Simon Frisby founded Etchr Lab in 2017 alongside Yan Zhu and designer Darren Yeow. When Darren made the first version of the Art Satchel, he wanted to create a practical, purpose built art bag with one aim in mind – to encourage creativity and help artists everywhere create more art. After meeting Simon and Yan and seeing huge success on Kickstarter, Etchr was founded and has continued to collaborate with artists and designers, introducing more and more innovative products along the way.
In this interview we talk to Simon about the beginnings of Etchr, their design and development process, and how the team collaborates with working artists to create products which continue to meet the needs of creatives.
Dan: Hi Simon, thanks for talking with us. Could you tell us a little about yourself and your involvement with Etchr?
Simon: I founded Etchr Lab in 2017 alongside my colleague Yan and our original designer Darren. Before we launched Etchr, I worked in Corporate Finance, Yan was a Management Consultant, and Darren was a freelance artist for the gaming and movie industries. Nowadays, Yan and I work on Etchr day-to-day and we are based in Australia. We also have a small team who all work remotely in other parts of the world.
Dan: How did you come to meet Darren, the designer of the original ‘Nomad’, and what drew you to working with him?
Simon: I was introduced to Darren by a mutual friend who runs a successful e-commerce business in Australia. A couple of years prior to this, Darren had launched a Kickstarter for the Nomad Art Satchel, which was really the predecessor to the Etchr Art Satchel.
The bag was designed to help artists carry their materials in a purpose-built system, while also having some innovative design features that made it easier to make art on the go. The Nomad Kickstarter went quite well – Darren had delivered to his backers and the feedback had been great.
Having had that experience, I think Darren realised that he wanted to grow the concept into something that went beyond just a Kickstarter campaign and to do this he would need some help. Yan and I were impressed by what he had accomplished on his own, we loved the community vibe and we believed that there was an opportunity to create a brand that developed innovative tools for artists. We re-branded to Etchr in early 2017 and Darren began working on the Art Satchel and the Field Case, which we launched on Kickstarter later that year. The Kickstarter raised about US$330k from 1880 wonderful backers, and that support truly “Kickstarted” the brand.
Dan: Could you talk a little about your work with independent designers who help develop Etchr products?
Simon: Rather than tasking a designer with creating a product, we believe that the best designers are those that actually design a product to address their own requirements and challenges – this was the case with Darren and the Art Satchel. Because artists are inherently creative, we found that there were a few that had branched into product design to address their own needs as artists.
As an example, we were introduced to professional watercolourist Stephanie Law (now our Palette Designer) who had run a successful Kickstarter for her Mini Palette. She had designed a beautiful porcelain set to store 37 colours in a palm-sized palette. Similarly, Erwin Lian (now our Sketchbook Designer) crowdfunded a couple of iterations of his “Perfect Sketchbook”, where he poured all of his knowledge of watercolour, paper, and binding techniques to create beautiful sketchbooks for the watercolour community.
While their designs were amazing, we saw time and time again the challenges that these independent designers faced when looking to make their products available at scale and on an ongoing basis. To address this, Etchr became somewhat of a platform for these designers to reach as many artists as possible.
By taking care of the manufacturing, logistics, customer service, marketing and administration, our designers could focus on what they do best. We hope that the fact that Etchr exists means that more independent designers will try their hand at making cool new products knowing that if they get some traction then they could find a home at Etchr Lab.
Dan: As the stages of developing a new product can be expensive, do you have any advice for those in the preliminary stages, before creating a Kickstarter is an option? What does it require?
Simon: It really depends on the type of product, however, if you consider something like a Mini Palette, a great way to get started is to make some illustrations and then to move on to prototyping with other materials.
I know for example that Stephanie was able to use 3D printing to rapidly prototype and test new iterations. Before 3D printing, this sort of process might have required you to engage a factory at a very early stage which can lead to long wait times and mounting costs.
Once you have some initial illustrations and prototypes, seek feedback from friends and don’t be afraid to share your ideas with the broader community through social media. The feedback from those that are not close to you is often the most valuable and we’ve found that a transparent design process also helps to build engagement, ownership, and excitement among the community.
Dan: After you have an idea, what do you think it takes to launch a successful campaign?
Simon: For starters, obviously you need a great product. One way to know that you’ve got that is to monitor the feedback you’re getting from the community as you share updates on social media or through a blog. As I mentioned above, this also drives awareness and engagement with potential customers.
The other key ingredient is momentum. It is vitally important that people know about your Kickstarter launch ahead of time. Just launching a Kickstarter and then looking to drum up support can lead to challenges – you really want to aim to surpass your goal as soon as possible. Before launching the Art Satchel and Field Case, we built a basic website with a blog and sign up page. We posted product design updates on our blog and made it easy for those that were interested in following along to sign-up to our mailing list. We also sent out some samples to influential artists, launched social media accounts and posted progress pics, behind the scenes content, and other things that led to engagement.
That small mailing list and social media following really made a difference at launch time. Driving as much traffic to your Kickstarter page when it launches creates a buzz around your project and it may lead Kickstarter to make your project more discoverable to others on their platform.
Dan: Etchr spends a lot of time focusing on online engagement, and we’re seeing a growing trend in artists doing the same – could you talk about the importance of this to building a brand like Etchr?
Simon: Most art brands have been around for decades or even centuries, and so we definitely feel like the new kid on the block. We really wanted to double down on what makes us different and when you start online, without a single retailer or distributor, it’s even more important to focus on the end customer.
To do this we took a leaf out of the book of forward thinking brands outside of the art supplies industry. What we’ve learnt is that no matter where your products are ultimately purchased, having a direct relationship with your community and providing value is critical to growing a brand. We spend tons of time thinking about quality online engagement, we even recently launched a podcast called “Make More Art” which we hope will provide a lot of value to our followers. When it comes to social media, we love seeing people use our products to make art and if someone takes the time to tag us or comment, the least we can do is give them a virtual high five – I know that our Social Media Manager Mar finds this to be the most rewarding part of the job.
Dan: You’ve been involved in developing a lot of interesting products with Etchr, is there one that you’re most proud of?
Simon: I hate playing favourites but I’d say I’ve been most proud of our Perfect Sketchbook Signature Series. This product was released midway through last year as a 1200 unit limited edition item that really represents what we think is the ultimate sketchbook.
In the grand scheme of things this sketchbook represents a small part of the business financially, however, the response was so overwhelmingly positive and the item sold out very quickly. From a learning standpoint, I think this launch also validated to us that innovative “product drops”, “collaborations” and “limited edition” items have a place in the art supplies space, as they do in other industries.
Dan: Is there anything about your work with Etchr now that you wish you’d known when you first started?
Simon: When we started Etchr we were really learning as we went so everything was quite new. I think that, in hindsight, the one thing we could have done earlier was growing our team. We are really fortunate to have a great team from all over the world and this team has been what has really helped make Etchr what it is today.
Dan: What’s next for Etchr?
Simon: We’re planning on releasing a number of new products in the coming months including the new limited edition Perfect Sketchbook Signature Series #2. Longer-term, we’re very focused on continuing to engage with our audience online through our social media, blog, podcast, etc. We’re also focused on growing our retail network to make our products more accessible in different areas – Jackson’s has been a wonderful help on this front in the UK and Europe.