Friday, February 26, 2016

2015: Year in Review...and Some Notes...

So I have procrastinated long enough and nearly two full months have gone by since the first of the year, and the date I was supposed to write the “2015: Year in Review” Blog Post. Well, similar to our Kickstarters that ended up shipping a little bit later than expected…here’s your year in review blog post plus some thoughts about the LA Pen Show, a list of stuff we have planned for 2016 (at least the stuff I can share), and some randomness.

2015…What to say about it? Well, to be quite honest, 2105 was a pretty cool “roller coaster” ride of a year. We started the year out pretty quick by attending our first ever pen show, when we flew out to Los Angeles for the LA Pen Show. It was a great opportunity for us to have a presence and get our names out to an audience that really didn’t know who we were. Shortly after we had the opportunity to attend the Atlanta Pen Show and again the effect was very positive and allowed us to grow our customer base but also to interface with people in the pen community.

During the first half of 2015 we manufactured, remanufactured, anodized, re-anodized about a million Cubes trying like mad to get them right before we sent them out to the Cube Kickstarter backers. The entire process practically drove us crazy on how such a simple product could encounter so many issues. But with some resilience we were able to fulfill shipping in August and get to work on the next product.

And that’s where we decided to break the mold. 

Having gone through the issues with Kickstarter fulfillment and how the process can drag on; and after seeing just how many customers we really had, we felt we might be able to push the envelope a bit and try a new way of releasing a pen. We had the design drawn up, in fact the design had been floating around the office in certain forms since the Retrakt had been created. But making a pocket carry pen that was functional but wrote nice was always something we had planned on doing. It just so happened that a long relationship with Massdrop made manufacturing and selling a pen of this style a little bit easier. And as such we launched the EDK via Massdrop in a joint venture. The pen was a big hit on Massdrop, but also via our direct sales, and we have received nearly all positive feedback on the pen design and function.

While this was going on, we couldn’t stick to status quo. So we pushed forward further into fountain pen territory. We had successfully rolled out the INK fountain pen in 2014 via a Kickstarter campaign. Then sold through our initial stock of those pens. But with user feedback we realized we needed to make some changes to the pen to make it the best pen it could be. This required moving to a different nib brand and size, and ended up making it necessary to redesign the entire thread profile on the section, barrel and cap. But it also gave us a more aesthetically pleasing large sized fountain pen.

During the INK redesign we received some feedback from a few of our pen testers that caused us to move forward on a pen much quicker than we had intended to. They prompted us to move forward on the design of the Render K fountain pen, which we decided should be called the Fountain K, just for continuity and all that jazz. The Fountain K would give us a full sized fountain pen that was still lightweight but available in all copper and all brass. 

And with the Fountain K manufacturing moving along quickly, we were able to put some real research behind our customer base and our current marketing and social media presence. When the research was said and done, we decided to take the biggest risk yet, release the pen completely on our own. Market it via our blog, Instagram, newsletter and the pen community. And let our customers decide on just how important the pen was. 

It was a big risk. It meant we put a lot up front time and money into the production process. Something you don’t have to do when you rely on Kickstarter or other crowdfunding sources. We trusted in our design and hoped our customers would love it as much as we did. So as soon as we had a pre-production run complete we released it directly via our website. The response was overwhelming, as we sold through the initial pre-production run in just over a day. It solidified the Fountain K as our next pen and enabled us to go right into a full production run.

The holidays were now fast approaching. We were hard at work cranking out the new INKs and the Fountain Ks. And planning out a special surprise collaboration. The first official collaboration with another company with a similar mindset. The collaboration was rolled out in early December when we released the Superstition Special Edition EDK pen and Nock Co case combination. It was a big success as well and we quickly sold out of the limited number of case combos we had.
As the year came to a close, we shut down the shop and took a much need 11 day hiatus to spend time with our families and rest up for the journey ahead.

But 11 days isn’t a long time, and coming back to work brought with it a TON of work, in the shop and in the office. The guys in the shop completed the move of every piece of equipment Karas Kustoms uses. We reorganized the shop in order to fit more machines and work more productively. Not an overnight process when you are moving around machines that weigh several thousand pounds and rewiring them as you go. But they were up to the task, and we were way ahead of schedule when the moves were finished.

In the meantime, I was busy interfacing with several major players in the online pen retail business. Late in 2015 I started up a dialogue with Patrick from Papier & Plume, an amazing pen store in New Orleans. From the get-go it was an amazing step forward for us to be featured in his store in a prominent spot that got a LOT of foot traffic. We have since gone on to solidify this relationship and I am lucky enough to work with Patrick and Renso in ensuring they get whatever service I can with helping them sell as many of our pens in their store as possible. 

But right on the heels of that relationship came three more in quick succession. Cult Pens in the United Kingdom reached out with the desire to Karas Kustoms pens. And in a few weeks we had shipped them their first order and set up a great relationship with them as well. 

Then due to one of our customers meeting with Mike and Lisa Vanness, owners of Vanness Pens in Arkansas. We were able to start an amazing relationship with Vanness Pens that has truly grown into something of a family relationship. They are a small, family owned store that has been round for a LONG time. They epitomize the values of the small American business owner, something that is near and dear to our hearts. And they truly have a passion for pens, much like we do. So we were much honored to have them sell our pens in their store.

And finally we were approached by Brian and Rachel Goulet, yes THOSE Goulets, with their desire to carry our fountain pens at Goulet Pens. To be honest, this was a BIG deal for us. Goulet Pens is known for carrying the best in fine writing instruments, providing stellar customer service, and essentially educating the next generation of fountain pen users via their blog and videos. For them to want to carry our products was some next level stuff! And early in 2016 Brian and Rachel released a set of videos and did a Periscope featuring our pens, and the effect was amazing for us and we hope for them as well.

Some new things you can buy via our website now or in the next few months. 

We currently have Titanium nibs for the INK fountain pen. Why do you want a Titanium nib? It allows for some semi-flex/spring-y line variation when writing without doing any crazy nib modifications. You can purchase TI nibs with a pen or as an accessory via the accessories tab.
We added some aluminum, brass and copper beads on cord for simple key rings or as zipper pulls. They aren’t really fancy but a nice add on for a pen pouch
We now carry notebooks, simple little things with artwork created by Dan as an homage to the Arizona state flag. They are pretty rocking and are pocket sized for easy carry.

We added 1.1mm stubs to our Fountain K and INK fountain pens. These are steel nibs and write quite nicely for those of you that want to lay down a LOT of ink.

Upcoming we will be adding Black lacquered nibs to our fountain pens as well as 14K gold nibs. These will be sourced from Bock as usual and will likely be available sometime in May.

We are working on the redesign of the Render K pen. Streamlining the overall design of the pen to utilize Fountain K barrels and caps was a no brainer. Now you will be able to easily swap between a ballpoint/rollerball and into a fountain pen with just the swap of a section and refill. The versatility of the Render K pen will be immense, allowing for the user to select between a massive amount of 110mm refills, the full line up of Parker style refills, and a section and nib for fountain pen use. It’s gonna be pretty epic.

We will be attending the Atlanta Pen Show in April, and have plans to attend the San Francisco Pen Show, DC Pen Show and Colorado Pen Show. We also would like to attend some non-pen related shows that fit our Made in America mindset.

Pen Show thoughts…

The 2016 LA Pen Show was my first pen show experience. And it was one filled with stress, work, fun and laughter. It was by no means the perfect event from the very beginning we encountered major issues with the hotel, the show, you name it. But Dan and I rolled along as if nothing was wrong and put in work. I won’t go into all kinds of details. If you want a complete review of the show, I suggest you head over the Pen Habit and read what Matt has to say. Actually, while you are at it, just follow his blog and his YouTube channel because Matt is a pretty awesome dude and one of the reasons the pen show was so great. 

That’s the perfect segue into what I want to talk about concerning the pen show. The people make the show great or they can kill it for you. But it all depends on your outlook and how you deal with picky, sometimes obnoxious, but other time’s wonderful people. I mean this with all sincerity, pen people are picky, it’s just a trait that they have. So almost all of them are opinionated and quite a few will tell you just what their opinion is. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be off putting. But I have come to expect that being the hands behind the Customer Service account here at Karas, so the people didn’t bother me.

In reality, the people made the show FANTASTIC. We got to meet some people that I have had online relationships with for quite some time. I got to shake hands with the GREAT Brad Dowdy. Joey Feldman, artist extraordinaire, hung out with us and chatted pens and did an impromptu drawing session with Dan. Lisa and Mike Vanness turned out to be nothing like I expected but even better than I had hoped, just wonderful people to be around. We hung with some customers for dinner the first night in town. Had a relaxing second evening with even more of our fans. And capped off the show on the last day selling pens, but honestly having a lot more fun making friendships with people.
So while the pen show can be a mess, it really comes down to who you decide to surround yourself with. We had a great time turning online relationships into friendships. Being able to shake hands with people we had only ever exchanged emails with. And generally spending as much of our downtime building real friendships with people, because in the end it’s the people that matter. Sure pens are cool. We make stuff that helps people create or have a better writing or have a near indestructible pen when they are on the deck of an air craft carrier. And that’s great, but without the people, we wouldn’t have a need to make pens. 

Nearly everything I have talked about in this post has centered on the fact that the people that buy our products are what makes our product as good as it is. We do have a desire to make quality machined writing instruments. But we made changes and improvements because users told us ways to make things better. We designed cross platform pens to provide a single pen that could be used in nearly any situation. We made a pocket pen because people wanted one. And we love designing and making pens, it’s fun and fulfilling. We design all kinds of stuff around the shop. Dan is constantly scribbling down ideas. But when it’s all said and done, we COULDN’T do what we do without you. The end user has made us as successful as we have become, and you will continue to keep us in business and challenge us to improve. 

So I guess the Year in Review, is really a Year for You. Thank you for your support. Thank you for challenging us. Thank you for enabling us to continue to create. Thank you for putting your faith in a small company in the heart of Mesa, Arizona. We wouldn’t have it any other way.