To answer this question, it helps to think about WHY we exist.
Inventables was founded on the premise that “Anything’s Possible”. The spirit behind that phrase can be explained by Thomas Edision’s quote, “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” In the beginning, Inventables worked on building a brand and a company around our belief in Yankee ingenuity and the can-do spirit. We believed that, given an idea and a relentlessly curious disposition, you could build anything. Over the years our customers proved this to be true. For example:
Peter Skillman, the former VP of Design at Palm, was faced with a challenge when working on the Palm docking station. He found that the station could easily be knocked off of a desk, causing the phone to fall and the screen to crack. He found micro-suction tape through Inventables and used it to solve this problem.
The micro-suction tape was used on the bottom of the docking station, as seen in this picture provided by Palm Info Center. It's got tiny little micro-suction cups so there is no sticky residue.
For years, hackers, makers, and students have lusted over the materials, like micro-suction tape, listed on inventables.com, but access to them has only been granted by paying subscription fees. Typically, only major corporations have been able to afford access. We originally took this path because we bootstrapped the business. We didn't have the money to fund longer term initiatives and used our customers' subscription fees to fund our growth. Customers paid their annual subscription fees up front, and we used that revenue to hire researchers to find and procure all the materials on our website. In exchange for the subscription fees, users gained access to the contact information for the vendors and we shipped them a sample of each material.
This subscription service was wildly popular amongst industrial design departments specializing in consumer products. At our peak, 20% of all Fortune 500 companies, including 7 of the top 10 most innovative, subscribed to Inventables. Design firms, artists, and small companies longed for access to the materials but weren’t able to afford it…until now.
Inventables is a mission-based company. We've always used long term thinking to guide our decisions. In 2009, we raised some venture capital to help us begin to realize our long term vision for the company. Roughly two years ago, we started giving away access to our collection of materials for free. Some questioned the validity of this approach since, at that time, we earned nearly all our revenue from selling information. We realized that in order to have a bigger impact on the world and to bring our idea to a much larger audience, we had to innovate and push ourselves forward. With the most recent model, we earned revenue by selling sales leads to the suppliers and manufacturers that produce the materials. This approach grew the size of our audience by roughly 300%, from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand. After analyzing thousands of inquiries from potential customers, we discovered that roughly 70% were trying to buy a sample or a small quantity of our materials for prototyping.
A few weeks ago, with this data in hand, Inventables started working with our suppliers to make their products available for sale in small quantities. So far the response has been tremendous. Here is a sampling of a few that can now be purchased through our site:
In the coming months, we’ll be working with our other suppliers to make their products available for sale through Inventables. Our goal is to eventually have all the materials available in small quantities so that someone doing research and development can easily buy them for prototyping.
We believe this is an exciting time in the history of the world because the existence of the internet and search engines like Google has made access to information immediate and essentially free. With manufacturing moving to Asia, most of the product development work being done in the US revolves around R&D projects, prototyping, and short runs for testing. At the same time, the Maker community has exploded. Make Magazine and Maker Faire have joined some of the more traditional science and engineering magazines, like Popular Science, Wired, Popular Mechanics, Design News, and Machine Design, in bringing new energy and new blood to the art of building. In addition to all of this traditional media, the web has also provided new ways for people to share what they build, from sites like Etsy and 1000markets where you can sell handmade goods to sites like Instructables where you can learn how to do just about anything.
We believe that by making information about materials and how they have been used free, along with making them available in small quantities for purchase, we can help our customers explore what's possible. This, in turn, will lead to a larger audience of makers and even more product innovation. We believe we're democratizing access to materials, and new, smaller teams will have similar access that major corporations have. These new teams will give product innovation departments at great companies like Nike, Apple, and Boston Scientific a run for their money.
We invite you to come explore what's possible and challenge you to think about what you would build with a squishy magnet.
Stephanie started Laf, Inc., a Florida-based industrial design firm, in 2002. Many clients have walked into her office with such napkins in hand, hoping to turn their rough sketches into finished, sellable products. She’s worked on everything from packaging for an organic line of soap to designing promotional pieces and advertisements for a fashion label. She says, “Every day is a different challenge,” acknowledging that her diverse array of projects keeps work from becoming boring.
It’s that spirit for embracing new challenges that has driven Stephanie throughout her life. She left business school to pursue her passion for design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, starting her company shortly after graduating. And she takes on these varied projects, even though they can be difficult and unpredictable at times. In order to introduce structure into her exciting and ever-changing schedule, she’s developed a distinct 12 step program that she uses for each design project that she takes on.
Stephanie’s process includes defining the project concept with the client, coming up with branding, packaging, and advertisements, and prototyping and manufacturing the products. While much of the design work comes naturally to her, there’s one part of the process that always presents a challenge – finding materials to make the finished products. She says, “Material sourcing is its own ballgame. The most difficult part is having enough time to source the materials.” She says that many of the traditional avenues for finding these resources aren’t efficient, especially for small businesses like Laf, Inc.
At Inventables, we’ve recently started selling small quantities of materials and technologies online in an attempt to help designers like Stephanie explore what’s possible. We believe that if we can create an easily accessible catalog of materials for a vast array of projects, we can make material sourcing simple and efficient for Stephanie and other passionate designers that are driven to find the best solution, rather than the available solution.
As we continue to develop our online store, Stephanie’s business continues to blossom. She has multiple new products hitting the market at the end of 2010. And eight years after starting Laf, Inc., her passion is still evident. “You only live one time, and you should do it your own way. Who doesn’t want to design and make people happy?” And she is definitely making her clients happy, one scribbled napkin at a time.