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One of the biggest obstacles designers face is finding manufacturers willing to invest in their untested ideas. Crowd funding has changed all that for a number of upstarts, as seen in our interview with London studio Brose Fogale.

This is also true for Top & Derby, a Winnipeg design studio devoted to improving the aesthetic and functionality of home healthcare products.

This spring, the studio launched Chatfield, a stylish walking cane that comes in three colours. Its design is stripped to the bare essentials but boasts some clever detailing, including a gently angled handle that lets you lean the cane against a wall. (You can read more about it here.)

Azure spoke to the designers about why they are tapping the home healthcare industry and why they believe crowd funding is the best way to get their products made.

AZURE: Tell us how you got started with Top & Derby.

Matthew Kroeker: We started creating prototypes for canes and other products for the home healthcare market two years ago. We developed a lot of insight from just tinkering, and by conducting valuable user-centric research. The main thing we discovered was that most people are embarrassed to use home healthcare products. The durable medical equipment (DME) industry is worth $31-billion, yet it consists mostly of low-cost and low-quality products that are virtually identical. It’s almost as if the products are being designed without considering the end-user.

We spoke with many cane users and found out they are used by different kinds of people – not just your grandpa. Think about it: injured athletes use them; post-operative patients use them; even celebrities like Brad Pitt use them. It’s such a personal object, yet it’s one of the worst offenders of poor design. Most canes are clinical-looking and do very little to help the user deal with the stigma of disability. We narrowed our design down to one model, the Chatfield, due to its simple aesthetic and functional design.

AZ: And you turned to Indiegogo to launch it.

MK: Yes, we did a soft launch through Indiegogo’s 30-day crowd funding platform. That allowed us to test the market before putting Chatfield into production. We spent $5,000 and generated $22,000 in pre-sales. We also received some great media exposure, which really added merit to our venture.

AZ: Why did you decide to use crowd funding?

Ben Grynol: It proved to be the most effective and risk-free way to test the market. The campaign gave us valuable feedback without investing in pricey start-up fees for such things as injection moulds and custom tooling.

AZ: Were you surprised to get the funding you needed?

MK: When we established our goals, we wanted to be realistic. We knew it was a bit of a gamble since product design in the crowd funding community is largely dominated by tech projects, and it is often supported by a much younger (non-cane-using) demographic. So we were really encouraged to receive support from various age groups and backgrounds.

BG: It was a roller-coaster ride because we would get a surge in support from new backers following a bit of media exposure. If we went a few days without any press, the momentum slowed down. Overall, we were pumped we hit our goal. We pounded the pavement to try and get as much attention as possible.

AZ: What would you say are the main pros and cons of crowd funding?

BG: It’s a great way to gain traction with a new venture. It allows ideas to go viral, whereas launching products through traditional manufacturing and marketing channels, you can’t generate the same kind of exposure as quickly, especially when you are working with a limited amount of capital.

AZ: Any notable oversights or omissions you hadn’t anticipated?

Gerrit de Vries: We wanted to ensure we could meet all our commitments to our supporters. The last thing we wanted to do was under-forecast costs or run into problems with delivery. There are some pretty bad stories floating around about crowd funding projects gone bad, and we didn’t want to join that graveyard.

AZ: What was your initial financial output?

MK: We spent about $3,000 creating prototypes. With CNC and 3-D printing so readily available now, it’s become much easier to design, test and revise multiple iterations of an idea. We are really capitalizing on those technologies to keep our process efficient and economical.

AZ: Is the next step finding a manufacturer?

GdV: Not really. We can capture a lot of value through the entire customer experience by maintaining control of our own production and distribution. We want to keep developing mobility aids and other products within the DME market, and we will likely continue to design and distribute them.

AZ: Crowd funding is still a relatively new way for designers to produce and distribute. In your view, what makes it a logical route for building a studio?

MK: Until recently, designers were pretty much limited to producing their wares in short runs or as prototypes with the odd design attracting manufacturers willing to license the idea. The trouble is that the manufacturers often want an established name. I don’t think the average crowd-funding backer discriminates like that. They are looking for a great idea to invest in, not a name or a brand.

Crowd funding is a very accessible venue, though it does come with a certain amount of responsibility because you have to deliver. That is no easy task. We’ve done our homework though. By researching materials and soliciting quotes, we were able to get most of our ducks in a row. This won’t guarantee success, but it will help us avoid costly mistakes down the road.

AZ: What other products are you planning to launch?

BG: For now we’re focused on the Chatfield, but we are hoping to expand our product range. So far, it’s been a great experience and as a designer, there’s nothing more fun than trying to disrupt a stagnant industry. When there are a few large players in an industry like DME, and each company competes on price while creating virtually the same goods, then there’s always room for innovation. It’s a case of David and Goliath as we try to compete against these large players.

This interview is part of an online series devoted to designers who are finding alternative ways to get things made. Past interviews: Carrot Concept on collaboration, Luca Nichetto on designer-led manufacturing, Brose Fogale on crowd funding and Andrey Grishko on making his own furniture machine.

Follow the conversation – and let us know what you’re doing differently to get your stuff out there – on Twitter and Facebook using #AZasks.
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