2,412 crowdsourcing and crowdfunding sites
Every so often, we stumble across a crowdfunded project so cool we need to learn more about it — then share our newfound knowledge with everyone we know. That’s why we’re starting this semi-regular “Crowdfunding Spotlight” feature, where we speak to the people behind the most audacious and exciting crowdfunding campaigns. In this inaugural spotlight article, we speak with Ari Atkins, co-founder of Unplugged Instruments and designer of the Unlimited Electric Guitar.
Conceived by Atkins in a Stanford mechanical engineering class, the Unlimited Electric Guitar does away with massive amplifiers and snaking cables. Instead, the Unlimited's body houses a powerful amp and speaker, allowing for a truly portable electric guitar experience. But this next-generation guitar doesn’t stop there: it can also interact with an iPhone app, which offers a bevy of features and effects.
To learn more about the Unlimited Guitar, check out our conversation with Atkins below, or visit the Unlimited Kickstarter page.
Eric Blattberg, Crowdsourcing.org: Tell me but about the journey from the conception of the Unlimited Guitar to where you are today. How did you come up with the idea, and what has the process of building the guitar been like?
Ari Atkins, Co-founder of Unplugged Instruments: I took a mechanical engineering class at Stanford in the beginning of my junior year. The goal of the class is to learn your way around a machine shop and to start thinking about product design and manufacturing. Really, the only assignment for the class is to make something. The requirements are that it has to be made out of mostly metal or plastic, and that it has to be safe to use. That's about it.
I just moved, and when you move you become really conscious of all the stuff that you have that you don't really need. If I was going to make something, have another thing in my life, I wanted to make something that was important and that I was going to use often. I realized that one of the only things I did every day was play guitar, so it seemed logical to make a guitar. I thought about it more and more and I realized that I love playing electric guitar, but I never did because my amp weighed about 50 pounds and it sat behind my bed, my ex-girlfriend's bike, and our laundry. You know, once a week I would go through the effort to move all the stuff and get my amp out, so I very rarely played electric guitar. I almost always played acoustic guitar even though I am really an electric guitar player, so I decided that if I could play electric guitar more easily it would make my life better.
With that in mind, I set off on this project to build the first guitar with an electric amplifier built-in. After coming up with the idea, it took about eight weeks to arrive at a physical prototype. It looked really goofy, and it was really heavy, but it sounded awesome; in fact, it sounded way better than I ever expected it to. I didn't really think I was onto something, because it had been tried before; people had made these guitars with amplifiers built-in and they all sounded like crap, so I assumed mine would too. I mean, what do I know that people making guitars for years and years don't? It was the first guitar I had ever made. But for whatever reason, I put the thing together, I tried to make all the right decisions to get it to sound as good as possible, and it sounded really great. It made my life better.
I took it with me wherever I went. If I was just biking around campus, I'd play it while riding my bike. When I went on vacation to Greece, I brought it there. When I went to New York, I brought it there. Wherever I brought it, people came up to me and said, "That's so cool. Where did you get it? I want one." So that was when I realized that this idea could turn into a business of some sort. And also, at the time, I was starting to think about what I wanted to do after I finished Stanford. I realized I was going to finish early (I was actively trying to get out of there as fast as I could, because I wanted to do stuff in the real world). So I started toying with the idea of building this into a company and trying to look for funding.
Meanwhile, I took another job working at Acorn Product Development. I was working there part time, and the other days, I was working on the guitar's mechanical design and just looking for funding, calling everybody I knew who knew about where to find funding for guitar. Finally I met Jeremy Conrad, who had just started an incubator called Lemnos Labs, which only funds hardware startups. Lemnos liked what we were doing, and offered us $50,000 and a place to work for five months. Naturally, we took it. Ever since then we've been in their warehouse space in SoMa, San Francisco, developing our product, improving it, adding new features, building the iPhone app and so on. And then just last week we launched on Kickstarter, trying to sell it to the world.
So why crowdfunding, and more specifically, why Kickstarter?
Number one, we wanted to get a product out there, and it seemed like the fastest and easiest way to do it because it pretty much takes care of your entire overhead. We don't have the money right now to do a production run, so through Kickstarter we can raise the money first, and actually make money on pre-orders rather than having to produce them first and then sell them. Since we only raised $50,000, which we used to start the company and do all of the development, we don't have any money to foot the bill on production.
We picked Kickstarter specifically because it is the most popular platform, and we know a lot of people who have had a lot of success there. One of the mentors for our incubator is Eric Migicovsky from Pebble, another is Alex Andon from Jellyfish Art, and they both spoke highly of Kickstarter and recommended it, so it seemed like the right thing to do. We kicked around ideas of using Indiegogo or one of the other platforms, but with the broadest audience, Kickstarter seemed like the best option at this stage.
I understand that crowdfunding isn't the only type of crowdsourcing you've used while working on Unplugged Instruments. You also crowdsourced some design work, right?
Yeah, we did our logo with 99 Designs. I love that model so much. We offered $300, and we got 60 ideas, so that's hundreds of hours of work for really cheap — and then we were able to work with the designers to get their ideas closer to what we wanted, and ultimately we got something that we were really happy with for a very reasonable price. So I think that worked really well.
So do you find crowdsourcing and the web pretty empowering as you go about starting this company? The technology to make this guitar might've been around 10 years ago, but you certainly couldn't have gone about it in the same way.
Well, some parts of the technology were there, others weren't; a lot of stuff we are doing with the iPhone is related to the technology that is recent, of course. An iPhone has more processing power than a whole recording studio from 10 years ago, so we're using it to do really awesome stuff with music. But in terms of sales and being able to start a hardware company, it kind of goes along with what Lemnos Labs is doing and what they're all about: hardware companies have this really bad rap in the Silicon Valley.
A web company is really easy to start; all you need is a laptop and an Internet connection, and you can work in Starbucks and create millions and millions of dollars in value in a relatively short amount of time. Hardware companies cost a lot more money to get started, and they need access to a lot more resources, but platforms like Kickstarter significantly lower the barrier to entry. Before, I would have to establish a brand, and if I wanted to go directly to consumers, I would either have to build my own website or negotiate a deal with the retailer, like Guitar Center or Walmart or whoever. Now I can just go into a marketplace where there's already a lot of people who are looking for new, cool things, and we can just talk directly to them.
So your Kickstarter campaign has been up for a week or so, and you've raised more than 25 percent of your $50,000 goal. Are you pleased with the reaction so far?
Yeah, we are pretty pleased. We launched on Tuesday, June 5, and we haven't really done any press yet, so it's all just been a natural social media thing, with people who like our guitar sending it out to their friends. Also, my cofounder and I are finishing up Stanford right now. We hunkered down and studied for finals all last week, so we haven't really been doing much promotion. So with very little effort, we managed to hit 25% of our goal — and I think now that we have more time to promote and go around and talk to blogs and reporters, it should pick up even more soon.
So tell me a bit about the iPhone app and how it's going to work with the guitar. Also, you're interested in doing an Android app down the line, right?
The iPhone app relates to what I was talking about earlier: how can we make the experience of playing electric guitar easier and more convenient? I thought, the iPhone has all of this processing power, let's put it to use and do something with it. We're building all these effects: you can put on distortion, reverb, delay, echo, flange, whatever you want. You don't need a pedal or anything. Some of this stuff is still in the works, and some of it we've already built. So that's pretty exciting because it all empowers the guitarist to be more creative with their sound and have as many options as possible.
We want to do an Android app as soon as possible, and it all essentially revolves around how much money we get from our Kickstarter campaign. The more we have, the more we can do. We chose to develop on iOS for now because we want to create as much value as we can, as soon as we can. As soon as we have the money to go ahead and hire an Android programmer, we'll go ahead and build the same functionality into Android.
So right now this is wired — that is, you need to plug in the iPhone to the guitar to make the app work. Have you looked into making this wireless down the road? Is that even possible, or is that technologically infeasible?
We have plans to develop a wireless version, but our first release will be wired. Beyond that, I can't comment on that at this time.
Well, in terms of what's wired, going from a 50-pound amp to a 5-ounce iPhone is a pretty massive improvement.
Yeah, certainly. So the iPhone also allows you to record yourself, then loop back and play along to what you recorded, which is a whole lot of fun. Or you can also play along to any song in your iTunes library, which is also a lot of fun. That's something that's a huge value added, because even if you got your big amp and you want to play along to a song in your iTunes — and I used to struggle with this — you have to screw with your stereo system and mess with the levels for a while so that the guitar doesn't overpower the music or vice versa. Now, it just mixes it all really nicely for you. It's all coming through the same sound system, so by default it's all at the appropriate levels. You just hit play and it goes.
Plus, if you're ever really, really drunk at a party, and want to stop playing guitar, you can just use it as a sound system, I guess.
Yeah, absolutely. You don't even need to go into our app for that, you can just do it straight out of iTunes. You can play whatever you want through it. It's really high-quality audio.
So even for the less talented musicians among us, it still has some functionality.
Yep. Or you could even play the song in pantomime and pretend that you're playing along to it.
That's what I'd be doing. (laughs)
Well that kind of brings up another point: most of the stuff in the guitar tech space is really geared towards people who don't know play guitar. These toys, essentially, are really interesting for people who don't know how to play, but the main thing with our product is that it's a real instrument. It's not just playing you back soundbites. And I should clarify, you don't need the iPhone to make it work at all — the iPhone just expands its functionality.
Well, I wish you the best of luck with the rest of your Kickstarter campaign. Full disclosure to all the Crowdsourcing.org readers out there: I thought this project was pretty awesome, so I plunked down a bit of cash to back the project and support these guys.
Yeah, I saw that. You got the T-shirt. That's another great thing about Kickstarter — and again, this is the only crowdfunding platform I've used so I'm not trying to compare it to others — but what I do love about Kickstarter is that I can see who's backing my project as it's going. The whole reason why were doing this is so we can interact with our users really early on. We want to get their feedback and make the best possible product for them. That's what it's all about: creating something that will be useful and make people's lives better. So as soon as somebody puts their money down, I can start a conversation with them about what they actually want. I love that, that's great.
I do as well. Let's wrap this up here: do you have any last comments or thoughts that you want to share with our readers?
Our goal is to make it easier for people to play music anytime, anywhere, without limits. If that's something you're interested in, please go back our Kickstarter campaign. (laughs)
Well it was a pleasure talking to you and learning about the project.
At the time of writing, another 60 rockers can snag an Unlimited Guitar — estimated to ship in October 2012 — by pledging $275 or more to Unplugged Instruments’ Kickstarter campaign. The latecomers will have to shell out at least $299 to pre-order Atkins’ creation.