Beta end, back to beta

The most interesting comments about the pencase beta came from two completely different sources.

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The first assemble, still going strong.

One of those sources is a fellow Long Beach Con artist alley table neighbor Tony Brescini. The other was a six year old boy.

Tony mentioned that the pencase might be a little bulky for the amount of stuff it actually carries. He’s very right in that I designed the original to carry very little.

That came from years of watching the artists around me. The 80/20 rule with regard to artists tools doesn’t apply at all to the studio. But outside, at the coffee shop, at lunch, on a smoke break – artists are one tool dominant. Sure, some artists brag about how many tools they lug around and use.

At that point you’re I’d encourage you to seek therapy as it sounds like hoarding syndrome.

One of the biggest compromises I made designing the pencase regarded the belt clip. I had thought about making it detachable which would make the pencase much slimmer overall, but also a bit less convenient.

It’s interesting to note that the pencase was used as part of most people’s already crowded carryall strategy – backpacks, toolpacks, pencil cases and knick knack cases. I think fewer than half of beta testers used the belt clip even though one of the first surveys indicated nearly every tester wore belts.

The other tester, unofficially at least, was 6. The best test of any product is whether it survives a 6 year old. This one instantly opened it, and tried to pour put its contents on the floor. Perfect. Test.

I really wanted to use a cap or latch to secure all the slots in the case – something to prevent 6 year olds from flinging myens everywhere, but also totally mature people as well.

This morning I had a few ideas about where to go next with the design. The primary goal is still to get to a design which carries two pens or pencils and their respective refills or helpful accessories.

Lastly, I delivered the last beta model unassembled to someone I know has good finishing chops. This was always a possible delivery strategy for people who wanted to customize the case but in a way I didn’t have to print or redesign per user.

I also used a unique filament from Protopasta which can polish to an almost steel like quality. Really interesting stuff and very clean results. I will definitely keep this stuff in mind for future projects.

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Talk is cheap, but good conversation is priceless

The Pencase project might need to take a sharp turn.

I was joking last week that the price range for the final product would likely need to take a huge drop because, well, artists are broke most of the time. I know. I am an artist. I was young and broke once.

Part of me has to call bulshit. But that’s too harsh a word. Let’s say I have to call put a mistake in the judgment of value.

It’s a classically argued economic idea – what value does and object have to a market? If it’s a new product, the answer the prof says, lies in its ability to solve a problem, fill a need, or create more value, etc.

Elegantly ambiguous. Kind of like tautologies, that came around in a big fat circle of logic. I kind of like the idea that the value of any object lies in the story it has.

A US treasury note only costs a fraction of the paper and materials it’s printed on, but the number printed on it makes the difference between eating a steak or cereal for dinner.

What’s the value of the pencase? To me, part of it lies in the conversation it starts. Last night, I met with some old friends and made some new ones. Even in a technologically astute crowd as it was, they still get a kick out of seeing something 3d printed.

What does that have to do with printing money? Its 3d printed, right? Kinda.

I asked a particular question on a survey to some beta testers. Did anyone ask you about the pencase while you used it? It was meant to determine if, as an object, it had value outside of purpose.

What am I more curious about is the content of those conversations. There’s value there. The more you talk about any object, the more valuable it can become to you, even when the first one was free.

Now, how much would it be worth to you if you wanted to replace it?

If the pencase wasn’t worth enough conversations, maybe it isn’t worth 25 bucks. But if it keeps people talking, I think it’s proven it’s value.

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The dropoff

I realized this would happen.

The analysts always break down the various statistics of business failure with restaurant stories. Appropo since everyone needs to eat but stupid because no one NEEDS to always eat out. But hey, in popular culture, it’s as relevant as breathing.

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One line and already a classic, the first and basic material cost analysis cor the pencase.

The saying you know goes that X number, percent or whatever of restaurants fail within X amount of time. But a lot of them fail to record the relationship between what kind of restaurant, when it started, other similar restaurants that DIDN’T fail in the same time period, and other relevant qualities.

Remember when they said an eye for detail was important on that job posting? Too bad an eye FOR an eye for detail is what’s missing.

More importantly, the statistics of customer interest and behavior around new products or ideas are, well scarier. Just the basic statistic of media should be enough to scare off anyone from trying to sell something on the internet.

At least one popular Internet marketing agency states that open rates for emails, clicks on banner ads, and “likes” on anything that is obviously an ad or business has fallen into less than 1 percent figures.

Think about that in terms of small projects like the pencase and you would be right to think that every popular metric is very low. And that’s before I’ve even technically made 1 sale.

The truth is I had made a simple calculation. I knew the pencase was not a mass appeal object. I knew the potential customer had two qualities which frustrate marketers – they were very high in interest and engagement but also highly frugal. That’s their polite way of saying cheap.

That’s not meant as an insult but I did make a bet on the highest possible qualities of that audience. I might publish the spreadsheet I made of the variables I knew I could calculate to make the pencase a worthwhile product. Right now, its tipping into my worst case scenarios – high engagement, but low budgets.

I know many a stalwart designer has butted against this wall. People like Jobs would have said they don’t know what’s what but I got some really smart folks to sign up for this program. I set a path for the pencase into the wheelhouses of a particular kind of person I like to think.

The next step if to make sure that the qualities which make the pencase an interesting and desirable object aren’t lost in the search to make it profitable.

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Program stall, aka tax time

So. Tax time. Fan? Yes? No?

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Two prints, different printers

Depends on the refund? Yeah, me too.

But when it comes to living as a creative, people I have known tend to completely miscategorize their expenses. I get it. You want to get as much as you can back from the government. Fair point.

I feel the same way, and recently I have added the many varied expenses of 3d printing to my tax deduction list. Its not a lot of money, but it has added up over time.

Between simple materials, filaments, tools and other consumables I spend a few hundred dollars every year on things related to 3d printing.

Since I can write off a small portion of my power bill, the increase in electrical usage over time has been noticeable. During the late summer months,  when I am prepping for Long Beach Comic Con, I have always tried to have a new figure or project done. The power bill during this time will increase at least 10 to 15 percent if both printers are running.

Again, its small, but I have plans to increase output in the future – both in capacity and quality. So tracking some of these numbers even a little bit is going to be more important financially.

Anyway, onward and upward.

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Carbon 3d and me, I hope

I’ve never liked resin printing.
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I know it’s higher quality and resolution in many respects to fused filament which I am now very comfortable with.

The truth is I can be a terrible clutz. Too many resin printers require a resin bath system that begs my more tremoring moments of un-coordinated-ness to crash and burn. Or splatter and splash.

All joking aside, I love the Carbon 3d technologies. If you have never heard of them, one of Carbon’s chief advantages comes frome speed. The system doesn’t require the requisite peeling and settling issue of many DLP and SLA printers.

Put very simply, Carbon’s method brings resin printing closer to the image many people have in their heads about what they would LIKE 3d printing to be – something close to the speed of printing in 2d.

But as close as we’re getting to something the public has the patience to endure, the more it feels as though people are waiting for something new when it comes to 3d printing.

A few companies like Stratasys, Makerbot, and Pinshape have all announced cuts, layoffs or even closures. Carbon’s promise is balanced by its cost, the main barrier to buying a 3d printer even for fun to many on the cusp.

But I can hang in there. I want to see where all this goes. It’s a physical world, and even though we have way too much “stuff” already, I want to be a part of the story of making better stuff tomorrow.

No you can all go back to watching House of Cards. :-)

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What’s my name? It said.

For the longest time I have wanted to call the Pencase, T.I.K. – the Tactical Inking Kit.

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I even had a nutty idea for a video with explosions and people running through enemy fire with TIK in tow, screaming combat maneuvers. It was epic. It was Saving Private Renoir basically.

In the last shot, an artist pulls out a brushpen from the kit, and says in the most serious of soldier voices, “… I’m going in.” Leaping over bollards and barricades, the soldier of art reaches the sketch pad and begins to draw.

Well. I thought it was hilarious. And it’s never going to happen. It has ZERO. NADA. Nothing to do with product design and business.

At heart and by so much practice, I have been a marketer as much as a designer. A salesman of images using images. As fun as it would be, as effective as it might have been, I don’t want to focus on it. It put the kart before the horse.

Right now, the bulk of beta models are in testers hands. The real work of integrating their feedback is more important than making funny videos.

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Not pausing, adjusting the Pencase

I blew it.

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Interestingly, I think I made a packaging mistake before any actual products have shipped. Sure, the betas were mailed, but they were mailed as simply as possible with a rather long letter that I think some people didn’t read.

The reason? I folded it the wrong way. That made me laugh. It was actually encouraging, since as people got the beta it meant they ripped into the box and just started playing.

One of the missions I had with this product can be wrapped up in one description: make something people couldn’t wait to use.

At least one user reported already having broken a part, but also immediately reported they had fixed it. This was at first, scary. I had mentioned in the letter that this wasn’t a durability test. But if no one read the letter, it would be easy to write off the pencase as a cheap toy and a failure.

I’m not really deterred by that, since no one paid for the beta no one is cheated of anything. And I am sure adjustments can be made so that during an actual durability test, the issues will be addressed.

The marketers and wonky business assholes of yesteryear would already be saying I’ve expended the trust of the audience. Not true. The only time I think anyone has to truly work at that is if they DON’T fix it.

The real value is that people are participating not so much consuming, and that is encouraging.

So there’s the next phase, the fun but expensive phase of material choices. See you then.

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One size fits none well

I knew the pencase would not be a one size fits all solution. I had been somewhat amiss in at least one aspect of developing the pencase in some people’s opinions.

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I had been mostly clear about certain items that would fit in the pencase, but I also knew inherently that there are as many pens as there are artists. Many people’s favorite clutch pencil will simply not fit in the current design.

But something of a balancing act had to occur. I chose simply to define some ideas about who this pencase is for and for whom it is not intended. And it is in no way an insult. I simply think the one size fits all idea serves no one well.

I think one of the more obtuse by-products of consumer culture is the thought that all business must conform to consumer will. I think it more appropriate to say business must understand consumer feedback and act responsibly.

This is an interesting proposition, but like all semi prescient optimism, it has to be weighed against the reality that something unexpected always occurs.

My favorite stories in 3d printing are those where people in need of printers find them and apply them to problems that have needed to be solved for longer than 3d printing has been a “thing.”

One of my favorite recent examples is this story fro  the Ultimaker website. It is a fantastic project which embraces the speed and flexibility its design process which 3d peinting enables.

Now that I habe experienced much of that design flexibility, we’ll see how long it takes for the pencase to evolve.

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Thinking about CAD

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I admit, I am new to CAD. Well, in a way I am very familiar to CAD. I’ve just never taken the opportunity to use it in a context like I have recently.

The Pencase was one of the more complex projects where I used a dedicated CAD package and NOT  an entertainment related and focused bit of software.

I’ve said before that anyone serious about 3d printing should get serious about 3d modeling. Old news. But CAD is a deeper profession and calling – and when you design everything as well, cad is just part of design.

There are many roles in design and engineering just like entertainment. And in the biz, I’ve always been considered a generalist, someone who can do many things when the job calls for it.

I have always hated the accusation that generalists are “masters of none” following the old saying. But what’s the alternative?  Sometimes that means the job won’t get done at all.

So CAD is yet another methodology and skillset I am definitely working at integrating into everything I design for 3d printing. 3d modeling skills have already given me a huge leap forward in that respect in that so many of the software elements are so similar.

What really has made a difference has been an old carpenter’s saying “measure twice, cut once.” Or in this instance, measure many times according to tolerances and environmental co ditions, and print again and again until it comes put just right EVERY TIME after.

Thats been a key diference and challenge with the pencase. Whereas before I would print single useful object as one piece, like my inkwell and pencil/brush holder, the pencase had moving parts that needed to work over and over.

Having an Ultimaker 2 to work with has been one of the saving graces – the reliability and cleanliness with which it prints makes the difference between this being just an expensive hobby and a viable business in then future.

I still stand by Google SketchUp for now, but as the future projects are more in need of component and electronic pairings, there will be a day when I part ways with it.

Until then, the pencase testing phase is well underway with 70 percent of the beta testers their getting their test models soon. I hope to get additional models in pipeline soon.

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Is 3d printing still “special”?

Its kind of a silly question. For me there has been nothing in the past 20 years that’s come as close to this interesting and rewarding creatively.

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I jokingly tested two at a time one weekend. I felt silly but it's one of the first thing people do when they hold a pencase.

Professionally, that’s a tougher proposition.

I usually get a table at Long Beach Comic Con where I sell my comics (check me out on Comixology under Jesse Mesa Toves – blatant plug over haha). For the past few years, I have displayed some of my prints there to some very enthusiastic reactions.

But one of the constants has been how few people have actually seen something which is 3d printed. Sure, some kids have printers at their schools – it’s actually kind of encouraging given all the STEM efforts of late.

But for the vast majority of people, when I hand them a print,  it is the VERY first time they will have touched something 3d printed. It’s interesting to gauge their reactions.

So making the step to buying something 3d printed is also oddly confused. So much of the hoopla around printing reminds me of the first laser printers – everyone was amazed right up until you showed them a price tag.

To add to the confusion is the animus around plastics of any kind and the constant effort to make things more sustainable. The plastic filaments I use were developed to be biodegradable and I will never use ABS which is an option on the printer I use.

I’ll be perfectly honest. I think ive succombed to the most obvious temptation of 3d printing for artists like myself. I have spent so much time making 3d models for entertainment or commercial uses, that finally getting to see them in the real world is enormously seductive.

What’s more seductive to artists is the thought that someone will want to buy these things. But the promise of 3d printing and it’s infinite level of customizability has likely stunted the success of artists printing their works for sale. Or it could be the broader cultural change at some level to simply own less STUFF.

When I see people who profit from the ubiquitous unboxing channels, you can see this sort of thing happening. Its a vicarious consumerism where it becomes temporarily gratifying to merely watch someone obtain an object rather than actually own it.

I made a pretty consious change with my creative process on the Pencase, not meaning to sound so pretentious. I wanted to design something that satisfied some simple criteria.

One, I had to design something I actually would use.
Two, I wouldn’t finish it until a predetermined number of people wanted it as well.

After that, I am guessing I’ll need some new criteria.

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