Eight years ago, Grovemade’s founders were on separate paths, following different career trajectories. Ken Tomita was a self-employed designer and builder of contemporary Japanese-inspired furniture. Joe Mansfield was running a small e-commerce business making and selling laser-engraved notebooks online. They met when Ken moved from his tumbledown workshop to a slightly less decrepit space situated directly across the street from Joe’s house.
As makers and small business owners, Ken and Joe shared a common bond. In their late twenties, they were just as happy to talk about potential projects as they were to finish current ones. They discussed their dream projects over extended lunches, and when the weather permitted, tossed an old football back and forth across the street.
Elsewhere in the world, the iPhone 3GS was released.
Following the unveiling, Joe told Ken that he thought there was major potential in making and selling a phone case composed of natural materials that focused on a high level of craft while being accessible to a large consumer audience. He was so convinced that he made many serious pitches to milling shops around Portland, only to be rejected by every last one. The product would be too complex, too small, too hard to machine. Instead of taking that as a sign, they had a brilliant idea: They'd just do it themselves, investing everything they had in equipment they knew nothing about. What did they have to lose?
In lieu of thinking ahead, of business plans and metrics, they opted for hitting the ground running. The central focus was simply on making the thing, what-if’s be damned.
To make their case available on a large enough scale, they'd have to employ a CNC mill (a computer-controlled tool capable of reproducing finely detailed cuts). While they knew it could do intricate work, what they didn’t know was how to operate one. But, in keeping with their the-hell-with-it attitude, Ken took out a loan and bought a CNC mill outright, christening it "Rusty". They figured they'd just learn it as they went along.
An industrial CNC mill is a serious piece of machinery. Rusty is about the size of a small Airstream trailer, and its instruction manual spans two-hundred mind-boggling pages that initially proved to be more mystery than anything else. In need of help, they hired two new hands: Their friend and CNC-master, Rizzo, to walk them through the ins and outs of the new tool; and Ken's younger brother Yuji, a wiz-kid programmer.
For the next nine months, Rizzo mentored Yuji on the mill, Ken took the lead with fabrication, and Joe pursued all possible marketing avenues while figuring out how his laser cutter could expedite the manufacturing process. This time was fraught with difficulty. The mill was as much Pandora’s Box as helpful gizmo and the case itself was an enigma due to the rounded geometry of the iPhone 3GS. Still, having gone all-in, there was no choice but to forge ahead.
After nine long months of development, the product was finished and ready to ship. On April 19, 2010, the new case launched online.
And then it happened.
The very same day that Grovemade.com went live, the previously unannounced iPhone 4 was leaked to the world when an Apple software engineer left his prototype on a bar stool after his birthday celebration. Suddenly the 3GS was the "old" phone, and everyone was looking at the glorious new iPhone 4. Any coverage Grovemade would have received was buried instantly. The newly minted Grovemade was dead in the water, stuck with a product about as relevant as a rotary phone.
The next twenty-fours hours saw the team come a bit unglued. Countless hours and resources had been poured into the project; individual businesses had been sundered. The decision to just go for it looked, suddenly and obviously, like a horrible choice.
Ultimately, Joe and Ken committed themselves to making Grovemade work. They would develop a case for the yet-to-be-released iPhone 4 come hell or high water.
The team set to work immediately. Though they wouldn’t be starting entirely from scratch, they’d still lost the better part of a year’s worth of work in a single day. With the new phone set to drop in less than three months, the race to conceptualize, engineer, and manufacture an entirely new case would be a study in frantic creativity.
They needed a new prototype in a hurry. Over the course of several weeks, the team designed a case based solely on the specifications cribbed from the leaked iPhone.
By mid-June 2010, they had a photo-ready prototype ready to debut online, and when the iPhone 4 officially went up for pre-sale, the team was able to roll out pre-orders of their new case right alongside it.
The first week was another heartbreak. Sales were paltry, maxing out at five purchases per day. There was just too little exposure to generate interest in the fledgeling company, but the clouds were about to lift.
On June 24th, the day the iPhone 4 dropped in stores, Ken was standing in a long line at the Apple Store when his phone began to buzz. He ignored it at first, but soon it was humming incessantly. Fishing it from his pocket, he found his screen flooded with sales alerts from the Grovemade website. Something big had happened.
The tech and design blog Gizmodo, with nearly a million visitors a day, had discovered Grovemade, posting a front page article about the case smack dab in the middle of iPhone launch day. Grovemade's sales zipped up from single digits into the thousands instantaneously.
This was great news, but completely unanticipated, and everyone’s feelings swung from ecstasy to panic. The business was saved, but how in the world would they gear up to fulfill orders on a global scale overnight?
Thus began a prolonged effort to produce on a scale that should have been well beyond the capacity of a company so small. By toiling around the clock and enrolling family and friends, they took a simple prototype and worked tirelessly to bring it to market.
With limited space to work, the shop soon became overrun with materials and cases in mid-production. To ease the pressure on the team, Ken’s mother opened up her living room as the staging area for finishing the products. Each batch of cases was driven from the wood shop to her house, and with drop cloths spread over the floors, she personally hand-oiled each one. A custom drying rack was designed by the team specifically to compliment her living room. All hands were truly on deck.
After many long days and late nights of producing cases non-stop, they began to roll out to the first customers, who were happily, thankfully, delighted with their products. Grovemade was off and running, and wouldn't succumb to the fate of so many startups. The perseverance from those first days has served the team well in the following years, as the company has remained rooted in making things the hard way in an incredibly competitive market.