Tuesday, January 12, 2021

2021: A Look Ahead


It’s just over a week into the new year and we’re off to a rocking start. We’ve caught up on all of the orders made over our holiday vacation. The machines are all back up and running; cranking out parts for the production run of Retraktable pencils, working on the 2021 Vertex pens, and working onout of stock items like brass Render K V2s. We’ve been hard at work planning out the next 6 months as specifically as possible and here’s a quick breakdown of what we hope to get accomplished this year.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sending out Retraktable pencils to select reviewers in the world of writing instrument blogging/vlogging. This is a push to get them to reviewers 45-60 days before the productions release. We are hoping to be able to launch the Retraktable Standard in early March, with the Retraktable Slim slated for early April. Our prototype batches of both the Standard and Slim models were extremely well received, and we only identified two minor, internal changes that need to be made to the production versions.

We made some changes to how we manufacture Vertex pens this year which will allow us to spread the releases out over a longer period of time while decreasing the time taken to machine each part of the pen. Our sanding and polishing process has also been revamped to increase the finished quality of the pens by adding several steps along the process. While it’s a bit more time consuming the finished product is far superior to what we’ve seen before. We’ve already finished machining the first Vertex Special Release of 2021 and will be sanding and polishing them this month, looking to release them in February.

Though we’re taking a break from the Karas Kreepers releases this month, we’ll return to them in February with a few more Notebook/Sticker sets and a pen release. We’ll visit Rhode Island, Michigan, Colorado, and Alaska plus a few other states; bringing you the creepiest cryptids around.

We’ll expand the Speed Groove Bolt V2 and EDK V2 pens this year. While this does mean temporarily retiring the GroovEDK and pushing back the re-release of the Fluted Bolt V2 and Fluted EDK V2 pens; it means we can focus on getting a larger batch of the Speed Groove pens ready for release. We have plans to feature one Speed Groove Bolt V2 special edition as a Pen Club Exclusive this year with custom anodize colorway, but there will be several releases straight to the website.

We are actively looking at adding some new materials this year to the Kustoms Line pens. While this addition will most likely be in the form of Limited Edition pens similar to the Pony Express anniversary INK we released in 2020, we do hope to increase the size of these Limited Editions this year. We’ll test a few materials in Q1 and Q2 2021, and push for releases in Q3 and Q4. We’re excited to expand our Kustoms Line to include some new materials and get a fresh look at some of our classic designs.

We’re pushing hard to prototype two new pens this year; something we’ve never done before. The basic function of one pen has already been laid out, it’s been on our sketchbooks for nearly two years now. Sometimes it’s just hard to get a project off the ground when there are so many other things going on. But we think we can successfully work on finalizing that product and get deep into another prototype process before the end of the year. Karas Pen Club Members will have some sneak peeks at much of this process as we move through it.

There are plans for some mini special release series this year. Somewhat similar to the Camp Karas and Karas Kreepers series’, these mini-series will feature 2-4 releases with some corresponding products and custom curated stickers and other materials. We’ve been brainstorming some cool ideas and we’re excited to see a few of them come to fruition. We hope to get the first of these mini-series done over the summer with a second in mid-fall.

Giveaways are on the horizon specifically giveaways via the newsletter. Our Instagram is our most successful giveaway avenue, but we’ll be adding a few giveaways to our main newsletter subscribers plus a few special giveaways to the Karas Pen Club members via the Club newsletter. Most of the items featured in the giveaways will be old special edition, limited edition, or small batch product that are remaining but not available on the website. It’s an opportunity to get a pen or other product that we haven’t sold in quite some time to add to your collection.

The Karas SWAP (Student Writing and Arts Program) is still our ongoing community assistance program, based around sending out pens to students in writing or arts classes. The attached form can be completed by teachers that feel their students could benefit from this program, and we’ll be going through the entrants with an eye to get the first batch of 250+ pens out by the end of spring.

There are numerous other plans and ideas in the works for 2021. I could fill pages based on a few of our meetings, but this list encapsulates our Tier One goals for 2021, the bigger priorities in terms of what we want to accomplish this year. Sure, there will be a lot of behind-the-scenes work and as always, a lot of adapting to changes and problems that come up throughout the year. We’ll remain flexible so that we can address issues as they come up, but this is where we’re at as of the second week of January 2021.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 - A Year In Review

It goes without saying that the end of this year can’t come soon enough. There’s only a few days left, but 2021 still seems like it’s a long way off. So as we take some time to take a look back at this year and recap the highs and lows of a Karas 2020, we’ll try to keep it as positive as possible.

We go into every year with a fairly aggressive plan in terms of product development, production schedules, R&D schedules, release calendar, etc. and this past year wasn’t any different. I distinctly remember the planning phase and how quickly we filled up one sheet of paper with plans and moved on to a second. I remember the first six months of 2020 in my Google calendar be a wash of colored bars covering everything from potential releases, anniversaries to celebrate, sticker ideas, pen shows, meet ups, and sales. But even as the last few days of 2019 wound down, there was a sense of unease as I messaged back and forth with acquaintances in Hong Kong and Singapore and started to headline watch for news of some new illness popping up in China.

We forged ahead with big plans for our INK V2 release, the finalization of our new website, a major production increase in the Vertex pens, and numerous other projects being added to the work calendar. It became apparent rather early on that we’d need to be flexible with almost all of our 2020 plans as deadlines morphed into projected release weeks then into targeted monthly ETAs. By the end of February, we’d successfully accomplished about 25% of our plans and shifted the entire calendar out by three months. We figured it was a safe, incremental adjustment that would allow us to get back on schedule. We had no idea that March through May would completely derail our plans.

We had multiple employees fall ill in late February and March, before known spread of Covid had hit Arizona. Those employees were out for weeks at a time and though they were back to work by mid-March their recovery was slow and progressed into April and May. Like much of the country, major closures and restrictions hit Arizona in mid-March with a statewide stay at home order starting March 30th. Luckily we were able to continue operation with some changes to how employees worked in our space, increased cleaning, closing our shop to the public, and a few other added precautions.

By now all of our targeted release dates were pretty much thrown out the window. We were fully in adapt-and-overcome mode. Throughout April we contacted our partners in different industries to ascertain how much we’d be impacted by supply chain logjams or closures, industry closures and lockdowns in other countries, and projected planned collaborations that would need to be scrapped or moved. When it came down to it, these areas became our biggest roadblock to getting our calendar back on track.

Numerous historic anniversary releases were scrapped altogether because we were unable to source companion products or marketing material. We began sourcing stickers from multiple smaller suppliers as our main source moved all of their production to work on PPE production. We proactively pushed back the release of the next Karas Pen Club coin to January 2021 due to the uncertainty of getting new art completed and the coins finished in June 2020. Our planned Vertex production increase stalled then stopped completely, and when we were finally able to get back on it we ran into major quality control problems that forced us to explore other avenues to accomplish our goals.

In late 2018, we’d outsourced our website development and relaunch to a company that seemed to have their ducks in a row. Our initial talks with them and early development phases were extremely promising. They started missing deadlines in mid-2019, and our launch date moved from pre-holiday 2019 to early 2020. In early 2020 it became nearly impossible for them to get any work done on our website at all. Phone calls went well, but weekly deadlines past with zero changes to the new website. Eventually we made the call to move on to a freelance web developer here in Arizona, and in May were able to launch a very stripped down version of our planned website. Needless to say it’s still a work in progress, but it’s coming together bit by bit.

Those were just the highlights, but it became a daily task to walk in to work and immediately check to see what had gone off track since the prior day. It’s always felt like we do a good job juggling things around and being successful at reacting to uncertainty, but this year takes the cake. It was a complete effort from our entire staff and not something I’d like to have to tackle again, but I can honestly say we did a great job coming together and doing our best.

So what did we actually accomplish this year?

To start off with we dipped our toes in the “new material” area when we released the INK V2 in bronze for the Pony Express release. Though it was released later than the actual anniversary, the pens came out amazing, the corresponding material showed up looking great, and customers had nothing but positive feedback on the updates to the pen and the bronze addition in general.

Though the website is still a work in progress, and we’re learning it on the fly; I can honestly say that from our end it will allow us to do a LOT more than we’d been able to do in the past. It’s far easier for us to create product pages than our previous platform. As we get it more uniform, the entire page will be more what Bill Karas envisions when we started working on a website update. We’re working on adding functional gift cards, full integration with our newsletter, quick access products for our top-sellers, and a variety of other functions that were never possible in our previous platform.

We successfully prototyped changes to the Retraktable pencil product that take it from a concept to a working product. The production run of Retraktable and Retraktable Slim pencils has already begun, and we’re hopeful that the first production variants will be available in spring 2021.

Another shop expansion occurred this year with two new machines being added that will allow us to manufacture more pens and pencils. While these additions were taking place, Bill and Josh were also able to implement some new standard operating procedures to shorten some production times and increase our “straight-off-the-machine” quality thus reducing our post-machining processing times.

We sent out two more batches of SWAP program pens to schools around the nation. Over 800 students received pens this past year in 12 different states. We continued to accept new applications from teachers this year despite the upheaval to schools in most states. We made some plans to incorporate notebooks and pencils into the SWAP program in the future, and we’ve been compiling a list of partners that want to collaborate in providing items for students in future SWAP batches.

We successfully wrapped up the R-Type and BMX Inspired special releases this year with some awesome additions that put a great cap on those series. Completed an unofficial set of “man-of-iron” inspired pens. Paid homage to Bugs Bunny, Paul Revere, Pac-Man, Roswell, The Space Force, and several other cultural and historic icons. Had a full slate of Vertex Special Releases go off without a hitch (for once). And started our current cryptozoology inspired series Karas Kreepers that will be our most expansive special release series to date.

We wrap up 2020 extremely grateful to have been able to overcome a rather challenging year. The safety and employment of the Karas Team became even more paramount this year than it usually is. We’ve been fortunate to have weathered Covid with all of our employees healthy despite a few cases of Covid. The few team members that moved on this year did so to explore other opportunities, and we’ve been lucky enough to bring on some quality people to fill open positions.

Looking back it’s an understatement to say this year was a rollercoaster. I’m not sure the English language has the right descriptor for 2020. Maybe Tiger King was just a portent of how bizarre this year would end up. We’re just grateful to still be here. Coming to work, making quality writing instruments, and interacting with a really amazing group of fans and customers. We’ve got BIG plans for the year ahead (I wasn’t going to say it but it wouldn’t be a yearly recap without it), and we’re excited to start this adventure with you. Hopefully, it will be a less bumpy road in 2021, but we’ll strive for quality and success regardless of the circumstances.

Friday, April 3, 2020

So You're Social Distancing Pt 7

Learning activates different parts of the brain, and today we're looking at learning something that also requires motor skills. JUGGLING. You're probably cursing me and telling me "I'm already juggling too much right now". I know, but this is something that keeps your mind and your muscles limber without doing physically taxing exercise. Check out this video for a quick tutorial on three-ball juggling, or if you want the challenge of four-ball juggling, this video is for you.

This one might seem a little weird, but it's something I've done throughout my life that really centers and focuses me, and it's not yoga or meditation (though those things are great). It will require purchasing a few things from a craft store, but you might still be able to get everything you need shipped to you in a somewhat timely fashion. What am I talking about? Cross stitching. Hopefully you're not put off by this suggestion, trust me I've cross stitched off an on for almost 3 decades. It's something that requires focus and fine motor skills. It's time consuming and very detailed. It's similar to building models, but you don't need a lot of paints and glues. You can find kits all over the internet in a variety of styles and subjects. Hopefully you'll give it a try before you write it off.

Paul's Binge Picks

Friday's picks have me pulling in a more recent gems that only have a few seasons but they're well worth the watch. First off is Amazon's Jack Ryan featuring none other than the multi-faceted John Krasinski. While I loved Harrison Ford's version of Jack Ryan, Krasinski has supplanted him in my mind as the perfect version of Tom Clancy's hero. While the first season outshines the second, the second does stack up nicely and pull elements from the novels that you might be familiar with.

Next a longer running show, Hulu's Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The ensemble cast, sitcom with some of the best one-liners on television and the always-hilarious Terry Crews is a breath of fresh air in terms of police television. The grit and grime of most procedurals are set aside for laughs and good times.

Last but not least is Bodyguard on Netflix. This show had me on the edge of my seat throughout every episode. Richard Madden plays a Scottish, Afghan war vet that now has a job guarding a cabinet member in the UK. The writers do a stellar job of crafting his layered personality as he deals with the stress of the job, PTSD, and his estranged family.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Social Distancing pt. 6

Take up Baking

I still have a pretty big list of ideas that I'm working through, so hopefully these portions of our newsletter are helpful. I'll jump right in with something that's actually in the news right now: baking. It seems there's been a huge uptick in searches for "bread", "baking", and other similar search terms. I've pulled out some research on how baking is a stress reducer, and also an article on baking projects for April, and easy recipes from your pantry. Hopefully stuff like this can spur on some ideas and fill those bellies.

Start a daily photo scrapbook or Instagram account. I know it seems boring, but you'd be surprised at the hilarity that can ensue. The idea is that you take pictures throughout the day, choose the one that speaks to you most, print it and put it in your scrapbook or put it up on your new Instagram account. I know that if I were to do this I'd have a wealth of hilarious randomness and cuteness; a lot of it featuring my 17 year old daughter or our three dogs. But it's a good way to focus on the positive moments and lighthearted times that happen every day but we often miss or take for granted.

Paul's Binge Picks

I'm back with my three picks of the day, and while most of the world is talking about Tiger King, that one isn't making my list. Without further ado, here we go.

A big of levity starts things off with Hulu's Community, a sitcom that revolves around a group of misfits thrown together in a study group at a fake community college. Idiocy and hilarity ensues, the cast and writing is great, the show was created by the Russo Brothers (yes the guys that made some of the BEST Marvel movies), and it's just a really fun watch.

I've already talked about my love of books, something I normally hate is when books are ruined by making them into movies or television shows. That's not the case with Amazon's Bosch, the gritty conversion of Michael Connelly's well known detective into a streaming series. Titus Welliver is at his best in this series, the writing is great and often does an amazing job of translating the source material. With 5 Seasons already on Amazon, a 6th starting in April 2020, and the 7th and final being shot soon; now is the time to start watching this incredible show.

Some of the best drama/mystery series are being created in Europe, many of those are being rebooted into US versions that do a poor job of recreating the dark gloom and stark landscapes of the originals. Thankfully Netflix's Hinterland has not been picked up for US recreation. But the original is a work of art. Set in Wales this detective drama is permeated with a sadness that is almost palpable. The actors are some of the best I've seen in the genre. I'm eagerly awaiting more episodes and in the interim have watched the show all the way through over five times. Yes, it really is that good.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Social Distancing Pt 5

If you're still in need of some ideas to keep yourself busy, here's a few for today.

We'll start with a few educational ideas, how about memorizing the periodic table of elements? I knew it back in chemistry class in high school but have long forgotten it. Here's a cool video to help you out. You can also use this hilarious (somewhat outdated) video of the Animaniacs helping you learn the countries of the world. This was one of my favorites growing up, and it still lifts my spirits when I see it.

If you're like me, you've got a closet, spare room, attic, or garage that has some random boxes of stuff in it that you've never fully unpacked. Maybe in those boxes is an old video game console. I recently found my old Super Nintendo in one such box, it's been in my garage for over a decade, in the heat of the Arizona summer. I was amazed that it fired right up and in no time I was playing through old favorites like Super Mario World and Final Fantasy III. Maybe you've got an Atari 2600 up in the attic or even better a Neo Geo. Whatever it is, pairing down the boxes just sitting somewhere might be something you can do to clear up space or find some old mementos. It's spring, so spring cleaning couldn't hurt.

Finally if you've got some extra people in your house that you're cooped up with, hold a paper airplane contest. Here's a great website to get started on building and scoring ideas. For some video tutorials on building awesome planes check out YouTube. Record the contest and post it to your social media, tag us if you post it to Facebook or Instagram, we'd love to see what you come up with! And don't forget to have some fun while you're at it!

Struggling to find things to do while you're stuck at home? 

We've got you covered. Here's a quick list of a few things that might spark an interest and keep your brain fresh.

Want to learn a new skill and at the same time stock up on supplies that you might be low on? If you've been hand washing at the rate the CDC is telling us to then you might be in need of some soap. Never fear, you can make some AWESOME soap from the comfort of your kitchen. It's going to require some supplies, but a lot of places are still shipping. If you grab them now, then you could be cranking out some homemade soap by next week. Here are a couple of webpages that walk through the different soap making processes and another that lists a fairly easy recipe.

Need a visual pick-me-up? Something cute and cuddly. If you're like me, you have an affinity to fluffy puppies. And while many shelters have stopped allowing adoptions, you can still look at cute puppies from the safety of your home. Then when this all passes maybe you'll have gotten to a point where you are able to adopt a puppy or a rescue dog! One more dog finding it's forever home would be a silver lining and hopefully provide some much needed companionship in a world that can be lonely at times.

Lastly if you're in need of some streaming entertainment, then I'll list three of my (Paul) favorite shows (one from Amazon Prime, one from Netflix, and one from Hulu). They're not necessarily new shows, some have been out for a while, but these are some of my go-to binge-worthy with high re-watchability shows. Kim's Convenience (Netflix) is a superb Canadian sitcom. It's filled with laughs and the usual family drama this time viewed through the lens of a Korean-Canadian family. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon) is quite possibly the best alternate history television show ever made. Drawn from Phillip K. Dick's (Bladerunner) source material, it features an amazing cast, great writing, and a plot full of twists and turns and multi-dimensional travel. Justified (Hulu) is a modern day gunslinger tale following a U.S. Deputy Marshal in the backwoods of Kentucky. Another stellar cast with some of the best performances of those actors careers, the story pulls from Elmore Leonard's source material and is jam packed with action, drama, and suspense.

Break Out the Paper...

It's time to learn some origami. I have a confession to make, the only origami I know is the throwing stars I used to make in junior high school. And I'd be hard pressed to remember all the folds without watching a video. But you can easily learn some origami folds with the help of Origami.me. The websites a wealth of information on basic folds, video tutorials, and other instructions. If you want to jump into folding cranes, dinosaurs, or a tiny box, these videos should help you out.

If you're like me, you're terrible about keeping your email inbox clean. I won't tell the exact count of emails in my inboxes (yes plural, and yes I have more than five). But all total they probably have more than 20,000 emails. Plus there's a lot of duplicates between email addresses. I plan to do a deep clean of my email inboxes during this "down" time. But it has to be strategic, by unsubscribing from lists I no longer read, deleting old or redundant email addresses altogether, and tagging the emails I do keep for quicker access. You too can clean up the clutter in your digital life, hopefully it won't take as long as it's going to take me.

Are you a person that reads the Wikipedia or IMDB entries of movies or TV shows while you're watching them? Don't care about spoilers? Do you in fact LOVE spoiling movies for unsuspecting people as you walk out of a theater? If that's you, then I've got the place for you. It's a "spoilers" version of IMDB, Spoiled It, is the place for all your spoiler needs. And they're always looking for new "spoil-ers". Sign up and start spoiling all of those movies your watching while you stay at home.

Paul's Binge List

Here are today's three digital binge-worthy shows that I've enjoyed, some multiple times. One from each major streaming service (Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix). Hopefully these help you pass some time and keep your sanity. 

I don't watch many animated Television shows, but one of my favorites is Bob's Burgers (Hulu). A stellar voice cast, hilarious writing, and just an all-around great sitcom style animated show makes me laugh so hard I can't watch too much of it in one sitting. The Americans (Amazon) is a cold-war era spy show that centers around two Russian agents that have embedded themselves into American life. The show was so good that when I watched the last episode I was actually sad it ended, amazing cast and writing that is incredibly binge-worthy. I'ma sucker for period pieces, whether they're based on true events or pure fiction, one of my favorites is Netflix's Peaky Blinders. Set in the England between World War I and World War II, it follows a group of gangsters (the Peaky Blinders) in their rise to power and they're push for legitimacy. The cast is great, but Cillian Murphy puts in one of the best acting performances in this role I've ever seen.