"It's like crack when your vision for the product is reflected in reality" ... Alon Tamir.
Many people think they'll strike it rich if they can just come up with the right idea. The truth is that there's no shortage of great ideas in the world. But very few people will do what it takes to turn that idea into reality.
Entrepreneur Alon Tamir reveals that it takes inspiration, money, hard work – and an appetite for risk – to transform a lightbulb moment into a viable business.
He currently makes iPad and iPhone accessories under the Wallee brand; drum sticks and guitar picks for the iPad called Pix & Stix; and is about to launch a child-friendly iPad case called Clumsy.
These are now all produced from Studio Proper, a design studio founded by Tamir, 31, and based in Prahran in Melbourne. This journey into design and manufacturing began while Tamir was working at his family's party supplies business. That was in 2010 when the first iPad was released.
"Like everyone, I fell in love with this new device," he says. "Many people used it for entertainment purposes – like watching YouTube or listening to music. But the first iPad was fairly heavy and if you held it up for more than five minutes, your arms got tired."
The start of an empire
This simple complaint made Tamir daydream about an iPad case that could also be mounted on a wall. "I sketched out what I thought an ideal solution might be," he says.
However, Tamir didn't simply leave these doodles on coasters or notepads. He wondered if his idea could become reality. With no background in design or manufacturing, Tamir figured out that he would have to work with industrial designers to turn his rough sketches into a workable product. And with no contacts in industrial design, he simply searched on Google. "I Googled 'industrial designers', spoke to a bunch of them, socialised with them and then chose a couple who I wanted to work with."
It was the start of an unexpected journey. With a background in computer science, he worked in an email marketing company for four years before joining the family business. He never expected to immerse himself in prototyping and manufacturing. "I just soaked up everything the industrial designers were telling me," he says. "It was a huge learning curve. I soon realised how expensive it was going to be."
The industrial designers cost Tamir $10,000 and provided him with the designs and specifications he needed to create his dream wall-mounted iPad case. "They loved the concept but I think they may have treated the project with a dose of scepticism. They knew what a massive task it was going to be to design, manufacture, launch to market and then ship and deliver. At that point, for me, it was a case of ignorance is bliss."
Testing his idea
The next step was to make a prototype. "It was ready to be rapid prototyped – where you send off your drawings to get the product 3D-printed or carved from a big block of plastic," he says. "I Googled to find a company in China that could do it. I sent it to them and, seven days later, FedEx knocked on the door."
It was an exercise that cost Tamir $2500 for the one prototype. "When I opened the package, I sat there in awe. I was almost too scared to use it. I looked at it, smelt it, felt it, held it up to the light. It was a big moment because I couldn't believe that two months before this was only an idea."
Happy with the prototype, Tamir then realised he had to make a big decision. To start manufacturing, he estimated he would need $60,000 just to create the tools needed to make the product. But where does a budding entrepreneur who has never manufactured a thing in his life go to do this?
Tamir put his fingers to the keyboard and, again, started searching on Google, creating a shortlist of manufacturers in China. After researching as much as he could online, he came to a realisation. "I knew that the only way to do things properly was to get on a plane and get myself to China."
Heading to China
Tamir lined up appointments, caught a plane and toured 10 factories in as many days. "That's the best decision I could have made. Every day, I'd get picked up by a rep from the factory; they would drive me 1.5 hours to their facility and I'd tour it," he says. "At first, I was like a deer caught in headlights but I made sure I internalised everything. It really helped me understand the environment they worked in. It was such a broad spectrum, from mum-and-pop operations to mega-corporations pumping out every plastic widget you could encounter."
Tamir chose a factory to work with and used his savings for a deposit so his wall-mounted iPad case could go into production. "It takes about 30 days to make the product," he says. "It was the hardest 30 days of my life."
He says when he received the samples, he knew he was on a winner. "I ordered an initial run of 10,000 units. I'd reached the point of no return." While waiting for his first batch of products to arrive, Tamir launched a website for the case, which he named the Wallee, taking preorders.
His big break came when influential tech blog TechCrunch referred to the accessory as "the real Apple TV". "That drove an immense amount of traffic to our site in the following weeks and so I had a couple of thousand paid customers before we even had the product ready."
Tamir admits that the next few months were a blur, with sales and enquiries coming from all over the world, including more coverage in press and blogs. While the product was clearly in demand, Tamir then had to cope with the logistics of housing, packaging and delivering 10,000 units.
He stored the products in a friend's warehouse, taking small amounts at a time to his parents' garage. "I would wake up at 5am and pack orders until 8.30am before I had to go to work," says Tamir, who was still working full-time. "After work, I'd go home and have dinner, then head back to my parents' garage. I set up a little table and just kept filling satchels, licking and sticking to pack the cases."
Growth and expansion
This is a far cry from Studio Proper's current setup. In addition to the studio in Prahran, Tamir has fulfilment facilities in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and the United Kingdom.
The success of the Wallee sparked Tamir's enthusiasm to design and manufacture more products. Since then, he's created more accessories to complement the Wallee. When he explored the iPad's music-making apps, another lightbulb went on. As a child, he was a keen drummer and wanted to find a way to turn the iPad into an electronic drum machine.
He wanted drummers to use realistic but specially-made drum sticks and actually tap the iPad screen. "We spent a lot of time analysing what the sticks had to be made out of," says Tamir. The iPad screen responds to fingers, so the drum sticks had to be made from material that would effectively trick the iPad into reacting as if it was being tapped by fingers."
While it would be safe to question whether there are enough people who actually want to use their iPad as a drum machine, Tamir says: "It turns out, there's quite a lot!
Demand has been so great for both the Wallee and Pix & Stix (Tamir also created guitar picks, or "pix", to go with the sticks), that he now has five different manufacturers supplying his products. As a result, he travels to China twice a year.
Inspired by kids
However, it's his recent experience with fatherhood that has led to his latest product. After noticing that babies and toddlers have no concept of the fragility or value of iPads, he created a cute, child-friendly case called Clumsy, designed to withstand the drops and bashes dealt by little kids. Now with his own industrial designers in his team of five staff, Tamir no longer has to search on Google to find suppliers when he comes up with a new idea. He can work on it internally.
While ideas and inspiration abound, Tamir says that it's seeing the final product that gives him the most satisfaction, adding that his products are now sold in 50 countries. "We have emails from all over the world, like from the mother who has mounted the Wallee on her child's wheelchair, or the dentist in Cyprus who has mounted it so he can teach kids how to clean their teeth, or the fact that Apple Inc use our products in its cafeteria.
"It's like crack when your vision for the product is reflected in reality."
Tamir admits that building a successful business means that he's always working. "There aren't really set hours," he says. "I'm answering emails throughout the night, even in bed. It's one long stream of work, but the business is at a stage where that's required of me. I'm constantly emailing myself ideas and I usually set aside 45 minutes every second day just to decipher those emails and discuss them with my team. Who knows? One of those emails could become our next great product."