May 1st 2015 marked the beginning of a new era for Primo, as we officially put our Kickstarter campaign to bed.
We wanted to share a few thoughts on this unique and humbling experience. Building open-source, “boutique-tech” by hand for a global crowd-funding campaign, is an event we felt reflective of the direction in which commerce, design and manufacturing is evolving. We also wanted to shed some light on what went wrong, what we learned and what’s next for Primo now that our pledges are fulfilled.
In the beginning
Our campaign was always about crowdfunding the development of a concept. Something we knew how to do in theory. We believed a solid work-ethic, and the ability to problem solve, would lead to the successful, and timely development of the Cubetto Playset. This was our first mistake. We were at least half right.
A rough start
Hardware Kickstarter videos often dress concepts as products, but the two must not be confused. We wanted to avoid this ambiguity by showing just how raw a stage the project was at. This put us in a position that was both comfortable, and dangerous. Comfortable because it would be easy to improve on what we pitched. Dangerous, because the finish line was a delivery date rather than a clear product. We didn’t have a golden prototype to work to.
We knew how to make lovely Arduino based prototypes, so how hard could making a consistently replicable unit fit for public consumption be? Well… it’s hard. The Playset is ultimately built on custom electronics and mechanical engineering solutions.
Building the playset around a Pi or an Arduino Board would have been easier, but that was never our vision. The list of components making up a single Playset almost counts into the 1,000’s. On top of that we had to fit all these parts together into a working product. In hindsight, this should have been done before the campaign even began.
Building a team
My co-founder Matteo and I started Primo, but delivering a product like Cubetto would eventually require know-how and resources beyond the ones we possessed at the time. Knowledge of Plastics, mechatronics, electrical engineering, industrial design, PCB design & production.
We’re now a competent team of five, with the ability to leverage a global network of world class engineers, product designers and suppliers in order to design, build and deliver a product. But the team that crossed the finish line (The Co-Founders, Valeria Leonardi, Danilo DiCuia and Ben Callicott), is not the team that started off the blocks.
The Halo effect
Primo radiated a magic halo from day one. Our product was already praised as fresh and innovative by the education and design community, it was nominated for an IXDA the year of it’s inception, and Massimo Banzi signed on to be an advisor and shareholder in the business.
By September 2013, there was no shortage of people willing to partake in the campaign. Keen to get going, we rushed to enlist the first set of qualified applicants we could find, without really questioning our new co-founder’s real availability.Lucia was still a student focusing on her master’s degree, and Josh was building his own business. By February 2014, their personal and professional situations changed considerably and quickly.
They were no longer able to work on the project.Lucia eventually passed her classes with flying colors. We’re still in touch. Josh Valman went on to start a wonderful company called RPD International, and continued to work with us on supply chain and mechanical engineering until Ben Callicott joined our team full time. It was actually better to have Josh on board as RPD in many ways.
With RPD, we were not only accessing Josh’s talent, but an entire engineering team that integrated perfectly within Primo. However good we had it mechanically, we were still an Electronics Engineer short, a set back we did not budget for.
We learned that finding good engineers was not an issue, we had plenty on our books. The issue was locking one down long enough to complete a full engineering cycle. Not easy when you’re “ballin’ on a budget”.
There were four engineers we specifically wanted to work with and respected, but they were also world class and out of our budgetary league. Luckily, they loved the project, and agreed to work in their spare time, charging a rate we could afford. A generous contribution, but an impractical plight. The lack of coin meant fitting around their day jobs instead of having them fit around ours. But this was our only solution, and we had to make it work.
Mastering this set up took time. Between February and September 2014, we kept passing on partially completed hardware and firmware around the world, from one engineer to the next and back to the first one again. Take differing time zones, and add them to language barriers, incompatible design suites, and prototype production lead-times. Multiply again by the number of unknown iterations required. The result is a compounded, rolling delay.
We found ourselves announcing delivery dates as frequently as we would break them. There is really no excuse for this. We were in denial over the amount of iterations Cubetto required. Every-time we produced a prototype we’d say “This is it, this time it’s going to work”, and it wasn’t.
By September 2014, pre-sales and a small investment round allowed us to break this vicious development cycle, keeping engineers on staff long enough to complete a full, bug-less development stretch. We had also gotten good at this Engineering juggling act by demanding standardised output, and leveraging more of our suppliers knowledge to guide R&D.
We’re ultimately sorry for the late delivery, but we’re also very glad we didn’t have the funds to buy our way out of it back when the poo started stirring. Continuous problem solving, without giving up, gave our team a priceless set of skills, and new found confidence in the knowledge that as long as we worked together, we could eventually overcome our problems.
By November 2014, development was complete, and we became desperate to ship. With a handful of successful prototypes in the wild, surviving heavy usage and continuous testing, we felt ready to drive this project home.
Keen to make a christmas delivery, we tried to make up for lost time the only way we knew how. Leaning on our suppliers. 3D Printed parts were not an issue, packaging and other components were a breeze, Electronics… not so much.
Our PCB manufacturers kept requesting more time for QA, a request we ignored in order to make our deadline. We figured the PCB’s would land with an acceptable fail rate. We would catch the faulty ones during assembly. We would build, pack, ship, and be home by Christmas eve. We all know how that plan went.
Only 60 out of 300 units eventually arrived in time, and only 1/3rd of them worked. We were lucky only 60 units arrived in fact. The important lesson learned here, is that good, experienced suppliers are basically an extension of your team. It’s easy to villainize suppliers as money sucking entities out to slow you down at all costs, but good suppliers want repeat business, not a one off scam. Our suppliers are good, very good. But we forced them to work in ways that broke things. We were not going to make this mistake again.
We eventually got into a good “groove” after our Christmas disaster. We now had a solid team, we learned to deal with manufacturers, and we finally made it out the tunnel. We just knuckled down and got on with it.
All 300 Cubetto Playset units were hand assembled by a team of 5. A grand total of over 1,365 man hours.
The future of Primo
Our goal as a company is simple: Create the best educational technologies for children all over the world. Kickstarter really helped us understand what kind of company we want to be and what kind of company we can be. Some don’t like the word small, and use the word “lean” instead, but we think small is good.
We stayed small to survive setbacks, but leveraging a global manufacturing and engineering network to complete our project, while closing substantial sales in the process, helped us see just how big a small five man crew can really be.
Our team will be growing over the coming months, and we’re taking all we learned from this experience into our next set of challenges. We have customer services to master, marketing comms to improve, UX to consolidate, a considerably scaled delivery to oversee, and new exciting products to develop.
Co-Founder & CEO