to as many people as we could. If your project is in a niche like amateur photography, be sure to let that community know what’s coming.

After we launched, I would make sure that I did something every single day to spread the word.
My wife Dena became our social media czar, using Facebook and Twitter to respond whenever there is a mention of TouchFire. Keeping a standing search running on Twitter is key; that will let you know instantly that your project is being discussed somewhere in the world and will allow you to respond.

And respond you must. Besides Twitter, you will get a constant stream of messages and comments that you need to be on top of. Not to mention creating regular updates. Writing a short, sweet but meaningful update is an art form, like crafting a haiku.

We are now in the final week of our Kickstarter project, and the intensity level is off the charts. Successful Kickstarter projects end with a bang, not a whimper, as people realize that they cannot put off a backing decision much longer.

Kickstarter is a mirror. Whatever you put in is immediately reflected back as signups or lack thereof, happy or unhappy backers, being noticed, or being ignored. Kickstarter is an amplifier. Your backers will unerringly point out the smallest flaws in your project, but will also get behind you en masse and be the wind beneath your wings (did I really just say that?). But most of all, building the TouchFire has been a whole lot of fun!