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Up, Up and Away: A Chat with Tim Hayes of Cardboard Helicopter

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Cleveland was once part of a region where manufacturing flourished. From the '20s to the '60s, companies like Ford, Eaton, and TRW produced components for cars on a massive scale, while industrial equipment makers like Dravo Wellman and Lincoln Electric employed thousands to meet the nationwide demand.

The industrial landscape has obviously changed since then — most would argue for the worse — but an opportunity for a manufacturing renaissance exists, albeit in a form far different from Cleveland's assembly line years. The key is 3-D printing. Cue Cardboard Helicopter, an "invention" firm that designs, licenses and manufactures items that ship all over the world. Thanks to 3-D printing, founder Tim Hayes been able to grow his business by eliminating historical barriers of entry. We caught up with Hayes to understand the process a little more.

Tell me a bit about yourself and how you ended up here.

I've been an entrepreneur my entire life. Since I was little, I knew that I wanted to do something on my own. I ended up getting into the Cleveland Institute of Art and then getting into their industrial design program. I went through the five-year BFA program and during and after that I worked in various capacities: I got some internships at places like Fisher Price and a few other design firms.

Why did you decide to start your own company?

It's not about making millions of dollars; it's about not having to ask a boss if I can go on a trip to New York for three days. It's the flexibility and freedom that comes with being your own boss. I get to create my own destiny instead of having to rely on everybody. Everyone's looking to innovate and innovate as fast as possible. What used to take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars can take me months, days, and no money out of my pocket; I'm a designer and engineer, so my process includes initial ideation — brainstorming — where we really think of all the different ideas and come up with things and then develop those ideas as a sketch, and then core refinements into actual viability, and then into 3-D prototypes, and pitch them to companies.

Has it been difficult to attract clientele?

Ever since I started the company, we've been coming up with inventions of our own and helping companies with product development. We're helping a lot of inventors, all the way from Australia to Slovakia. A lot of people find us, hear about us; there a lot of people in the Cleveland area that we try to help out. We try to help people out with our 3-D printer; we did that in Australia and had a fully developed product in less than a month, so that they had something to go in a Kickstarter campaign. We're into everything, from toys to high-end housewares to fitness products. We come up with hundreds of things, and for each product we license, we spend only between $10 and $100 because we can rapidly prototype.

Platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGogo have exploded in popularity. Are those sorts of crowd-funded campaigns a big component of your business?

There are more and more of them, and we're doing more, because they're great. You get orders day one instead of having to figure out who's going to order these on Amazon or Target: At the end of a Kickstarter, you've already got $100,000 of orders. Once we get into crowdfunding and we start manufacturing our own products, that's kind of the epitome of the freedom I talked about earlier. Instead of waiting for companies to sign off on things, we can make something in a week or a month, and instead of making 3- to 10-percent royalties, we can make 80 percent.

What is your company focusing on right now?

We're really focused on consumer products, and I think that will lead to bigger things. I want to have one of the biggest, most innovative product companies in the world. I want to be the most innovative company in Cleveland, maybe Ohio. The way our process works is, we aren't one-sided, because we want people to come to us when they have a product in mind. We know how to envision it, how to get it out there, how to design it. I want to be multifaceted in that sense, where I don't really want to just go one direction. If someone comes to us with any design work, I don't want to say, "We're too busy because we only design our own products."

Why did you decide to establish your company in the Cleveland area?

I was born and raised in Lakewood, and I bought a home in Lakewood, and the [Cardboard Helicopter] studio is in Lakewood. It's nearby where I live so I can bike to work, and it's a big space with two floors and really open areas. I was initially with all the others, thinking about moving out of town. But Cleveland's in the mecca of manufacturing, which a lot of people don't realize. There are hundreds of companies that develop products here: You can be a big fish in a small pond and have more opportunities.

What are your plans for the future?

We really want to start learning about the manufacturing side of things and the marketing side of things. Our target demographic is the millennial group and mass-market items. We do want to make quite a bit of products, because making those here is going to create a lot of jobs in sales and marketing. Somebody that has an MBA from Case or CSU that wants to start up a new type of company and launch 10 products, we've got a thousand in the pipe for that person. We think that we can start stub brands and new companies that can grow here. I think even the 3-D printer will one day allow us to bring everything back here. The most expensive part of manufacturing in China is the tools, so once they figure out manufacturing with that, it's just a computer, a tool, and you can make as many as you want.

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