Last year I decided to put what little money I had where my mouth is and try to actually make one of my crazy ideas a reality. In the next three posts I describe the trials and tribulations of my first product creation attempt, and how the Kale Stemmer never came to be. Or at least, not yet.
My favorite breakfast–and by favorite I mean I’ve cooked this for myself five days out of the week for the last year–is eggs and greens. I sauté some onions and peppers, fry an egg on top, and then steam kale/chard/collards/spinach on top of that. It’s delicious and nutritious, so when I’m a fatty the rest of the day, I can trick myself into feeling good about my eating habits. The point of all of this is, I eat a lot of kale.
Kale, for those of you familiar with the leafy vegetable, has an almost inedible woody stem growing right up the middle. It doesn’t taste very good and makes you fart all day if you eat it. Most people get around this by using chopped up Tuscan or Dino kale, which has the most digestibly negotiable stem. I’m OCD about it, so I end up spending a half hour slicing the stem out of every single leaf of kale before I chop it up.
My desire to make this process less of a time suck is how I decided to invent the kale stemmer! Supporting arguments being: it was the most approachable idea to create, i.e. it didn’t require crazy engineering skills I couldn’t wrap my brain around; and more importantly, it’s a silly kitchen tool that only does one thing. What do American’s like buying more than silly kitchen tools that only do one thing? How many stores devote entire sections to silly, one-function tools? And with kale’s popularity on the rise, I was potentially sitting on a goldmine.
Having finally decided on what I wanted to create, now I had to go about actually doing it. Which proved a little daunting only because I had no idea what I was doing. I started with what I knew how to do, which was to physically mock something up with similar materials available to me. I headed over to SCRAP (Scrounger’s Center for Reusable Art Parts), one of my favorite resources in all of SF. If you do not know of this place, you need to check it out! It’s hidden away in the industrial triangle part of the Bayview, but you will not be sorry when you finally find it. After digging around for an hour I found what I figured would do the trick. By the end of the day, I came up with this:
You can see from my very first mock up, that I possess the crafting skills of a second grader. You can also get an idea for the form I was going for. Two knife blades that can be manipulated like tweezers to adjust to the width of the stem. In this case I glued two razor blades onto a metal frame and covered it with leather to make it look “nice”. The problem with this model is I was looking for a metal that would be pliable in order to manipulate it to the shape I desired. However, what I should have looked for is a firmer material with more shape memory, since this one does not spring back to it’s original shape. The goal was for the tool to work like tweezers, where you squeeze the blades together and follow the shape of the stem. That way you can cut out all types of stem shapes and sizes.
After completing my first mock up, I stared at it for about a week. Now I had a visual for when I explained what my idea was to people, but it wasn’t exactly something I was proud of. I knew I had to make it more professional looking. My problem was I kept thinking that it had to be stainless steel, since that was the material I ultimately wanted it to be made out of. I sunk hours of research into the properties of the material, how I could get my hands on it, how to work with it. I made a trip to the Crucible to speak with a craftsman there about how to mock up my tool, which ended up being even more daunting since he went on and on about crafting a fine, chef’s quality knife–which was not what I was looking for at all. I needed it to be simple and cheap, something that could be machine made.
Progress sputtered to a standstill: I had come to my first road block. I couldn’t get past this barrier because I didn’t know how to manipulate stainless steel and I didn’t have the money to pay somebody who could. Luckily I have a friend who is going through the same process with his own inventions, so I set up a meeting and picked his brain. He told me not to get hung up on the manufacturing process before I even have a tool to create.
How could I have been so dense? How many countless articles had I read about “attacking a problem from all angles” and “pivoting” and all of those other Google keyword catch phrases entrepreneurs love to throw around. And yet here I was, stuck on my first problem, and my solution was to continue to bang my head on the wall when really, I only had to walk around to the other side and open the door.
Thankfully I did one thing right in talking with my friend. He was able to turn my problem around for me. Now that I had found the door, I could walk through and start the next phase: successive iterating.