Tactus Technology are the makers of Phorm, which improves your typing experience on your your touch screen devices such as your iPhone or Tablet. Co-Founder Craig Ciesla and his company is trying to solve what they believe to be the missing piece of our touchscreens: tactile feedback. One of the intereesting trends we are seeing in crowdfunding is that startups are starting to use their own websites to sell pre-orders on which is benifical in the long run for multiple reasons. Listen to Craig discuss patents, entrepreneurship, user testing and why they skipped out on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

What is Phorm?

Phorm is a new type of accessory that right now allows you to morph the surface of your iPad Mini so that you get physical buttons appearing out of the screen of your iPad. The way it works is you put our special microfluidic panel on the tablet, just like you would a screen protector. Then there’s a case that goes around it. When you need it, you turn it on and the surface changes shape. It gives you a dynamic, tactile surface that allows you to do better, faster, more accurate, more satisfying work.

Why did you create Phorm?

We’re all about defining what’s next for the touchscreen. Touchscreens are great for consuming content, but if you want to create content, if you want to type, even if you just want to game, there’s always something missing. What’s missing is tactile feedback.

We started Tactus Technology with the goal of a tactile touchscreen, something that can change shape. It’s a pretty big endeavor because it’s about redefining the user interface. Our goal is to get into devices in the next couple years. Next year, actually, we’ll see our first Tactus-enabled device, but until then, we see hundreds of millions of devices shipping, all with this pain point around typing.

We realized that we could bring our technology to market with Phorm and allow you to get better productivity on today’s devices. Phorm is fixing the problem today, while we’re working towards integration in future devices. Phorm for the iPad Mini is just the first of several products. We’ve got a Phorm for iPhone 6 plus iPad Air in the works for later this year.

How did you go from that a-ha moment of the idea, to deciding, “I’m going to build a company”?

The first part, that a-ha moment, was quite simple. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was out for a walk with my kids. The iPhone had just come out, I had a Blackberry, and I thought, “The iPhone is really cool, but I don’t think I could live without my buttons.” I started thinking about that problem.

I was already familiar with a field of technology called microfluidics, which is about controlling small amounts of fluid. I thought maybe you could use microfluidics to make the surface of the screen change shape, to give you those Blackberry-type buttons popping out of the touchscreen.

I was familiar with microfluidics because my good friend Micah Yairi had been working in microfluidics for medical applications for several years. I called up Micah and said, “Hey, I’ve got this really cool idea. What do you think?” After a few weeks of discussing it, we said, “Wow, this actually can work. In fact, not only can it work, there are so many new things it enables around user interface.”

That was the genesis of Tactus. Micah became my co-founder. Unfortunately, our discovery around what we could do with microfluidics coincided with the economic crash. We were doing very complicated material science to transform the user interface, which was a big move, but at a time when hardware startups frankly were not that popular.

But we were so excited by the scope of what we could do. It’s not about creating just a QWERTY keyboard. This really is about making a programmable, tactile surface. Phorm is just the first step in rolling that into the market.

Is this your first entrepreneurial endeavor?

This is the first time I’ve started a company. I’ve had a lot of ideas, but this is the first time I knew this is what I really want to do. I’ve been at a startup before. When I first moved to the States, I worked at a communications hardware startup. That was a lot of fun.

Prior to that, I worked for a while at a venture capital group in the UK called Intel Capital and covered their optical investments in Europe. That gave me perspective on the other side of the table.

I’d always been keen, if I found the right idea, to go start a company, and Tactus really struck me as something that could be huge. It’s complicated, but the opportunity is massive. Every touchscreen could have Tactus on it in a few years.

How did you transition from your full-time job to starting Tactus?

A lot of thought went into what Tactus would look like and it became clear that we had to do this full-time. We were either going to do this or not —it couldn’t work part-time. Early on, we jumped in full-time and said, “Let’s raise money through a seed round, get some proof points on the technology and also the IP.” That gave us the confidence to go in there and say, “Let’s get started. Let’s do this,” But it was small: it was three of us for quite some time.

What has been the most challenging part of running your business?

A couple things. One is understanding the important attributes of the product we want to demonstrate and its whole value proposition. For us, we’ve recognized that as we develop the product, we need to balance the materials and the usability. It’s been a good learning experience for us.

phorm-tablet-case 2The other thing is really thinking carefully about your business model. As many companies do, we started with an initial business model, and that’s evolved over time. Phorm isn’t the end game for us.

Now we’ve arrived at what we think is a very good business model for both integrated and accessory products. It’s not necessarily the obvious way of doing it. We went through several iterations to get that right. Then when you get it, you’re like, “Oh, yeah. The supply chain.”

What tips do you have for people trying to figure out manufacturing?

First off, it’s important that what the factory is good at fits what you’re trying to achieve with the product. It should complement what your team is doing.

Secondly, is making sure your goals are well aligned. If your goal is to ship 100,000 units in the next year, but the manufacturer won’t really get excited unless you’re at five million units per year, you clearly have a goal misalignment. Sometimes the bigger guys might not be the best place to start, and you’ve got to figure out who has the same goals and ambitions as you. This really is a partnership, right? They’re going to be taking a risk with you as the new small startup. You’ve got big ambitions, but you’re still a risk on their part. So you want to make sure that they’re really aligned with your set of goals.

What’s been your experience with user testing?

We’ve done a lot of different types of user testing over several years. It started with just our own team here. If you’re very honest with yourself, you pick can pick up your own device, play with it, and say, “Yeah, I like this. I don’t like that. We can work more on that.” Then you go to friends and family.

But we’ve also done third-party testing. So you go to a local firm and say, “We’ll give you a bunch of parts. Here’s what we’re trying to understand. Go run the test.” They’ll run that test. Depending on where you are in the production cycle, it’s important to balance the cheap way of doing it with the more expensive way and getting data from both camps.

Also, with our extended network of advisors and other people, we’re able to share devices and say, “What do you think?” Particularly the experienced people will give us that breakdown of, “Here’s what’s good. Here’s what’s bad.” You want to get the good and the bad. Particularly, you want the bad early enough that you can do something about it. The worst thing is to ignore all the problems and then send it out into the field.

You didn’t launch your product on a crowdfunding site. What was your launch plan?

We looked at a lot of different options, and we settled on doing it through our own website. We’re in pre-orders right now, so you can pre-order of our iPad Mini Phorm device through getphorm.com, where you can also get on a waitlist for other devices.

The reason we did it this way is that, as we add more devices, we want the flexibility to build out the whole experience of a hub: the one place to go where you’ve got the different devices, pre-orders, information about the company, our weekly blog. We wanted to have that all in one place, rather than dispersing it around a bunch of different sites.

The site is not about crowdfunding. For us, it was really about setting up that order profile. We’ve got a couple different SKUs, and we’ve also got different models for the iPad Mini. We wanted to get an understanding of that order profile ahead of loading the factory.

That was the intention. It wasn’t about determining whether the market will like this. This is really about us validating the level of demand and the SKU variance so we can load the factories appropriately.

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