Tom Harman is a Designer

A Whirlwind Summer

Almost 4 months ago, MFA classes finished for the summer. Traditionally, this moment marks the start of a window of time appropriate for taking on an internship, practicing your craft in a professional environment you’ve grown curious about following a year of experimentation. I was very fortunate to receive offers from companies in NY and California that only a year ago I’d have killed to work at, but for some reason, the prospect no longer appealed. What I really wanted to spend time practicing wasn’t actually design, but everything around the edges i.e. the creation of companies and tools to enable creativity, with design built at the core. In today’s world, this might be referred to as entrepreneurship. After discussing these thoughts with my great friend, Tash, and realising we were on the same page, we decided to dedicate our summer to following this vision. In order to provide some sense of grounding we established two simple requirements before setting forth:

  1. Learn as much as possible about what it’s like to launch products independently.
  2. Earn $10k. (the minimum we each needed to ensure we could keep roofs over our heads until May 2013, when we hope to graduate)

In mid-May we had just launched Coastermatic and had two other startup ideas in the pipeline; a weekend workshop and a home lighting product. I naively thought we could spend a few weeks patching the holes in Coastermatic before it would be relatively self-sustaining, allowing us to focus our attention on developing the other two concepts.

As summer progressed, we quickly learnt this was never going to work. We straddled our time across Coastermatic and launching the second project; See Think Make. We had the advantage of an extra person in Tony, but that didn’t make much difference when our collective energy was spread so thinly. Shortly after launching See Think Make, we realized the full extent of diluting our focus and decided to put it on ice, along with the lighting project; which turned out to be fortunate considering Belkin released something very close to what we had in mind weeks later.

Until this point Tash and I had considered Coastermatic a fun experiment, but this realisation drove us to thinking how we could integrate the creative components behind the other projects into Coastermatic, turning it into a vehicle for all three. By this, I mean less about the concepts themselves and more about the process surrounding the ideas. Throughout the summer we improvised with co-working spaces, met many talented folks, got featured in some of our favorite design blogs, flew to Oklahoma, recruited freelancers, and most importantly, continued to experiment with business, design and customer acquisition through a live, working, product.

As the weeks unfolded our finances were far from hitting the target so I decided to take on a short-term contract with Boxee. This provided an excellent insight into an established startup, re-inventing products for the home. The focus on a singular product vision and a holistic approach to design was inspiring. It felt like a glimpse into a possible future, providing a reference point for the way things could go if Coastermatic (or whatever comes next) achieved a similar amount of momentum.

Although the summer ended up as a whirlwind of energy and emotion, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. The two requirements we set at the start provided the constraint needed to take on a very loose and agile approach to making the most of a finite period of time. There were so many lessons from the successes and failures that I’m sure I’d have never learnt without experiencing them first hand. While i’m looking forward to the final 8 months of my MFA, I’m excited to know there’s a project running alongside, providing a testing ground for real-world design experiments. And with a little luck it might even be able to help fund whatever product ideas come next.

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