Some pretty amazing tech entrepreneurs come out of Minnesota. I can attest, as I've worked with way more than one hundred of them, and written about my fair share. Colin Karpfinger is an excellent example, one whose story inspired me to want to tell more people about him.
It all began when we reconnected recently by email, after originally meeting at a Minnebar event some years ago through a common client connection. I knew he'd moved to San Francisco (not the first of my entrepreneur friends to do that!), but he had kept in touch with occasional email reports -- which impressed me. Pretty much every single successful entrepreneur that I have known is an excellent communicator. They don't forget where they came from, and those they met or who helped them early on. They network well, they take advantage of mentors and advisors, and they extend a helping hand to others, especially other entrepreneurs when they can. The fact that Colin's latest blog post made me aware we shared another passion, besides entrepreneurship, only made reconnecting with him all that much more fun. (More on that later.)
When Colin told me he'd be in Minneapolis for a few days recently, I suggested we meet for coffee at my new favorite place to work one day a week: the CoCo coworking space on the Historic Grain Exchange trading floor in downtown Minneapolis. (That's where I shot the photo of Colin you see here.) There, I got an in-person update about the success Colin is having building his business, primarily out in the center of the tech universe, San Francisco, but still maintaining his ties to Minnesota.
That business is called Punch Through Design, which describes itself thusly on its web site: "We're a small and agile group of developers in San Francisco and Minneapolis. Over 90% of our designs have been iPhone accessories. This specialization allows us to know the details of Apple's Made For iPod/iPhone/iPad (MFi) program front and back. Our experience allows us to help guide clients through the somewhat complicated process in a quick and efficient manner."
Products that Punch Through has contributed to, with consulting, design, and engineering services, include:
• The Basis watch, a device that tracks heartbeats and more to improve your health. It uses Bluetooth 2.1 to pair to an iPhone or Android phone. PunchThrough assisted Basis in obtaining Apple's "MFi" approval.
• ITAMCO's industrial Bluetooth transmitter - the world's first.
• Air Guitar Move™, a motion-sensing guitar pick for iOS (shown in red) -- a product Colin and a partner developed. (It was a Kickstarter project that successfully raised its funding goal in July 2011.)
• A recently developed app of its own called LightBlue™, a Bluetooth Low Energy test app that lets developers test both their hardware devices and their iOS software. (More than 2,500 people are using it currently, and it has 14 five-star reviews.)
• LumoBack, a company that's received a lot of attention for its Bluetooth Low Energy posture sensor (shown at right). It received funding from Eric Schmidt and launched at DEMOfall 2011. ("Great team, fun guys to work with, and a very cool, simple product," Colin said.)
• popSLATE™, a second-screen case for your iPhone, which was a successful Indigogo project, raising $220,000 as of January 15.
• And other clients that can't be named yet due to confidentiality agreements -- but watch for future announcements!
An Entrepreneur Is Born
Colin is originally from Wisconsin, where he started tinkering with electronics and building things when he was only 12. He attended college at UW-Eau Claire, but, some five or six years ago, he was attracted to the larger electrical engineering program at the University of Minnesota.
The story of how Colin got to where he is today with his business starts some four years ago. Though a whiz at electronics, school just wasn't challenging him (more on that later). With his studies not keeping him busy enough, he longed to start his own hardware engineering design firm, even while working part-time at the Minneapolis office of the large product development firm LogicPD, as an associate electrical engineer, while attending the University of Minnesota.
Punch Through Design was born in mid-2009, while Colin was still taking classes at the U. Some months later, after conferring with people he trusted, he decided to drop out of school and go West, where he knew there was much need for his talents. "I moved to San Francisco on February 12, 2010, leaving behind many great friends in Minneapolis, but fortunately soon meeting a lot of new ones in the Bay Area," he said.
Colin had plenty of consulting work, but it wasn't long before he needed to make his first hire. That was Mike Waddick of Minneapolis, who came highly recommended, in the summer of 2011. Mike moved to SF to hold down the fort while Colin spent three months in Spain that year.
A few months prior to that, there was a major turning point for Colin. "With help from others, I was able to launch my first product, 'Thumbies.' It hit the shelves in Best Buy stores in May 2011. Walking into a store and seeing the product that started with a broken Nintendo controller and SuperGlue was a surreal experience. As a kid, it was hard to imagine how an 'invention' could find its way in a store. I felt like I had cracked the code."
But the honeymoon was short. "Unfortunately, I learned that getting your product into stores doesn't mean you've made it. Thumbies sold at an average rate, and the product is no longer being sold. I learned a lot, including a few things that I consider to be the reasons for less than awesome sales. This was hugely valuable in experience for me, even though the product was not a monetary success."
Soon after, Colin returned fulltime to consulting with Punch Through Design. "We wrote some nice blog posts that helped us reach #1 on Google for the search term 'iPhone accessory product development,' and that resulted in increased business. In the summer of 2011, I had Mike Waddick take over the lead engineering role on consulting projects, and his good work is one of the main reasons I was able to focus my time on starting a new product, Air Guitar Move™ -- working with a cofounder named Ron Mannack. It was a motion-sensing guitar pick that let you strum in the air, with your iPhone becoming a guitar via a companion app."
Air Guitar Move was successfully funded as a Kickstarter project in July 2011, and within a year 700 units were shipped to backers. "Taking what I learned from Thumbies, we developed this product under our own brand. That led to a slew of lessons learned about overseas manufacturing, music licensing, iPhone app development, game design, motion sensing, packaging design, Apple approval, and distributor agreements." (Colin's partner on this project continues with the venture.)
(If you're interested in history, a more complete story of Colin's experience with Thumbies, and then the beginnings of his experience with Air Guitar Move™, is well documented in the Wired article from June 2012, where the above photo appeared: In the Kickstarter Future, Hardware Is the New Software, by @RyanTate.)
What Others Have to Say
One of the first clients of Colin's business, before he set up shop in San Francisco, was Matt Bauer, who founded a startup here in Minneapolis called PedalBrain. Matt is one of Colin's biggest supporters and I'm sure was instrumental in inspiring Colin's entrepreneurial pursuits. I asked Matt (a former client of mine, and a developer I have great respect for) to give me his perspective on Colin, who was his contract hardware designer for the PedalBrain product:
"The name of Colin's company, Punch Through Design, refers to an electrical property of transistors. It's a property defined at the extreme case of a transistor where the drain and source regions merge. It's analogous to Colin and his work. He is the merging of a maker/hacker/entrepreneur with that of a precision engineer/manufacturer/large company CEO. He and his team are producing tools and solutions for companies large and small to be at that intersection of hardware and software. No one is merging these two worlds together better than Colin, and no one is busier doing it."
Harold Slawik, a partner in a Minneapolis law firm focused on tech startups, NewCounsel, had this to say about Punch Through's founder: “We've been working with Colin for a couple of years and have been impressed with what he’s accomplished since taking the plunge with Punch Through. He has the intelligence and the drive to make it big. He’s also very mature and sensible in his business dealings, especially given his age. He is one of the three or four youngest among our active client group of approximately 75.”
A Side Project of Colin's
This past September, Colin shared with me by email his experiment to improve higher education. He started a program he calls "The First Lecture" to try to address some of the issues he encountered during his time in university. His theory is that school teaches students the "how" but not the "why." He believes that leads to a lack of motivation, "and turns brilliantly beautiful and interesting subjects into drudgery."
His experiment is to see how much he can improve a student's experience by simply giving one lecture providing the right "why," or motivation to learn. Some months ago, Colin gave his first talk for the Microcontrollers class at the University of Minnesota, thanks to the Electrical Engineering department, which allowed him to do do.
To assist in this effort, Colin even donated some equipment to allow the EE students to build things outside of school. Previously, this equipment was only available in the University's labs; students could not take it home with them. Thanks to Colin and an equipment supplier, each student in the class received a PicKit2 programmer and a USB logic analyzer.
Here's a video link to Colin's lecture at the University of Minnesota. (Screen shot shown.) Colin tells me he's now also working with the first university he attended, UW-Eau Claire, to improve its electronics course. "It's a small school but was really beneficial to me, and part of the reason I got started on my current path," he said. "My professor and advisor there, Dr. Kim Pierson, has been my advocate even after I dropped out of school, which speaks volumes about him. He's there to help out the students, whether they're in school or not."
And what of his relationship with the University of Minnesota? "I've stayed in touch with some students from the class I lectured in, and with University personnel," said Colin. "I am in fact actively recruiting now for one or two engineering positions, and the U is a promising pool of talent. As to the future of my lecture program, I'm working on starting a 'Maker Scholarship,' where people could get scholarships not just for school, but for the projects they're working on, which I believe have a higher return on investment."
Colin ended a recent email update to friends and supporters with this note: "If you too think that higher education can be much better, I'd love your support. Either by sharing my video link with friends, or helping to expand this initiative to other schools in some way, shape, or form. If you have any ideas, please contact me."
But That's Not all in Colin's Life
So, you'd think all of the above would be exciting enough? Wrong! Colin and his team keep life very
interesting with other pursuits -- first of all, surfing. (That's him stylin' a radical longboard bottom turn in Mexico recently.) Surfing is how I connected with Colin a month or so ago, after seeing a blog post he did that talked about the team heading to Santa Cruz to hit the beach, part of an offsite retreat of sorts. (The other shot shows three of the team doing a surf check on that trip.)
Then I learned, not only does Colin surf, he's into kiteboarding, too! … as part of the famed MaiTai
Group. Hey, this thing is not your normal group of weekend warriors -- check out this story about the MaiTai crew in the December 2011 Forbes: Kiteboarding Techies Generate $7 Billion In Market Value.
But, wait, there's more: for these kiteboarders, water isn't enough -- they also kite on (you guessed it) snow. Colin just returned from Utah, where one of the group had previously written this blog post: Utah Snowkiting with Charles River Ventures and MaiTai.
Punching Into the Future
I asked Colin for a closing thought. He immediately wanted to praise his team. Mike Waddick, his first hire, now works in Punch Through's office in SE Minneapolis, joined more recently by Ray Kampmeier, still a student at the U of M. Ray will move to San Francisco when he graduates in May. Another addition to the team came when Colin hired SF-based iOS developer Kevin Johnson in the summer of 2012, to help round out Punch Through's product development services. Thus, the team is now four people total -- "but we'll be five or six by the summer," said Colin. In addition, the company uses other contractors for industrial design, mechanical engineering, and overflow software work.
"I'm very thankful for the great people I get to work with at Punch Through," Colin said. "Big shout-outs to Mike, Ray, and Kevin!"
It's easy to see that Colin is building a strong culture at Punch Through Design, which will go a long way toward ensuring the continued success of the firm. As I said, Minnesota produces some amazing entrepreneurs -- and, even if we do have to share a guy like Colin with Wisconsin, and now California, I know he'll be a continuing source of pride to our state. He proves again that one doesn't necessarily have to complete a degree program to be inspired by our great University. A love of learning -- both formal and informal education -- is a huge part of being an entrepreneur. But, in my book, passion and perseverance, plus the ability to recruit and motivate others, make all the difference in succeeding.
And a little surfing and kiting surely can't hurt, either.
UPDATE 5/7/13: Just learned that a Punch Through client has launched a cool, new product that Colin and his team helped make a reality: Booze-Tracking Bluetooth Breathalyzer Counts Down Your Return To Sobriety. Talk about a contribution to society! :-)