In this log, we want to share our experience of bringing our FunKey Project from its early-prototype stage to a "Ready For Manufacturing" / "Community-Ready" state necessary to launch a successful crowdfunding campaign that in turn should provide us with the lever required to launch a product in mass production.
Where Do We Come From
People following the Funkey Project certainly remember that the original motivation came from @Sprite_tm's 2016 Hackaday superconference project of a pocket retro gaming console, that lead @c.Invent to develop the #Keymu - open source keychain-sized gaming console as a Proof-of-Concept that entered the 2017 Hackaday Prize. The corresponding Youtube video is now peaking at 4.8M views and #6 in Youtube's Popular Videos - Game Consoles & Mobile Phones category!
Unfortunately, the tiny (and expensive) Intel Edison CPU module at the heart of the console was abruptly discontinued, which forced him to find a replacement module. Given the tiny dimensions, this prove to be very difficult, but @Squonk42 joined him to develop a new board around the LicheePi Zero module. Eventually, a new #Funkey Zero console which was used to validate the new CPU choice took part in the 2018 Hackaday Prize:
At this point, it became clear that the main feature of the #Keymu - open source keychain-sized gaming console was its foldable design, providing a maximum size for both the screen and keypads in the smallest form factor. It also became clear that such a hinged design required the help of a professional mechanical designer, and this challenge motivated @David.Larbi who joined the team at the beginning of this year.
Where Do We Stand
With this team now formed, we achieved the development of two FunKey Revision A prototypes, which are demonstrated in the FunKey Project Teaser Video:
But turning a prototype into a mass production device is not as easy at it seems... This is why we started the #FunKey project - All your games on your keychain ! and decided to take part in the 2019 Hackaday Prize, whose goal this year is precisely focused on product development!
Clearly, his advice was to find ASAP a manufacturing partner to scale up production!
Where To Go From Here
From the start, it was clear for us that developing an electronic device like the FunKey Retro Gaming Console for mass production requires some cash money to buy the components, make the PCBs and assemble the parts (PCBA), but also to manufacture the enclosure injection molds and for the product fulfillment (certifications, packaging, storage, shipping, etc).
As we all have a day-to-day job and were not willing to mortgage our house and car, we agreed that the only possible solution was to resort to crowdfunding instead of investing our own money.
But it seems that today the time (if it ever existed!) of easy money through crowdfunding is over. Now, you need to have a sleek, professionally looking video, marketing arguments and both business and production plannings in order to end a campaign successfully.
This quickly turns into a "chicken and egg" problem, as you need to evaluate the product cost that depends on how many units you will sell, which in turn depends on how much you will sell it, which of course needs to generate a profit... And because of the mandatory video, you also need money even before starting the crowdfunding campaign which is supposed to get you the money for the production!
Right now, we got quotes for professionally-made videos so we are able to estimate our pre-campaign needs, and at the same time we contacted the Kickstarter Design & Technology Team, who shared with us some links to extremely useful resources to help us bring our project to life:
- The Education team’s compendium of resources is a comprehensive guide containing crowdfunding helpful tips and best practices, a must-read!
- A forum (the "Campus") where you can learn from experienced creators
- The Hardware Studio where you can learn more about manufacturing, and where you could apply for direct support from industry experts at Avnet and Dragon Innovation. Unfortunately, this resource seems to be dead, as the last article is 1 year-old and the Hardware Studio Connection application process is suspended :-(
- This pre-campaign timeline is invaluable to understand the required steps to go from the initial idea to launching a project on Kickstarter:
Meanwhile and following Bunnie's advice, we contacted several specialized manufacturing partners having an experience with both crowdfunding campaigns and electronic manufacturing in Mainland China.
Depending on which one you choose, they are able to provide some or all among the following services:
- in finding a possible product idea
- in the product design phase
- in the DFM ("Design For Manufacturing") risk review
- in the crowdfunding video and campaign management
- in the online social marketing campaigns
- in the RFQ ("Requests For Quotation") contractor search
- in the production oversight
- in the fulfillment logistics (product packaging, storage and shipping)
- in the product certification (RoHS, CE, RED, FCC, IC, etc.)
Most of the services related to pre-production cost more or less the same regardless of the manufacturing partners we contacted (a DFM review costs around 5,000$). Fixed costs are great for a crowdfunding campaign since at least you know the exact price to add to the crowdfunding goal to reimburse them.
Costs related to production services are another matter though, and it quickly became obvious that there are two main operating modes, depending on the manufacturing partners:
- Some manufacturing partners (most of them) set a fixed price per month for production related costs, for instance production oversight can cost from 7,500$ to 15,000$ a month.
- The second type of manufacturing partners set a margin on the product you're producing, covering the costs of production related services, but meaning your product will cost more to produce.
We found the first type to be more targeted towards incorporated businesses willing to outsource their production to China, since $7,500 to $15,000 a month is a huge sum for a company only starting out and without much money upfront to spend. Plus, it is very hard to foresee during how many month the product will need to be manufactured in order to set the crowdfunding goal accordingly.
We found instead the second solution to be much more "crowdfunding-aware", since one "only" need to evaluate a minimum number of products they will sell to compute the added production costs that can then be added to the crowdfunding goal. However, we only found two manufacturing partners who operate like this: Genimex and Supernova. We are currently in contact with both of them, and they both believe in FunKey and are interested in working with us.
Between the costs related to launching the crownfunding page (video, etc.), the prototypes (3D printing, PCBA), the initial DFM reviews and pre-production costs, possible marketing costs, you basically need at least some minimal cash money in order to launch a project, even if you plan to go through crowdfunding. This money upfront that we sadly lack is one of the reason we have contacted local incubators.
Another reason is the awareness that one day or another, we will have to incorporate a business:
- as we are a team and not a single individual
- as soon as we will earn some significant money and will have to pay taxes on it
- as soon as we will have to spend some amount of money in order to deduct VAT whenever possible
Incorporating a business is more or less difficult depending on your country, but it is certainly not an easy task if you have the same (in)experience that we have outside our technical knowledge!
So we started seeking for help, and through the French Tech national program, we were quickly redirected to both an institutional start-up support structure in the Bordeaux area and Nouvelle-Aquitaine (Unitec) and the largest private start-up incubator in France (1kubator):
For Unitec, we had to fill in an application form with many questions regarding our project, the main advantage of it being the long experience they have (more than 28 years!) as a start-up incubator, nursery and accelerator.
As for the younger but very dynamic 1kubator, we can right from the start benefit from a network of mentors for free, participate to a half-day "1Krashtest" beginning of September, during which our startup idea will be challenged (gently!) in front of a jury made up of digital technology experts, startup alumnis and other experts in their respective field (finance, legal, creation, etc.). The main advantage here is that we can benefit from 25,000€ (half in cash, half as incubator services) for a 10% participation in the future company, if they decide to go with us.
One thing we were not aware of until we discovered it recently, is the importance of having a developed community before starting a crowdfunding campaign: we first realized it when looking at Kickstarter's pre-campaign timeline when we found out that we were on time for most of the project technical items, but not at all for the "Community & Outreach" ones.
there are 3 essential things you need before launch: 1) a compelling project that you know folks will want to help bring to life, 2) know the cost to produce and ship all the rewards, and 3) have a community that you've built up outside Kickstarter that can help you reach about 70% of your funding goal.
So, at the question "when is it time to build a community", the answer is: Yesterday!
We were obviously late, but hey, if we did not start yesterday, there's certainly no better time than today, so we promptly started to set up:
- a Web site
- a Twitter account
- a Facebook page
- an Instagram account
- a Pinterest account
- a Youtube channel
- a Grabcad account
- a Thingiverse account
- a newsletter subscription directly on our website landing page
Following this social media blitz, we were contacted by the Youtuber "Un Poco De Todo" having 2.7M followers to get the permission to be featured into one of his video, viewed 825,000+ times.
Our community if growing steadily but slowly and we know now, we need to make the public aware of FunKey to make it grow before the crowdfunding campaign. Once our Revision B prototypes are ready (should only be a matter of days), we would love to start showing off FunKey on other Youtube channels or social medias and even organize some giveaways. Apart from our families, friends and colleagues, any other feedback would be great to help us improve our work before production and build a community at the same time.
As you can see from above, we spent a lot of time on non-technical but very important issues during the past months in order to develop our FunKey project. But this does not mean that we were just sitting back technically either:
- On the mechanical and design front, we focused on industrializing the design (adding reinforcement ribs, draft angles, etc.) in order to get quotes for the enclosure molds, screen protection glass, hinge mechanism and started to work on the product packaging.
- On the electronic hardware side, a new Revision B PCB has been launched that is currently assembled in China. The purpose was both to correct a few issues and add as few as possible new feature, while moving the design closer to a "Ready For Manufacturing" state. Check all the details in a previous log. A Prototype flex cable (FPC) was also designed to be used with the prototypes until we get a custom screen manufactured.
- On the software development side, a lot of work has been done in order to port and optimize many retro gaming console software emulators to the FunKey platform: now we have NES, SNES, Gameboy, Gameboy color, Gameboy Advance, Sega GameGear, Sega Master System, Sega Megadrive and PlayStation 1! A lot of efforts were spent in order to optimize the up/down screen scaling to reduce the CPU power requirements to the minimum. And last but not least, we work a lot on the ergonomic: we developed our own launcher application (heavily modified from RetroFE) with a consistent in-game menu system! This means every game, every emulator, and the launcher itself will have the same coherent and consistent simple animated settings menu, the same button placements, the same save/load shortcuts, ... No need to read the manual!
Participating to the 2019 Hackaday prize certainly helped us a lot, in particular by providing visibility to our work and giving us the opportunity to take part in a mentor session and Hack Chats which opened our eyes on the need to start searching for manufacturing partners and start developing a community, which we both did.
FunKey might not seem so, but it is quite an ambitious project and we have taken the road towards production one step at a time, in order not to trip. Every step has brought us closer to our goal and FunKey is now very close to being turned into a business, especially since we started to work with the local French Tech ecosystem and its network of incubators, start-up nurseries and accelerators.
We plan to create the company in September, followed by the crowdfunding campaign at the end of the year. Our hope is to reach at least 1,000 sold units. This would allow us to start working on future releases, because we absolutely love working on FunKey, and already have lots of ideas for improvements and other products for our hopefully successful company, stay tuned!