Indie Capitalism relies on crowds—and you can do it too

Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt are enthusiastic fellows. The makers of the Glif iPhone tripod adapter and Cosmonaut stylus for capacitive touch screens, you can't help but get a contact high from the joy they get out of designing stuff and running a company. I've met and spoken to them several times, and I always end up feeling pumped up about charting one's own course in life.

Glif famously started as a Kickstarter project when the two guys still had full-time day jobs. It was an early success story of crowdfunding, raising far more than they'd set as a goal, and led to them starting a company called Studio Neat, which now has a four-product line-up.

This story is told in depth in their new book, It Will Be Exhilarating, which recounts Tom and Dan's journey both as an inspirational lesson in what they call independent capitalism and as a guidebook to replicating their process from conception to fulfillment. Exhilarating is the right word for the two guys, and for this book. (The DRM-free ebook costs $5, and is delivered in PDF, EPUB, and Mobi versions.)

Dan and Tom explain how crowdfunding, 3D printing, targeted promotion, and a host of on-demand services let them and others bypass angel investing, venture capital, and bank loans. It's a story that's now been repeated thousands of times since the Glif raised $137,000 (towards a goal of just $10,000) in 2010 but never in this depth and with this much advice along the way by first-hand participants. The authors don't suggest everyone will be able to achieve the modest and sustainable level of success that they have, but explain how any well-conceived project could allow expression of a creative insight as a commercial operation.

The Glif, for instance, arose out of wanting to use an iPhone 4, with its squared edges, in a tripod and lacking such a tool. Using inexpensive 3D modeling software and a 3D printing service bureau, Dan and Tom, who had no previous industrial-design experience, prototyped and refined the product until they were ready to start raising funds for a short injection-molding run to bootstrap selling it commercially. They applied much of what they learned with the Glif to the Cosmonaut crowdfunding campaign, and took away some additional pricing lessons from that journey.

They spell out their philosophy in an early chapter: bring a passion to making things that suit one's own needs, keeping it simple and having a good story to tell about it. If that reminds you of the advice given in the middle period of blogging for a successful blog, it should, as design entrepreneurship, as Tom and Dan define it, is a similar form of self-expression. Here, it requires a lot more sweat equity than blogging (even if you're making software instead of an industrial product), but for potentially greater independence to make more things in the future.

The book interleaves how-to advice with hard-knock stories from Tom and Dan as well as colleagues who have created other crowdfunded projects. They bring up some consistently heard lessons from crowdfunding with the detail to help you avoid them, such as figuring out fees and potential tax issues, estimating the cost of international shipping, and the complexities of finding a manufacturer for physical goods.

I'd call out particularly their discussion on contracting to have stuff made in China, which they provide some insight into, but also turned for a lengthier account to Che-Wei Wang and Taylor Levy of CW&T (makers of the ruler/pen Pen Type-A). From their account, and from many others I've read in recent years, high challenges exist in finding reliable suppliers who make items consistently to spec and who won't produce knock-off or identical versions in their spare time. (Sleek Audio, a large-scale commercial headphone maker, had a similar story told in Wired last year.)

Exhilirating is a slim volume full of goodness, and while it can't answer every question about making products, it's a great kick in the tuchus for anyone who wants to turn a passion into a product. Dan and Tom offer no guarantees for success, and they know that they have to continue to turn out new products and fulfill and update existing ones to keep their business going. But they describe a new way of combining passion and capitalism that appears to be a model for cottage enterprises that connects industrial craftsmen with individual customers.

(Disclosures: I asked Dan and Tom to be in the video for the crowdfunding book I've put on hold to retool, and I provided a blurb for this book that they're using on their site after reading an advance copy. No money has changed hands; I like what they do, and their positive energy.)



  1. I’m reluctant to make predictions, but I think that “indie capitalism” will be more of a brief fad than the way of the future.  It has so much of the feel of the early dotcom era, when creative people were free to build amazing (and sometimes not so amazing) things and get money for them.  It all seemed so easy, so free from the constraints of workaday jobs and bosses.

    It looked like the meek had finally inherited the earth, that all those lumbering corporations and evil investment banks had been out-manouvered, and would never catch up.  They just weren’t suited for this new terrain.

    But they did catch up.  Ultimately, bankers and megacorps are the capitalism experts.  We may be playing at capitalism now, having fun and imagining bigger things.  But the moment it involves enough money, they will find a way to take over the game and change the rules.  And we’ll be powerless to stop it because after all, it was their game we were playing.

  2. I worked my way through the book during the course of a day’s commute, and I have to say, I don’t really feel I got my five bucks’ worth of reading material. The stories had interesting beginnings, but felt pretty rushed, and the advice was great for someone who has a product in mind that they already want to fund via Kickstarter, but it didn’t really appeal as a general audience book. Overall, I was given the impression that it was a clever revenue stream for them, instead of a quality product they wanted to deliver to me.

    Now, if they go back, flesh out the stories a bit and really make the whole “going from idea to sales” plot a real narrative, I could see this being greatly improved, and worth grabbing.

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