MFA Interaction Design student Sam Carmichael is tall. Very tall. He wanted an ergonomic standing desk, but he had gone down that road before and was dissatisfied. He refused to invest in another expensive, high-concept work station that would break in short order. But there were no other options out there. Then Carmichael and his fellow Entrepreneurial Design classmates were given an assignment: make $1,000. He teamed up with classmate Mikey Chen to create a design that fulfills his ergonomic desires—and has the potential to become a global industry.
Made up of just five interlocking wooden pieces, The UpStanding Desk turns any desk or table into a customized work space. It is simple, sustainable, portable and affordable. And people are lining up to help bring it to market. The Kickstarter campaign launched for it surpassed its goal by an astounding 600 percent within just a few days. Moreover, Carmichael is thanking backers at a certain level by giving them access to the files they need to make their own UpStanding Desks. SVA Close Up caught up with Carmichael mid-Kickstarter campaign to learn more.
Are you surprised by the epic outpouring of support the UpStanding Desk has received?
Mikey and I have both been blown away by the intensity and passion of the response. I think we hoped it would hit the funding goal over the course of the three-week funding period, but I had no inkling that we’d blow through the $10,000 mark in the first four hours, or that we’d hit $60,000 in just a week.
That being said, it hasn’t been complete luck! We’ve spent months crafting the product and the Kickstarter materials, and we’ve been really pushing to keep up with the social media, press mentions and customer support.
What will this unexpected windfall enable you to do?
We’re planning to put some of it back into the company so we can explore making this a regular source of income. A lot of office managers and startups are interested in buying in larger quantities for their offices. We’ve also gotten proposals to produce the desks in other countries, from China to Belgium to Canada, so we have an opportunity to widen our global footprint without worrying as much about the corresponding overhead. It’s clear that there’s demand for the product, so it would be a waste not to at least explore an ongoing arrangement.
Please explain why you’ve created a tier of Kickstarter sponsorship that, in effect, invites supporters to make UpStanding Desks of their own. Aren’t you concerned about undermining your business?
When we really started thinking about our core customers, about people who would actively consider a standing desk, we realized that it was largely makers, hackers, designers and tinkerers. If we’d launched the Kickstarter with the design and concept really close to our chest we’d probably alienate people who say, “Two hundred dollars? I could do that myself for 50 dollars!” By offering the plans (as a license) we managed to appeal to that Maker sensibility and also capture more than 200 orders that we might not have gotten otherwise.
Also, this offer allows us to sell outside
the U.S. We’ve been directing our international customers to the website opendesk.cc, which provides a long roster of fabricators around the world who are equipped to do exactly the sort of CNC cutting that the desk requires. In a way, we’re “spreading the love” by encouraging people to work with makers and designers in their own communities around the world.
Does the UpStanding Desk relate to your thesis in any way?
There’s something really compelling about the mix of entrepreneurship and openness/transparency that we’ve been toying with on this project. As a first-year student, I’d definitely like to explore it through other projects going forward.
How did SVA prepare you to take this project on?
Gary Chou, Leland Rechis and Christina Xu [MFA Interactive Design faculty members] are all experienced entrepreneurs and involved with all of the different checkpoints that we’ve encountered. Their guidance has been unflinching and honest. We’ve had the opportunity to workshop the concept with outside entrepreneurs and designers, and in class we’ve continuously tightened up our pitch and product thanks to the great feedback from our peers. The core message of the class is really compelling: if you think you have a good idea, don’t spend months perfecting it in a vacuum! Instead, get it out into the wild and see how it does with your target market. Then iterate until you’ve got something worthwhile.
Also, the project really wouldn’t have been possible without the stellar facilities and staff at the Visible Futures Lab. Leif Mangelsen has put together a really empowering mix of tools and expertise that enabled us to craft four successive prototypes and really hone our design. In short: we wouldn’t have the UpStanding Desk without the VFL.
I worked for five years at a large dot-com doing content strategy and user experience, and one of the reasons I decided to come back to school (and specifically apply to MFA Interaction Design) was to be surrounded by smart, creative and curious people every day. I knew a decent amount about interaction design coming in, but I hadn’t been embedded in such a purely creative and enabling space before. I think that’s the true power of the MFA Interaction Design program that [Chair] Liz Danzico has built; with this mix of students, facilities and faculty, magic can happen.