Episode #23 – From Corporate World to Freelancing to Running a Hardware Startup with Roberto Weiser of Developpa
In this episode of the Predictable Designs Podcast I speak with Roberto Weiser of Developpa about how he left his life in a cubicle to became a full-time freelance engineer.
Roberto is an electronics engineer that started work in the corporate world but wanted more freedom. So he started freelancing full-time.
Eventually, he decided to develop his own product which is a low-cost air purifier. Roberto faced some unique challenges being located and selling in a foreign country (Thailand).
He also faced various other unique challenges that required him to be adaptable in order to deliver his product as promised.
This is a great episode with tons of great lessons learned that you don’t want to miss!
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Roberto Weiser of Developpa
John Teel: On today’s episode of the Predictable Designs podcast, I’ve got Roberto Weiser of Developpa. Roberto is someone I’ve known for a couple of years. He’s an engineer.
I had worked with him a couple of years ago and then he ended up joining the Hardware Academy and he has brought his own product to market in Thailand. He offered to come on the podcast and share some of the lessons that he has learned bringing his first product to market. Welcome to the show, Roberto.
Roberto Weiser: Thank you, John.
John: Glad to finally have you on the show. I know that we’ve tried to schedule this call for a while but Roberto lives in Thailand, so that the time difference was quite challenging, but we got it to work.
Thank you so much for waking up bright and early to do this call. I really appreciate it and I know the listeners do as well. We’ll get into some of the extra challenges that you’ve run into with your product and your startup being based in a foreign country in Thailand. We’ll touch on that eventually.
Can you maybe just to give listeners a quick intro to Roberto Weiser and your start0– Well, you have two companies. You have Developpa which is ‘Develop’ with two Ps and an A at the end. That’s your engineering services company.
Then AirDeveloppa is your hardware startup that develops air quality-related products. If you could introduce yourself and maybe tell everyone a little bit about your background, and then we can start talking about your product as well.
Roberto: Yes, sure. To keep it brief, I was born and raised in Venezuela in Latin America. I then left to the UK when I was 18, where I studied electronics engineering at the University of Plymouth. I also worked for a year there as an audio engineer at Cambridge Audio, just doing designing and giving technical support for devices such as amplifiers, ducts, CD players, so on.
After that, I left to Spain where I studied master’s in renewable energies and then landed a corporate job at a American or US company called Lear. They develop electronics for cars. I stay there for two years.
I got to meet really good professional engineers, work in a project, designing the battery management systems for the new generation of mobile cars. That was quite cool. It was going great. Actually, my salary was above average for Spain. I was quite happy in some way. In another way, I just felt that something wasn’t quite right. That’s when I felt I should try something else, decide to leave my job, started this website called Developpa.
Initially, my idea was to make it a educational website. I posted a lot of articles about electronics, tutorials, different downloadable resources for junior electronic engineers. After I had my first client, which was almost by chance, I realized that I enjoy much more design and development, rather than just writing educational content.
That’s how everything started to steer to just keeping doing engineering work and developing products, rather than just writing articles about electronics.
John: Got you. Was it like the corporate life that turned you away from the path that you were on? Or was it the actual work that you were doing you didn’t enjoy? Or was it more you just wanted more freedom and something bigger and not just a nine to five type job?
Roberto: Yes, I started to read some books about values or what values are important for you. I didn’t realize back then but freedom was a really important value. I was just getting saturated and turned off by the standard eight to six or nine to five, and limited holidays. Even though maybe now I have less holidays than before but at least I can choose them.
John: You don’t get a whole lot of paid holidays when you work for yourself.
Roberto: [chuckles] Yes.
John: You definitely have more flexibility. I can definitely relate. I had the similar process. I didn’t move around quite as much and had worked for TI for 10 to 11 years. I just got tired of being in it.
Even though they gave me so much flexibility. I could work from home a couple of days a week. It just wasn’t something I wanted to do. I felt like I was spending too much of my life sitting inside of a cubicle and I wanted to go explore and see beautiful places.
That’s what drove me down that entrepreneurial path to try to get more freedom just as it sounds very similar for you. It sounds like from your engineering background that, and I already knew this already from knowing you. It sounds like audio and then battery management systems are your two main areas where you have a lot of experience, is that correct?
Roberto: Yes, definitely, that’s where I started, where I’ve spent a few years in those two areas or categories. It’s not like I focus 100% on that.
John: Yes, of course.
Roberto: I can definitely work on projects that are related to it. Actually, my current projects, some, yes, they do have batteries. It’s not like a BMS of an electric vehicle, which is like a whole system.
John: Yes, it’s just a rechargeable USB battery or something like that. Not a complex system like a battery management system in a car.
Roberto: Yes, exactly.
John: Although, obviously, these experiences serve you well for doing all those types of design. When you’re doing freelance work, which can be good and bad but you get a variety of different types of projects. Most freelancers can’t be so picky that they only do audio design and nothing else which is nice. It’s nice if you like that if you want the variety that you get doing freelance work.
It also makes it a little more challenging to come up with processes and become more predictable and have that natural, efficient process for doing the development when you’re doing lots of different types of projects.
Roberto: Yes, that’s something as well about freelancing that you need to wear two hats, both the engineer and the manager. While when you work at the company, you normally do one function.
You’re either the engineer or the manager. Rarely you have to do both things at the same time or with that level of detail and goodness when you freelance apart from designing your circuits and doing what you like.
You also need to do basic admin stuff such as accountancy, company setup, you need to do customer support or you need to interface with clients and all these kind of things that you get exposed that you originally didn’t do when you were just working as an engineer. These are traits you need to have to learn if you want to be a successful freelancer as well.
John: Yes, and that goes whether you want to be a freelancer or have a hardware startup as you know, you do everything. Whether you do freelancing or a hardware startup, you realize from your corporate job just how many functions were being done that you didn’t even necessarily appreciate were being done that now you’re the one having to do.
Especially with a hardware startup, you’ve got to do everything from marketing to sales, logistics development, manufacturing, as you know. There’s a whole lot of hats you have to wear and that goes for freelancing as well.
I don’t think it’s probably quite as serious as it is when you’re running an entire hardware startup as far as how many different roles that you have to take on.
I know both of them, especially with freelancing and with hardware startups, that probably the most critical piece is the marketing and that’s something that people, especially freelancers, they don’t typically want to spend any time doing until they run out of projects. As long as they have projects in the queue, then they’re just focused on design because that’s what they enjoy.
You have to always be marketing to keep new projects or new clients coming in the doors. Is that been your experience that do you have as a freelancer spent quite a bit of time marketing or do you just have word of mouth referrals or how are you getting clients?
Roberto: Yes, what you say is right. For freelancing, you have to wear two hats. Then as a hardware startup owner, then you have to wear like, I don’t know, 10 hats.
John: 10 hats, yes, [laughs] that’s what I was going to say.
Roberto: Freelancing, it was good preparation, and indeed, you need to do some marketing. You could try Facebook ads, but that didn’t really work for me for the freelancing part.
What really worked best for me was just going to networking events, which could be meetups, going to maker spaces, or going to engineering events. That’s where I found the vast majority of my clients because, I feel at the end of the day, even when you’re doing freelancing or working online, there’s just this element of trust of meeting someone face to face than just giving a job someone online. When you meet someone face to face and you can showcase your skills and you can fulfill a need they have then there’s a good chance you can get your next client.
John: Do you meet with most of your clients face to face or–?
Roberto: I think definitely my best client. I met him at the maker space and then a couple of other clients I have also met by just networking face to face via some sort of event. Some clients I’ve never seen in my life but they’ve just been quick jobs or also, they could be referred from these other previous clients. That’s also a good source, referrals, or word of mouth.
John: Absolutely. I think overall if anyone out there is still stuck in that nine to five and they’re trying to develop a product and they want to be able to quit their job eventually, I think freelancing is really a great stepping stone. As you mentioned, you get some of the business side experience.
It’s a little less overwhelming as a freelancer than it is running a hardware startup. I think it’s a good stepping stone between the two, it gets you out of that nine to five, but freelancing, we won’t go into this too much but it can be very stressful.
Not only you still have bosses, except now you’ve got multiple bosses and the finances can be stressful. It’s great when you’ve got clients lined up, but all of a sudden, if you hit a dry spell where you don’t have clients, that makes it really challenging. It’s very much feast or famine. You get a lot of cash coming in when you get a project but then you may go a while without any. It definitely has a lot [crosstalk]–
Roberto: Yes, it’s one of the downsides. It’s just something about this lifestyle that you need to accept. You either have security but no freedom or freedom but no security.
John: That’s a great point.
Roberto: Hopefully, we’re working to have–
John: The goal is to have both of them. That takes typically years to figure out a way to get both of those.
Roberto: Yes, that’s the next goal for sure.
John: Are those some of the main challenges that you’ve had with freelancing is the financial side of it and getting clients or is there any other special challenges you’ve run into?
Roberto: With freelancing, I think it’s mostly trying to get regular clients to pay the bill without doing so much effort marketing-wise. For me, I was blessed up for nine months, I got a retainer contract from one company. I didn’t have to worry too much. For all that amount of time, I was getting, let’s say, a fixed salary for nine months. That was quite good.
John: That is nice because it’s challenging when you’re running a freelance, or even if you’re working a nine to five, but especially when you’re doing a freelance company because you’re going to end up spending a lot of time on it, it’s difficult to find enough time to work on your product.
How have you managed that being able to work on your product, which I think you’ve made really fast progress with it. I’m quite impressed that you’ve already got it on the market and you’ve sold 600 units. Before I give any more details like that, can you maybe just tell everyone what your first product is before we start talking more about your product?
Roberto: Sure. My first product it’s affordable, powerful air purifier, which mainly cleans PM 2.5, some volatile organic compounds found in house such as the smell after painting a house or cigar smell, or maybe trash smell from decomposing food.
John: Or forest fires.[chuckles]
John: Volcanoes. Those are the two that seem to haunt me is forest fires and volcanoes. That’s the product. It’s an air purification product. We’ll get into more detail on that but I’m curious how have you been able to juggle that while doing freelance design work?
Because I’m sure you’re really probably want to spend all your time working on your product, but obviously, the freelancing is what pays the bills, and it’s always challenging to juggle those two. How have you managed that after your nine-month contracting?
Roberto: Sure, for the development, it was actually quite fine because I had this company paying me the salary. They only require 40 hours of my time per month. I had all that extra time to dedicate for the development of this product and actually another product as well, an air quality monitor. I was developing those two products early and doing my freelance work at the same time. At that time, it was actually quite fine.
The real challenge came later when I finished the development and when I actually had to sell this thing because this was something new that I have no previous experience. I was actually quite reluctant to do at the beginning because I didn’t want to go into retail but I just didn’t have any choice. I had to put my product out there.
No one was going to pay for 1000 units in advance for an unproven product. I just had to jump and do it myself. That’s when the real challenge started.
I took maybe a bit wrong decision of just stop doing freelancing 100% and focusing on just the marketing and sales of my product because it was something new that needed extra time.
I also initially did some numbers that looked quite sweet. I said, “I’m sure I can sell 1000 units per month.” Then, that’s enough money for me. I don’t need to do freelancing anymore. Well, obviously, the reality was very different,
John: I can’t tell you how many hours I spent when I had my hardware startup in my spreadsheet, doing all these forecasts if I had 5000 stores and each one sold 10 units per week.
When you’re starting and you’ve never done this before, it’s really, really, really challenging to know what is realistic and what’s not realistic as far as your goal.
Roberto: Yes, indeed. I guess it was a mistake to stop my source of income and then just jump 100% into this because I then was about three months without income which wasn’t that good, obviously.
John: I’d always feel like a physical product company always takes longer to start generating profit or an income than what you think it will be. That’s the beauty of freelancing. You start bringing in money immediately. It’s the easiest type of business to start and a hardware startup is probably one of the most difficult.
That’s definitely a big challenge. What was the motivation for your product? I know in Indonesia, I hear certain times of the year where they’re burning off fields for farming or something like that and it creates all this smoke. I know you had mentioned that it’s the season now in Thailand where air quality’s good. What drives the air quality in Thailand to be bad in certain times of the year? Is it burning crops or–?
Roberto: Yes, it’s a combination in dry season, which is from by the end of December until the beginning of April. It’s a combination of the whole region of northern Thailand, south of Myanmar, west of Laos, they just burn all the crops mainly from corn plantations, all the leftovers, and then gets mixed with natural fires that happen because it’s dry season. It’s a lot of dried leaves around that can get burned really.
John: That’s a great reason to expand outside of Thailand. I think it’s great that you focused on one market, the market that you live in, but as you already know, having a seasonal product is not really a great thing. You want that consistency throughout the year, which you could get by expanding to other markets. Is that one of your focuses now is expanding beyond Thailand?
Roberto: Yes, absolutely, because I don’t want to have a seasonal product. I’d rather have a whole year product but going back to the question of how this product came to be. Yes, it is because of the burning season here but there are already another air purifiers in the market.
They can clean the air just as good as mine but basically my value proposition with my product was that the air-purifying industry because air quality for many years has been something that people don’t really know about. It’s not a mainstream topic until recently. The only people interested about air quality were those that are really sensitive or maybe have respiratory problems like asthmatic people.
The air purifier market focused on sort of like high-end units, so to afford an air purifier, it is costly and even more if you are a Thai person with a Thai wage. An air purifier might cost 30% to 50% of what you’re earning per month, so most people will definitely won’t buy it.
John: Most houses, at least houses here, you’re going to need multiple air purifiers because we’re dealing with a forest fire now. I woke up this morning with the smell of forest smoke in our house and we have I think five air purifiers running right now. I can see it getting expensive obviously if your income is low. What did you say? 30% to 50% of their weekly income or–?
Roberto: No, monthly income.
John: Wow. That’s a serious investment.
Roberto: Let’s say the average salary here, maybe $400 to $500. The air purifier could be $150, $200, or more.
John: With getting a lower cost, is that one of your main differentiators or–?
Roberto: Yes, so that’s one of them. Basically, when burning season was happening here between going around the maker spaces and looking into Facebook. I saw some people just buying HEPA filters, just sticking them to fans. I said, “Okay, I’m going to try my own.” That was my first-ever proof of concept prototype.
I bought a filter and I bought a fan, put it together, and then measure the PM2.5 concentration before and after. I was like, “Oh wow, this actually works.” It cost me $30. Yes, from then became the idea of making an actual product of this. I realized that this is a product that everyone needs but not everyone can afford, but it doesn’t really need to be that expensive.
Obviously, some of these devices from other companies they have a Wi-Fi connection, an LED screen, and all these things which are nice. At the end of the day, what you really care is about having clean air and that’s what my device focuses.
I’ve made it as affordable as possible, but without compromising performance. I still have a really powerful fan that can clean and good filter that can clean the air almost as the same rate as a unit that cost three times the price of mine.
John: Were you able to compete on price by just eliminating unnecessary bells and whistles and just focusing on the core function of the product or–?
Roberto: Yes, pretty much.
John: Which is pretty much the strategy for a minimum viable product as well. In this case, that’s what your goal was. Anyways was to try to create a simplified version to compete with other products that were already out there.
You’d mentioned that you had done that the development wasn’t that challenging or at least maybe financially because you had the contract at the time so you only have to work 40 hours a month.
Obviously, you’re an electronics engineer, so I’m assuming you did all of the electronics design. What about the enclosure design then? Any 3D modeling mechanical design? Did you do that as well or did you outsource that?
Roberto: For this part, I did have to outsource it. As you say, I’m an electronics engineer. I don’t really design enclosures or the external look of it. What I did, I did some really basic sketches or how I want it to look and the dimensions of it.
Then I hire another freelancer which works at the Maker Club here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He did the outer design. Then I did that 3D printing at the Maker Club, and that was my first serious prototype over there.
John: Okay, cool. We already touched on this about the market research that you did upfront. I always like to talk about this because I feel so many people skip past any market research.
The only market research they think they need is the fact that they think it’s a great product. You’re obviously living there and noticed a need for this product.
Did you go out and talk to anyone about the product or people that you thought may be in the potential customers? Or did you just feel you understood the market and just moved forward with the development?
Roberto: I did both. I didn’t want to just go there with ideas. After building this 3D printed prototype is when I went around and asked some people, Thai people mostly, about what their impressions were. The general feedback was good. That’s when I realize that you need to be careful what you show to people in terms of quality.
All these people I was showing my prototype, they’re not engineers or they don’t have a clue about product development. I was showing them really basic 3D printed enclosure. They thought like,” Oh, but this doesn’t look really nice.” In their mind, that was the same thing that was going to be on the shelves.
John: They couldn’t extrapolate from the prototype to the production versions.
Roberto: Yes. They didn’t know that this is going to go on an injection mold and it’s going to look as nice as these other things.
John: That’s always a tough one with 3D printing because it definitely doesn’t look very impressive compared to what the injection-molded version versus the electronics. Obviously, no one really sees that so that you can have a little more flexibility. Did you start off with a fully custom PCB or did you do anything with development kits or development boards or anything?
Roberto: For the air quality monitor, I basically just did an Arduino prototype. From then, I make my own PCB.
John: What about for the air purifier itself? You mentioned the air quality monitor, which is the next product you’re working on. I assume your air purifier has a parent circuit board of some sort in it.
Roberto: Well, it doesn’t. It’s all the ship off-the-shelf components, so I’m using a DC fan and an external power supply. I did all these two like minimize development time and development costs and even production cost because I can get this other components from factories that are already producing it.
It’s readily available and lower cost than developing my own PCB which is something I obviously like. I’ve already designed a PCB for the next version but they’re still on development, but just to start. I just use off-the-shelf components mostly.
John: That’s I think a smart decision. I always recommend using off-the-shelf and taking that as far as you can. Obviously, things get a lot more complicated when you start doing everything custom. A lot more complicated and a lot more expensive as well. I’m curious, switching from development more to manufacturing because you’ve sold 600 units. Is that correct?
John: Yes, approximately. Where is it being manufactured at? Is manufacturing done in Thailand, or is it in China? Where’s that at? What can you tell us about how that’s going or how that went?
Roberto: Initially, I wanted to manufacture in China like most people, it’s the direct or obvious choice. Also, one of my clients, basically his service is to manufacture in China.
He doesn’t manufacture himself, but he’s the person that overlooks that everything is working nicely and then make sure to ship the goods to– His clients are mostly in the US, so I wanted to go with him and manufacture in China. Then again, by networking, I joined this event about technology startups in Thailand. I met a guy and he was actually a factory manager in Chiang Mai.
I talked to him about my product and he said, “Oh, yes, come over. I give you a tour and you can show us your product and we can quote you to see how much will be to manufacture.”
I drove half an hour from where I live to this factory outside Chiang Mai. They seem really good. Their management is Western, a German guy and Austrian guy and then the factory workers and all that are local. He was really good because I could understand myself perfectly with the Western management. Then I have the benefits of cheaper label, which is one of the reasons people go to China in the first place.
John: Absolutely, I can definitely appreciate that. That was the same deal with my manufacturer. They were a US company and had a facility in China, but their plant manager, I believe he was from maybe Norway.
I don’t remember, some Northern European country. He was the main person that I dealt with and their people in the US, so I got the advantages of both the lower rate but yet having a westerner to be the person that was my point of contact. I can definitely see that being a benefit.
Are you planning on staying there long-term or are you still looking to eventually go to China, and how are the prices that you were able to get doing the manufacturing in Thailand compared to at least what you thought you were going to get if you went to China?
Roberto: So far, the actual manufacturing costs are good, and I really like that. I can drive to the factory and oversee the production.
John: That’s huge. You’re really fortunate to have a factory that you were able to work out that’s only 30 minutes away. That’s really great.
Roberto: Yes. I think most people that are hardware entrepreneurs, they can only dream of that or they’ll have to make a really big trip to China to be able to see that. I really like that.
The factory, they’ve been good with me. The only thing that is not that good is that I still have to import some components from China. I cannot get everything locally in Thailand, and right now shipping is really sketchy and expensive because of all the coronavirus situation. [crosstalk].
John: I want to touch on that here in a moment because I know you ran into a lot of issues due to the coronavirus, so we can definitely touch on that. Living in a foreign country and that’s where you put out your product, obviously, I suspect this has presented a lot of unique challenges that you wouldn’t see if you were bringing out a product in your own country.
I’m curious what kind of special challenges you ran into. Then, do you actually speak any Thai? I’m assuming you speak some, but are you fluent in Thai at all?
Roberto: No, not really. I just know like, I don’t know, 1%, very, very little. I can order some food and stuff like that, but no, not at all.
John: You probably know about as much as Thai as I know of Spanish, which is just enough to be kind of dangerous.[laughter]
John: People in Thailand, do they commonly speak English? Has the language been a barrier at all for dealing with your manufacturer, or your distributors, or anything like that?
Roberto: For the manufacturing? No, not really, because as I said, I found Western [crosstalk].
John: Oh, that’s right. Okay.
Roberto: Developing the product here wasn’t that much of a problem in those terms. When I needed components, I needed to ship them from Digi-Key or China, which had its own costs. Then, customs here is horrible, they charge you 40% when you just import things on your own without a company.
John: Oh, wow.
Roberto: Apart from that, the real, real challenge has been in sales and marketing. Trying to sell a marketing in a country where you don’t know the language or the culture, it’s a challenge on its own to sell some marketing because I’m an engineer, but this extra thing of trying to sell to people that you don’t understand how they think or you don’t even understand what they say, it’s a real, real challenge. Some people might say like, “Oh, yes, you can just hire some sales agent to do it for you.” I’m like, “Okay.” I even tried to do that, but even that has proven really difficult.
I don’t know, here there’s not that big of a freelance market. For example, I posted the same sales executive or sales representative job in Upwork Thailand and Upwork India.
I got so many good applicants in India that are exactly what I need, while in Thailand, I just don’t get anything. I’ve posted this job in LinkedIn, Facebook, trying to tell people around everywhere, but basically, I haven’t been able to nail it to this really good person that can help me with the sales and marketing.
I’ve just been doing it myself the best I can. Facebook ads has helped me a lot. Here, in Thailand, it’s really cheap. I paid a cent for interaction, while I think in the US, you pay like 50 cents to a dollar for someone liking your photo.
John: Yes, because I do Facebook ads. I hadn’t done them for a while, and I started them a couple of weeks ago. I’ve seen some clicks from Thailand, and it’s literally a penny. I’m like, “Oh, that’s nice.”[chuckles]
John: Of course, it’s not great if it takes 10,000 of them to buy something, but it is definitely lower cost of acquisition than probably in the US. I can definitely relate to trying to market a product in a culture you don’t really understand.
I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about my very first entrepreneurial idea was to sell upside-down globes in Australia and southern countries in the Southern Hemisphere, because I came up with the idea of every map and every globe always has north at the top. That’s a Eurocentric way of drawing maps, there’s no up and down empty space, so the south is just as much up as the north.
I came up with making globes that were mounted upside down and selling t-shirts that had Australia upside-down. Anyways, I tried that for a while, and eventually, a few months, I’m like, “Okay, this is ridiculous, trying to sell a product literally on the other side of the planet in a culture that I don’t understand.” I wasn’t even there. Your situation isn’t nearly as bad because you’re actually on the ground in Thailand, which has got to help some.
Roberto: Yes. Well, at least you understood– Australians speak English, so at least–
John: Exactly. That’s true. I didn’t have the language barrier. I had also looked into other countries that were south of the Equator, but I was focusing mainly on Australia and New Zealand just because they spoke English. If I had to go to a Spanish-speaking country in South America, then that’s going to bring a whole other level of complication that I didn’t want to deal with. I imagine that has been challenging for you as well.
Roberto: Yes, it’s definitely the most challenging part of my startup right now because actually, my product, I believe it proved to be quite well as I sold out my first batch because it is really a necessity here in the north of Thailand when the burning season is on. You’re probably experiencing the same things right now in [crosstalk].
John: Yes, kind of similar. I can definitely relate to that. That’s obviously why it’s going to be important for you to expand outside of Thailand, but it’s great that you– Because one mistake entrepreneurs will commonly make is they want to take the entire world, they’re going to go– Or even, say you were in Thailand and you decide, “I’m going to go after the US because it’s the biggest market,” but I think it’s much better to start with some local sales and then grow out from there, instead of trying to– Once you get that thing set up and operating smoothly with sales in Thailand, then you can expand out from there, instead of trying to take it all on it one time.
Roberto: Yes, absolutely.
John: I want to do quickly before we wrap up here, I wanted to touch on the coronavirus because I know from you being active in the Academy, I remember when you were just trying to get your first production order out, and all of a sudden, every factory in China shut down.
I believe you were having problems getting your high-pressure injection molds or getting your enclosures molded, so you had to come up with a workaround for that. Can you maybe talk about that a bit?
Roberto: Yes. Originally, my first delivery date for my clients, because I started pre-selling like mid-January, and my promise delivery date to clients was mid-February.
That’s just when coronavirus started to hit China, around Chinese New Year. Basically, the mold was not ready, the factory went on New Year’s vacation, and then they could never come back to finish the mold.
John: Were you having the pieces molded in China or just the mold made in China and then shipping it to Thailand for the actual injection?
Roberto: No, the mold was made in China, and then the pieces were made in China as well. Basically, I had all the parts ready in Chiang Mai, but the mold wasn’t ready, so the factory could not make the final product. Then all these things started to happen.
I realized by the beginning of February that I was not going to have my products ready on time. It was really stressful because I had the money from all these people in my account but I didn’t have my product to deliver.
Obviously, I just didn’t want to be like, “Sorry” and give back all that money already paid so I was trying to think an alternative. What I did was I went to the factory to talk about it. Together we came up with a soft DIY solution.
We took some acrylic and then using a CNC machine, we basically improvised an enclosure. Then I told with my customers and I told them the situation. I was very transparent with them about what was going on. Then I gave them– [crosstalk]
John: Were these end-users or a distributor?
Roberto: No, these were all end-users. This was all sales that I was making from my Facebook marketing campaign.
John: Okay. Got you. Okay.
Roberto: Most of them were end-users, no, all of them were actually. There was a group of end-users and then there was some guy that I met, a Thai guy and he was selling on its own and apparently, he was selling a lot of units. When I told him about this, he just bail out and I lost about 80 sales from there.
Roberto: That was quite bad.
John: When does the smoky season in Thailand? Maybe you said this already, I’m just curious. Are you in a rush because you’ve got to get these units out before– Obviously, no one is going to want it if it comes out after the bad air part of the season has passed?
Roberto: Yes. Officially, it starts mid-February but now, it’s starting at mid-January already. When I started to pre-sale, the air was already quite bad. Then by mid-February was really, really bad.
This thing is like selling umbrellas, people buy it when it’s raining. They want it now because they don’t want to get wet. Same goes for air purifiers, people buy it now because they don’t want to choke on smoke.
I had all this pressure of people wanting their product because they need it but I couldn’t deliver. I came up with this solution and then I told my customers, “Right. This is the situation and I’ve come out with this solution.
You have the option of choosing waiting until the parts are ready or you can get this custom made product which I improvise now but it doesn’t perform as good as the original product.”
I did just like a Google Form and send emails. Some people say they will wait while other people say they needed this now. There was even some woman that she bought three air purifiers because she was going to have a newborn baby in two weeks. I couldn’t say to her, “Can you hold the baby a bit longer?”
John: Yes. [laughs] who were similar to understanding because it was probably understood at that time this is a global situation and it’s not just that the typical entrepreneur that can’t deliver when he says he can deliver.
Obviously, there’s always different things that come up but this was pretty big and it’s not like you were overestimating how quickly you could get them the product, it was more of just something that was totally outside of your control. Did you find that– [crosstalk]
Roberto: I think most people were understanding and also that my whole Facebook marketing campaign had that Kickstarter vibe. I think a lot of my customers, they already had air purifiers and they just wanted this one for maybe an extra room or because they like the project.
Actually, most of the customers, they decided to wait. That was good for me because making these other units was actually like almost a loss because they were quite expensive. They were more expensive than the original product even though they performed.
John: That sounds like a nightmare situation having to come up quickly and create an alternative enclosure for your product. I would be not just at the higher cost but potentially quality issues. You said it ended up not being as good as the original design, which makes sense because I’m sure the original design, you spent a lot more time probably getting it just right.
Roberto: Correct. Correct. I shaped the improvised product which I call the Air Cleaner Oreo because it looked like an Oreo. Then suddenly factories started to reopen again but then we had the second problem because the virus was spreading all around the globe so flights were starting to stop flying.
Now, my second problem was delivery. That was at the end like everything was being delivered by air.
This second delivery, I mean the remainder of the parts that we need to ship here, we had to do by air because if we do it by boat it was going to take just too long. We ended up paying a really high fee.
John: It’s a lot more expensive to ship by air than by sea vessel.
Roberto: Yes. At the end of the day, I deliver by first week of April. It was about almost two months late which wasn’t good but it was the best I could do. Even though then I managed to sell out all my stock, I attracted the attention of some shops and wholesalers which is good because this is what I want to focus on.
John: I think you did an amazing job of pivoting and being adaptable because I was being updated and saw the progress and the issues you were running into.
There are always going to be every entrepreneur is going to run into roadblocks. This one was an especially bad one but I think you handled it really well. A lot of startups would have maybe given up at that point but you found a way over that obstacle or around it.
That’s the mindset you have to have as an entrepreneur is always finding ways around the obstacles because there’s going to be an endless amount of them in your way to what your goals are.
We’re going to wrap up here, we’re coming up on an hour. Can you maybe give a little summary of what are your plans going forward? What’s your focus now we’ve talked about spreading beyond Thailand?
We’ve also talked about your second product which is an air monitor. I’ve seen your prototype and it’s a really cool little product. I’m curious what is your focus, is it focused on more selling your first product in more countries or are you focusing on bringing your second product to market? Or are you trying to do both at the same time?
Roberto: I’m trying to find some stability and consistency with my first product. The second batch, it will be arriving or will be ready early next week.
Probably now it’s coming out from Bangkok port and on its way here to the factory in Chiang Mai for the final assembly. I’m trying to focus on wholesale. I’m approaching different companies in different industries like hotel, hospital, real estate because retail was good to get the product out there, get some user feedback.
At the end of the day, it’s not something I want to focus on because being a shop, it’s a different job on its own. Me being an engineer, developing products, I want to focus on where I give most of the value.
I don’t want to become a shop and do everything that needs to be done to sell to the end-user. My efforts now are even though I still have a shop and I will still have a shop, my efforts are to be able to sell wholesale to other businesses.
John: Got you.
Roberto: Starting in Thailand and hopefully, expanding to other countries. I’m going to ship some units to the UK, to Peru, Mexico, Colombia, the US so hopefully, I can also expand internationally.
John: Great, great. I think you’ll find dealing with retailers and distributors, it has its own set of unique challenges. You may not have to deal with the end-user but now you have to deal with the retailers and distributors which can be quite demanding. They may not require quite the level of support of the end-user and there’s not going to be nearly that large number of them.
From my experience, it’s definitely not something you can just get it in retail and then let it go and you go do other things. It’s still going to require a lot of your time, at least from my experience.
At some point, hopefully, you can bring on other people and maybe sales reps or independent sales reps. I know you tried that in Thailand and didn’t have much luck but I think that’s going to be your best route for expanding outside the US or outside Thailand.
From my experience, I was able to find my first sales rep and I worked with him and then he had his own network and knew all these other sales reps, and then I was able to build from just doing referrals because it’s really hard to find a lot of these people.
They don’t necessarily have a website, and some of them may not be on Upwork. Roberto, this has been really great. I’m so impressed with everything that you’ve done. It’s been great because I’ve got to see the progress that you’ve made, and I really appreciate you coming on here and sharing all this with everyone. Can you tell everyone where they can learn more about both your engineering services and your air quality products?
Roberto: Yes, sure. First, it’s been a pleasure and honor to be one of your guests in your podcast, while also to mention the Hardware Academy that it’s a really, really good resource.
Both of us are electronics engineers, freelancers, hardware entrepreneurs because of all the wealth of knowledge and very experienced and smart people that are on the forum, which are there to support you in all your technical and non-technical tasks.
John: Thank you for saying that.
Roberto: Also, to contact me or to look what I do, you can just type Developpa on Google while you will see my website, or otherwise, you can send me an email to email@example.com.
John: Okay. Do you have the same website for your engineering services and your product as well, or is that a separate website for the air-quality stuff?
Roberto: It’s the same website, different section, so if you go to developpa.io, you’ll be able to find both.
John: Okay, great. Then Roberto also has at least I think you did maybe one or two blogs that you’ve- articles that you’ve written for my blog. It’s been a couple of years, so they’re down the feed, but there’s also a couple. I think you have one that’s on freelancing, and then I know you did another one, I think it was project–
Roberto: Project requirements about the DSP 33.
John: Okay, that’s right. We’ve known each other for quite a while, and it’s been great to have you on here. I really appreciate you getting up bright and early 6:00 AM there in Thailand. Thank you so much for doing this, and I’ll talk to you soon and see you in the Academy.
Roberto: Okay, thank you very much, John. Bye-bye.
John: Okay. Have a good day.
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