TAIT Design Co. Shares the Ins and Outs of Starting a Design-Centric Business
Starting a business is easier said than done—from startup costs to finding suppliers and endless unexpected challenges. This week we’re chatting with Matthew TAIT, Founder and Lead Product Design of TAIT Design Co. to learn more about the nitty gritty of how he took the idea for this Detroit-based product design studio and turned it into a reality.
Give us an idea of your timeline. When did you first get the idea for TAIT, start hiring people, line up suppliers, etc. all the way to having physical products to sell?
Matt Tait: I first had the idea to create the Turbo Flyer in June of 2013, and so having physical products to sell was something I did immediately. At that time I wasn’t lining up suppliers so much as making them one by one by hand in my basement. I began finding people to work with to help me manufacture it in the fall of 2013 and also added our second product, the Sling-Slang YOYO at that time too. Audrey started working with me in the summer of 2015, who has now become my business partner, and we have hired seasonal part-time production assistants every year since then as needed.
Let’s talk startup costs. Can you provide a breakdown of what costs went into getting TAIT started?
Matt Tait: Because of the nature in the way in which TAIT was started, I started with only the essentials to create the Turbo Flyers along with the website cost. was creating these planes one at a time in my basement, so I literally started the business with $500 for buying cardboard, balsa wood, and screen printing materials. Since I had a second job, I always just put all the profits from sales back into the business and kept it growing from there. Now that we are a bit bigger we actually have more difficulty in terms of cashflow than we did in the beginning. Running a legit small business is incredibly hard as anyone who has tried to do it will tell you. Now that we have multiple products we are constantly struggling to fund increasingly higher quantities of inventory alongside everyday business costs like rent, insurance, labor, wages, etc… We now are routinely making 5,000 Turbo Flyers at a time or 500 calendars or a 1,000 B-24s, etc.
The logistics and cashflow are challenging to keep up with, especially when you are adding new products to the lineup that require R&D, but we are making it work and try to be really careful what we invest our money into.
Did you have investors? If so, how did you work to line them up?
Matt Tait: No official investors, I funded everything myself in the beginning and our sales keep us going since everything is put back into the business. At times our friends or family have loaned us money to create inventory when needed and then we create a note payable with an amortization schedule including interest. This is the most simple way to grow without having to go through a bank or give up part of the company. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish on the budget we have. Sometimes people have the perception that if you sell products in lots of stores, that you’re this huge company with tons of employees and that couldn’t be farther from the truth for us.
What was your biggest expense in founding TAIT? What ended up being way more affordable than you’d imagined?
Matt Tait: The biggest expense to TAIT has been purchasing a 36 x 24” laser cutter, which we use both for prototyping and manufacturing our products. Honestly, starting a business is an expensive venture. All this cardboard really adds up!! However, I will say that I was initially very worried about the costs of signing up with a fulfillment center but taking the leap to outsource shipping has made my life so much better and the business operate more smoothly. Besides saving time (our orders now ship out automatically in 2-3 hours), fulfillment centers often get better rates for shipping as opposed to using your own UPS, FedEx, or USPS accounts and that savings makes up for the cost of storing your goods at their warehouse.
Has Detroit been a supportive or challenging city to start/run a business in?
Matt Tait: Definitely a supportive place, though I’d have to assume that starting a business is a challenge anywhere. It’s a very friendly and creative community full of people who want to help each other succeed. However, I’d say that though the city has helped artists in some ways, they’ve also spent a lot of resources on artists from outside of the city. It’s definitely the local creative community itself that holds each other up here.
Does Detroit have a strong startup scene, or DIY/maker community?
Matt Tait: Yes, absolutely. Lots of people here are trying to start new businesses/ventures/non-profits all the time. There are quite a few competitions throughout the year open and available to apply to that range micro-funding to larger investor relationships. The DIY/Maker community here is pretty huge and everyone kind of knows each other. There are lots of independently run fairs, one of our favorites is the Detroit Urban Craft Fair, where hundreds of makers sell their products around the holidays. There are also really great resources for people who are interested in making things in many types of mediums. I’m always trying to learn a new trade to add to our design practice. Earlier this year, I started taking slip-casting classes at Pewabic Pottery and fell in love with it—maybe we’ll have some ceramic objects in the future!
How has the local creative economy helped with the revitalization of the city?
Matt Tait: Through programs like the Knights Arts Challenge and Kresge, many different types of artists can apply for grants here. Often, applications that win funding are somehow tied to their integration and betterment of the city. This year I helped start a nonprofit and am now the
Co-Director of the Detroit Kite Festival. Our mission is to uplift kite flying and creation as a platform for radical inclusion, communal play, shared healing, and the celebration of culture and
history. e partnered with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Public Library, as well as TechShop and local food vendors to put it on, and it was a huge success. Around 4,000 people from different neighborhoods and backgrounds showed up to the event and it was amazing. Over 1,000 kites were built with kids for free and at any time you could look up and see hundreds of kites in the sky. We feel very fortunate that some of the most beloved institutions in this city are open to collaborating with a new venture like ours and that is something that’s very special.
Your Balsa wood flyers are beautiful design objects that really tap into a sense of nostalgia. Are these planes intended for kids or for adults young at heart?
Matt Tait: Both! Many of our customers are over the age of 30, and just as many people buy them for themselves or their friends and family members as for children.
In 2013, your Turbo flyer was chosen as one of the year’s best-designed products at the AIGA National Gallery. What was that like to have something you created receive that kind of design recognition?
Matt Tait: Oh, it was amazing. I mean, I had barely begun everything I’m doing now and to have that kind of recognition made me feel like I was really going somewhere with it. I felt very honored.
What resources were the most helpful in getting the business started—websites, magazines, software, etc.?
Matt Tait: Talking to other people who have their own businesses has been more helpful for me than anything else. Just reaching out to people is easy to do, and can be incredibly powerful in building knowledge and allies, more experienced entrepreneurs typically want to help younger ones. They understand how it feels to jump off the cliff and can help guide strategic decisions that will allow you to avoid certain pitfalls. Also, I’m a very visual learner so I would say YouTube has always been a great resource, whether it is a trade skill or to learn software or business concepts.
I use Squarespace for our website, which is great, and signing up for fulfillment center has been extremely helpful as well. I would also highly recommend using Quickbooks accounting software as early as possible into starting a business because it will save a lot of time and money later on, and you will be able to pull reports that are very helpful in assessing the health of your business quarter over quarter, year over year. It’s sometimes scary to sign up for these services when you aren’t making any money in the beginning, but it ends up being worth it. Be frugal in your spending, be smart in negotiating different deals/materials, but get the best infrastructure platforms or people to work with always.
How did you go about finding suppliers? Who did/do you work with?
Matt Tait: I learned a lot about manufacturing methods through watching videos of how things are made on Youtube, and found most of the manufacturers we work with through hours of Internet research. It’s also helpful that once you’ve found one manufacturer to work with, they often have a recommendation for someone they know who makes something else. We work with over 15 different suppliers all based in the USA right now, many of them are local here in Michigan.
Who did you turn to for packaging your products?
Matt Tait: We create all of our packaging designs ourselves and for a long time, made all of it by hand. I never went to school for it, but I came across The Packaging and Design Templates Sourcebook while in college (the one with the cd in the back) and for some reason found it really fascinating. Maybe it is because I loved origami when I was a kid, but I thought it was this really cool intersection of graphic design and paper sculpture. You have to think three-dimensionally and consider the engineering involved in paper folding and paper thickness, and that has always interested me. We now work with local screen printers and die-cutters to make larger runs and we’ve recently started working with Packlane out in California to make our YOYO packaging.
Margaret is a freelance graphic designer and writer based in Los Angeles. She received her MFA in Graphic Design from the California Institute of the Arts. She writes for AIGA’s blog Eye on Design, and is currently designing futuristic things for USC’s World Building Media Lab.