It was late October 2012. We had just returned from three months of near perfect sunshine in Portland, Oregon to the grey and dingy early winter of former East Berlin. After a couple weeks, the euphoria of Demo Day had died down and reality began to sink in. Prospective clients for Video Sprints didn’t have reasonable budgets for our services. Our business model was flawed. After a brief period of flirting with the idea of developing Video Sprint software, we headed south to visit Pati’s family for Christmas and put our plans on hold for the new year. We finally were reckoning with something we’d been hearing the whole time at PIE about our business: “that’s cool – but how does it scale?”
January 2013. We were artists in residence in the Frankfurter Kunstverein. We spent that cold and snowy month living in an art museum and producing our most experimental video to date: a portrait of four artists called Another Dimension. On long walks taken through the winter streets of Frankfurt, we looked ahead to the coming months of the new year and decided to focus on our individual strengths for a while. Pati went on to expand her client roster of corporate design agencies in Berlin. Gabe took directing work in California, did lots of public speaking, and produced new video artwork.
But there was something else. Something gnawing at our consciousness the whole time. A parallel story of what was and what could be that was stubbornly, persistently calling us to act. In short: something which could scale.
You might have seen us using it when we were at PIE. Fervently scribbling notes during a presentation or drawing storyboards for our videos. Truly, there were moments during PIE where our daily use of the prototype created cognitive dissonance to the tune of: “Why are we working on Video Sprint when we could be working on this?!” Working on what, you ask?
Betabook: a portable whiteboard in the form of a book.
So here’s that parallel story:
Early February 2010. It was a typical grey-skied winter afternoon in Berlin. A group of designers, makers and tinkerers gathered together in one of Berlin’s first coworking spaces – the Betahaus – for a workshop on Open Design. Among the participants was Jay Cousins – a recent transplant to Berlin from Sheffield, UK. Jay was leading a workshop on creating self-made plastics. Jay’s enthusiasm caught our eye. As the only video production company present, KS12 became the workshop’s storytellers. When Jay sat for an interview, he uttered a one-liner which would set the tone for our friendship. “Basically,” Jay said, “everything should be delivered in beta“.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2012. Jay was cleaning up his apartment when he came across some old notebooks. After reviewing the contents and salvaging only a couple pages in each book, the waste created struck him as a problem to solve. Then inspiration hit. He took the empty notebook binding and affixed a piece of whiteboard plastic inside: the first Betabook was born.
Jay approached us about helping him to make a Kickstarter video to get the Betabook out into the world. We said we’d think about it after we had some time to test his prototypes and so in the summer of 2012 we left for Portland with a Betabook in our production kit. After using the prototype for a couple months, it became clear to us that it had a bigger future. So in the beginning of 2013 they developed a supply chain, built and tested dozens of prototypes, and in the summer of 2014 founded Betabook LLC. The design was improved from a rough proof of concept to a refined and beautiful object. Which brings us to the present day: mere days before the launch of Betabook on Kickstarter.
We used the Betabook prototype during our time at PIE for everything from meeting notes to business model diagrams. Since then we have iterated on the plastic surface so that it wipes completely clean.
Betabook is a product born in Berlin – but the minimum viable product was road-tested in Portland, specifically at PIE.
If we hadn’t used it intensely during our time in the incubator who knows if we would have been convinced of the value. After all, at that time the prototype was just a scrappy old journal binding with a piece of duct tape and a sheet of dirty plastic glued inside. But besides the practical testing we did at PIE we learned countless other lessons which have had an impact on our ability to move forward with the Betabook. As graduates of film and design schools, PIE served as our crash course in startup business. Mentors like Renny, Rick, Nick, Kirsten, Marcelino Alvarez, John Jay, Amber Case, Brad Berens, Jason Glaspey, Andy Baio, Mat Ellis and Brad Feld – among dozens of others – gave us invaluable insights. Our classmates served as mirrors for us, helping us to see ourselves as entrepreneurs even if at times we felt like amateurs.
Next week we are launching Betabook on Kickstarter. If you want to help spread the word before we launch, please encourage people to sign up here for our email list:
You might also check out our (somewhat cheeky) trailer about the history of tablets.
We’re using hashtag #betabook and we’re @betabook on Instagram; @betabookco on Twitter.