How I Invented a Gadget and Made Thousands on Kickstarter

By Haje Jan Kamps on at

You've probably been there; Late one night in the pub, after a few too many beers, you have a bloody fantastic idea. A revolutionary idea. An idea that's going to change the world. The chances are that come the morning you’ll realise that your beer-addled brain had slightly overstated your own awesomeness, but sometimes (just sometimes!) the spark is there. The sparks of my idea began to fly about five years ago before, eventually, they caught light. Today, I'm waiting for a factory in China to start manufacturing something I invented -- the Triggertrap, an Arduino-based open-source universal camera trigger.

In 2005, I was living in Liverpool, tinkering with photography gadgets, and building some of my own photography equipment. I kept writing articles about them, and occasionally, people read them. Then I wrote an article that made the server that was hosting my blog melt several times over (it was SlashdottedDigg-dotted; featured on Engadget, and just generally received a metric crap-tonne of traffic). After I managed to nurse my server back to life for the nine-hundredth time, I was approached by a publisher. Soon after, I was commissioned to write my very first book. It was all rather unreal.


The original inspiration for the Triggertrap was trying to capture photos like this.

For my book, I wanted to try doing some droplet photography, but it turned out that getting the timing right was ridiculously hard. I covered half my kitchen in milk (chosen over water because its opacity makes for easier photography), and didn't have all that many photos to show for it. I couldn't help but think: There has got to be a better way to do this. And that was how it started.

Shortly after, I built my very first laser trigger, based on an Arduino. It worked terribly; it reacted too slowly to be useful for anything, but it was the first kindling of an idea. From there, I made a couple of improvements, including replacing the LDR (light dependent resistor) with a photo-diode, but I eventually shelved the idea: I had some more books to write.


This pile of cables was my very first laser trigger. Doesn't look like much, but it worked!

 

Crowd-funding

Fast forward to mid-2011, when I discovered Kickstarter; an absolutely fantastic website based around the idea of crowd-funding. It works as follows: an inventor / artist / creative soul comes up with an idea for a project. They then create an outline of their idea in the shape of a video, set a funding target, and let the idea loose on the Kickstarter population. Then they have a month to raise their funding goal from the Kickstarter community.

In exchange for supporting a project financially, a backer receives a reward pertinent to the project. And the rewards are cumulative: the more money that a backer donates, the cooler his or her reward. If the project is to fund a film, for example, the rewards might start with a digital download of the film, then a DVD, then a DVD and producer credit, then all of the above plus a cameo appearance in the film, and so on and so forth.

Once the Kickstarter project reaches its deadline, one of two things will happen: either the project fails to reach its funding goal, and the pledged money is refunded to the Kickstarter backers. If that happens then it's game over for the project. However, if the project reaches the funding goal, the money is forwarded to the inventor, and they have to fulfil the 'rewards' selected by the Kickstarter backers.

When I discovered Kickstarter, I was enamoured with the idea; How cool would it be if I could convince several hundred people to fund a project of mine? The first idea that I put to the Kickstarter team – a start-to-finish photography school website – was rejected, sensibly, on the grounds that it didn’t have a sufficiently unique hook to make it fly.

 

Triggertrap is born

Rebuffed but slightly wiser, I went back to the drawing board... wouldn't it be cool if I could come up with a photography gadget of some sort? My thoughts flipped back to my milk-covered kitchen and the laser trigger I had built; perhaps I would be able to build one that people could buy and use more easily than having to fiddle about with themselves? It seemed like such a good idea, but it would be a waste of the processing power afforded by the Arduino to only have a laser trigger. There had to be some way of taking a laser trigger further.

The very first CAD drawing of the Triggertrap.

I spent several days brainstorming and coming up with cool ideas. It wasn’t long before I realised that I had dreamed up an entire platform for triggering cameras; any sensor could be used to trigger any camera, and it even included IR-transmission to enable people to trigger cameras wirelessly.

Once the rough idea was there, I decided I didn't know enough about technology and electronics to build my own device and it was time to bring on board some more people. I posted a rough overview of what I wanted to do to the freelancing website Elance.com and hoped that some even more technically-savvy people than me would think that I was on to something. Soon, a guy called Michael contacted me, and immediately offered several suggestions for improvements on my idea. A few hours and several thousand words later, we had come up a tremendous number of great ideas and it was clear that we had a viable product... Awesome!

We launched the Triggertrap on Kickstarter.

Michael brought his friend Noah on board -- they run NoMi Design together -- and we started working towards a first idea of what we wanted to do.

 

Back to Kickstarter

As soon as we were able to put together some more definite plans; a name, and a first draft of the design, it was time to pitch our idea to Kickstarter. We created our video and we decided on our rewards. But I was yet to settle on a funding goal.

In my initial plans, I figured that I would be able to turn the Triggertrap into a reality for about £5,000. However, by now, I started to realise that actually making the Triggertrap become a real product would be practically a full-time job, for several months. Was I really going to give up six months of my life for £5,000? I thought about it for a few days, and decided to apply one of the principles I had learned when I was working at Channel 5, developing websites using agile methodologies Fail Early. The idea is simple: if there's any risk of a project failing, make sure that it fails as early as possible. That way, you waste as little time and money as possible on trying to make something that isn't going to happen, happen.

So, my 'fail early' plan was to choose a seemingly unreachable threshold for the Kickstarter funding. Instead of the $8,000 I was originally going to ask for (Kickstarter is an American site), I decided to ask for $15,000 (almost £10,000). And then, just before I set the project live, I decided to go 'all or nothing', and set the funding target at $25,000 (£16,000). At the time, I remember clicking the 'Publish' button on the Kickstarter website, and thinking 'well, that's the end of that'. However, I was happy that I had learned a lot, and I had already paid Michael and Noah out of my own pocket. If nothing else, I would get a working prototype of the Triggertrap out of it, so I had something to show for my time and effort and not all was lost.

After launching, I dropped a few emails out to some of my friends who write for some relatively high-profile blogs and photography magazines.

Nearly immediately, a media-storm erupted. The story of the Triggertrap was picked up on Gizmodo; on Engadget, on most of the big photography blogs. It was covered on Wired; the Wall Street Journal, and a load of international websites. And the money started flowing into the Kickstarter project.

At the end of Day One, Triggertrap had 86 backers, and was 27 per cent on its way to being funded. By Day Two, we had exceeded my original funding goal of $8,000. After a week, Triggertrap had 304 backers and had hit 105 per cent funding at over $26,000 (£16,715).

 

Doubts

All of a sudden, just as it began to seem as if I really might be about to pull off this dream, I started to panic. What the hell did I know about product design? Would we be able to deliver the products? What would it cost to actually make all these things? How could I ensure that I didn't end up being scammed by a manufacturing facility in China?

As the funding needle kept rising, so did my doubts. There were several occasions when I seriously considered cancelling the project and refunding everyone’s money. The day before the deadline, funding for Triggertrap was at $70,000 (£45,000). That’s more than I make in a year, and I wasn’t sure I wanted the pressure of ensuring that I delivered this product that so many people were expecting. My finger was hovering over the ‘cancel project’ button.

Then, my friends stepped in. "This will be an incredible opportunity," they said. "You will make a huge difference," and "Imagine how much you will learn," and, most importantly, "Dude, I'm proud of you. I would have never been able to get this far." Slowly, I moved my finger away from the 'cancel' button, and decided that if I was really going to make this happen, I was going to make it happen properly.

So I flung myself into the breach. I spent countless hours on the Triggertrap.com website. I worked tirelessly with Michael and Noah to make the prototypes become reality. I sought the opinions of a whole load of fellow photographers to nail down the features for Triggertrap. I received hundreds of emails from people who offered advice. These guys wanted Triggertrap? Okay, then, I was going to give them Triggertrap.

Funding closed on 31 July. Triggertrap ended with $77,262 (£49,603) and 898 backers -- more than three times the amount I asked for, and nearly ten times more than I thought I would realistically get.

 

Making it happen

"Well, damn," I thought to myself. Against all my expectations, the project had failed to fail at the first hurdle. That was only the first hurdle. There were almost 900 people expecting a device that was, right then, just a prototype and a bundle of funding.


Once we had the final CAD drawing of the TT, it was time to start playing with actual electronic components...

The next few months were a blur of company legalities; software writes, re-writes, and re-re-writes; and hardware modifications. Finally, about three months after funding for Triggertrap closed on Kickstarter and 39 versions later, we had an iteration of the Triggertrap hardware prototype that we were happy with.

Testing started properly in October. We tested all the sensors; we tested it with various cameras; we tested battery life; ease of use, and functionality. We tested it for hours, and hours, and hours. We tested everything that we could think of. And every time we ran into a problem, there was a firmware update to improve it.

The plan had been to ship Triggertrap ‘before Christmas’, but the reality slowly began to dawn on Michael, Noah, and me. There was no way we would be able to ship that early. We only just had a final version of the hardware, let alone ordered the hundreds of thousands of components that comprise a Triggertrap from half a dozen different suppliers, and had them shipped to our manufacturer in China.


The first prototype of the Triggertrap, partially assembled, on a partial parts list.

Then it turned out that some of the components we needed were no longer available, which meant that we had to go back to the drawing board and re-design parts of the Triggertrap to accommodate the different footprints, power requirements, and specifications of the new components. I'm not lying when I say that my sanity was hanging in the balance for a few weeks.

 

The winter of malcontent

I think the biggest challenge in all of this came as a surprise to me. Getting the funds from Kickstarter turned out to be easy; developing the product was anything but. However, it was an incredibly exciting and gratifying process. Placing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of orders was undoubtedly very scary, but that, too, turned out to be doable; it turns out that no matter how worried or frustrated you get in the process of something like this, you can pick up the phone and resolve your issues quite easily. Truth? I'm not a big fan of the telephone, but in many circumstances, it's a much better means of communication than email.

Our very first working prototype, with acrylic on the front and back.

No, the biggest challenge turned out to be that because the research and development process for a product is usually conducted in secret, behind closed doors, until a company is ready to unleash their final version on the public, people don’t necessarily grasp just how long, drawn-out, and demanding it can be. And that included me just as much as the Kickstarter backers.

I received a couple of dozen emails from people who were angry that we didn't manage to ship before Christmas. I received some from people who suggested that we shouldn't manufacture our Triggertraps in China for various reasons. There was one complaint that it was taking too long: "I was under the impression that you would be assembling these yourself. How long can it possibly take? Can't you hire some extra people to make it go faster?" And yes, there were also some e-mails that were downright abusive.

I dearly wanted to be able to ship Triggertraps before Christmas, but it just wasn’t logistically possible. If it had been financially viable, I would happily have had the devices assembled in the US or the UK.


The final Triggertrap device!

Staying level-headed when you’re working extremely long days and have so much invested in a project – financially, temporally, and emotionally – is incredibly difficult, especially when the people criticising you don’t necessarily have the whole picture. But by speaking frankly with people, I think that I was able to bring around even the most disgruntled customers. They were able to see how things didn’t always go exactly to plan and we couldn’t always do everything that we wanted to, the way we had wanted to do it.

Of course, it takes a lot of mental energy to deal with people who are angry with you for one reason or another, but that pales in comparison with the next challenge we faced...

 

A curve-ball from PayPal

Triggertrap’s viral marketing explosion had an interesting knock-on effect: long after the funding drive closed on Kickstarter, and with it the opportunity to pick up a device in return for some financial backing, people were still itching for them and emailing me to ask how to lay their hands on one. This left me with a decision: ask them to hold their horses until Triggertraps actually started shipping, or begin to take pre-orders?

I decided to start taking pre-orders via the Triggertrap website, which was powered by PayPal.

On Kickstarter, a Triggertrap was a reward in exchange for $75 (£48) of funding. But after a quick bit of mental arithmetic, I realised that I really needed to increase the price of ‘off-the-shelf’ Triggertraps. Even at the increased price of $125 (£80), interest continued a-pace and 200 more people placed orders. With more devices being sold at a higher price, more money was changing hands. Obviously.

Then, in early December, I received an email from PayPal; they weren't happy with the increased amount of money flowing through my PayPal account. They 'limited' the account; in effect freezing all the money in the account. This couldn’t have come at a worse time. I was just about to place the first order with the manufacturer. Still, I cracked on regardless; I borrowed some money on the assumption that PayPal would resolve their accounting issues.

As I am writing this, PayPal is being extremely unhelpful. The worst-case scenario is that I may have to cancel all the pre-orders and refund the money. I'm working with PayPal to avoid that, of course, but I wouldn't be the first to have been burned by their policies.

 

Finally, the home stretch

It’s been one hell of a battle to get this far, but despite my earlier contemplation of chucking in the towel, there have been plenty of victories, too. Undoubtedly the biggest one happened a few weeks ago when everything came together: the hardware was right; we were happy with the current version of the software, and we were able to create our final Bill of Materials. We placed our orders. Then we sat back with a pint of beer in the knowledge that it’s out of our hands now. Triggertrap is out there, working its way through the cogs of the machinery, being turned into a real product. Thousands of kilos of components are winging their way to a warehouse in China. The printed circuit boards are being produced. The factory is going to start combining the circuit boards and the PCBs and the casings into final, assembled versions of the Triggertrap. They're going to take my enormous list of Triggertrap recipients and send all the devices out to their final destinations.

And then, just like that, more than 1,200 people in more than 50 countries around the world will receive a box containing a little red device. It'll have the Triggertrap logo on it. They'll connect it to their camera, and start using it to take photographs. It’s taken the best part of a year, but I’ve gone from gadget fan to gadget creator. Brought an idea to product. And brought a dream to reality.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is rather extraordinary.

Haje Jan Kamps is a prolific photography blogger who has written a small stack of books about photography, not to mention writes a weekly photography feature right here on Giz UK every Wednesday. If you're of the tweeting kind, try him on @Photocritic!