In this installment of our Customer Spotlight Series, we sit down with David Stychno, shopkeep at Leon’s Electric Trout Co. His digital storefront includes one-of-a-kind objects found around the world along with 3D printed pieces that David designs and finishes himself, like the quirky yet practical Dokku.
We chatted with David about the evolution of the Dokku, how 3D printing allows for incremental testing and agile product development, and how he strikes a balance between a monetized hobby and paid occupation. Our conversation follows.
Could you tell us about your background prior to launching Leon’s Electric Trout?
I’m a graphic designer by trade, but I basically come from a long line of salesmen. My father was always talking about the beauty of entrepreneurism and the “free market”, so it’s always been something that interests me.
Eventually I ended up in e-commerce designing for a customer analytics company, Custora, and after a few years I started daydreaming about having a shop of my own. Empathy fuels design, and what better way to learn about e-commerce than to actually do it? It took a few years of mulling over what I might sell, and I finally collected enough things and ideas for things that I decided it was time. It’s been beneficial to have a Shopify platform because it allows us to test new software for my day job too. It’s this really cool overlap of a personal hobby that is also relevant to what I do.
You’ve described Leon’s Electric Trout as a storefront for everything that you like, that, for the most part, has some sort of utility. Can you explain the relationship between the one-of-a-kind art objects and the 3D printed objects?
I like to travel and find design inspiration around the world. A trip to Indonesia last year was a big source of inspiration. I acquired objects there and translated them into lamps. At the same time, I developed the Power-Branch, which was a very labor intensive, one-off product. It was fun to make and also really useful. I use it every day, but it’s pretty fragile and not something I can easily reproduce.
“I was able to connect the dots to realize it’s the best low cost way to make reproducible products on demand.”
It sounds like easy access to manufacturing has really allowed you to expand your art practice and the breadth of your products.
No question. I was excited to bring the Power-Branch into existence because I felt like it was solving an interesting problem that would be fun to sell, but its one-of-a-kind nature made it hard to conceive of reproducing it. Then it occurred to me, “Oh, I can probably make this out of plastic.”
From there, I became curious about how fabrication and manufacturing work in 2018, and what my options were for a small test run of a product. I considered getting a mold made, but as a hobbyist, the investment was crazy. I’d experimented with some 3D printing about 10 years ago as a designer at IDEO, so I was able to connect the dots to realize it’s the best low cost way to make reproducible products on demand.
I started developing some sketches and hooked up with a designer in California to iterate some models. It’s like Christmas every time I get a new model back with the latest revisions.
Could you tell us about the agile product development and incremental testing that went into the Dokku?
The biggest thing is learning from people, observing behavior, and how they solve problems. I brought the original giant Dokku to my friend’s house with their whole family there and had people try it out. I learned a lot, talking to my friends about how they would use it, talking to people at work. I had people over to watch them use it and collect as much as I could of their unfiltered feedback. That helped inform the evolution and reduction of it, along with cost savings.
The original Dokku, the giant one, was designed around lightning cables and Apple Watch charging pucks. I wasn’t thinking about inductive charging at all. Once Apple announced their support of Qi charging, I realized that the Dokku had to accommodate a variety of charging pads. So that was another round of iteration, getting the angles of those horns just right and creating some ledges in the dish. It was kind of back to the drawing board for a little bit, but now the Dokku can accommodate most charging pucks. Probably wouldn’t be the case if I had pursued a different manufacturing method.
How did you decide to post-process your 3D printed Dokku?
Finishing the objects, for me, is a hobby. I love working with my hands. I’ve had some furniture in my shop so I’ve gotten to do some woodworking and learn more about that. I’ve been working in the digital world for so long, typing, clicking a mouse, so this is actually really relaxing to me.
I have wondered, though, if I get slammed by orders on a Saturday and I have plans, but I also have to fulfill orders…Will I be as interested in sanding and finishing? Maybe not. There’s the psychological principle that when you get paid to do something you enjoy, it decreases the value of it.
“I don’t have time to become an expert in 3D printer maintenance. It’s best if I can just submit my file and focus on other aspects of the business.”
Was there a big learning curve going from doing mostly 2D design in your day job and then jumping to 3D?
Yeah, it’s a whole new design language. I’ve created sculptures before, and I’ve been making art since I was young, but 3D design has always been intimidating to me. The software is so complex. You look at the interface alone and it’s like, “Geez, I’m gonna have to take a class or something.” But working with a designer so closely on such a price object forced me to expand my 3D vocabulary. It gave me the confidence to understand that this is feasible. It’s really exciting to feel like I developed a new skill set, a new language. I can create reproducible objects now. I couldn’t do that a year ago.
Now I see something like a phone case and I can imagine building it. I could probably find a simple file and mess around enough in TinkerCad or Rhino to modify it. It’s like a new muscle, where I see opportunities for new objects, or to solve problems. It’s pretty fun.
What is your favorite part of outsourcing 3D printing to Voodoo?
As a graphic designer, I’m allergic to printers. Weird, right? There’s always something that goes wrong with home printers, office printers have crazy service contracts… and I know 3D printers have their quirks, too. Since this is a hobby in addition to a fulltime job, I don’t have time to become an expert in 3D printer maintenance. It’s best if I can just submit my file and focus on other aspects of the business.
Plus the turnaround is so fast, it’s pretty incredible. You can turn something around in a day or two. Also the pricing. I’m not sure if there’s any lower pricing for something local.
Is there anything new for Leon’s Electric Trout coming out soon?
I’m working on a smaller version of the Dokku. It still solves some of the similar problems, but is equally fun. I’d like to develop a line; I’m imagining some sort of collection of objects that seem like they come from a different dimension or another planet.
David’s creative process makes great use of the flexibility of 3D printing: you can design something as unique as the Dokku, go through several rounds of development, and end up with a high-quality finished product, all in a short period of time with minimal startup costs. By outsourcing 3D printing to Voodoo Manufacturing, David is able to scale up and monetize his hobby, while focusing on what makes him tick: designing and finishing his products.