The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0049

No Half Measures

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Pam Daniels had an idea to make an everyday household item more useful and fun. When her first plan to get her product into the world fell through, she found a different path.


The Full Transcript:

Pam: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Pam.

Brandon: [00:00:02] And I’m Brandon.

Pam: [00:00:03] Welcome Industries is our Chicago-based design studio.

Brandon: [00:00:06] We hope you’ll help us bring this project alive.

Together: [00:00:09] Thanks.

Pam: [00:00:11] I had done two successful Kickstarter campaigns in the past and I felt like I was ready to take it to the next level. That we could ship. We had everything lined up. We were ready.

[00:00:23] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:00:25] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:00:30] And I’m Shaun Hildner. You know, we talk a lot on this show about making stuff. For example, the last week and the week before we explored ideas of what it takes to ship software. Well, today we’re going to take a slightly different tack and look into the process of making a physical product.

Wailin: [00:00:46] This is the story of one product in particular. A set of visual measuring cups where each cup looks like the fraction it represents, so the one cop is your typical round cup. The half cup is half of that pie. The quarter is a quarter size slice and so on. The cups are made in our hometown of Chicago and they almost did not exist at all. This is the story of what it took to get one product launched.

Pam: [00:01:14] I’m Pam Daniels and I run a design practice called Welcome Industries based in Chicago. Our focus is elevating everyday objects and making them more respectful to the user. So making life better in those tiny little ways that just sort of sweeten the everyday experience. And I also teach design at the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University.

Wailin: [00:01:35] A few years ago, before Pam taught at Northwestern, she was a graduate student there studying product design and development. One day during a particularly uninspiring lecture on project management, her mind started to wander.

Pam: [00:01:48] And I started wondering why all measuring cups look like the whole pie. They’re all circle, circle, circle. A little nested set of circles. Once you separate them, you can’t tell which one is which. You have to read the label every time and I just started wondering, would it be possible to make them look like a pie chart? I wonder if you could make a half look like a half and a quarter look like a quarter. And if you did that, where would you put the handle? And these are just ruminations I’m having and I’m starting to draw crappy little sketches during the talk. And that’s where the idea came from. And then pretty quickly after the sketches, went home, modeled it in CAD software, got the volumes right and was able to 3D print samples and bring them back to some classmates and friends and say, “Hey, uh, if there were measuring cups sort of like this, would they be interesting to you?” And people were enthusiastic? And that’s what inspired me to keep going.

[00:02:41] I don’t think I knew exactly what material that I wanted the cups in. In the early days we looked at having them fabricated in metal. The shape doesn’t really lend itself well to being fabricated in metal. You would need to use a process that’s essentially like water jetting it. You take a sheet of metal and deform it by spraying water at it, not a super-efficient process. And I also couldn’t find people who do that process, which is called hydro-forming, I couldn’t get them to call me back. So I was like, well, okay, we’re not gonna do that. I think it would be okay in plastic. I don’t love plastic generally. I think lots of people have very legitimate concerns with plastic, especially disposable plastic. But I think the use case for these measuring cups is that you would have them for a very, very long time.

Wailin: [00:03:28] Initially Pam and her business partner, Brandon Williams, thought that they could try licensing their idea for the cups to a housewares manufacturer. Brandon had done something similar before working with Umbra, a Canadian company whose products you can find at major retailers like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond.

Pam: [00:03:45] My partner, who founded Welcome Industries with me, Brandon, had already tried licensing, so he had a product brought to market through Umbra, a set of utensil holders that mounts under an overhead cabinet to keep the countertops clear. We thought, okay, well we’ve already felt what that feels like. We’ve already tried the licensing route.

[00:04:04] I had some experience doing manufacturing, working with local partners and I thought, I think we’d retain a lot more creative control and learn a lot more if we try to bring this forward ourselves. And Kickstarter’s just a great platform for sort of surfacing the market interest for our product. And then getting your story straight. It’s a great learning opportunity, even if the Kickstarter fails.

Wailin: [00:04:27] It was important to Pam that she find a manufacturer for the measuring cups who would be a true partner, someone who would get involved in the process of making the product as good as possible.

Pam: [00:04:37] There is a lot I have to learn and I want people who will argue with me. I want people who will be in a dialogue and say, “Well, why did you do it like this? We can’t do it like that.” Or, “Have you thought about designing it this way?” Maybe I have good reasons or maybe I just kind of don’t know what I’m doing. I want people who will push back. And I felt that if I were to send a product I had designed to China, they might shrug their shoulders and say, you know, she’s kind of an idiot, but whatever, we’ll do it and I didn’t want that. I wanted to learn through the process. I wanted partners. I really respect what a good partner brings to the table.

Wailin: [00:05:10] As for the crowdfunding piece of the plan, this is where Pam felt pretty confident. She already had two successful Kickstarter campaigns under her belt.

Pam: [00:05:18] The very first Kickstarter I did was a small cork bag called an everyday messenger bag. It was in that window of time where pants, especially for guys, were getting more fitted, phones were getting bigger. How are you supposed to stick your phone in your pocket and maybe guys need a bag or anybody needs the bag. But guys is really where I saw the deficit. And so a small bag was designed, and that was small but hit the goal because there aren’t a lot of startup costs associated with sewing. So it’s not like you need to make millions of them to make it worth your while. You can make a small quantity and have it still be effective.

[00:05:51] And then the second Kickstarter was a photo frame, a simple punch stamped metal frame with little corners to tuck the photo into and a bend-out stand.

Wailin: [00:06:01] With the cork bag, Pam had set out to raise almost $4,000 and gotten $6,000 in pledges. Her goal for the photo frame was $20,000 and she got just over $23,000 in that campaign. She had also shipped her products on time, which isn’t always the case with Kickstarter campaigns. The measuring cups would be a much bigger undertaking because of their manufacturing process. The cups are injection molded. This is a process for making stuff out of plastic and it requires something called a tool, a metal mold, custom fabricated for that one plastic item. Pam and Brandon set their Kickstarter goal at $65,000, which would have been just enough to cover the cost of making that custom tool plus manufacturing and shipping 500 sets of measuring cups. They launched their campaign in April of 2018.

Pam: [00:06:50] We really wanted the story to be clean, I think, and we wanted to represent what it takes to bring a product like that to market and help other people understand that that’s really what it would take. I went into the Kickstarter campaign really optimistic and the notions that I had in my head were that we were gonna squeak over our goal and just break even, which was fine. Or we were going to be moderately successful and actually have some revenue to show for having put in all this effort, or, we’d be wildly successful. And I had really high hopes of potentially being wildly successful because if you look at the most funded Kickstarter campaigns and you can sort campaigns in that way, there is not a single female face after the first 50 campaigns.

[00:07:40] I’m not saying women weren’t involved in pulling off those highly successful campaigns. I’m sure they were, but they’re not getting credit. There might be logos, but there are a lot of male faces. There are no female faces and I thought maybe we can be amongst the first and and just show that that women have a place in this hierarchy of wild success as well.

[00:08:00] I think I viewed it, and many people viewed it as a meritocracy where if you put a good product out there, people would notice it and people might like it and if enough people wanted the product, you’d go ahead and produce it.

Wailin: [00:08:10] The campaign ran for one month. Four days from the end, the visual measuring cops had raised just one-third of their target and Kickstarter is all or nothing. Meaning that if you don’t hit your goal, you don’t get any of the money pledged. It was clear that this campaign was not going to be like Pam’s previous two projects, the ones that had exceeded their goals. And it wasn’t just that she’d set such an ambitious target of $65,000. The world of crowdfunding had changed a lot.

Pam: [00:08:36] I really hadn’t forecast a scenario where we didn’t meet the goal. I don’t know if I had a midterm, oh, we should be here by week two and this is where we should be. That might’ve been smart to do, but it really didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t be successful. I just thought, I was there, that this was the next logical step in growth. In the early days of Kickstarter. It was sort of sufficient to have a product that might’ve caught the attention of the Kickstarter followers, people who already knew what the platform was, or certainly the people who worked at Kickstarter when it was still sort of a small organization. And it felt sort of pure, that good products could surface and instead of needing to address the gatekeeper at a large organization to get somebody to produce that product, you could sort of go right to the users, the people you had designed the product for and see if there was a market for it.

[00:09:28] But now, Kickstarter is such a robust platform. The ecosystem has developed so much that people are spending $25,000 on videos for Kickstarter and there’s an editorial calendar behind Kickstarter. So if they’re featuring projects that month that are sunshine, because it’s been raining and raining and raining in Chicago, and I don’t know, somebody decided sunshine would be an awesome thing to celebrate. Then, if your project somehow evokes sunshine, it might be featured by Kickstarter and then hit a lot more eyeballs and get a lot more notice.

[00:10:02] It’s not just that John picks that as his favorite project of the week, because that used to be how it works. There was a cohort of people at Kickstarter and everyone would just list out their favorite project of the week and there was no tie that connected them all. And it’s different now. So I would say if you intend to launch a Kickstarter now, it’s really important to get your press lined up in advance. We totally failed on that.

And, to maybe even give the Kickstarter folks that heads up that you’re going to be doing it and see if they are willing to sort of favorite the project or see what their editorial calendar is even on when you might put it in the platform in order to perhaps get more notice.

[00:10:43] The whole web has developed in a different way. So blogging used to be a thing. You’d just reach out to the blogger, hey, I designed this cool thing. They expect to get paid now. That is big business. And so everything around the, the crowd funding ecosystem has also grown and developed and become more commercialized. So it’s just not as easy to operate on merits alone. You really need a budget. You need a plan.

[00:11:06] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:11:08] after the break, how Pam revived for measuring cups, got them made, and found a market for them far away from the Web 2.0 world of online crowdfunding.

[00:11:17] But first, let me tell you about Basecamp. Basecamp is the one stop shop for managing projects and teams instead of cobbling together a mess of different chat, email, and scheduling apps. Everything is in Basecamp. Shaun, have you ever used Basecamp for, I dunno, fighting monsters?

Shaun: [00:11:35] Funny you should ask, Wailin. I have, in fact, used Basecamp to organize large Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, and it’s surprisingly super-helpful because being a dungeon master is a little like being a project manager. We would use the schedule in Basecamp to organize our next sessions. My favorite part was players could upload their character sheets to the Docs and Files section so I could review them. And then every time they leveled up, you can just use that replace file with a new one and they’d replace it with level two or level three, something like that. And we would also use the message board to post recaps after each session, and fun little story times.

Wailin: [00:12:14] Basecamp is all you need for project management and internal communication. Try It free today at basecamp.com.

[00:12:22] Welcome Industries campaign on Kickstarter ended in May 2018 and things went quiet. Pam’s business partner Brandon was expecting a baby and planning to relocate from Chicago, but as 2018 wound down, Pam thought of the cups again. She’d also been hearing from backers of the Kickstarter who still wanted her to make them.

Pam: [00:12:41] People kept following up after the Kickstarter that didn’t reach its goal and saying, are you going to make these? I really want these. I think these are great. We did get some terrific press after the Kickstarter. Again—

Wailin: [00:12:53] Wah-wah.

Pam: [00:12:53] —press plan, people. I think that the Instagram feed for Yanko design, which is a curator of interesting designs from around the world, I think it got 8,000 likes. It was like, really? Now, now we get 8,000 likes. But that did help make the decision that, you know, even though that first way, even though plan A failed, maybe it was just a marketing failure, maybe the product still has merit and people want the product. And then I think in early December, my husband and I were out to lunch starting to think about what we wanted to give people for Christmas. And I thought, you know what I want to give people? My measuring cups. I want people to have those. That’s what I want to give everybody for the holidays.

[00:13:37] So we started talking about what would it really take? Would it be possible to still go forward? Could we find the money to be able to fund that initial production run knowing that you might lose it, essentially. Then it also occurred to me, I’ve been to the housewares show for many years. That’s a big show at McCormick place in Chicago, featuring everyone from the big guys to… there’s a smaller area called design debut. And I thought maybe I should call them and see if we could qualify for a design debut booth. Because if we could do that, we could get the word out about this product. You essentially have the opportunity to show things to retailers. Then retailers can place orders or at least assess interest or get feedback on packaging, et cetera.

[00:14:21] And so I called the contact I had at the housewares show and said, “Would it be possible maybe for Welcome Industries to have a place?” And the answer was yes. And the follow-up question was, and you’re in production, right? And I said, “Uh, yes.” And I quickly called the manufacturing partner and said, we need these by March.

Carol: [00:14:38] I’m Carol Ebel, and I’m the president of Janler Corporation. Janler Corporation was started by my father in 1952. It was IBM that put them in the molding business. He was just making, the… I think it’s kind of the locking mechanism on an old reel, you know.

[00:14:55] Pam came to us with an idea with a product that had a solid model and we fell in love with it and wanted to be a part of it.

Wailin: [00:15:04] Carol is not the original manufacturing partner that Pam started this process with.

Pam: [00:15:08] One of the things that happened in the intervening year is the tariffs with China. And those tariffs with China meant that the tool, even though the measuring cups, were always going to be fabricated in Chicago. Then that big enormous mold that produces the plastic part usually gets produced overseas and then brought to the US. I didn’t even understand that. I thought if you’re going with a US manufacturer, the tooling was done here. I was mistaken. And so with the tariffs increasing the prices for everything and creating uncertainty, which actually was almost a bigger deal than the price was. Okay, we want the tool created here in Chicago. We had the housewares show coming up and I thought, I do not want the most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased besides my first home stuck on a boat while our leaders are in some sort of tiff about what should happen with the price of products. And so we chose to go with a different local fabricator who both creates the tooling here as well as can do the production.

Wailin: [00:16:06] Here’s a question. Did you have to already pay for the tool because it’s a custom tool?

Pam: [00:16:10] Yes.

Wailin: [00:16:11] So that just came out of your pocket.

Pam: [00:16:14] Yes. So my husband and I looked at what could we do, how could we find this money in order to do it? And, if we can’t pay back the tool, college is not looking great for my daughter. So, we figured it was worth the risk and it was a risk that we were willing to take that we could actually lose that money. Not something we’d want to do, but I’d rather not get outside investors with high hopes and expectations. It would almost kill me to not pay somebody back, essentially. If we borrowed money and weren’t able to make good on that debt, it would not be okay with me. I understand that’s how the world works. That’s how the game is declaring bankruptcy, all that. I was like, not for me, not going to do that. So self-funding was the way that we went and we’ll see.

Wailin: [00:16:58] The housewares show was looming on the calendar March 2nd through March 5th, 2019. We’ll get there in a little bit, but first Carol will explain how the cups get made.

Carol: [00:17:07] When it comes to plastic, it’s a little bit like baking. You have to build a mold and when plastic comes in, it’s a pellet form usually, but you color it, you put all kinds of additives in it. But eventually it ends up in a machine that heats it up in a barrel and it injects it into a mold. And the mold is like a cavity, like you’re looking at a cake pan, an angel food cake pan. And then the mold has electronics in it because it has to keep the plastic molten for a period of time. It has mechanics, it has plumbing. Have to be able to cool it quick, but we also have a core that would come down and press it into a shape. So every one of our molds has many cavities, like a cupcake has 12 in a in a pan, but it also has a core that hollows out that plastic and makes it form around that core. So as it comes out, you have a measuring cup that you can put exactly one cup of product into it.

Wailin: [00:18:19] Janler Corporation specializes in high precision and high volume. They can make 200 million perfectly identical plastic parts per year for a single customer and their products end up in everything from medical devices that administer chemotherapy drugs to a fancy tube of lipstick that closes with a satisfying audible click.

[00:18:39] In the case of the measuring cups, getting them made had its own challenges. For one thing, Carol’s company had just eight weeks to make the metal mold, refine the manufacturing process and actually produced the cups in time for the housewares show. They were also working with a newer kind of plastic developed by Eastman, as in Eastman Kodak. Today it’s a standalone chemical company.

Carol: [00:19:00] This plastic is known to have the characteristics to not craze, not crack, not scratch, hot water, cold water, dishwasher, chemicals, that it maintains its beauty and its durability. And when you see it, I mean it is crystal clear, not so easy. A lot of plastics have natural yellow color. This is crystal clear. This material is beautiful for a consumer product that you expect to last in your kitchen and be able to use for years. It’s a newer material and we hadn’t had a ton of experience with it. Eastman worked very well with us, was here many days, really working with us together. This is that partnership even with an Eastman chemical that is a huge international company, little Janler, a design engineer who’s a Northwestern professor and here we are solving a problem.

Wailin: [00:19:57] The first run of the measuring cups arrived the day before the show started. One of Carol’s employees delivered the cups himself, driving from the Janler factory to Pam’s house in a suburb just north of Chicago. They were just in time to be displayed at the Welcome Industries booth and be handed out to attendees. The housewares show was a pretty far cry from Kickstarter. It was a more old-fashioned way of selling something, sitting at a booth in a massive convention hall and chatting with people who stopped by to check out the product.

Pam: [00:20:25] So I had found these really cool cork bins at target and thought, oh, we’ll, we’ll load the bins with beautiful things. Oats, maybe coffee beans, things that smell good, things that sound good, things that feel good and we’ll let people use the measuring cups and scoop into these things. The cork was the draw. People came up and like, I love those. I love those bins. Where’d you get those bins and you’re selling the bins? I’m like, no, no, no.

Wailin: [00:20:49] They’re from target.

Pam: [00:20:50] They’re from Target. You can buy them out at Target, but we have these measuring cups. They’re like, oh, and they’d walk away. Marcos, who is helping me at the housewares show was like, should we just try two bins? And I said, okay, let’s try two bins. Still. Same thing. Day two, didn’t work. By day three. I think we got it right and we had a board that said one cup, half, one-third, one-quarter, and the measuring cups displayed on this blue board with the oats. They were kind of stick sitting in the oats. The handle was stuck in the oats, so it was still tactile. You could still play a little bit, which is what we wanted, but no more cork.

[00:21:24] We teach you about iterating, that iterating is so fundamental to design process. Everything can be iterated every day. Our booth looked different and the hook was chocolate. We took the cork away, we put chocolate. Chocolate was the… “Hi, would you like a chocolate?” And that was sometimes enough to entice people to come over and see what the measuring cups were about. We were fortunate and got recognition at the show. So the measuring cups were a finalist for the Global Innovation Award for Product Design. There was a fancy banquet Saturday night and a big hunk of acrylic that we could put on the booth that said we were a finalist for this award.

[00:22:01] And then retailers came by, lots of mom and pop, smaller retailers came by and expressed interest. They were able to give feedback on the packaging. So, some buyers would walk by, slap their business card on the table and say, “What’s your minimum order?” And I would say, “Well, what’s a typical minimum order?” Because again, I don’t really know. And they’d slap their card on the table and say, I’ll take 12. And I said, “Okay, we’re not ready to take orders quite yet, but I will keep your card and we will let you know when we’re ready.” And then, some pretty exciting retailers came by too.

[00:22:33] And one of those retailers was the MoMA store. So, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which is a place that I’ve made pilgrimages to for the past 20 years, sent representatives to the show. And these two wonderful women walked up. You couldn’t see their name tags, you didn’t know where they were from. And they said, “We represent a museum store in New York City.” And inside I’m already thinking boom, boom, bo-boom. You know, my heart’s just pounding. I’m like, is it that museum store? And I said, “It’s not by chance the MoMA store is it? And they said, “It is!” And I’m dying because this is a bucket list goal for me that someday before I die, I would like a product that I’ve designed to be for sale in the MoMA store because it’s the most amazing assortment of cool things, well designed things, things that bring pleasure, things that bring joy. And so it was really exciting for them to come by the show. I still wasn’t sure what that it would turn into an order. And then I think a month later or so I got an email from the buyer and said, “Yes, we’d like to go forward. Can you please fill out this form and give us your price list and images and all of that stuff.” So it’s going to happen.

Wailin: [00:23:41] The measuring cups will be part of MoMA fall catalog and for sale at their New York and Hong Kong stores. Pam is also already selling the cups online directly to consumers via the Welcome Industries website. The cups come in a box that was inspired by how macarons are packaged with an interior that slides out.

Pam: [00:23:59] I think macaroon boxes are the prettiest packaging, maybe the most satisfying that’s out there right now for food because of the slide out drawer and I think when you’ve put so much care and attention into a product, you want the packaging to also evoke that sense of care, and intention and even the fact that you have to slow it down. It reminds me of bit of zen gardens that there’s intentionality in the design of the garden to make you follow a particular meandering path so that you can appreciate everything along the way. And I think that that informed this a bit as well. And, so how could you make it a really satisfying slow reveal to open up the product and find it. The intention is for the end that has some of the description on it to be the one that you see when you’re in store.

[00:24:45] So if they’re sitting on a shelf and a top of the package has images of each of the cups, and it just says visual measuring cups. There’s a little bit more text, not a lot of it, but just says the shape tells the size. It contains a quarter cup, a half cup, a third, a quarter, et cetera.

Wailin: [00:25:01] Okay, so you pull from this side with the descriptive text.

Pam: [00:25:02] Mm-hmm, and then you slide out the box and you see the measuring cups.

Wailin: [00:25:06] And they’re nested handle side down.

Pam: [00:25:08] And they’re nested handle side down, yes. So that the writing on the labels is something you can read and that you can tip them into your hands and just hold them.

Carol: [00:25:18] I love good design. That’s why we got involved with Pam, because it was like, oh my gosh, she’s got this great idea. It’s so neat. And I think people are gonna love it. You know, all the different things that you see even if you’re in an emergency room, if you’re in a store, in a car, wherever you, you are that’s a beauty of a design, but then also merging with that ability to manufacture it. I’m very aware of it because that’s what I do. That’s my life.

Pam: [00:25:45] All of this has been a great learning opportunity, a great growth opportunity, and such a good chance to interact with people. I really value interacting with the people who are going to use it. Design is really about respect for people. It’s really about surfacing unmet needs and elegantly addressing those needs through something. Whether that’s a product or a service or an interaction. Elevating that, making it better.

[00:26:09] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:26:15] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.

Wailin: [00:26:21] You can buy the visual measuring cups at WelcomeIndustries.com. They’re on Twitter @WelcomeInd and on Instagram at WelcomeIndustries. We’ll provide these links in the show notes, which you can find at Rework.fm.

Shaun: [00:26:34] This is our last episode before we take a short break for the rest of the summer. We found some reruns in the Basecamp archives that we’re dusting off for the next few weeks, so stay tuned. We think you’ll find them interesting. I’ve actually really enjoyed these. These are Basecamp’s and very first podcasts going back a decade now and we’ll be back in September with all new episodes of Rework. See you then.

Shaun: [00:27:13] Hot Girl Summer! Drink those Claws! Will you please explain to me what Hot Girl Summer means?

Wailin: [00:27:20] Well this is completely cribbed from a different podcast where they did an explainer. I believe the phrase came from like one particular singer and I am very sorry, I can’t remember her name, but, it had come from either like an Instagram or a tweet or something where she just said it. And then it’s one of these kind of funny Internet things where people just kind of all turn on like one fun phrase and now everyone’s saying it. So like I’ve been like tentatively saying it, cause I don’t actually feel cool enough to say it.

Shaun: [00:27:49] Sure.

Wailin: [00:27:51] But, I do see it everywhere and I follow someone on Twitter who changed her name to Hot Girl Bummer, which is a lot.

Shaun: [00:28:00] I like that a lot.

Wailin: [00:28:02] A little bit more on brand for me than Hot Girl Summer.