Can you build a product in China without ever setting foot there? Just ask entrepreneur Simon Morris.
Founders/owners: Simon Morris
When founded: May 21
Initial investment: $10,000
Sales: Not disclosed
Fun fact: Simon Morris only knows his Chinese contact by one name, Sunnie.
As a mortgage broker in Fort Myers, Simon Morris started using computer tablets to make presentations to clients.
Today's touch-screen devices are sometimes difficult to manage, especially with the cheap styli on the market today. “We just decided we could make a better model,” says Morris, who was discussing the problem with a former business partner.
But Morris had no engineering knowledge and no contacts in manufacturing. He grew up in Cape Coral after his British parents settled in the area when he was 9 years old, earning a degree in education teaching special-needs children. He worked in sales for a few years for technology research firm Gartner in Fort Myers and then became a mortgage broker. “I've made it through the tough times,” he says.
Morris was undeterred. He started by surfing the Internet on a site called Alibaba.com, a business-to-business website that connects buyers and manufacturers globally.
While searching for stylus manufacturers on the website, Morris started an online conversation with someone named Sunnie. “I don't know if it's a man or a woman,” Morris chuckles. In fact, Morris doesn't even know the person's last name, except that the person is Chinese and has connections with manufacturers of styli in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong.
The first prototype of what would be called iAM Digit cost $300. “I wired the funds into an HSBC Bank account,” Morris says. “By then I was pretty sure we'd get something back.”
Fact is, the Chinese contact wanted to know that Morris was legitimate too, he says. “They took a chance on us,” he says.
To get the design right, Morris says he had to use simple language that Chinese people could translate easily. Morris says his teaching skills with special-needs children came in handy. “I boiled it down to its simplest items,” he says.
Morris knew what he wanted: A stylus that had weight like a top-quality writing instrument, two different tips (a smaller one for the iPhone and a larger one for the iPad) and magnets so that it could stick to the Apple SmartCover for iPads. None of his competitors has those attributes, he says; “They didn't feel like a natural writing instrument.”
It took about a year to get the design right, Morris says. That included a delay when Apple changed the design of its SmartCover, costing Morris 90 days and about $400 in design changes.
Initially, the Chinese wanted Morris to buy 3,000 styli, but he negotiated a favorable price for 1,000. “I used my sales skills,” he says. In all, Morris says he's invested about $10,000 in the project. “It was done over the Internet with no face-to-face contact,” Morris notes.
Since launching the stylus in recent months, Morris says he's sold about 180 iAM Digit styli, all through his website: iamstylus.com. Each one costs $29.99. Morris says he's explored selling them through other means, such as retailers, but he hasn't lined up any deals yet. He's also handed them out to bloggers who review products for online publications such as 9to5 Mac and has earned some good press.
Morris still works as a mortgage broker and he spends most of his evenings on his company, iAM-Innovations. He declines to share sales figures and is hesitant to forecast future sales, but he says he's ready if a big order comes. “If this were to take off, my goal is to concept other products and take them down the same path,” he says. “It's given me a bounce in my step.”