Product innovation is the cornerstone of any e-commerce business. On this 107th episode of The E-Comm Show, Andrew interviews Austin and Stephen of ZipString, a toy innovation startup that turns ordinary strings into fun interactive toys.
In this episode, Austin and Stephen discuss how they came up with the idea for ZipString, their journey from concept to launch, and the strategic approach they take to product innovation. Don't miss this episode if you're looking for fresh ideas on creating new products!
If you enjoyed the show, please rate, review, and SUBSCRIBE!
Have an e-commerce marketing question you'd like Andrew to cover in an upcoming episode? Email: email@example.com
UnZipping The Zipstring Story
Andrew Maff, Austin Hillam and Stephen Fazio
CONNECT WITH OUR HOST: AndrewMaff.com | Twitter: @AndrewMaff | LinkedIn: @AndrewMaff
Austin Hillam pursued engineering studies at Brigham Young University before co-founding ZipString alongside Stephen Fazio. Prior to his academic endeavors, he dedicated two years to a mission in Brazil for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an experience that profoundly influenced his perspective and equipped him with skills crucial to ZipString's success. The widely celebrated toy, ZipString, rapidly captured attention, leading to significant milestones like a remarkable appearance on Shark Tank and a prominent spot on Dude Perfect's nationwide stage tour.
Electronics engineer and inventor of ZipString.
Andrew Maff 00:02
It's a love hate relationship when you're working with buyers and it's sometimes it's their way or the highway and sometimes we play with zip string, it's only thing like it Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The E-Comm Show. I'm your host, Andrew Maff. And today I'm joined by the amazing Austin and Steven, who are the cofounders of ZipString. Guys, how you doing? You ready for a good show? doing awesome. Thanks for having us. Yes, super excited. Love the product, love the concept. No idea how this came to be so very excited to hear the story. Per usual I'll do the stereotypical thing. Give you guys a second here. Tell us a little bit about yourselves. You know where you guys started? How you got started with zip string and we'll kind of take it from there. Okay.
Sure, guys want to do like
Andrew Maff 01:39
background a little bit? Just a short history real short.
Okay. Um, well, my name is Stephen Fazio I love electronics and design electronics. And ZipString actually got started. When I was at school at Georgia Tech. I entered into a hackathon for our robotics team. And we were supposed to design a circuit board smaller than the size of a credit card. It could do anything as long as the whole bill of materials was under $50. And so I use this inspiration, I saw this physics teacher on YouTube, demonstrate this benchtop string launcher. And I thought, Whoa, that would be super cool if I could compactify that make something smaller than the circuit board. And so I actually have that, that prototype here. This is the first I guess ZipString. Prototype. And that's what when we the hackathon, so I made a small batch. And then I put it on the internet and it got some traction on on tick tock, everybody loves it or like, Where can I buy this? And then I thought to make I was like, Well, you can't buy it. It doesn't really exist yet. And so I thought to make like a Kickstarter or something, but it didn't really get rolling until I met Austin.
Andrew Maff 03:07
Yeah. So I'm Austin Hillam I love engineering, working with my hands and things like that. And so between semesters, I was studying engineering at Brigham Young University, Utah, I was home and Georgia and I met Steven at church and you had me over and he was showing me all his his bedroom laboratory and his and his ZipString prototype is string shooter and we were just nerding out about it, you know, an hour of just thinking you know, how we could change it, how we can make it better. So I bring him over to my place and we are currently what you're seeing is in my parents basement and and we start you know, working on new prototype, my dad jumps in on the fun and together we came up with this prototype and and Steven put this together and we both you know, we're basically sitting around the table and said, you know, we had something awesome we all knew we had something amazing and so we all shared it's a Steven you can't share this with anyone you know? Well we have your super awesome well come to find out Steven shortly posts a video of just this song Take
towers in my closet like in my bedroom. And I just said oh look at this string launcher super smooth, super satisfying or something. Wow, look at this. And I put it on the on the caption like coming soon to Kickstarter to see if anything would happen. I completely did not expect what came from that.
Yeah, that night. That video had 20 million views on Reddit. You Facebook, Instagram, YouTube just sent a ripple through the internet. And so we kept running with it, you know, launched a Kickstarter, and it was just viral video after viral video, everyone wanted to understand how this works. And because it just is so different. And, you know, we didn't really explain kind of what ZipString is. So for those that have no idea what we're talking about ZipString is, it's like he said, a small hand device that takes a looper string and pushes it through these motors so fast that the whole thing floats in the air. And what's so cool is that, how it works is that we make the string fuzzy. And that fuzziness creates drag in the air as the string is flying, which generates a lift. So now you have a looper string that is floating in the air and emulating all your movements. And so
that's the special thing about ZipString that nobody had seen before. Sure, you might have had like a physics demonstration, some big prints top thing, but what we had done is make it into a toy, that that the user can fit in the palm of their hand. Yeah. And that's where it's super fun, because then you can capture so many different waves and movements in the string as it's just floating in the air. It's like drawing in 3d, almost. Yeah.
Andrew Maff 06:25
It's so interesting. Yeah, so it's you, you created this this toy, it's a very interesting invention. How did you end up making this into a business? Because, you know, clearly a seven figure business is not a small feat. So it's not obviously just a toy, you've created a pretty substantial business out of it. How did you go about doing that? How did you continue to market it and get it out there? So you know, it's taken a lot of learning and and, you know, you're riding on a roller coaster with the high peaks, and then you go low valleys. But what I think what we have is, we're an innovation team, we're good at coming up ideas, and we're, we're good at working hard. And so we just, you know, thought, you know, we got to launch a Kickstarter, we got to get the some money behind this to, you know, do the tooling and to get started by, you know, the inventory. And so,
yeah, everybody was like, Where can I buy this? I want to buy it right now. And seeing all of these like, awesome things. Well, we're just kind of like, well, we want to see the money first. Like, Yeah, cuz cuz you don't, it doesn't really process in your head that this, like small toy could really become a business like you're saying, especially at the, like form factor that we had it in. So here, I'd like to show you. When you run a Kickstarter, you want to show people a proof of concept. And this was our proof of concept. Yeah. Design, it has the enclosure, it has the wheels. And this is what we showed to everybody. But, you know, to your point, how do you make a scalable business, because this being a prototype still can make a scalable business out of it. So we were just completely redoing and revising our entire product, until we got to a point that we knew we could scale it something that is reasonable to manufacture that we can have outsourced eventually.
So so to so as soon as we started the Kickstarter, we started looking at, you know, how can we, you know, manufacture this overseas. So as we were trying to figure that out, we designed new models, new prototypes. And we relied completely on just organic traction and growth throughout the entire time, you know, for the first 18 months as if string. We didn't spend $1 and paid media or advertising. And because the you know, we post a video and goes while post another video goes viral. So our entire Kickstarter, you know, that was funded completely just organically. And you know, we're just posting on our social medias and things like that. Well, it's time to deliver the 4000 ZipStrings that we you know, sold from our Kickstarter and overseas manufacturing was taking forever to get fired up. So what do we do we, you know, we bought six resin printers, we brought some friends in order the motors and batteries and everything and made 4000 in house you know by hand.
Yeah, and I'll put the context of this is kind of during just at the tail end of COVID where you couldn't really reliably set up a supply chain. It's a lot of things were always just up in the air, especially with the open It ocean shipments and stuff like that. So that's why we just put our heads down to it and decided we have to make these ourselves now to get them out of the door. Yeah.
So when our Kickstarter ended, we continue to amass a lot of pre orders through a website different, you know, influencers, reached out and YouTubers and wanting to you know, demonstrate this phenomenon, there's a group who work closely with called do perfect. And they took it on a nationwide stage tour. And so, you know, it was just a lot of fun, and just so much happened in such a short time. But we ended up you know, through the trenches and manufacturing, finishing on our own developing a product, and, you know, the whole process of making this product to something so much better. And that's what we have been manufactured overseas.
Andrew Maff 11:01
So how are you positioning the product? Because it's so it's so out there? Like, it's obviously not something that's existed before? So are you kind of like, this is a toy similar to like a yo, yo, or like a fidget spinner kind of thing, where like, you can do tricks with it, but it can also just keep you entertained for a while? Or are you kind of positioning this in like a different light? Like, how are you kind of selling this to the consumer?
You know, it's a great question, because it changes all the time, you know, we kind of have this overall view of this is how we're selling it. But you know, there's so many different demographics and audiences that William we're target ones at different times. So when it's whether it's kids, and we're, we're, you know, selling this as you know, a toy that, you know, is can keep you busy for hours, because it's a little babysitter,
you give it to your kid hold tension right now.
So because you know, ZipString that emulates movements, there's unlimited possibility of shapes and tricks and, you know, people come up with, so people will film their tricks and send it to us, and we'll name and put on the website. So there's that. But there's also a whole community that loves to take these to festivals, and concerts, and parties. And, you know, we have fluorescent stream that glows to black light, and all kinds of stuff. So there's the whole audience where we will target them, and they'll, you know, they're buying them for their shows.
So you mentioned the fidgets spinner. And you did mention the yo yo. And from our perspective, I would definitely put this more toward the box of yo yo type type of play that kind of play style. Because fidget spinner is just like a little thing that spins in your the ability to do tricks. And the challenge of using longer strings is what makes the ZipString more akin to more like a Yo yo, like a skill based toy. So that's where you get like, where you can see somebody using this for an extended amount of time is trying to master some trick versus Oh, it's just spins in my hand, which is cool, fidgety.
Andrew Maff 13:27
So where are you? So obviously your upsell opportunities, there are different colored strings, longer strings, which I'm sure your costs are astronomical for stuff like that. But what's Is there a plan for how you're going to expand the product line? Or are you actually kind of going more wide, and seeing what you can do to start to develop? Like, you know, kind of that culture of people who are doing tricks with it and just expand the audience? That great question. And I think the answer is both we are expanding the classic version of substring just as far as far as we can. But while we're doing that, we're coming up with new products. And this fall, we'll launch our latest model. And, you know, we're careful disclose all the details. But it's something again, the world has never seen. And, and so, you know, Steven, you know, we all live innovating, especially Steven and so he is constantly making changes and tweaking and doing the product while you know, our other team and myself were handling more of the business and the marketing and and you know, the E commerce side of things.
So to answer your question about like expanding out the product line, yeah, we're gonna have a new product launching here soon. And then we'll have kind of some sister products, accessories, accessories that are related To, like you said, different different types of string lengths, colors, cetera. But like Austin saying there's there are always tweaks that you can do to optimize your product. Because I come at this from like the very much hardware engineering angle, our newest version is going to have, like two times faster charging, it's going to last for like half an hour longer than like, holding it holding it down and running it for for like, like a straight run, our ZipStrings will run for over an hour straight. This next version, we optimize that, so now it's going to run for like an hour and a half straight, like continuing on time. So so there are always like tweaks and other things from from the product, and that, that we're doing to make it that that kind of expand out.
And, and to speak more on the you know, I know, we're just kind of sometimes I feel like we're just kind of rambling off on all kinds of things. But it is so exciting. Because, you know, expanding, there's so many different ways you expand that, you know, whether we're launching in different countries, or, and this fall we launched and the you know, the big, the big box stores in this fall. So different distribution channels and all kinds of things there. So
Andrew Maff 16:37
you you obviously went to Shark Tank route as well. What, uh, what was the thought behind doing that? How did that whole experience go? Tell me a little bit about that.
It was a lot of fun, you know, just several months in the ZipString. They, you know, everyone's like, saying, You got to apply to Shark Tank, and, you know, do that. So I, you know, I just submitted the bill, one page application there, you don't think much about it is just, you know, we're too busy. For anything else. It's submitted, done? Well, that was October 21. March of 22. They, we get a call from Shark Tank. And, you know, they say, Hey, love your guys product, I have a couple questions for you in in my answering these. And so answer the questions are great. We want you to send in this big, you know, video, video kind of interest, that kind of thing. So we get back to them and say, we our hands are so tied right now. Can we get this video back to y'all in a month? And just as we were fulfilling our Kickstarter,
yeah, we were just trying to get product out of the door. And then Shark Tank is like, Hey, give us this, this video, well, it's work.
So we told them get come back, reach back out to us in a month. And so they did. And then we take two more weeks. And then two more weeks, they reach back out to us for like two more weeks. Like we just we're just, we're almost there. And we were playing, you know, hard to get or anything but we really trying to get these sorted orders out. And so again, they reached back in two more weeks, and we you know, we get make the time to make this video we sent it in and you know, they just keep sending us down the whole Shark Tank, you know, funnel or process, ya know, this new producers and you work with them. And then throughout the entire time, they never told us or going on the show, you know, you never have this, this confirmation that you're going on the show, but all of a sudden, you'll have two tickets in your hand LA and like, I guess for going on
the show. I mean, even after your shoe, you don't really have assurance that you're going to air either it's like until I get on national television with my own eyes. They keep you're in limbo kind of
Andrew Maff 19:08
also also very true. So once it did air, how, how are the results on the site had everything did everything pick up from there?
Absolutely. It is. It is a big bump. We had 200,000 people on the site that night. You know, we sold out of our inventory airing on the East Coast within five minutes of it airing.
So to give you some context around that, by the time by the time we filmed we had received our inventory from overseas. That was the whole big dilemma that we were facing and why we were so caught up with a Kickstarter is because we were we were just trying to hold off this horde of of customers who had pre ordered and and needed the product. And it was until we got our factory to produce everything that we were kind of in mind. Yeah. And so once we set that up, we got our product got our inventory, and then I think it was maybe a week or two after is when we filmed Shark Tank. So by the time we aired, we already did have inventory. Yeah, so just let's contextualize enough inventory.
Andrew Maff 20:31
So you had a video go viral, that picked up a lot of stuff you did. Kickstarter picked up a lot of stuff at that shark tank that picked up a lot of stuff. What's your marketing approach? Now? Are you you know, are you kind of staying heavy on an influencer? Side? Are you doing social? Are you doing paid? Have you ventured into like Amazon or Walmart? Like, how have you have stuff structured now.
So we've we, not too long ago, we launched Walmart, we do a lot of paid media now, Facebook, Instagram ads, I'd say a majority of you know, the marketing and the budget goes into that right now. Consumption is such a demonstrable item, you know, capturing people's attention. It does it does a really good job here. And so we do a lot of hidden media. Currently, I'm i We're learning more about kind of the paid influencer route, the kind of testing things like that, that's something you know, still learning. But I know it's it's such a growing market, especially these days. And, and it's a lot of drinks just expanding, you know, to, to Walmart, and you know, the other big box stores and things like that, where, you know, a lot of our time and efforts are going towards
Yeah, we're always surprised how many people have seen ZipString. But we're also always surprised how many people haven't. So it does take trying to put yourself out there and getting exposure, like you're saying,
Andrew Maff 22:08
yeah, and the nice thing about the product, too, is you know, kind of, like you mentioned, it's so demonstrable, like this thing could be anywhere and be purchased, it's I could see it at a toy store, obviously, but then it could very well be a grocery store or a drugstore, or it could be in a sports book, like they're gonna be all over the place. So it's one of those things where like, there's so much you could do from a sales channel and retail placement to marketing. It's kind of like, where that's where I always see as the biggest struggle is, where do you focus for a while before you venture into other things and end up you know, spreading off with way more than you can chew? Sure, it's so
true. Yeah. So we can show off the packaging. Speaking, yeah.
So this is what the new retail packaging looks like.
So what you'll see on like, a store shelf is all clear. And it shows very clearly, you know, people using it, and we have QR codes we made sure to include because it makes a difference being able to see a video versus was this string on on a package. And then we have our other packaging, which is fulfilled like our
non retail non non retail that this this small, sleek box, kind of the
Andrew Maff 23:37
same art is a majority of your revenue coming from retail or from DC.
Right now it's all due to DC and until this fall, and so that'll change that'll that'll change. Working with retail though is it's it's it's a love hate relationship, you know, when you're working with, you know, the buyers and you know, it's sometimes it's their way or the highway, sometimes we play you know, with ZipString. So only thing like it, you know, we own the IP and everything. So, you know, what other road Do you want to go and so sometimes we can kind of play that game, but it is. It is exhausting.
Andrew Maff 24:24
Yeah, it's a it's a different beast. It is a different beast. So we're interesting. We're very interested in to see how it's going to play out this fall. Yeah. I'm super excited to see how it plays out. And and now I really want to see what's coming out in the fall that obviously the show isn't important enough for you to tell us which is fine. But so well, we'll keep an eye out for it. Awesome. Steven, thank you so much for being on the show. I really appreciate it. I want to take up too much of your time. I would love to give you guys the opportunity. Let everyone know they can find out more about you and of course More about substring Awesome. Thanks. Yeah. Where? ZipString.com Right.
Oh, sorry. I think you broke up there.
Andrew Maff 25:13
Where? Where can we hear more about ZipString? Oh,
Oh, we have the official ZipString handle on Instagram,
ZipString you can find us
Andrew Maff 25:28
beautiful. Gentlemen, thank you so much for being on the show everybody else who tuned in obviously thank you to the usual to rate review subscribe all that fun stuff on whichever podcast platform you prefer or head over the cop show.com to check out all of our previous episodes but as usual, I appreciate you all joining us and we'll see you all next time.
Thank you for tuning in to The E-Comm Show head over to ecommshow.com to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform or on the BlueTuskr YouTube channel. The E-Comm Show is brought to you by BlueTuskr, a full service digital marketing companies specifically for e-commerce sellers looking to accelerate their growth. Go to bluetuskr.com Now for more information. Make sure to tune in next week for another amazing episode of The E-Comm Show.