FFF Podcast #01: Jeff Sheldon on launching a successful Kickstarter product
FFF Podcast #01: Jeff Sheldon on launching a successful Kickstarter product
I’d hazard a guess that 99% of our readers work at a desk and that most those will probably be as untidy as mine. Designer Jeff Sheldon, founder of Ugmonk, felt there was a need to a more customisable and attractive solution. So he created Gather, a beautifully designed minimal organizer, a place to bring all your essentials together.
His Kickstarter campaign was fully funded within 24hours. I wanted to find out how Jeff managed to pull this off and why this product turned into a popular hit.
For those of you who’d prefer reading the interview, here’s an edited transcript of the podcast. A big thank you to Yarni for producing out intro theme music.
Glenn Garriock: Welcome to our first podcast, Jeff. Thanks for being our first guest.
Jeff Sheldon: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m excited to talk.
GG: Where do we start? It’s gone so quickly, the past week of this Kickstarter campaign that you’ve started. I wrote down some brief facts about a few minutes ago so they are reasonably up-to-date. In one week, 1,297 backers have pledged $196,000 to this campaign which is – I mean that’s pretty incredible. I bet you’re pretty happy.
JS: It’s amazing. Yeah, it’s better than I could’ve ever asked for. It’s just blowing up right now and yeah, as you can tell I’m super happy.
GG: It’s really been picked up really quickly. Kickstarter featured it quite early on already. Product Hunt picked up on it as well, loads of websites and blogs have. Did you write to different sites to try and get them to feature or have they picked it up themselves?
JS: Yeah, it’s funny because I actually, I had plans to write, I had a big list of blogs that I wanted to write to and let them know and half of them picked up on it before I could even write to them just because it started spreading online. So, I did send a few emails to people, relationships and people that I’ve known kind of like you. We’ve known each other for a long time and just saying here’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done and basically if you like it, post it and people are posting it before I can even send that email. So, I think it’s the designer’s dream.
GG: I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. Maybe we should briefly talk a little bit about you for those who don’t know who you are. You could maybe tell us quickly what you do.
JS: Sure, yeah. Like you said, my name is Jeff Sheldon and I am the founder of a brand called Ugmonk and I started Ugmonk about eight and a half years ago as a side project to design simple minimal t-shirts. It was really just a creative outlet for me to make t-shirts that I wanted to wear and you’ve been there since the start and you’ve seen it take off but it wasn’t necessarily this big design business that I was trying to start back in the day. It was literally just I want to make cool products that I like and maybe there’s a handful of people that like them too and over the years I’ve built it up, eventually left my full-time job. This is a condensed version of the story but left my full-time job to do it full time and now I’m eight and a half years in and we’re shipping tens of thousands of products all over the world. We’ve hit over I think almost 70 different countries and now we just launched this Kickstarter which is taking off even more but it’s been a wild ride. I usually describe myself as a designer by trade and an entrepreneur by accident because I didn’t mean to get into this.
GG: The Gather product itself, it’s a desk organizer for those that haven’t seen it yet or I guess you wouldn’t probably call it a desk organizer because you could use it anywhere but it’s sort of a place where you can bring different pieces together that might be on your desk or in your kitchen or in your house. How did the idea come about? How did you get to the point where you thought this would be the right product to make?
JS: So, the original idea was probably over three years ago and I had the idea again to make something that I wanted to exist. I was like “I want this on my desk”, I need this and I started looking for it and it didn’t exist. So, I said I’m going to try and figure out how to make this. I wanted somewhere where I could put my phone, I could put my pens, my little to-do cards, my headphones, everything that that was just laying down on my desk and really just added to the clutter. But the idea was, I just wanted something to contain all of that so I didn’t have my pens over here because I’d end up having a mug with 50 pens in it here and then I’d have my sticky notes and everything started getting all over the place and then when I looked for something to condense it all, all I could find were those junky office organizers that are on everyone’s desk that are wire and they just don’t even look nice and they weren’t customizable. So, I’m left-handed so I like my phone on the left side but everything was designed for right-handed. I wanted to make something that really could be customized so that anyone can adapt it, you can take pieces off, put pieces on but at the same time if it’s sitting on your desk, I wanted it to look beautiful next to all of my Apple devices and everything, not to be this ugly eyesore in the middle and the concept has grown from being a desk organizer to being really an organizer for any space like you said. Put it on your entry table when you walk in, beside your bed so you can put all of your wallet, your keys, everything and I think that the customizable aspect of it is what’s really making it take off.
GG: You’re literally describing my current desk setup. It is just a mess of different receptacles where I can put different things. Yeah, I’m looking forward to you finishing the product.
JS: I think the problem – it’s really striking a chord with a lot of people because how many of us sit at desks for most of our day and are designing or doing anything, work in an office setting, work in a home office and so many people have this problem but nobody’s fixed it or nobody’s created a beautiful way to solve it. There are ugly ways to solve it but that’s not – for us as creatives, we want something that looks nice too.
GG: Yeah, I think that has been the main negative – if I can briefly talk about any negative criticism – I’ve been reading mainly about why bother to spend X amount on a product, what’s the point? I understand the point because you’re going to be looking at this thing a lot if you’re working at a desk all the time and I think to make it look great and functional is kind of what we, as designers, at least try and do every day. So, I think you’ve definitely hit the nail on the head there.
JS: Yes, I’ll tell people straight up that I did not design this for everyone. I totally understand that if you want an organizer for $10, go down to your office store and go get one. That’s totally fine. I’m not targeting those people and I’m not saying that this is for them. But this is premium quality, something that’s beautifully designed. The people that do care about that, which obviously there are enough of them if you look at the Kickstarter numbers, there’s enough people that care about having something that looks nice and functional and it’s the details that matter. They care about those details. There’s going to be criticism. Why would you charge $100 for something that you could get for $10? Well, then go get the $10 one because there are plenty of people that appreciate the $100.
GG: I think I read somewhere that or maybe it was mentioned in the video that this project has been a long time coming. You said it’s been almost three years that you’ve been working on different prototypes. Well, what took so long? What prolonged the process?
JS: I think a lot of people want to know how in the world could this take three years and to be honest it’s three years on and off.
The original concept was made three years ago and then I couldn’t figure out how to make it, I couldn’t figure out the materials, the manufacturing process and then when I did finally find a shop that could help make the prototypes, we ran into problems again of just pricing and quantities.
They weren’t going to be able to produce more than a couple hundred of them. It was going to cost me a hundred dollars just to make them and I didn’t know like what am I supposed to do and then we ran into problems with just the different pieces and the way that the top pieces fit into the base, the way that the phone stand worked and kind of refining all of these things. Until I found the right manufacturing process, I decided I’m going to do this at scale so I can actually do that the top pieces will be injection moulded plastic, kind of like a MacBook charger, that hard white really shiny polished plastic. So, until I decided to take this big time, I wasn’t able to actually make it. So, I’d keep going back to it, I’d have a new prototype, I’d try and find a cheaper method to make it and it was on and off, on and off. Meanwhile, I’m running my whole rest of my business releasing products. Gather would get put on the back-burner and then I finally said all right, I still use this thing every single day. There’s got to be enough people, same with the t-shirts, there’s got to be enough people that want this. So, the past year really, the past maybe nine months, I’ve been pushing really, really hard to make it happen and now we’re a week into the campaign and I’m so glad I didn’t give up.
GG: So, have you been actually using the prototypes throughout these three years just trying them out and seeing if they work and if you’re happy with them?
JS: Yeah, I’ve been using even the earliest ones. In the video, you see a quick time-lapse of some of the earlier ones and I’m actually thinking about doing a more in-depth post just kind of about those prototypes and the iterations that I made on each one. But you’ll see that the base board was longer and it had slots that went all the way to the end but that meant the pieces could fall off the end and then just different subtle things that we kept tweaking, the spacing within the grid system. One of my favourite parts is just if you see the video, there’s a grid overlay overtop of the whole system that you can actually connect two whole bases together with magnets and span the pieces across the whole grid. Well, that didn’t come about until really this last year. So, if I had released this product two or three years ago, I didn’t have the magnets or any of those things. I’d be laying in bed and be like oh, I got another idea for this and I’d keep adding onto it until you see what I have today which is this full modular system. But that was the fun part about using the product over the years was I got to actually iterate on it until I’ve got it to a point where I’m happy to release it.
GG: I guess a lot of people underestimate how long it just takes to make any product. I mean even some of the most simple things, to get to that point, not just researching and designing and trying out and seeing if it works but also finding the right partners to make that product happen. That I guess a lot of people have either no experience with or don’t think about.
JS: I didn’t have any experience building something this designed, this type of industrial design. It may be if you came from a product background, this might be a little bit – the path might have moved a little bit quicker but for me being mostly in apparel which is a very different world, this involves so much more help from engineers and things to get the products right even though there’s no technology necessarily. There’s no charging components or anything built-in. There’s still so much that goes into perfecting the actual 3D pieces to get the moulds made, to get the process made.
I think as digital designers as soon as they start to make a physical product, you’re like “Wow”, this is much harder than designing a website.
GG: You briefly spoke about the scale of manufacturing early and I guess that would always be my panic if I ever went ahead and did a Kickstarter campaign. If I do something nice and a couple of hundred people buy it and I reach my goal then I’ll be happy but what happens if and there’s been a lot of examples where maybe producers have underestimated the amount of orders and then I mean I think I backed two or three products that just never happened because they just couldn’t handle the demand. I mean can you prepare for that scenario? What happens if now another 5,000 order in the next month? I mean that’d be a nice problem to have.
JS: It’s one of those things when people say good problems. It’s still a problem. It’s good but it’s still and the difference for us is not that I have – if it goes to 5,000, there are going to be challenges that we may not have thought through but I’ve been shipping products for so long, like physical products. I ran a Kickstarter with a friend four or five years ago and we ran into a lot of the challenges of shipping and fulfilment and all those. So, I’m going into this with way more experience than some of these other people that maybe the Kickstarter is their first product and it takes off and they have 10,000 backers and they have no idea how to ship something, how to deal with international shipping, how to deal with fulfilment. So, I’m confident. Maybe I’m a little overconfident but I’m confident now this far down my journey that I can fulfil these rewards and make this happen because I’ve done so many other things and I’ve lined up – I have a fulfilment place already. My manufacturer, they are ready to scale because of the injection moulding and their process, they’re ready. They do consumer products like this all the time and they’re ready to do 5,000 of these in a week. So, I have all of these things lined up in my back pocket now where the first – a lot of times when someone launches the Kickstarter, they haven’t even talked to a manufacturer.
All they have is a prototype. I got 90% of the way there before I even launched the Kickstarter and because I’ve learned from past mistakes, I think I’m ready to see this thing go as big as it can go.
GG: You touched on an interesting point there as well of the experience that you have by doing Ugmonk for this length of time. I think a great part of that as well is also the community that you’ve built around the company who I’m sure a large part of the backers will have probably already ordered a product from you in the past. It’ll be interesting to see some statistics on how many backers are previous customers of yours.
JS: I’m interested to see that and to run the numbers to see how many people are new to Ugmonk or how many people that have actually bought something or have been on my email list for years and maybe this is the first thing that appealed to them to actually buy. But again, I think the biggest thing that people miss when they look at the success in one week, we’ve raised almost $200,000, they don’t realise for eight years I’ve been building a community, I’ve been building my email list, my social media. The community aspect, you can’t buy that and you can’t rush that, not necessarily do you need eight years but when I launched the Kickstarter and I could say hey, I just launched this, I wasn’t launching to no one. I launched to a huge community of people and that’s the hardest part to explain to a new designer, a new creator that says I can make a desk organizer, I could launch on a Kickstarter but they have no one to launch it to. So, yeah, that’s a massive part of – I think I might write a post where I’m calling it the nine year overnight success.
GG: You hear that so often that every time it looks like – “Oh, they’ve just come from nowhere!” – there’s usually a long story behind that you’ve just not heard yet. I think that’s probably the same with you. So, we talked briefly about the video earlier and I think I read somewhere it already had close to 70,000 views in a week which is pretty decent. Tell me a little bit about how the video came about. You filmed it with a friend of yours I think?
JS: The video is such a critical part of a Kickstarter taking off and really communicating a product, especially a product.
I feel like Gather, this desk organizer in a photo, it may look great and it looks fine but as soon as you see it in a video form, you see what it can do, then it clicks with people and people are ohhing and ahhing when they see the magnet snap together. The video is something that I’ve been planning for the past four or five months, kind of storyboarding it and thinking about the concepts and how I communicate through video and then when I actually got the script ready and everything done, I worked with a friend down in Nashville, Tennessee. We collaborated to produce it, just the two of us. We didn’t have a big film crew or anything but we shot and recorded the whole thing in about three days and my friend Jeremiah, Jeremiah Warren, he is super talented. He can make anything look great even with the bare-bones set. I mean we were doing things – there were parts where we were taping the camera to the ceiling so that it wasn’t wobbly, things that you would never see on a multi-million dollar set but we wanted the video to feel and look as high-end and just clean as we could.
GG: It looks great. It doesn’t look like you did it on a low budget that’s for sure.
JS: I’m definitely thankful I had him to collaborate with because I know enough about video to understand it but I don’t know a lot about the editing process and some of the things that we did and some of the time lapses and sequences that I think really sell the product. But yeah, the video is one of the most proud things that I’ve done in the last year just because I feel like the video I can watch it and be really happy with the final result.
GG: So, where do you go from here? I guess the next step is waiting to see how far this campaign goes? You’ve still got what, two weeks to go? When did you set the deadline?
JS: No, I actually set it so the campaign’s longer. I have about 50 days left because I set it for 60 days so I have a long ways to go. But the interesting thing is because the product is validated, people are saying they want it, people are backing it, I’m actually going to start some of the manufacturing and tooling now instead of waiting till the end of the 60 days because once I launch the Kickstarter, if nobody backed it then I could pull the plug but now that I see that people are definitely interested and this is going somewhere, I’ve already got things rolling on the production side so that we can deliver this thing and if it scales to 5,000 backers, it should hopefully not be a problem.
GG: Well, I wish you the best of luck with the campaign and hopefully also with the production. I look forward to getting my parcel in a few months’ time and thanks very much for talking to me about it.
JS: Yeah, thanks for having me on. I’m excited to solve everyone’s desk clutter problem.