This is my guide/memoir on how I built Computer Engineering for Babies, and my personal process. Please note that there is some survivor bias here, as I have only done this once, and don't think that I am much different than the next guy. I am not particularly skilled in design, engineering, product development, marketing or anything really. My day job is maintaining and writing code for an iPhone and android app, and even though I've been doing it for 10 years, I still don't know how qualified I am for that either. So you've been warned, this is my process, and your mileage may vary.
I had this idea many years ago after seeing a book "HTML for Babies." I saw HTML for Babies floating around online and when my wife and I had our first baby, the book somehow ended up in our collection. I read it once and concluded that it the worst book ever. It was just random words with angle brackets eg <stupid> <book/>. But I kept seeing this book online, so I concluded that the clever title was driving all the success of this book. When my son was a little older, he just loved flipping the light switches to see the lights go on and off. Somehow these two ideas merged together into the idea for a book with two big arcade buttons and an LED that would be named Computer Engineering for Babies. But it wasn't until 5 years later, that this book would be polished enough to launch on Kickstarter and be a successful product.
I often hear (and I've repeated this too), that ideas are free and execution is everything. I think that's true, but you still need to be executing on the right idea. I got lucky in that the idea I chose to execute on was the right one. I found product market fit with this product, and that's really what has made it so successful. I am awful at marketing, I am worse at sales. As cliche as it is, the only reason why I've been so successful is because the book sells itself, and I attribute that all the way back to the idea phase.
Don't take actionThe first step after having a great idea is to write it down and then do nothing. I like to do nothing for at least two weeks. The reason I do nothing is that I have a lot of ideas. Most of these ideas are terrible, and after about 2-8 weeks I'm not excited about them anymore. If you're project is going to be successful, it's likely that you will be working on it for at least 5 years. You don't want to spend 5 years of your life working on something that's not exciting for you. The one thing that you are allowed to do is to share the idea with friends and family. Sharing with friends and family can help you decide if this is something that your actually excited about or not.
After you pick a project and decide you want to work on it, you are supposed to do a quick google search to see what else is out there. But for me, I don't actually want to find something, because it's more fun to lie to yourself and think that you have a unique idea that no one has done before, so I never really try very hard.
Besides, if someone has tried to do it, then they probably failed because they aren't as smart as you and your implementation would be way better anyway. So with Computer Engineering for Babies I probably skipped this step.
This is the fun part. So I had an idea to create a simple board book for kids and babies that would have two buttons, and an LED that would introduce basic logic gates. I figured it would be fun for kids & fun for adult, but mostly it would entertain my son during church. Lastly, it would be quiet, because I don't love books that honking or quacking at you from across the room.
At this stage, I probably could have contacted some firms or publishers of books that already do this kind of book, but for some reason I thought it would be preferable to just design and build the thing myself. I had seen some other books that had used light sensors to detect which page was open and figured I could easily just do this same thing in my book. I had a little bit of experience designing circuit boards from 10 years ago when I was in school, so I downloaded KiCAD and just went for it. Once I designed the circuit board, I sent it off to be printed. I sent it to a company in California that prints circuit boards, and I think I got 3 boards made for around $100. I bought the chips for the circuit board and soldered the chips onto the board myself. This first iteration took a lot of time, patience, and wasn't cheap either. After the second prototype board, I realized it's cheaper and faster to just have the guys in China print the PCB, populate it, and then just express air mail it to me, even if I have to touch up the soldering once I get it back. But for this first board, I did it the hard way. I think about halfway through soldering the chips onto the book, I had realized there were some crucial mistakes on the board, and it wasn't going to work, but I was able to scratch some of the traces on the circuit board, and ran some new wires and get it working. The first prototype wasn't a great prototype but with each prototype you find problems, and get ideas of how to fix those problems.
After the first or second prototype, I started contacting PCB manufacturers. My process for this was to basically get on Alibaba.com and search PCBA, start talking to people, send the design, files over, get quotes, etc. I'm not making medical equipment, so my criteria for picking a PCB manufacturer was mostly cost (cost for 1K circuit boards, and sample costs), ability to communicate in English well, and willing to do samples for a reasonable price.
I did this same thing to find a book manufacturer. I searched Alibaba for "board books OEM", and just started messaging people. At this early stage, I didn't have everything figured out yet, so I was basically just trying to illustrate a picture with words. "Yeah, I need board book, but with holes in each of the pages, and a circuit board needs to be mounted in the back somehow, and there are two huge buttons that need to go in the book kind of like this.." It was difficult. I had pictures of my prototype and measurements a file with all sorts of measurements defining how the holes should be laid out, but it still wasn't easy. After several weeks of back and forth with various people, I found someone that gave me a reasonable quote, and was willing to work with me.
The difficult part here is that the Chinese workday has no overlap with the US workday, so communication is slow. It would typically take months to get a prototype, especially because I was working with two manufacturers, one doing the circuit boards and one doing the books. I would have the PCB factory do a revision of the circuit board, and send them to the book manufacturer and they would put it into whatever version of the book we were on, and then send it to me. The whole process would took months for each prototype. I would try to get pictures and videos along the way, but it never felt like enough.
Another big unknown for me was shipping. They will quote you for all sorts of different "terms". EXW, DDP, etc. They are all different depending on where the goods are going to be picked up. I didn't have a freight forwarder or anything, and didn't know how to figure that out, so I just asked for DDP terms. I think they quoted me $0.75 per book, with a 5-8 weeks for delivery, which wasn't great, but I didn't know how to go about finding better options. In retrospect, I suppose a couple google searches would have gotten me 90% of the way there.
Quit and come back
Like raccoons and many people who hang out on Hacker News, I like shiny things, and over the next several years I kept putting this project aside so I could spend my time building all manner of SAAS products that would ultimately fail because I jumped in too soon and ran out of energy, ignored the competitive landscape, or just wasn't lucky. But I kept coming back to this project, and finally my wife told me that this was by far my best idea, and she convinced me that I should make it a high priority to just finish it to the end. This is probably the most important thing. I had to really commit and decide that I was going to see this product to the end of a Kickstarter campaign. At that point, I could close the metaphorical book and move onto the next project, but I decided to see this thing through to the end.
I made a few more home made prototypes, each one a little better than the last. I was also iterating on prototypes on the circuit board and with the book manufacturer to work out quality issues. And a lot of emails back and forth about how to solve the issues. The last thing I wanted was a book where the pages fell apart after 3 reads, but that's what the first few prototypes from the book manufacturer did. Also, many of the changes I requested required more money. So the final price I ended up paying for the construction of the actual books probably doubled as we worked out a lot of these quality issues. But after several years and 7 final we-cant-do-anymore-prototypes-for-you-and-we-need-to-do-the-bulk-order-now prototypes later, I felt ready to take it to Kickstarter.
Some people need money and validation and run their crowdfunding campaign earlier in the process, but decided that I would rather self-fund the prototypes. I've seen a lot of Kickstarter campaigns just get delayed and delayed for fulfillment. But I really wanted all my ducks to be lined up so that after the Kickstarter concluded, I could just wire the money to the manufacturers, get the books, and ship them out. It didn't work out like that, but that's what I was hoping for when I started.
The reason you do a Kickstarter is: 1) You're desperate for money at this point because you've probably spent thousands of dollars already for prototypes. And 2) you need to validate that this is something that people are going to pay for. So I hit the big GO button on the Kickstarter campaign, and things were under way. I will do a separate write up of my experience with Kickstarter, but the gist of it was that it went about 25x better than I expected. I expected that I would barely raise my goal of $10,000 (or possibly not even raise my goal), and have to spend $15,000 getting 1,000 books. Then the inventory would end up sitting in my basement for 5 years while I slowly give them away to trick-or-treaters over the years. However, Computer Engineering for Babies ended up raising $250K with more than 5,000 backers. This was awesome, but also super stressful. If you only have 100 backers, chances are they will be fairly forgiving if things go poorly and you aren't able to deliver on your project. But with 5,000 people, one of them is definitely going to be crazy enough to hunt me down should I fail to deliver on their $30 book. That's just statistics.
I did hit a few hiccups during the Kickstarter campaign. One of the big ones is that many people started bringing to my attention that these small coin cell batteries that power my book are terribly dangerous for children. I read through the manufacturer's recommendations, and for toys (or books in my case) that are designed for kids, they suggest that the battery be secured with a screw. I guess if these things are swallowed then very bad things happen. I hadn't really thought about this issue when doing prototype after prototype, and at this point, I felt like I had already finalized my design. In fact, the circuit boards had already been printed! So I was scrambling for a good solution. I thought about maybe just securing the battery with hot glue. But the more I thought about it, the more I didn't feel good about it. I needed to find a way to get a screw in there. At some point, I noticed that the raspberry pi zero on my desk had holes in the actual circuit board that looked like you could drive screws into them. I tested those holes, and they were perfect; I could drive a 3mm screw directly into the PCB. After that, I decided to just throw out the current circuit boards, and print new ones that had a screw hole in front of the battery so we could secure the battery properly. It put me behind schedule and cost me a few hundred dollars, but I knew I was doing the right thing. If anyone ever got hurt because of this book I wouldn't be able to live with myself. I guess the lesson here is that things are going to come up that you don't anticipate.
Half way through my campaign a friend reached out to me that had done several Kickstarter campaigns. He told me that he had hired a guy, Sam, on salary that lived in China that helped them with all of their fulfillment, dealing with manufacturers, arranging shipping etc. He offered me his contact info and suggested that Sam could check out my manufacturers and make sure everything was on the up and up. This turned out to be super helpful. He was able to check out the manufacturer, help source the components for the PCBs, help with quality assurance, get much better lead times on parts, etc. And rather than freighting books to the US, and me having to repack and ship them around the world, Sam was able to arrange the shipping for all the international orders directly from China. This was a huge load off of me and was about 50% cheaper as well. Sam was also able to arrange getting the books freighted to me, rather than shipping it via DDP terms, which saved quite a lot of money as well. Overall, if you can find an ambassador that's on the ground in China, that can make all the difference.
So this was just the first fifth of the Kickstarter orders. There were more unforeseen issues with subsequent production batches. I initially wrote about all the problems I had, but it got quite boring. So I'll just give you the tldr: more books being destroyed in shipping, more books that needed to be reprogrammed, the chip shortage forced me to redesign the circuit boards. But ultimately these are all solvable problems. They come at you and you work through them. That's the essence of being a entrepreneur. You push through all the problems and figure out the best solutions that you can.
Hopefully you understand a little bit about my experience. If you have questions or ideas you want to bounce around, feel free to contact me.