One cold February night in 2013, Tom Gerhardt and Dan Provost ducked into a Brooklyn bar for a drink and some R&D. The two friends and designers, co-owners of a firm called Studio Neat, had both gotten into mixology recently. They were wondering what their in-home bars might be missing. Like so many people do, Gerhardt and Provost found the answer in the bottom of a glass…
One cold February night in 2013, Tom Gerhardt and Dan Provost ducked into a Brooklyn bar for a drink and some R&D. The two friends and designers, co-owners of a firm called Studio Neat, had both gotten into mixology recently. They were wondering what their in-home bars might be missing. Like so many people do, Gerhardt and Provost found the answer in the bottom of a glass.
The Clover Club is one of Brooklyn’s best cocktail bars. It’s just fancy enough that you’re willing to spend $14 on a cocktail, but not so fancy the bartender can’t serve you something in a miniature pirate ship. Like any hip bar worth its housemade bitters, Clover serves some of its best cocktails with a single, huge square of clear ice. Provost loves that ice. “It just makes you feel awesome,” he says, swirling an imaginary glass as he remembers their conversation. He wanted awesome ice all the time. So he and Gerhardt started investigating whether you could make it at home. “And just, like, no. You can’t.” That’s the kind of problem Provost and Gerhardt love, what their company, Studio Neat, specializes in solving. Provost and Gerhardt spent the next three months filling their freezers with failed experiments. They eventually figured out that the best way to do it was to make a big piece of ice, and then just cut out the unclear parts. That seemed like something people could handle. Gerhardt and Provost set out sourcing all the parts you’d need to make it happen, and a nice package to put it all in.
In August of 2013, Studio Neat launched the Neat Ice Kit on Kickstarter. It was the company’s fourth-ever campaign, and it became its fourth success and biggest hit yet, raising $155,519 from more than 2,200 backers. Now, for the price of five Clover Club cocktails, you too can make awesome ice at home. And you never need to know that this lovely little kit was made by two guys in their houses in Austin, Texas.
Manufacturing at scale, going from one high-quality thing to a hundred or a hundred million just like it, is really, really hard. Even a decade ago, no one could have started a company like Studio Neat. Gerhardt and Provost would have started a small, local business, or sold their wares at farmers’ markets. Best-case, they get jobs at Apple or Samsung. But now, thanks to Kickstarter, 3D-printing, and a flourishing ecosystem of companies designed to help hardware companies actually make stuff, they’ve gone their own way. Studio Neat has outsourced everything from commerce to manufacturing to bookkeeping. Provost and Gerhardt built a global business with two standing desks, two iMacs, and a 3D printer. They may not have meant to, but they’ve become a model for an entirely new, modern kind of company where anyone with a bug up their ass about cocktail-ice clarity can make something cool and sell it everywhere.
“Here’s the fucking crazy thing,” Gerhardt says. “We sell on Amazon.com. So there is no difference, from a customer standpoint, between us and Apple in terms of the product.” He thinks about that for a second. “Yeah, their stuff is better, but it’s not like we’re limiting ourselves.” Silicon Valley was built by companies that started in garages and graduated to sprawling campuses with slides and free food. But the next generation of hackers and makers might stay in the garage.
The Kickstarter rocket ship
Gerhardt and Provost have a lot in common. They’re both 31, tall, and have a penchant for plaid clothes, facial hair, and barbecue. They both wear Apple Watches, and similar rectangular glasses. They lived in the same building in New York, their apartments laid out the same way. Then they both left New York and moved to sleepy suburban neighborhoods outside of Austin. We first meet at The Salt Lick, an institution of a barbecue joint a few minutes from their houses. As they chow on the famous brisket, pork, and ribs, Tom, in a blue short-sleeve dress shirt with white lightning bolts, does most of the talking. Dan’s more reserved, running his hands through his messy hair and clasping his hands together when he talks. Both laugh every time they realize how similar they really are.
Another thing they have in common: They’re both kind of finicky. And they have strong feelings about design. So when Apple launched the iPhone 4 in 2010, even though Provost was blown away by the camera, it left him wanting. “I was like, this is a real camera. You should be able to mount it on a tripod,” he says. Nothing like that really existed. He and Gerhardt started texting about it, and basically decided, sure, we want this, let’s try and make it. After a few months of designing and refining, they had something. It wasn’t much—just a little nub of a thing that would both screw your phone into a tripod and act as a makeshift kickstand. They called it Glif.
Needing the funds to mass-produce the prototype, they put the Glif on the crowdfunding platform in October of 2010. They made a video, both guys speaking earnestly into the camera explaining what Glif was and why they needed help to make it. If you backed them, they promised, you’d get a Glif when they were ready. They figured they’d sell a few, and set the goal at $10,000. The next day, John Gruber linked to it on his blog, Daring Fireball. Gerhardt and Provost immediately tripled their funding goal. A month later, they’d raised more than $130,000. “We were the first big product on Kickstarter,” Gerhardt says. Not only that, they kind of changed the game.
Before 2010, there weren’t many gadgets on Kickstarter. It was mostly still a place for music and movies. So when Glif did well, other would-be designers and makers began to copy Gerhardt and Provost’s method. The video style, the contribute-to-preorder gambit, that’s all Kickstarter For Dummies stuff now. Back then it was brand new. “By instinct,” says John Dimatos, Kickstarter’s director for design and tech communities, “they created a lot of the tropes on Kickstarter.”
At the time, all Gerhardt and Provost knew was that they suddenly had more than 5,000 orders to fill. “We were like, oh, shit, what are we going to do?” Gerhardt says. They came up with a name, Studio Neat, and set out to learn how in the world to make, package, and ship thousands of Glifs.
One thing Gerhardt and Provost think about a lot is whether they should hire more people. They certainly could: After the Glif, they had another Kickstarter hit with the Cosmonaut stylus, then another with a March Madness bracket app for your phone, then another with the Neat Ice Kit, then another with the Simple Syrup Kit. They’ve released a handful of other successful apps, too. Nearly everything they do is well-received: the Glif won a design award from Core77, and reviewers called the Cosmonaut “the best iPad stylus available” and “easily my favorite capacitive stylus.” Aaron Ng, a designer at Square, called the Neat Ice Kit “a godsend.” People like Studio Neat’s stuff, and business is good. But they like being small. “A lot of the choices we make are about simplicity,” Provost says, “and like, work-life balance.” They don’t want an office. They don’t want HR policies. They just want to make stuff. But making stuff is hard.
The Internet made it easy to tell the world about your idea, raise money to make it, and ship it to buyers. 3-D printers and Arduinos made it easy to create a prototype and put it in a cool video. (The Studio Neat guys initially used Shapeways to prototype their stuff.) Mass-production, though, is still really hard. It’s also totally opaque to most people, not least because most of it happens in Asia. That’s where companies like Dragon Innovation come in. Dragon works with clients like Pebble, Jibo, and Makerbot, showing them the ropes and steps involved in getting something made. “If A is the idea and Z is the product in somebody’s hands,” says Dragon CEO Scott Miller, everyone assumes that by the time they have a prototype they’re at M. “In practice, they’re at D.” At every one of these steps, a small miscalculation or oversight can cost a company money. More important, especially for those with thousands of eager and fickle backers waiting for their shipment, mistakes cost time.
Rather than hire a huge team to deal with the tedium of manufacturing, Studio Neat outsourced everything. They had to, with 5,000 people waiting on their Glif, but in hindsight it was the right move. They don’t work with Dragon (their retainer was too expensive, apparently), opting instead for a South Dakota-based company called Premier Source that Gerhardt says “just gets us.” You can shop for Studio Neat’s stuff on Amazon, or their website. Shopify handles all of the shopping carts and credit card numbers. Shipwire does order fulfillment. Gerhardt and Provost essentially stumbled on, then spent years refining, the perfect algorithm for a small business to make real things and sell them everywhere. Most of the time, if an order goes right, the Studio Neat guys never even see it. “If someone buys a Glif in Latvia,” Gerhardt says with a shrug, “they get it in two days. Why do we need to be a big company?”
When they were first starting up, the Studio Neat duo got some useful tips from Patrick Buckley, founder of case-maker Dodocase. Now they’re paying it forward: in their free time, Provost and Gerhardt are in a Slack group with a handful of other companies like them. It’s like an unofficial Kickstarter Illuminati meeting in there. They’re chatting with the team from Supermechanical, which makes kitchen thermometers and Wi-Fi sensors; Joey Roth, who had a Kickstarter hit with the ceramic speaker system that Dan now has in his home office; Craighton Berman, whose Manual Coffemaker was a Kickstarter smash; and others. Studio Neat learned how to be a small company that doesn’t seem small. Now they’re helping others get up to speed the same way.
The new factory
To get from Gerhardt’s office to the Studio Neat factory, you head out the back door, over the baby gate, down the stairs, through the yard, and into the garage. Along one wall, across from the scrap wood and next to the fridge, an intimidating machine called an X-Carve sits in a rare state of idleness. The X-Carve makes 3-D-carving easy enough that anyone with about a grand to spare can become an expert woodworker. Gerhardt’s is powered by a dusty MacBook and some simple design software.
Gerhardt and Provost bought it to prototype their latest product: a tiny $12 rectangle of walnut with a slot exactly the right size for propping up the new Apple TV’s fragile candybar remote. Armed with a developer friend’s tester unit, they developed the stand over a couple of weeks, tweaking the X-Carve’s path to get the opening just right. (“The day before we started making the final ones,” Gerhardt says, “I did, like, 17 versions of it.”) As soon as Apple’s new streaming box went on sale, so did the stand.
This is a different kind of experiment for Studio Neat. They’re doing the design, prototyping, and manufacturing completely in-house, one at a time, with their own four hands. The X-Carve cuts the pieces, then Gerhardt and Provost sand them down, do a tongue oil rub, wait for it to dry, then send it off to the fulfillment company. It’s laborious and tedious, yet they both seem to like working with their hands for a change. Gerhardt listens to the Hardcore History podcast to pass the time. Dan’s working his way through Curb Your Enthusiasm. And while they do it, the rest of the business churns invisibly on.
“We’ve set up the business where we can scale,” Gerhardt says. “If we sold 10 times as much stuff this year, it wouldn’t change anything, because everything’s outsourced. And the people doing it for us are really good at it.” That gives them the freedom to do other, weirder things, to follow their instincts and not worry too much about the results. “It lets us design whatever we want.”
A few weeks before we met, Gerhardt and Provost had their first-ever Kickstarter failure. Basically, Provost got a cat and discovered pet toys are ugly. So Studio Neat made a nice one, called Obi. Obi was a laser cat toy you could control with your smartphone, to project a laser on the wall for your cat to chase around. It’s a nice thing, but the Kickstarter missed its goal. So Obi is dead. When there’s only two of you in the company, you have to move on fast.
Now they’re working on a cocktail-rimming tray, plus the Apple TV remote stand. Studio Neat just launched a new charging stand for the Apple Watch and iPhone. Everything Provost and Gerhardt talk about turns into a brainstorm: What if you made tire chains easier to put on? Can you make an audio receiver that isn’t hideous? What else can you do with Glif?
Something about Apple products really gets them going. When I show them the iPad Pro, they launch into a company brainstorm as they poke around the device. What if you could scroll on a page by going sideways on the space bar? What if there was a vertical pad on the side? Don’t you need somewhere to dock the Pencil? What if you made a tiny Pencil, like a space pen-sized one? They riff and riff, a hundred ideas a minute. There’s a Kickstarter hit in there somewhere.
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