Matt Verlinich: How Many Engineers Does It Take To Make Clear Ice?
I grew up in Pittsburgh PA. Pittsburgh has an international reputation as the steel city. Ever since Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill here there has been a deep tradition of making. My family is no exception. Since my great-grandparents immigrated to the US and settled in Pittsburgh, each generation of my family has worked in the trades. This instilled a love for making and figuring out how things worked since my earliest memories. I’d sneak down into my grandfather's small shop and try to figure out what all the tools were used for; take apart remote control cars; hammer pieces of wood together into simple machines. As half of my family is of Serbian descent, I also grew up with Nikola Tesla as my hero; this was naturally reinforced by Tesla’s connection to Pittsburgh through Westinghouse. The combination of this love for making and the worship of a man who shaped the modern world with his inventions naturally gave me a desire to be an inventor when I grew up...more on that later.
The collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh during my early childhood hit my family hard. It was at that point that my parents, with the best intentions, made it clear to my siblings and I that if we wanted to succeed, we couldn’t rely on the trades and we needed to go to college and have a professional career. I accepted this but I never gave up on my dream of being an inventor and my love of making things. With some dear friends (love you Geza), I used every tool at my disposal to make everything from catapults to a coal forge.
Once I knew that I had to go to college I set my sights high, I wanted to go to an Ivy League school, but when the reality of having to pay for that myself set in...I let a scholarship guide me to the Schreyer Honors College at Penn Stat. Here I found the perfect major for my insane curiosity and my voracious appetite to learn how everything worked: Engineering Science & Mechanics. I chose a thesis topic that let me keep learning and adding to my abilities to make things. While prototyping microwave and ultrasonic biodiesel reactors, I learned all about machining, welding, CAD, electronics, chemistry, and more. My love for learning and tinkering only grew through college, but with my crushing loan debt and 0 experience I didn’t feel ready to start a business and become the full-time maker I yearned to be. Yet.
So I went to work for that last vestige of the once great Westinghouse Electric Corporation which won the War of the Currents with Nikola Tesla’s patents...only to ultimately lose the business game to J.P. Morgan and G.E. It was at this point, when I had finally “succeeded.” I went to a good college, got a good job, had money to spend on restaurants, toys, trips and all that stuff. I had a career trajectory that my parents could only dream of. Then I saw that Jameson commercial. I had been jotting ideas down in my notebook about what my bar would be like in my future house. I love thinking about being able to own a home and make it my own in every facet, especially the bar. It was going to be a classy oasis. And as I thought, it hit me. If every liquor company around the world marketed their products using clear ice like in that commercial, there had to be a reason. A subconscious desire, a draw to the visual, to this experience. It was just too expensive and time consuming to do at home. Or was it? I thought back to the ice sculptures and the castles from the winter festival at Chautauqua and saw no reason why a simple, passive device couldn't be designed to do this at home easily and cost-effectively. I started prototyping some initial concepts, but never gave it serious headspace. I worked at Westinghouse for 3 years as a Mechanical Engineer, and learned a ton about engineering (especially how it was done 30 years ago) and a fair bit about business, particularly about how important it is to have strong fundamentals to build something that lasts.
At Westinghouse I began feeling like I couldn’t have the kind of future I wanted. I had learned basically everything that I could from that position. It was at this precise moment when I found out that a company that I had been following for years, TechShop, had announced that they were opening a new location and they were looking for people. That new location? Pittsburgh. TechShop was a makerspace; a workshop where anyone could come in with any level of experience and have access to the tools and training they needed to build anything they could dream. I had actually been debating moving to the west coast and working for a new startup at the time, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity at the perfect time. I threw everything I had at that opportunity and ultimately got the job of General Manager. I quickly found out that TechShop did not have it’s fundamentals down, which was exciting to me; as a 25 year old kid I owned a multi-million dollar P&L, interviewed hundreds of people, trained dozens of staff and instructors, built partnerships with businesses and non-profits community organizations, piloted new classes and summer camps, and ultimately learned an incredible amount about both making and what it takes to start and run a successful business. This was a quantum leap in learning that almost felt like going back to school. Whenever I'm asked my opinion on MBA programs, my usual response is "go work at a startup". And while I did work on the design for my clear ice maker while at TechShop, most of my blood sweat and tears went towards helping members get their ideas off the ground and figuring out how to make TechShop's business model work so it could grow and thrive. And after 3 years, I was sure I had the answer. I went for a director level position. My plan was praised and deemed sound. And then, nothing. For 2 months, I got nothing by radio silence. Turns out they used that time to find my replacement so they could abruptly relieve me from my duties shortly thereafter.
It wasn't how I expected it to come, but the time had finally arrived for me to start my business. Notice how now I say "start a business", and not "become an inventor". As a kid I didn’t realize that my worship of Nikola Tesla blinded me from seeing that the reason why he was so little known for all the impact he had on the world (at least in the ‘90s before he became an internet phenom) was because he was just an inventor. He turned all his intellect and attention on purely the discovery and the creation side with no patience for the business. Through college as an engineer, I viewed business school kids as shortcut takers. I didn't respect their approach or what they were studying. And while I may still have my doubts about studying business at school, I know that understanding it is essential in creation. If you don't have a balanced understanding of the technical and creation side with how it can function in a market, you are lost. This was the greatest lesson I learned at TechShop. Not to suggest I knew totally what I was doing, but I had a framework in place. And I knew if I didn’t try it then, I never would. So I started looking through my notebook of all the hundreds of ideas I had collected over the years. There was a lot, including a lot of bad ones. I mean a LOT of bad ones. I kept coming back to the clear ice making concept. There were a lot of reason why like, a lack of competition, a clear (yep) demand, growth in related markets, ease in development and launch, etc. Ultimately though, it boiled down to two things: A) I knew I could design a great product that could do exactly what I wanted it to do and well and B) I understood the customer because I was the customer. So I returned to TechShop (I know, right??). This time, not as a GM, but as an instructor. I started teaching every class that they had to offer. I was selling prototyping services, consulting with other makers design and manufacturing. I was once again helping people to get their ideas from their head into their hands. All the while, my primary focus had shifted to finalizing my prototype and launching OnTheRocks to the market.
The prototype there. I was 99% certain that it would be able to do what I wanted, for the price that I wanted to be able to sell it for. It was time to launch. TechShop taught me many important lessons, but two of the most important ones were 1) the power of crowdfunding if you build a community and 2) the importance of a team that compliments your weaknesses. So I contacted a childhood friend of mine who had recently started his own marketing agency, Ben Butler of Top Hat, and a former employee turned kindred spirit/photographer extraordinaire, Joseph W. Brown. Ben would handle the website, the branding, and the copy for the campaign. Joe directed, shot, and edited all of the video and imagery. And I of course would handle the business and manufacturing of the product. By that time, January of 2016, crowdfunding had already become kind of a joke. Smartwatches were being launched with a $50,000 goal having already raised millions of dollars in investment to make a prototype featured in a video. It had become a seedy landscape. But I had nothing but my savings and it wasn't going to cut it. I needed this campaign to be successful if I wanted to actually build a business. So I poured over every detail of how the product would come to life. The best piece of advice I got was from a friend and startup founder, Mark Jriessaty of RapidTPC who said, “don’t think about how much you need to raise to launch your ideal product, ask yourself how low can I set the goal and still get started?” So I did the math and came to some hard conclusions. To be able to manufacture the trays at the quality I wanted and the vessels to the spec I needed, I would need to raise at least $25K. If I hit that goal, I could start this thing off right. That was it. I was suddenly confident we could actually pull this off.
It was time. Ben had crafted a fantastic website and crowdfunding page that told the story and explained the benefits. Joe had created beautiful video and imagery that showed those benefits. And I had done everything I could to make the product great in every measurable way. The campaign launched in September of 2016. It was a hit. It exceeded my wildest dreams. We raised $75k in a month from almost a thousand backers in 55 countries around the world. I couldn't believe it. I knew there was demand, I knew we'd done the ground work, and I knew I'd made a great product, but it still managed to surprise me. I took a second and soaked it in. But only a second, because now it was time to move.
We had raised enough to have every part made commercially...just barely. I started calling around finalizing quotes and timelines and realized the only way I’d be able to make this product for that amount of money was to go overseas and actually see these places. I found a great manufacturer based out of Guangzhou. I got everything squared up and hopped on a plane to go see the first OnTheRocks Ice Box roll off the presses.
A common trope in stories like these is the "surprises" at this part of the story. Most often, it comes in the form cost and time. In my case, I had underestimated the time and cost to delivery the product. The shipping costs for the initial campaign orders were 130% more than the cost of the tooling and the initial order itself. I was screwed. Or I would have been had it not been for Indiegogo's InDemand feature. This allowed me to keep generating support and "orders" even though my campaign had "finished". The campaign, including InDemand, would go on to raise $110K which allowed me to cover many of those overages. I learned quickly and tightened things up. I was able to deliver all orders from the initial campaign by the Fall of 2017. Now that manufacturing was solid, I began selling directly online as well as through Amazon.
I ran the business full-time for the first year. These were some hard yards. When you read about companies getting started, there is a common theme especially with those that manufacture and hold physical inventory. I was careful. I reinvested heavily. I forecasted and tried to stay stocked accordingly. I wasn't doing much designing, prototyping, or the kind of problem solving I loved. As a one-person operation, I was working very hard just to keep the ship afloat and aimed roughly in the right direction. I had big ideas and big plans, but based on how things were growing and my resources, I felt very restricted. I was going to need to make a change. It was at that moment that a connection of mine told me about a role that had just opened at Innovation Works, a local economic development organization that invests in and supports entrepreneurs. One of the main purposes of the role was to connect local makers and entrepreneurs with local manufacturers. To help old and traditional connect with new and innovative. "I know you are busy with OnTheRocks, but I immediately thought of you when I heard about the gig." I had always respected IW and I loved the mission. So I went for it and got it. Ironically, dividing my time even further is what allowed me to give OnTheRocks the focus it needed to grow it in the right way. By day, I am back working closely with entrepreneurs, helping to launch their dreams, as well as manufacturers, trying to connect with the next generation of business owners. By night and weekend, I run OnTheRocks with renewed purpose and fire power. I have help. I'm working on new ideas and designs. I'm expanding the mission and purpose. And I'm doing all of this by listening closely to you, our customers, to continue giving you what you want.
Is the work done? Of course not. Time for a "Mission Accomplished!" banner? Nope. But one thing is for certain: I will never stop learning, growing, and evolving.