What would you do for a better cup of coffee?
For engineers Gleb Polyakov and Igor Zamlinsky, the answer was simple: build a better espresso machine.
Burned by flaws in the way home espresso machines are designed, manufactured and sold, Gleb and Igor set out to create a new kind of open source espresso machine that could produce a better beverage at a more reasonable price. But they never expected their Kickstarter project to catch on in such a jaw-dropping way. Originally seeking $20,000 to help manufacture the first round of ZPM Espresso machines, their project has already earned more than ten times that amount, thus proving that coffee lovers will do anything to fuel a project they truly believe in.
Here, Gleb Polyakov talks about the lessons they learned from their wildly successful Kickstarter project, and why you can never budget too much time for answering emails.
CrowdFundingHelp (CFH): Your espresso machine concept seems potentially disruptive to the home coffee market, especially at a $300 retail price. How important was reducing the typical $700 retail price to your initial business plan, and how did that impact the choices you made in designing the product?
Gleb Polyakov (GP): The $300 price point – and it might be closer to $400 by the time we get it to market; we’ve been speaking with a pricing specialist – was one of our major goals with the project. We feel that price is a huge barrier for consumers who want to enter the home espresso market. The very cheapest machine that espresso enthusiasts recommend for home use starts at around $700, and from an engineering standpoint, we couldn’t see a reason why this had to be the case.
The project began as a series of conversations about what we want in an espresso machine, and when we sat down and priced out all the parts and effort that it would take to actually do it, we saw a huge opportunity in the market.
Design-wise, this price point meant that we had to sacrifice the sleek and curvy, ’50s-Italian-sports-car look that a lot of machines have. Flat surfaces and hard angles are a lot cheaper and easier to make and work with. We think that our final design looks pretty good, though.
Another reason we can offer the machine at such a low price is our decision to go with as many off-the-shelf components as possible. This means that most of our parts are coming from catalogs, McMaster-Carr or Home Depot. A lot of espresso machine manufacturers custom-make the parts they use, which raises costs without necessarily improving quality. Plus it means that the machines are more expensive for the consumer to repair, and we didn’t think that was fair.
CFH: What led you to choose Kickstarter as your production funding platform? Had you explored any other crowdfunding platforms prior to launching your Kickstarter project?
GP: We chose Kickstarter because it seemed to have the best interface and most interesting projects compared to other similar crowd-funding platforms that we looked at. We thought it would be a great way to spread the word about our project while raising some more seed capital.
CFH: How did you come up with your initial $20,000 funding goal?
GP: The $20,000 funding goal was how much we needed to purchase a Tormach PCNC 1100, a machine that mills cast metals into shape, with a couple of add-ons, as well as build a foundry for casting our thermoblock. We weren’t trying to fund all of our start-up costs from Kickstarter – though we ended up getting a lot more support than we ever anticipated.
CFH: Since Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing funding platform, did you have a backup plan if your project fell short of its goal?
GP: We approached Kickstarter not as our main way of raising funding, but rather as an alternative to some kind of lease-to-own deal for getting equipment. It’s grown to be a lot more than that. The crowd-funding platform is really amazing.
For us, the way to build a great machine was to start from the consumer’s point of view. And the Kickstarter ideology meshed so well with that. So it made sense to get in touch with a community of interested people right away, and tell them about what we were doing, and see what suggestions they had.
CFH: How did you promote your project?
GP: We didn’t. At least, we didn’t get a chance to.
We did have a marketing strategy in place – we have two other folks on staff, Rachel and Janet, who are doing all the marketing and customer outreach. But the thing seriously took on a life of its own right away. I posted a link to it on my Facebook, and we set up a Twitter and Facebook page for ZPM, but by the end of the first day we had already reached $10,000, and after that we spent most of our time reacting to all the responses it generated, rather than promoting it to others.
The espresso community is tight-knit and really serious about coffee, and they’ve been interested in what we were doing from the very beginning. And then we started to get more and more backers from the Kickstarter community – people who weren’t necessarily coffee enthusiasts, but saw our project had been successful and went to go see what it was all about.
CFH: When did you reach your original $20,000 goal?
GP: Early on the second day. It was unbelievable.
CFH: As I type this, you’ve already raised $237,000, which is more than ten times your initial projection. To what do you attribute the runaway success of this project?
GP: I attribute the success of the project to the platform, the crowd-funding community, and the amazing people who started blogging and tweeting about it. We were on Gizmodo on something like the third day of our funding period. But also, our product taps into a niche that hasn’t really been explored. We were extremely lucky in having both a product that people find interesting, and also access to a great community of people through various social media outlets.
CFH: How has the project’s success changed your own expectations for your business?
GP: It’s forced us to start looking into things like warehousing fees, distribution rights, and large-scale equipment investments far earlier than we thought we would have to. It’s been very exciting, and we’re learning a lot.
Since our Kickstarter went up, Igor and I have been working basically 20 hours a day, and Janet and Rachel have been doing the same. The workload distribution that Igor and I have is that he mainly deals with the engineering side of things and I mainly deal with the business side, although there is of course overlap. I’ve been handling most of the correspondence (with the tremendous help and support of our marketing team), leaving Igor more time to spend on the technical aspects our project.
CFH: What is your current production and shipping schedule, based on your increased volume?
GP: Initially we estimated that we would be able to start shipping machines in mid-March 2012. Of course, that was when we thought we’d be looking at maybe 100 machines. Because the order volume was so huge, we’ve had to totally rethink how we’re going to fulfill orders.
Before, we thought we’d be buying parts from suppliers, but now we’ve got a large enough order that we’ll be getting them in our own batch from manufacturers. That means we’ll have a longer lead time before production can start. But because we raised so much money, we can get more equipment and hire more employees than we thought we could. So we’re looking for production now to start in mid-May or so, and shipping the first batch out the next month. But we’ll be able to ship more machines per month than we initially thought.
CFH: In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently in the creation or promotion of your project?
GP: We would have set our funding period to 30 days instead of 40, had we ever thought we would be so successful so quickly. Also, we would have dedicated more time solely to Kickstarter and answering questions from the community. The enthusiasm that our project has generated took us completely off guard, and we just hadn’t scheduled in to our timeline the time it takes to answer hundreds and hundreds of e-mails, each with individual concerns and questions.
CFH: When the espresso community started asking questions and giving you suggestions, did that kind of feedback in any way change your business plan? Or did it simply affect the volume of sales, rather than the core functionality of the machine (or of your customer service approach)?
GP: The community response to our project has been very helpful on many levels. The volume and enthusiasm behind it is really helping us to better understand where we fit into the espresso machine market, and who our core customers are.
One of the first messages we got was from Tek of 10000shots.com, who recommended we order a Scace II, which is a device used to produce pressure and temperature profiles of a machine’s espresso shot. This is the standard device used by coffee professionals, and those serious about coffee. Unfortunately, we’ve still not received it (it was on backorder), but as soon as we do, we can show the community exactly the data that they want to see about our machine.
Thanks to the feedback, we’ve also been better able to understand what kind of steam wand design is optimal (people prefer a spherical pivot to a cylindrical one, and with a tip threading that accepts La Marzocco tips), which tips are considered best (those with 4 holes), and so on.
Basically, we’ve been amassing multiple opinions about various usability issues regarding espresso machines, pulling out the most popular, and have been trying to incorporate them into our product.
The responses have also put us in touch with a lot of very intelligent people, who have given us some of their time to discuss various topics like coding, sheet metal fabrication, business strategy, project management, and so on.
In regards to our customer service approach, a mantra that Janet got us all behind early on is to respond to all of the questions and comments people send us, in the way that we would want them answered ourselves. We’re not using stock answers, or synergizing our backward overflow, but rather treating the people who are sending e-mails to our Kickstarter and ZPM accounts the same way we would if they sent them to our personal e-mail.
The crowd-sourcing ethos, the idea of a group of people coming together and each contributing what they can to make something awesome, really resonates with us. It’s our backers and supporters that are allowing us to make this espresso machine a reality, and we’re humbled and grateful. Once we put the Kickstarter up, in a lot of ways it stopped being solely our machine, and we’re doing all we can to make sure that everyone who pledged their support gets a product that they’re happy with.
The ZPM Espresso project ends it Kickstarter run on January 20, 2012. Follow along with the machine’s design and testing on its Facebook page, and check out photos and details from their testing sessions at the Batdorf Brewing Lab.