Another Area Where There's Tremendous Innovation Without Patents: Wallets On Kickstarter
from the pay-attention dept
Among friends who pay attention to my Kickstarter-backing habits, it’s become a bit of a joke that I seem to be obsessed with wallets. And it’s somewhat true. By my count, I’ve backed 11 wallet projects on Kickstarter. I will also admit that there was a period of time (basically all of 2013) where I would actually make sure to check Kickstarter for new wallets once a day, though that’s since stopped. It definitely did border on obsessiveness. Another friend of mine has ordered about the same amount (I think at last count he was at 13 such projects). We’ve joked that we should set up the “museum of Kickstarter wallets” between the two of us. I still can’t fully explain what made me so fascinated with finding a better wallet, but I think it was a combination of factors. After years of using a Costanza wallet, I saw a friend’s minimalist wallet, and it just made sense to me. The problem, though, is that for all the neatness and organization of a minimalist wallet, you’re definitely giving up some features to shrink down the wallet. And thus began the perpetual hunt for the more perfect minimalist wallet.
Kickstarter has now posted an article that feels like it was written with me in mind specifically, discussing why there are so many wallets on Kickstarter, since others have noticed that Kickstarter is basically the place to go for everything in wallet innovation, among other things. There are a few reasons for this that the article presents, including the fact that wallets are, generally speaking, a relatively simple product to make. Thus, for many creative folks, it’s a good “test” project, to see if they can design, sell and manufacture something straightforward. But, there’s another reason described that I think is much more interesting, and it explains in part why I started to become infatuated with seemingly minor differences between the various wallet projects. It’s that there are so many different variations on how to make a wallet, and it’s really tempting to find that “perfect” variation:
Answering this question is where we step into the realm of true maker geekdom. Wallets are ultimately all about the small details — those tiny pebble-in-your-shoe subtleties that suit one person’s needs and ruin the next person’s day. “It’s a product that has to do a lot of different things at the same time,” says Dimatos, “and you can’t push one part of it without pulling on the others. Make your wallet too slim, and congratulations, it now fits nothing.”
Scan through the history of wallet-project designs, and you’ll see the same broad strokes repeated. Zoom in on the details, though, and what you see isn’t simple repetition — it’s more like a strange form of evolution and natural selection. There are certain basic wallet forms: the slim leather billfold, the elastic sleeve, the two rigid plates. But each iteration of them tweaks one element, or optimizes another, to find its own niche, like bird species evolving to pick berries from different parts of the same tree.
Obstructures’ design for the Aluminum Plate Wallet, for instance, owes a bit to one of Kickstarter’s earliest slim-wallet hits. The picture on the left above is the Humn: two carbon-fiber plates, held together by a flexible band. One member of the Obstructures team had tried out the Humn, and noticed an issue: when he spread the two plates apart, tension on the band stayed high. If his fingers slipped, the plates could snap back together on them. So the Aluminum Plate Wallet (in the center) was designed to release the tension when the wallet was opened. Obstructures band the plates together with two O-rings; to open the wallet, you roll one ring out of its notch and down toward the other. Tension adjusts accordingly. (There’s a manufacturing perk, too: O-rings are common, easy to source, and don’t need to be cut to measure.)
This month, you could find the same notch-and-ring system in the Bracket Wallet (on the right). But the Bracket design tweaks something else: where the Aluminum Plate has a solid, substantial, elegant look and feel, the Bracket runs back toward the same breezy minimalism as the Humn, with bright, slim carbon-fiber plates.
Similar things happen to every design. The elastic sleeve keeps mutating, evolving niche features to suit different backers. “They’re all very different,” says Sutter. “Things like the Crabby versus the Slim versus TGT — they’re all using similar principles, but I don’t find them redundant.” It’s more like one big process of crowd-based personalization; wait long enough, and there’s a good chance someone will tweak the wallet in a way that suits you. “Everybody’s got their own way of innovating within that archetype,” says Hall. “The metal wallets aren’t terribly different, but they appeal to different sensibilities. Some people like more tools integrated. Some people prefer making it as compact as possible. I think there’s still a lot of room to play with it.”
That describes my view of it as an outsider perfectly. The deeper I dove into the new wallet pool, the more quickly I could look at different projects, and the little tweaks they had made, to judge whether they were an improvement on something I’d already seen, and worth experimenting with (one other factor: if you focus on cheap wallets, it doesn’t get too expensive, and while some wallets are pricey, many are quite inexpensive).
But what also struck me about the quoted section above is that it so directly repeats one of the key points we’ve made for years about the general process of innovation. As we’ve noted, innovation is an ongoing process of experimentation, as different people try different things and figure out what works. If you’ve spent much time in truly innovative environments, you’d know that this is a key part of the innovation process. For years, we’ve talked about the difference between ideas and execution, and that becomes quite clear in cases like this. Some of the wallets may seem like good ideas, but the execution is terrible. A few of the wallets I’ve received have been close to unusable (which also helped convince me to back off my wallet obsession). But it’s also why competition is such a huge part of the innovative process.
What you see in the wallet/Kickstarter space is a really interesting innovation petri dish — happening because of lots of easy experimentation and tons of competition, as different folks try to innovate around a few basic concepts to make a more perfect product. The Kickstarter article describes it as evolution, but it comes down to Elon Musk’s idea of the velocity of innovation.
The larger point, however, is that all of this innovation and competition and evolution is happening because so many different folks are trying to make that perfect wallet for a group of customers. That is, what’s driving people is the ability to make a better product and better serve a market. Note that nowhere is there any discussion on “intellectual property” or locking up an idea. If someone patented the use of o-rings to bind together two plates, or some of the other common structures, it would actually slow down the innovation as there would be fewer opportunities for others to innovate and improve on one another’s ideas.
This is why it gets so frustrating to see people insist that somehow you need intellectual property protections to create innovative markets. We see all the time that there’s often much greater innovation in markets where there’s much greater competition and where the focus is on making the best thing for the customer. As a result, we see a much more rapid pace of innovation in such markets.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my personal favorite Kickstarter wallet projects are (in order) the FITT, the Ainste and the TGT. Those three have come the closest to what I like, but I’ve checked out plenty of variations to see if anything improves on those designs. And, of course, none of those may meet your personal needs, but that’s why this competitive market is so useful. There are probably other projects that are more interesting to you.