The Touchfire Chronicles, Continued: Born In The USA

Last winter we ran a series of articles called the Touchfire Chronicles about a cool little on-screen keyboard add-on for the iPad called the Touchfire. The creators, Steve Isaac and Brad Melmon, sent us an update on their project and offer a bit of advice from the other side.

December, 2011. Our Kickstarter project ended with a bang. Touchfire raised more money than any tablet-related Kickstarter project ever had. We now had to make lots of Touchfires! We wanted to make Touchfire in the U.S., but every domestic manufacturer we asked turned us down due to technical challenges and the price point we wanted to hit. Brad had lots of experience working with Chinese manufacturers, and we had two of the best in hot competition.

We had it all figured out – Brad and his family would attend a long-planned wedding in Peru, and then he would fly straight to China and oversee putting Touchfire into production.

Then I got an email from Rod, the CEO of a manufacturer in Southern California called International Rubber Products (IRP). “We can build it! Give us a call.” It turned out Rod had read our Kickstarter update bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t find a U.S. manufacturer. IRP looked very promising. “Brad, we have to go to SoCal now; we can’t wait for you to get back from Peru,” I insisted.

We decided to go with IRP, because it ultimately made good business sense to manufacture in the U.S. It means that we can be super responsive to our customers, and do true just-in-time manufacturing. Today, half a dozen companies in Southern California participate in making Touchfire. But setting this up took time, and our design was not quite ready to go into production. It took six months longer than we originally estimated. This was an excruciating period for us, and we deservedly caught a fair bit of heat from our Kickstarter backers.

Some Kickstarter projects go dark when this happens; the founders are busy, and a little embarrassed. Don’t do this! The most important lesson we learned was that if you keep doing regular updates and are completely honest and transparent with your backers, they are supportive and understanding.

We finally started shipping Touchfire to our Kickstarter backers the last week of June, and announced general availability on July 11th. We’ve now shipped almost ten thousand Touchfires, and our factory is making Touchfire’s as fast as possible. Our customers are typing on their iPads in a whole new way, and we’re so thrilled to see the enthusiastic feedback they’re sharing through tweeting and commenting about the difference typing with Touchfire makes.

We’re also on the lookout for any problems our customers might have, and I’ve been contacting them personally to help troubleshoot. This has been a great learning experience for us and based on all the feedback I’ve put together an informative video based on some of the repeated questions we’ve received.

We’ve noticed that sometimes magic happens when a new feature like a camera or GPS is integrated into a mobile device. We are beginning to see that magic happen with Touchfire, since it doesn’t add any noticeable size or weight to a tablet. Perhaps in the future Touchfire might even be fully integrated into the tablet itself. We might even see “Tactile Wars” flare up, as different approaches to integrating tactile into mobile devices battle it out. For Touchfire, we take our cue from Rod and say: “We can build it! Give us a call.”