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Jon Wheatley

Co-Founder of Need/Want

Interview by Spencer Fry on October 7, 2013

You won’t find many people who are more of a serial entrepreneur than Jon. Since starting his first online website at age thirteen, he’s gone on to build over sixty, most notably DailyBooth, which raised over $7 million. In the last few years, Jon’s focus has shifted to building physical products. Read about his process of discovery, getting samples made, and eventually selling his products through Kickstarter.

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Sweat the Product

Can you just tell us a little bit about yourself and your early days as an entrepreneur?

Jon Wheatley

Sure. I've always been somewhat entrepreneurial I think. I stumbled into the whole entrepreneurial world when I was about thirteen years old. I just enjoyed making websites for myself and that was around the time that Google Adsense started becoming popular. I started experimenting with making websites and driving traffic to those websites, and amazingly, these things that I would make for fun would start to generate decent amounts of revenue. I realized quite quickly that it was an interesting field and something that I wanted to do. I always had some kind of a website, some project that I was working on ever since I was around thirteen. Since then, there's always been some new thing that I've been working on.

Sweat the Product

Do you remember the first time you made something?

I stumbled into the whole entrepreneurial world when I was about thirteen years old.
Jon Wheatley

Yeah. The first thing that I think that was kind of substantial was this online gaming website called Phized.com, it's kind of a weird name.

Sweat the Product

Can you spell that?

Jon Wheatley

It was P-H-I-Z-E-D.com; Phized with a P-H. I just kind of went around, stole all these flash games that weren't mine from these other flash websites, and just uploaded them to this website and made a little branded online gaming site. I just kinda marketed it around school and told all my friends about it, and pretty quickly, there were a few thousand people per day visiting it and I could monetize the traffic from Adsense. It wasn't much; it was making maybe twenty bucks a day or something. For a 13-year-old kid who didn't have any other sources of income and whose friends were just doing paper rounds and making that much per week, it was a pretty cool experience for that age.

Sweat the Product

How many projects do you think you were working on before you started DailyBooth, which is the one you're most known for?

Jon Wheatley

When it comes to products, I think I had the kind of shotgun approach, which is I will just do probably -- I think most people would agree I work on too many things *laughs*. If I put a number on it, I'd probably say, I don't know, sixty or so random ideas, random projects that could have become something. DailyBooth was just one of those projects. There's nothing special about DailyBooth from when I started working on it until it launched. The only difference is that company website exploded in a way that the others ones hadn't done.

It's kind of interesting; it's less about seeing something through really analytically and deciding if it's worthwhile to do. Usually if I have an idea, I will just do it regardless, even if I'm somewhat apprehensive about it actually working or not. Usually I just do it. Then if it works, that great, and if it doesn't work, I just kind of fail fast real quick and then move onto something else.

Sweat the Product

Do you ever regret not working on just one project?

I enjoy experimenting in all different markets and industries, and then trying out completely different ideas with zero experience.
Jon Wheatley

I wouldn't say regret it. I sometimes feel guilty maybe about working on too many things because I feel I could potentially be focusing all my efforts on one thing or really making one good thing rather than lots of small things. The reason why I work on so many different things, I think, is just because: one reason I think is because I have a short attention span, and another reason is I just enjoy doing it. I enjoy experimenting in all different markets and industries, and then trying out completely different ideas with zero experience. It's a great way to learn stuff, I think. Rather than researching it and overthinking things before you start, I like jumping in and trying to do it and learning as you go. That's kind of my philosophy.

Sweat the Product

You come up with an idea on your own. How do you get it through the whole product phase, to putting it in the market, to selling and making revenue? How do you see that process through?

Jon Wheatley

I don't really have any kind of monetizable skill set. I'm not an engineer. I'm not a designer. I'm always the, as much as I hate the term, the ideas guy. Over the years, I have definitely built up a network of really talented people who I know I can just call. Usually the way that it works is I'll have an idea of something. I'll do some research just to make sure it actually makes sense, it's feasible, it actually is possible. Then depending on what it is, just try to hire people who are smarter than me to actually implement it and actually make it work.

Sweat the Product

How do you take it from the idea phase into the market and market it?

Jon Wheatley

I'm a big believer that if a product is good enough it will market itself. I've never really had any marketing budget for any of the products that I've done. You can either build in ways of product. That is if it's a website, an app, or something where it's possible to do that. I’ve been working on more physical things; it's tougher to have those viral features built-in to a physical product, but there's definitely ways of doing it.

The biggest difference I've found between physical products and digital products as far as a marketing perspective is with a physical product if you contact a blogger and send them a physical thing, be it an iPhone case, a bedding set, or a physical, actual thing, they seem to be -- I have no numbers to back this up, this is purely anecdotal experience -- but they seem to be much more inclined to, first of all, respond to your email and actually be receptive to actually receiving the thing in the first place, and certainly way more inclined to actually write about the thing that you send them. I'm just guessing, but it's very cheap for someone to just email bloggers, reporters, and journalist and stuff and submit an iPhone app for review, or new weather app. If you're willing to actually send them a physical thing, they seem to be much more receptive to helping you out and writing about you that way.

Sweat the Product

You talked about it a bit earlier, but you shifted recently from doing web projects to physical products; your iPhone case, the game you made, and your bed sheets company. What prompted you to make the transition to physical products?

Jon Wheatley

I've always found physical products very intriguing. When I was doing digital stuff, I knew nothing about it, and I always assumed it was much harder than it actually is. It was always something that I wanted to do, make something physical so you can actually hold it in your hand and touch. Just kind of speaking as an ideas/product guy that's made things in the past, having something that you created, that you can actually hold in your hand or give to a friend, it makes it much more tangible. Almost more rewarding in a sense and people seem to understand it more too.

I have a lot of non-tech-minded friends. When I would tell them about a new website idea I had, it was always a very hard sell. They never quite understood it. If I'm like, "Look. I made this physical thing," and hand it to them, it's something they really understand and really connect with.

Sweat the Product

When you set out to make a new product, how much does making money and revenue play into your new ideas?

Jon Wheatley

I don't think this is the correct way to do it, but primarily, I'm bootstrapping everything myself, so the biggest reason for me to start something usually comes down to how much it costs to get it going verses how much potential revenue there is. If there's some huge market that you could make millions of dollars in, but to get it going cost more money than I currently have, I would probably shy away from that idea more so than I would if I actually had the cash to do it.

It usually comes down to the sampling fee of getting something going, and obviously, some things cost much more than others to get samples for. If it actually is something that I could get going relatively cheaply then that's something that I would probably move forward with.

Sweat the Product

You recently launched your bed sheets company on Kickstarter. Do you think you could take us through that process, from your idea, to getting the samples, through posting to Kickstarter, and then finally shipping the product?

After going through that whole Kickstarter experience, it was amazing. I feel like it's hard for me to imagine launching a product in the future without using Kickstarter.
Jon Wheatley

Sure. So the idea wasn't my idea, it was actually my co-founder, Marshall Haas' idea. He contacted me. I think we both have similar backgrounds. We both have done digital products and some physical things. He was starting a physical product company of his own. He reached out and he pitched me the idea, and it was something that really resonated with me. We seemed to have a lot of similar thoughts on it and similar goals. So we decided to team up and do essentially his idea for the Smart Bedding company.

The way that it worked was actually very easy and it didn't cost us much money at all. I think our biggest expense was the video that we did. We hired a video firm to make a really nice Kickstarter video, because I think there's definitely a correlation between how good the Kickstarter video is and how much that product tends to raise. We decided to not skimp out at all on the video and hire a company to do a nice video. As far as the actually developing the product goes, luckily, it's an evolutionary product; it's not something that's completely new. First of all, Marshall had been developing a prototype before I even got involved. In that, he did with a local seamstress that he was working with in St. Louis at the time. It's actually kind of tricky to buy fabric the sizes of bed sheets. Usually they come in square yards. Getting something that big to develop a bedding set was actually tricky. What they ended up doing was just buying a king set from Ikea for eighty bucks or whatever, modifying it, and cutting it down to queen size. That's how they got around that.

They developed this prototype that Marshall sent me. I offered feedback and we discussed it a bit, and then we started looking for a factory. We looked for factories that were already producing nice bedding stuff, and then we sent out an email to probably almost a hundred different factories that we found in all different parts of the world like China, India, even places in the US; basically just describing it in as much detail as we could what it was that we were trying to build. There was a lot of back-and-forth between multiple different factories. We eventually found one. We got a few different samples from a few different factories, ended up going with the factory that understood what we were trying to do and also had the nicest high-quality sample.

There was a little bit of back-and-forth with that. The first sample was a little bit wrong. They didn't quite understand how the snaps should be attached to the duvet cover. There was a bit more product development in that stage. The whole thing probably took roughly a few months, maybe three months, from when we started to contact the factories to actually having a prototype that we were happy with. It was actually also surprisingly cheap. Because it was this evolutionary product like I said, not something completely new, these factories were already set up to make bedding. They were just modifying it slightly based on our concepts. I think in total, we probably spent less than five hundred buck on developing the concept, not including Marshall's original prototyping work with his local seamstress, but just the back-and-forth with the factory. That was pretty much it. We posted the idea originally on Kickstarter. We did that; it essentially ended now. I think we raised just under sixty thousand dollar.

Kickstarter's very interesting. I'm dragging off on a tangent a bit here, but it seems like there's a new breed of company that’s started to spring up. There's a few companies that have sprung up that post every new product they have on Kickstarter. There's one called Supr Good Co. which makes a really nice wallet and I think they are working on a different products.

After going through that whole Kickstarter experience, it was amazing. I feel like it's hard for me to imagine launching a product in the future without using Kickstarter. There's no good reason I could think of at least, why someone wouldn't do that. Alternatively, the other way we could launch this bedding company, first of all, assume that people actually want this thing, then we would have had to find enough money to place a huge order with these factories because all of these factories have pretty large minimum orders, so we would have had to have tens of thousands of dollars to do this. Then we would have had to place the order, taken this huge risk of all this money, then launch the thing, and then we'd just at the mercy of the market. We don't know if this thing will actually sell, and if does, then you thank God it sells and it's a huge relief. If it doesn't, then obviously, we just lost thousands and thousands of dollars.

Whereas the worst case scenario on Kickstarter is you develop a sample, which you would need to do anyway I think, and then you just see if people want it. If people want it, great, they'll give you money for it, and if not, you haven't lost anything really. You've just lost the time and sample fee, which probably isn't that much. I'm very excited about Kickstarter as a platform. We're actually planning on launching another Kickstarter very soon.

Sweat the Product

For other entrepreneurs who might want to get into physical products, do you think launching on Kickstarter is the best advice you could give them?

Jon Wheatley

Yeah, I would say definitely go to Kickstarter; there's no reason not to. I would also say it's much easier than you think it is to develop a physical product and sell it. Obviously, there's still challenges with fulfillment and stuff. People have been doing physical products for a very, very long time. All of these problems have very well thought-out solutions, and there are many companies that exist to solve those problems when they arise. I guess the biggest piece of advice I would just say is just try something; it's not as hard as you probably think it is.

Sweat the Product

Awesome. I think that's it.

Jon Wheatley

Cool. Thank you.

The End