No matter how hard I try I usually spend all my days sitting in front of the desktop.
Be it in cafées, my room, a co-working space or clients offices, as a freelance with no fixed office, a standing desk was never a feasible option for me. So when I received an email from Paul and Luke, the founders of StandStand I could not wait to try their portable standing desk. After just one week of diligent standing, my body is already thanking me for this new found habits. Here Luke talks about the idea behind StandStand, the process from the first prototype to the actual product and share some tips for running a successful Kickstarter campaign and a healthier workspace.
Luke How did you come up with the idea of StandStand?
My job as an academic dean at Harvard requires a lot of time on the computer. Over the past few years, I’ve seen the research about how bad for our health it is to sit all day, and I thought a standing desk might help. But my job also requires me to work in many different places (my office, the student cafeteria, libraries, conference rooms, and at home), and I can’t afford a standing desk in each place. During a morning meditation session in January 2014, my mind wandered away from my breathing to the idea that I could solve this problem by inventing some kind of portable standing desk. Since I carried my laptop everywhere without a problem, my goal was to create something that collapsed to the size and shape of my laptop and could turn any desks and tables into a standing desk.
Can you walk us through the step by step from the idea of StandStand to the actual product?
That morning, I thought up my first prototype, a trapezoidal platform with dowels connecting the sides to the base and the top. I bought some wood at Home Depot, cut the pieces in the woodshop found in the basement of one of Harvard’s student dormitories, drilled some holes and glued the dowels, and within a week of getting the idea, I had a prototype in hand. I had thought that sloping the sides of the trapezoid would provide stability, but that wasn’t sound engineering, and the top platform actually moved back and forth very easily. I called a friend at MIT who now runs a lab for NASA. He gave me some ideas for making the trapezoid stable, such as crossbraces in the center or tensioning lines to connect the corners. I tried the crossbraces, which provided incredible stability. My prototype started looking like a Grecian temple with its own stately beauty. But with six pieces instead of four, and with the long crossbraces, I was moving away from my goal of portability and convenience.
I got in touch with my MIT friend again, who suggested I think about triangles for my basic shape, not trapezoids. (Indeed, it was the triangles formed the crossbraces that gave the trapezoid strength.) He recommended I try something shaped like an open book with a platform on top. This made sense to me, since I had actually hacked a standing desk in my office by setting my laptop on a big dictionary opened halfway and standing on edge. My next prototype consisted of two panels connected by hinges and joined by dowels to a third panel running across the top. I also had the idea to offset one of the base panels to form a lopsided T with the other panel, running the third panel across the top. I liked the modern aesthetic of this design. These panels were joined by dowels alone, which I also liked better than using a metal hinge.
I had originally thought that my invention would be something that would just meet a need in my own life. I have a full-time job that I like, and I never have wanted to go into business. But when a student sent me an article about Stand Desk, which did so well on Kickstarter, I saw that many other people might also have a need for this kind of portable standing desk. So I started revising my prototype with a larger audience in mind.
My MIT friend had recommended that I continue working with wood rather than switching to any kind of plastic because the strength-to-weight ratio of wood was hard to beat. I was glad to hear that since wood is much more sustainable than plastic. It also gave me the idea of forming a partnership with my high school friend Paul, who now runs his father’s cabinetry shop in our hometown.
Paul said I would be welcome to work in his shop, so I spent a week there in June 2014 to develop my idea, making a little progress each day. My first step was to make a more professional version of the offset-T design and add some magnets to hold the panels together when they were stacked for transport. It wasn’t bad, but one problem of this design was that if you hit the base panels from a certain angle, the base would separate, so it wasn’t safe enough for a computer. Paul suggested a clever way to lock the base pieces together by passing one through the other. I started experimenting with that idea and found that it worked perfectly to lock the base pieces together.
My next step was to cut away material from the center of each base panel to reduce weight without losing too much strength. I wanted to create a handle by cutting a small part out of the top panel too, and when I did that, I was surprised to find a face staring back at me with the mouth formed by the handle hole and the eyes formed by the slots that connected to the base panels. All of a sudden, the design had a new energy and personality, and it was clear we could use this face in our logo.
It took a few weeks to figure out how to connect the panels so that it felt like a unified object when it was being stored or transported. We thought about a strap or a bag, but we also explore dowels. It didn’t take too long to realize that dowel holes in the face could double as dimples and increase the personality of our logo.
How did you come up with the name?
Coming up with a name was really hard! You need something that is fun and has available online sites (such as URL, Facebook, and so on). My brother-in-law was the one who recommended StandStand on the basis that it’s a computer stand that allows you to stand. That name also parallels other products, like the Book Book. Half the people we tried it out with liked it, and half of them thought it was stupid. We were still tossing around ideas up until the day we shot our Kickstarter video, but once we did that, we were committed. The name has definitely grown on me over the past six months, and I have no regrets.
You launched a successful Kickstarter campaign. What are, for you, the essentials steps for a successful Kickstarter campaign?
Some Kickstarter campaigns launch and receive 50% of their financial goal along with glowing press reviews on the first day. That shows how much advance planning they have done to make contacts and build a following, and it definitely increases your odds of success. But that wasn’t our experience at all. We started planning our campaign in early August, and we needed to finish by late October in time for us to manufacture our rewards by Christmas. At the same time, we wanted to run a long campaign to allow more time for word to spread, so we didn’t have time to line up press reviews before our launch. In the first few weeks of the campaign, we reached out to dozens of journalists with only moderate success. Our big break came when a friend introduced us to a writer at Fast Company. Our next big break came when Slate got in touch. They hadn’t responded to our emails, so we just sent them a sample StandStand, and our playful package design caught their eye.
For other entrepreneurs, my three pieces of advice would be: work your network, invest in samples to send out, and be sure you have quality photographs when blogs want to write articles about you.
A long campaign was the key to our success. We had 400 backers in the first four weeks, and 1,400 backers in our second four weeks. Based on our steady upward curve in that second month, a third month would have sent us even further. But it’s a good thing that we stopped when we did: making 1,800 StandStands in three weeks nearly killed us! We also needed time to regroup, refine our production processes, and reevaluate our pricing model. For other crowdfunders, if your campaign is going really well, it might work well to set a limit on a reward and set up a new reward for the same price but a later delivery date.
Since the Kickstarter campaign how many customers have you had and what are your tactics to grow your customer base?
Our target audience is anyone who uses a laptop and is willing to invest a moderate sum in their health. That number is in the millions of people. But getting StandStand in front of them is challenging. A crowdfunding campaign has a story built in: a creator trying to bring their vision to fruition. People like taking part of a story like that. Now that our campaign is over, it’s harder for us (and for journalists and bloggers) to tell a story about StandStand. However, we still meet a need in people’s lives, and we can play a part in the cultural shift that will allow us to stand more as we use our computers. We are currently selling online. Two of our tactics are looking for bloggers to review free samples and exploring Google AdWords.
What are the three things you learned while starting your own company?
I’ve learned to be more assertive. I’m somewhat shy by nature, and I don’t like talking about the things I’m working on. It’s no surprise that this doesn’t work well when you want people to buy the standing desk you have invented! So I’ve learned that it’s really up to me to make connections with people and be the one to follow up whenever someone expresses an interest. More generally, since this is my first business, I’ve learned something at every stage of the way. There’s nothing like jumping in and trying to figure something out—with your time, money, and reputation on the line—to help you learn quickly: things like running a crowdfunding campaign, developing efficiencies in the manufacturing process, the challenges of shipping, the value of good customer service, and the importance of communicating well with your partners (especially when those partners are your wife and a close friend).
Who do you see as an innovator in your industry and why?
Doctors like James Levine at the Mayo Clinic have sounded the alarm about our sedentary lifestyle and demonstrated that building in some moderate activity, even for standing just part of the time we sit every day, can have a significant impact on our metabolism and long-term health. Without Dr. Levine, I doubt StandStand would have occurred to me.
Can you tell us how you take care of your health daily other than using the StandStand?
- Healthy breakfast : Kale and kefir smoothie, with fruit and nuts. I also try to trick myself into thinking that pull-ups, sit-ups, and kettlebell swings to be the first course of breakfast so that I don’t have to muster the emotional energy later in the day for a “workout.”
- Favorite lunch : Peanut butter and carrot sandwich, an innovation I arrived at by combining my earlier interests in PB and banana sandwiches and peanut but
- Evening routine before going to bed : I stand on one foot with eyes closed while brushing my teeth in order to strengthen my ankles. It’s the same principle of finding small ways to build health into one’s life.
- What you like doing when you are not in front of your computer : Two years ago, I started sailing in the Charles River and Boston Harbor. It’s the best, and each year I can’t wait until summer to get back on the water.