In each of our podcasts, we ask top hardware entrepreneurs the same 10 questions to better understand the challenges and best practices in starting a hardware company. In Episode 8 of Season 1, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Adam Ellsworth, founder of 8-Bit Lit.
- Why did you start your project?
About two years ago, a friend and I were discussing an idea for a touch-sensitive lamp for his two-year-old son. We came up with the idea of the question mark from Super Mario Bros. We made one for ourselves. We used TechShop, which has a lot of tools that you can prototype with: laser cutters, CNC mills, etc. We threw it up on Etsy, not really thinking much about it, but it got a ton of blog attention. We got a large number of orders right away. We made 1,000 of them at home in San Francisco, by hand, over three months. That actually turned out to be a helpful experience for production later because I really understood what it was like to set up a production line, to have to try to establish efficiencies, and to work through the line.
- What did you do before deciding to start a hardware startup?
I did a program through Singularity University, and Autodesk, one of the big sponsors, had an innovation lab with a 3D printer. I actually designed an SU ring for the class, then printed it out and could wear it right away. That process of going from idea to creation was one of the first sparks that led me to this point.
- Have you always been a Maker?
Yes. I spent a lot of time at TechShop, which is a community workspace that’s like a gym. You pay a membership fee, but instead of barbells and machines, there are CNC mills, laser cutters, 3D printers, and prototyping tools to make a hardware product or furniture. There, I worked as a consultant for different startups, prototyping their hardware for them—just learning the tools day-by-day. Before that, I also built 3D printers for a company, and that was the first time I really honed my chops in the hardware world.
- What is your day like?
My days have been in waves. There are times when it’s just sprints all the time, and then there are lulls, when it’s like, okay, what’s the next step, what are the next stages?
A few months ago, my days were crazy because we decided to do all the fulfillment for our product ourselves. At this point, it’s in a bit of a lull, which is nice, but I also have to talk with the team in China. So most of my evenings between 6:00 and 8:00, or 9:00 and 11:00 are taken up with meetings.
- What’s the hardest part about being a hardware startup founder?
The most difficult moment was actually launching the crowdfunding campaign because it was first time that I’d ever been responsible to thousands of people. It was higher stress than I had experienced before.
- Why did you choose your route instead of an accelerator?
We ran a Kickstarter campaign because we realized our margins were just too low, with getting materials locally, going on Digi-Key, and also paying people a fair San Francisco salary. We couldn’t even offer wholesale because people were looking for 50% off, and we just couldn’t do it. So we decided to shut down and say we probably need to go to China or at least do a larger-scale manufacturing, which led us to Kickstarter. But even before Kickstarter, we started working with a manufacturer in China. We sent prototypes back and forth, so that by the time we actually launched, we were basically ready to go and all we needed was the money.
We also worked with a contract manufacturer (CM), a group called Berkeley Sourcing Group. They worked with us for free at the beginning and then they will take a certain amount of every single lamp produced in the future. They’re investing in our success.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
We use Shopify for our website, MailChimp for customer engagement, and Skype for keeping in touch with our Chinese team. The Kickstarter tools are pretty great. Our customers in the crowdfunding campaign are extraordinary, and we are keeping engaged with them, sending out constant updates.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Start looking into venture backing before deciding to do a crowdfunding campaign. The deadline of a campaign can be detrimental. If you say you’re going to deliver something in four or five months, and it’s really not realistic, you can both hurt your customer base and have to cut corners. If you can, get investment to give you a little bit more of a runway for prototyping and getting ready for manufacturing.
If you can’t, then start talking to manufacturers early. Don’t just assume that if you launch the campaign, you’re going to be able to find somebody. That’s a pretty big risk. Make phone calls, send emails, and get quotes.
- What book are you reading or TV series are you watching?
I found out that there are about 20 books that won both the Hugo and the Nebula in a single year. I started with all of Arthur C. Clarke’s because he’s my absolute favorite author.
- What is the best gadget you are carrying now?
Unfortunately, we ran out of time for this one, but to find out more about Adam, his lessons learned, and his Kickstarter approach, please listen to our podcast.