It all started in late 2014, when spinning teacher Abby Franquemont found herself suffering from ankle tendinitis aggravated by treadling a conventional spinning wheel. Although Abby owned several motorized electric spinning wheels, or e-spinners, none of them delivered the features or performance she really needed. Either they didn’t offer the speeds she wanted, or if they did, they were so noisy at speed that they limited how long, and where, Abby could use them. For instance, “on the sofa while the family watched a movie” was out — and that was a dealbreaker, since that’s when and where Abby tends to get a lot of her production spinning work done.
Fortunately for Abby, and now for the spinning community, the person who spends the most time sitting next to her while she spins is a systems guy who likes to make mechanical things: her husband, Chad Tudor. So one afternoon in December of 2014, Chad got tired of hearing Abby grouse about how none of her treadle-free options did the same thing her high-end spinning wheels did. He borrowed a few of Abby’s spare parts, grabbed a few things from around his shop, and came back in a few hours with the first Device.
People were curious any time Abby posted a picture that showed the Device — and you pretty much have to post pictures that include your spinning equipment when you’re a spinning teacher.
Before too long, a few of Abby’s colleagues had convinced Chad to make them a Device to try out.
With Abby’s base problems solved, Chad could start to add features. The first one to go in was a tachometer that displays the rotational speed of the flyer, and that worked so well we started making lists of all the features we could imagine wanting on a modern spinning apparatus.
We figured the first few tester Devices would come back to us shortly with comments and requests for improvements, but we were wrong: instead, nobody wanted to send them back, in some cases because they were using them in mission-critical projects.
This actually embarrassed Chad, who felt strongly that the units he had slapped together so far were, well, not his finest work. He was insistent that, when Abby took her Device with her on teaching engagements, she make it clear this wasn’t a finished product, just a prototype. Heck, not even a prototype: a proof of concept. “To do this right,” he said, “There’s equipment I’ll need, development work that has to happen, all kinds of things.” All of these investments, we both thought, could be worth it if we had a product anybody else might want.
Making something by hand for your spouse is pretty similar, it turns out, whether that thing is a handspun sweater or a spare parts e-spinner of questionable origin (and yes, that is indeed how the company got its name: we were calling it a device of questionable origin). In other words, it took Chad lots of sampling to get even something as simple as a knob to the point that he liked it, and Abby approved the function. Something as simple as moving a knob to a better location, and making it fit seamlessly, could turn out to be a project that lasted for weeks.
Every time we’d send out a Device for testing, like we say, whoever got it didn’t want to send it back, and there’d be a group of folks around them asking what they had to do to get their hands on a Device themselves. “How much would you sell one of these for?” people would ask, and therein lies the rub: how much does it cost to make one of these?
Well, the first one cost nothing but Chad’s time, because it was all parts that were sitting around gathering dust. The second batch of three cost… well, it’s hard to say, because even though we spent a few hundred bucks on cases, and another few hundred bucks on electronics, and another few hundred bucks on screws and wire and tachometers and displays and switches and knobs, and Chad used several thousand dollars worth of welding and metal fab equipment to make the random bits, and then there’s his design for it and… geeze, that’s hard to figure.
So, first we tested out something much simpler: the DooDad, a motorized bobbin winder / quill spinner. And we learned a lot from that development process.
We’re hands-on technical people, and we’ve worked on lots of new products over the years, in lots of capacities — but the times we’ve done marketing and product development work are really not the ones we like to put on our resumes, mostly because of the risk we’ll end up having to do similar work more often. So we thought about trying to sell the idea to someone else, and not have to do all the work, which would take a year or more if we wanted to come to market with a product we really, really believed in. But we weren’t confident anyone else would stay true to our design goals and objectives, for lots of reasons — good reasons, even.
We thought about venture capital. But the problem there is, the fibersphere is a tiny niche, and our product would occupy only a tiny market segment within that niche. What’s more, it’s not a well-understood niche. If you’ve ever found yourself siting in a waiting room or an airport or something, and someone asks you what you do, and you tell them you make your living traveling around the world teaching people to make string with a stick, you… well you probably already know how niche this field is. And that’s the thing about venture capital: big money is possible, but small money? It’s not there.
We also thought about crowdfunding the project. There were plenty of interested people. The problem was, without having done the development work, we really didn’t feel confident in guessing how much it would cost or how long it would take. We felt the risk of crowdfunding was also too high.
So that left us with self-funding, and that’s the route we took. It’s been a long, slow road to getting here, but it let us make the decisions we really wanted to make for ourselves, and not compromise on the quality of our Device or our commitment to the vision of an e-spinner that satisfies an incredibly picky, bossy, and vocal spinning teacher like Abby.
Self-funding is, truthfully, the most common way anybody starts anything in the fiber arts scene. If you can’t come up with the (usually fairly small) startup capital, you’re not going to find it anywhere else. Heck, we’ve known people with decades in the business who couldn’t get loans to take their operations to the next level. A major reason why is that many people don’t see fiber arts as a legitimate career, nor do they see businesses associated with fiber as being as “serious” as businesses associated with many other things people do for leisure, like Chad’s other line of work, which involves vintage cars.
This makes the fiber scene fairly unique. When things are booming for fiber artists, this isn’t always obvious — but when things are slow, the market gets really, really hard. You see, everyone in the business is probably your friend, and someone you’ve known and worked with for a long time. So unlike some fields we’ve been in, successful long-term fiber businesses often band together and work collaboratively when other scenes just become competitive and insular. Long-term successful fiber companies are the ones that share the workload and the reward.
So it was important for Questionable Origin — the new company Chad formed to build Devices and other mechanical oddments — to build a sustainable plan that didn’t simply mean locking Chad in the metal shop for 16+ hours a day (that being the model that Abby used building Franquemont Fibers).
Because the spare parts Chad initially used to build the first device were from Majacraft, we made sure to send the family who runs that fiber business as much info as we could about the Device, and make sure they felt positive about people buying flyers from them initially while Chad continues to develop his own flyer array. We can’t think of a fiber company more open to community-led innovation than Majacraft; certainly, nobody offered us a wider range of potential accessories to test and try things out with in the process of nailing down the drive train, the feature set, the layout, and the pricing. What’s more, Majacraft has always been there for Abby as a teacher and production spinner, and they’re a company she wholeheartedly endorses not only because of the quality of their products but because they, too, are a small family business.
QO partnered with Signature Needle Arts to produce the machined metal parts Chad prototyped and developed — and we thought it was so cool to find another family-run business where the people involved were fiber folks and developed a knitting product and brought it to market (and those needles really are that good) that we wanted everyone to know. So we asked them to put their name on the super-straight, super-strong flyer shafts they made for us.
We asked AkerWorks to produce our custom bobbins, and to work with us on a variety of other things the Device needs. Not only did we love the flat-pack collapsible bobbins which are easy to travel with and perform beautifully, we love that they’re another family business making unusual and innovative things that bigger industry doesn’t bother with.
So yeah, there’s a theme here: we’re all in this together, as small and independent businesses. And the thing that sets our industry apart from so many others is that so many of us are in it for reasons much, much deeper than money — even though we need to make money to survive and keep making cool stuff. But the point is making the cool stuff, doing the cool project, and not raking in the dough. We only need to dough to keep making cool stuff and keep a roof over our heads while we do it.
This is undeniably personal for Abby, who grew up with self-employed parents whose work was often on the fiber scene. Having watched the ebb and flow, the boom and bust, the trends come and go for over forty years, there’s one key thing that keeps coming up: if your business depends on underpaying someone, or asking them to cut corners personally, it’s not sustainable and when there’s a bump in the road, problems happen. Sometimes catastrophic problems. And we didn’t want that, either as a family, or as the people bringing a new piece of spinning equipment to market.
We also need to know we’ll be able to keep getting the same parts as long as we want to make the Device. Indeed, most of our delays in reaching our release date goals were due to inconsistent quality, or unannounced or undocumented changes in mass-produced pieces. Any time we thought maybe we could save some money building these things, we ended up losing money, because the cheaper or compromise parts weren’t dependable and we’d end up eating the cost of unusable parts.
It really has taken us this long to be confident we’re able to produce and deliver Devices of the quality we expect, with parts that are all sourced reliably and, wherever possible, from other independent family businesses with a long-term commitment to the fiber scene. What’s more, we couldn’t be confident we knew what it cost to do that, until we had done it. And now, we’re really there. All three of our final beta units are complete, and the first production run for sale is in final assembly.
We’ve finished developing and pricing the package, and we’re announcing it in moments. We’ve never been more excited… or more nervous! We really hope you’ll like what you see. And we hope you’ll join us on Instagram and Facebook for the final countdown to launch at Fiber Revival 2016!