Welcome to a new series called ‘Shop Talk’, where Dan Slaski interviews people in the thick of product development business, who make the magic happen and turn their ideas into reality. Have an interview suggestion? Send it in.
Watching over the Washington DC area is a dynamic duo of hardware entrepreneurship known as the Red Blue Collective. They are daring designers, creators of community, heroes of hustle, senseis of startups, leviathans of launch, and captains of Kickstarters. SolidSmack has exclusive access to unveil their masks and reveal the secret identities of these caped fabricators.
Shop Talk: Red Blue Collective
An interview with Callye Keen
Dan Slaski: Who is Red Blue Collective and what do you do?
Callye Keen: At the core, Red Blue Collective is Mike Hogarty and I. We provide the strategy and resources to help physical product entrepreneurs go from concept to market. Every product and entrepreneur are a new adventure with different requirements and constraints. RBC connects people to our network of partners and resources as needed.
Dan: Where does the name Red Blue Collective come from?
Callye: I see product development as functionally dualistic. Red is for the passion and creativity of ideas. Blue is the logic and process of engineering. Many teams do not immediately perceive how multi-disciplinary creating a product business is. The Collective term describes how we work together with entrepreneurs and our community.
Dan: Have you considered simplifying the name Red Blue Collective to just “purple”?
Callye: Only Prince was cool enough to be purple. Maybe, I could be a little magenta.
Dan: What was the impetus behind the formation of RBC?
Callye: I have worked with organizations of all sizes to develop products for 10 years. I saw entrepreneurs with passion and grit blow through years and their life savings with little planning. I started RBC to help people through the entire process not just the isolated silos of design, marketing, manufacturing, or business consulting. I wanted to show them a process for validating ideas, quickly prototyping designs, and scaling to mass production.
Dan: How did you get your start in hardware design and what about the space continues to drive you?
Callye: I grew up in a creative manufacturing family starting with assembly, QC, and running CNC equipment. I had always tinkered around with CAD. In 2006, I started drawing simple replacement parts. By 2008/2009, I was collaborating with clients providing mechanical design of more complex products. I am driven to create and learn. Working in physical products provides infinite learning experiences as every product presents unique challenges.
Dan: What drew you into the world of product design and what continues to fuel your passion?
Callye: I tried different entrepreneurial paths including software development and web design. For me, nothing really compared to imagining something and seeing it through to creation. Holding an idea in your hand is a singular experience. Sharing that experience with people (making cool stuff) fuels my passion.
Dan: What is unique about your approach to hardware entrepreneurship?
Callye: We are ardent believers in a customer-first mentality. Inventors fall in love with their idea. I do not hold as much ego in ideas. I am obsessed with customers and their problems. Red Blue Collective digs into why someone would want a particular solution. We figure out the value of solving that problem. The process is the same whether we are creating technical commercial products or luxury collectibles.
Dan: There are many stages to getting a product to market. Ideation is just the start. From that basic idea to a refined idea, then from a crude prototype to a functional prototype to a pre-production prototype, and from low volume production to scale and so on. Phases involve different skill sets like marketing, manufacturing, supply chain management, legal, and so on. People will come to you at different points along this trajectory. What is the process for doing an honest assessment of where they are on the path, and then giving them a realistic expectation of what is involved to get them to the next milestone or completion?
Callye: We start any project with a discovery meeting. I have a process that allows us to identify the current state and team needs. I build a roadmap which will likely evolve with validation and prototyping. The most important element I gauge is access to the customer. If a client has no contact or even method of contact with customers, I do not care about any other progress. The idea does not matter. The prototype is irrelevant. The patent was probably a waste of money. Customers, not ideas make businesses. I hurt a lot of feelings.
Dan: What are some of the main misconceptions you see that people have when they are trying to get an idea to market?
Callye: Money is the number one misconception. People want to spend or get investment to spend. Money is gasoline. If you don’t know where you are going, more gas does not help you arrive at the destination. In the worst case, money helps entrepreneurs set their lives on fire.
Marketing is easy. Technical entrepreneurs, even ones with management experience, think marketing is a separate, simple task. When they realize no one cares about (or has even heard about) their product, customers finally become important.
Dan: Is there a formula for successfully getting an idea to market, a framework, or is each case unique?
Callye: People want a formula or recipe with exact steps. They want the secret. From our variety and volume of projects, I have seen no formula, but I have refined a process. Our process allows experimentation and inputs to refine ideas into products. We merge marketing and design activities to prototype the audience, messaging, and product concurrently.
Dan: For an idea to become successful what percentage is idea versus implementation?
Callye: Far more commonly, I have seen the idea get in the way of success. People become intoxicated with their version of reality. I could come up with 100 ideas a day. Ideas are inspiration. The ability to actually execute those ideas is all that matters.
Dan: Hustle, passion, and grit. What is the difference, and which wins?
Callye: I hear the hustle, passion, and grit buzzwords often in the entrepreneur and startup community. I love talking to people about ideas. Part of me loves the attention entrepreneurship receives. Part of me is grossed out. Hustle (to me) is finding the gaps and putting in the work. Passion is connecting with the activity, audience, or outcome on some intellectual and emotional level, aka giving a sh*t. Grit is the persistence to keep going even after you find out that half the time everything is on fire.
The end hype answer is: Do something valuable for people you care about.
Dan: What is your perspective on outsourcing versus DIY?
Callye: DIY is personal development not product development. A good team, internally and externally, is how companies scale. I believe in becoming “conversationally competent”. I want to understand enough about a process or technology to work with an expert. Becoming an expert across all disciplines is not realistic.
Dan: What are some interesting stories/examples of people you have worked with?
Callye: Most of our projects are under NDAs or contracting regulations but I still have some interesting stories to share. After giving presentations on product development at makerspaces, colleges, companies, and community organizations, the number one piece of feedback I received was to provide an example. People wanted context. They did not want to make complex, technical products. They did not have the time or money to pursue something full time. They wanted to use simple resources like those available at the makerspace.
I approached Mike Hogarty and asked him if he wanted to develop a product.
We followed the Red Blue Collective process to develop a product from nothing to Kickstarter launch in 20 days. We shared every lesson learned and piece of research through a short series of classes. The class proceeds funded our prototyping. We made a fidget spinner and sold almost 40k in 2016 (30k from Kickstarter). Since this was before the craze, people did not think our idea had scale. We did another project collaboration with CNC machining artist, Chris Bathgate. Our other business, Revolve Makers was born.
Dan: If you could ride one mythical creature what would it be? What design improvements would you make to it?
Callye: Fenrir. My wolf would not eat me and devour the worlds. We would keep it cool.
Dan: You have deep experience in the world of digital design and fabrication, and the associated intricacies and realities of electromechanical hardware. Consequently, your mentorship must be filtered through this lens. In what ways is that advantageous, and how do you remain unbiased and equally focused on the business, marketing, and other aspects?
Callye: I have become more and more focused on the marketing aspects of bringing ideas to market. Precision manufacturing will always have a special place in my heart. Manufacturing, like design or marketing, is such a broad category of knowledge. I constantly rely on specialized experts for insights.
Dan: In addition to your knowledge and experience, an invaluable resource you provide is your connection to vendors and other experts. How do you view networking, and in what way can it shape the success of a product launch?
Callye: Having a strong network lowers costs, reduces time, and increases quality. In short, better resources can build better products. When an entrepreneur comes to RBC with an idea, we can direct them to local mentorship programs that help to develop their business model. Similarly, we can pull in engineering, manufacturing, or marketing resources to fill in team gaps at the right time. I view product development through the lens of what I can achieve for an audience through available resources.
Dan: What are the main tools that make getting hardware ideas to market more accessible than ever?
Callye: Honestly, social media is the best emergent tool for getting ideas to market. Having the ability to look at trends and contact audiences for potential customers is a game changer. Inventors want to develop in stealth mode. I like to have conversations with people. What do you care about? What problems do you have? Would you pay for that to be better? What would that look like?
Dan: I frequently see you at events (those put on by you and others). Almost every time I go to our MakerSpace, you are there before I arrive and after I leave. You are consistently putting out content on LinkedIn and other platforms. This is all in addition to your other career day job. I didn’t consider myself a slouch, but I may have to reconsider. How do you remain motivated and disciplined to keep building and growing? Do you attribute working as a team to fostering accountability and drive?
Callye: Staying motivated is not easy for anyone. Difficulties and setbacks are part of the process. Anyone who says it is easy is selling you garbage. I have to shift gears to stay going. I will change from design to paperwork to marketing to whatever needs to get done.
I am not being forced to work. I have the opportunity to play the game. My mindset is different. Without sounding too new age, I speak with many new entrepreneurs who think of any work as a chore. They would rather be drinking beer or playing video games or whatever people do. They bring an employee mentality to creating a business.
I am accountable to the people I work with and the people I advise. Watch what I do. Come do it with me. Teams can devolve into the lowest common denominator of effort. You need to be self-motivated and build a level of effort over time.
As an aside, lifting weights is a big part of my routine. The gym gives me energy, discipline, and focus.
Dan: How do you define lean?
Callye: Lean is the continual pursuit of eliminating waste.
Dan: What is the advantage of being lean?
Callye: Lean means being flexible enough to seize different opportunities. In the gig economy, not having employees is an advantage, not a weakness. We rent an office at the makerspace and use local shops for prototyping. Instead of investing in infrastructure, we can be lean while helping to foster the community.
Dan: What is your personal favorite tool for design?
Callye: In the true exploration sense of design, discussions with collaborators and users are my favorite design tool. Discussion allows me to better understand what to build. In the execution sense, I have a long relationship with CAD. I will pop into SolidWorks after a quick sketching session to make sense of my thoughts. Engineering tools help me understand how to build.
Dan: What tool would you recommend for someone outside the world of design with an idea they want to get to market?
Callye: Observation is the ultimate tool for someone outside of the design world. If I want to build a new thing, I find existing products with similar features. The exercise forces me to break down sometimes complex systems into simple elements. A trip to a big box store toy department can demonstrate so many design elements (hinges, gears, buttons, DFM techniques). These analogs are shortcuts to understanding the complexity and cost of developing an idea. The research will help an entrepreneur convey the idea to partners.
Other than learning to observe critically, I am always telling people to participate. Go to the makerspace. Find an inventor club. Surround yourself with smart people intentionally bettering themselves.
Dan: We both spend a lot of time at our local MakerSpace (shout out to NOVA Labs). Besides the low-cost access to space and tools, what makes makerspaces such a great place for hardware entrepreneurs? I believe we are shifting towards a landscape of increasing solopreneurship and manufacturing democratization. In addition to all the other benefits, I think makerspaces are local vanguards of this new entrepreneurship trend. Do you feel similarly, and where do you think this trend will go?
Callye: Makerspaces are about connecting with people that share similar passion and drive. When I first started exploring makerspaces, the community aspect was not immediately intuitive. I saw a collection of hobby equipment and some neat projects. As I started speaking at makerspaces, incubators, and colleges around the region, the community opened up to me. I met amazing people. My concept of product development evolved as I understood their real challenges.
I definitely agree with the solopreneurship trend. RBC has no employees but takes on sizable projects. I do not see a trend of manufacturing democratization as much I see virtualization of resources. The traditional mindset of engineering and manufacturing is to control and own production. With new services, entrepreneurs can outsource manufacturing like large companies. With some effort and knowledge, you can take an idea to mass production from behind a computer.
The local community needs a makerspace focused on entrepreneurship. I see successes elsewhere and would like to bring that to DC. The needs and culture of entrepreneurship are different (not better) than people focused on personal learning or craft.
Dan: Is it fair to say that a big part of your strategy is grassroots?
Callye: Red Blue Collective is definitely grassroots. We have helped corporate customers create internal innovation programs but we are very involved in the local community. We are helping to foster an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region through events, like Empower2Make, and programs, like Startups Ignite Accelerate24.
Dan: What new big things do you have going on?
Callye: We have some projects about to launch. You can follow me on Instagram (@callyekeen) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/redbluecollective) to find out what is happening. Beyond products, we just attended the big IMTS tradeshow in September. Red Blue Collective organized a maker-entrepreneur meetup at the show and inviting our community. IMTS showcases 1.4 million square feet of manufacturing technology. Inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs, designers, etc. all benefit from understanding the art of the possible and seeing the future of manufacturing.