Computers for Babies Was a Weird Concept — Now It’s Going Out on Top

So Long and Thanks for All the Kitsch

I’m an obsessive experimenter, let’s start there. My wife, bless her, has put up with my relentless onslaught of hobbies, fueled in equal parts curiosity and ADHD. The upshot of this behavior is that I get to play a small role in the early phases of movements, like a sort of proto-hipster without the attitude (hence why my friends have called me the Forrest Gump of tech… I always happen to be in the background of recent tech history). The downside is that most experiments fizzle out or boredom sets in or I buy a cup of coffee for one Bitcoin because at the time it was only worth $5 and hey I thought it was cool someone would give me a cup for a blip of data just don’t think about that $40k cup!

I wanted to experiment with Kickstarter, but just couldn’t get past the whole “self promotion” thing. Sales was never my strong suit. The opportunity presented itself six years ago with the birth of my daughter. I wanted to make a cloth book for her based on an aspect of computer science, Boolean Logic. It was driven more by a desire to share my passion than any belief that I’d push an infant into learning to program (though familiarity with concepts is the best you can hope for with babies). My requirements for the book were simple: cloth with crinkle paper and a teething ring she could chew on. At the time I had published several books so how hard could it be to make a baby book? It turns out, quite.

Here’s the thing: cloth books aren’t books, per se, they’re toys. Publishers, even of children’s books, tend to deal in paper rather than cloth or stuffing. For that you need toy makers. And for that, you need a design for them to follow. Sewing is hardly in my wheelhouse, so I employed a toy maker (thanks internet!) to create a series of blank prototypes. These denoted my assets for field testing, which turned out to be an important and helpful step in the process.

I handed these books to my daughter at different times. I was curious what sizes, shapes, rings, stuffing combinations she would react most positively too. Turns out, the biggest feature was the crinkly paper, even more than the teething ring or material feel. Beyond her reaction to the toy, I also realized that a Velcro loop for the teething ring was invaluable. My first attempt had a closed loop with a ring sewn in, but we needed a way to remove the ring to clean it. A Velcro loop had secondary benefit: hooking the book to the side of her stroller so she couldn’t throw it overboard.

With a design in mind, including shape and number of pages, I wrote and drew the images. I learned Adobe Illustrator to generate high quality vector images, to avoid pixelation or lossy artifacts from file formatting (all it takes is someone to convert PNG to JPEG to kill a nice smooth gradient). I showed my daughter several illustrations to gauge her reaction, which all that mattered to here were high contrast animals. Most shapes are fascinating to a four month old.

I wasn’t prepared for the next step. At all. I figured I would send a pattern and images to a couple of factories, get quotes, pick the best quality vs price, and I’d place an order. Oooohhhh how naive. I was about to get a lesson in international manufacturing, law, and supply chain.

Fun fact: You can’t deal with factories directly. Even large scale multinational corporations often go through intermediaries, and put out bids, sometimes through systems called PLMs (product lifecycle managers). I tried to connect to US based factories but the fact is the costs were just too high for the small scale I was looking to do. It would have been nearly $15 per book which would have ended up costing me money after all the fixed (design, testing) and other variable costs (marketing, wholesale).

After engaging with a middle man, I sent my patterns and images to a handful of factories in Southeast Asia. A few weeks later I received samples, which had mistakes ranging from poor stitching to literally being inside out. We worked through those and I landed on a partner. But that’s only the start. Yes, there’s the construction and cost breakdowns. Beyond that, I had to choose all kinds of arcane details, like the mm thickness of the crinkly paper, thread count, kind of stitching, materials for stitching, the direction that the tag flipped, everything. Oh yes… the tag.

At this point I had to estimate which countries I wanted to sell the product in. Apparently “all of them” isn’t a reasonable request. Different countries have laws around exactly what the tag says, how it’s laid out, the material you can use, the languages the tag must be in, and a lot of info around serial numbers. Most products are designed for specific markets as collections of countries. So I picked the widest representation I could without having to print a 20 page booklet as a tag. Because it’s a book, I also had to get an ISBN number which acts as a UPC which also needed to have a 2D barcode to scan. Also to ship internationally you have to know the category of product, and secure a code that represents the item.

Because my target consumers were babies, it turns out that countries have loads of laws around the materials that you can use (people really like their babies, and want to keep them safe). This accounts for every component from fabric to stitching to cloth, as well as the kind of non-toxic ink you can use. It also must be fire resistant. And you prove all of this by submitting your samples to a laboratory with your BOM (bill of materials) who test against a whole range of requirements. Requirements differ by country, but it turns out if you adhere to both US and French laws you’re pretty safe globally (learning details like this is a post on its own).

Now that I had a sense of what it would take to manufacture, I had to choose a minimum order (including shipping and customs fees) to hit my COGS (cost of goods sold) which turned out to be 2000 units at around $5 each. That means in order to Kickstart my baby book I’d need at minimum $10,000 crowdfunding just to cover the first order. I landed on $25 per book. It seemed high but I figured anyone willing to pay $20 for a baby book would be willing to pay $25. This way I would only need to sell 400 units for my initial campaign, and I could sell the rest at wholesale (which you generally sell at half cost, so $12.50 minus $5 COGS for $7.50 “profit” putting me up $12,000, meaning I could place another order, assuming I calculated shipping right which I’ll cover shortly because, dammit!).

Before I started on this mission I set up a landing page and shared it on social media to collect email addresses, backed by Mail Chimp. Not only could I build buzz early, I could gauge interest before putting in a lot of effort. I had a couple thousand emails so I figured I had something here. I recorded a video using my Canon DSLR and spent a week learning how to make a compelling launch video with Adobe Premier, making sure to include plenty images of my baby girl and family to make it personal. With Crowdfunding, the inventor’s story is almost as important as the invention.

I can’t stress enough how important pre work is to the crowdfunding effort. Not only did I have the landing page, I reached out to press and people who I knew were connected to press. I set up a Facebook Page, Twitter and Instagram accounts. I built out these ecosystems for months. The last step was to set up the Kickstarter page, upload the video, and hit launch. I emailed blasted the sign ups a few times, hammered social media, and connected with writers to knock out articles. The first few days were critical. Due to the immediate and dramatic reaction, I was listed on the Kickstarter main page, which always helps.

Mistake: I forgot to add shipping costs into my rewards campaign! Shit. Had I only hit $10k I would have ended up negative. Happily I closed out around $12k. That said, shipping ate about $1000 into my cost estimates, leaving my profit at $11k after selling all 2000 which was pretty much exactly enough to place another 2000 order. Haha oh well such is the life of a startup. Later orders would include shipping.

Another logistics story: After the close of the campaign, I placed an order to the Chinese factory. It took them a few months to fill the order, and ship the pallet. Fun fact: lots of factories have no mechanism to ship to a personal residence. So I had them send to a warehouse in Portland (where I had to pay to keep it for a few days). Did I mention customs? Yeah you have to pay them too. From there I had DHL pick up the order and drop off two loaded pallets to my house. Next, my wife and I unpacked boxes and stacked them in the back of my garage. It filled half of the space. Sorry car you sleep outside tonight. It turns out you can recycle pallets so that’s nice but also yet another thing I had to look up. Anyway, now we can ship to the eager backers!

I bought a thermal printer and rolls of thermal tape. Best decision I ever made. I looked up “small business logistics software” and found ShipStation (highly recommended), which I connected to a USPS business account and the printer (oh yeah, I also set up an LLC and business bank account which is always recommended for a new venture). I uploaded the order spreadsheet from Kickstarter, and just built a little assembly line for the orders. Each order prints out a shipping label and automatically charges the USPS account. I preloaded specs like weight and dimensions so it was pretty painless. That is, until the international orders came through. Damn! Domestic orders only cost about $3 to ship, but international were $13. More unexpected costs. A day of printing and packaging and filling boxes culminated to the most satisfying drive to the post office ever and somewhat bemused postal staff. We then drove home and collapsed in the couch. About 8 months of work out the door. Major operations complete.

Since then I’ve sold these books through Amazon (they deal with logistics which is nice but at a cost) and wholesale partners (they also deal with everything but will only pay you half). Since I had invested in a printer and logistics setup I’ve also continued to sell books direct on my website for $19.99 ever since. In the time since launch I briefly published a board book “Functions for Toddlers” and wrote but never published “Counting in Binary for Tots”. I also wrote another adult book called “Deep Tech”.

It’s been a fun six years, and much longer than I expected for a weird kitschy baby book that I had serious doubts about in the beginning. But it touched a nerve in a good way for those of us who enjoy technology and wanted to share our passion with the babies in our lives. Although I’m shutting down further operations it’s been a blast and I’m excited to see what happens with all of our CS Babies going forward. My son for one is now 5 years old and loves programming Roblox, my daughter is more into gymnastics which is awesome. My wife still supports my experiments (thanks baby!). Thanks to everyone who has been a part of the journey. So long and thanks for all the kitsch!

Metaverse Studio Lead at Nike, Author http://deeptechbook.com