This is the third in our series of interviews about how to successfully launch new products. Stay tuned for more launch-focused articles in the coming weeks.
Introduce yourself and tell us a bit about the types of products you create.
Hi everyone, I’m Chipp Walters, a mostly retired Industrial Designer from Austin, Texas. I live with my wife on a horse ranch where she tends to 25 horses each day.
I’ve been involved with 3D since the early 1980’s using things called frame buffers which, at that time, were fancy graphics card “boxes” which hooked into your PC and were capable of displaying up to 256 colors!
A few years ago, I hired Jerry Perkins, aka “masterxeon” of Hard Ops and Boxcutter, to help me with a commercial Unity project to recreate an AR experience for the Texas Alamo. Jerry worked on characters and props, while I recreated the Alamo architecture and designed the overall experience. It was a fun two-year-long project and culminated in a great AR experience and, lucky for us, happened to win a few awards.
I discovered that Jerry is probably the single best modeler I have ever seen. We had some fun testing each other on modeling tasks, and he was always better and faster. So, based on his suggestion, a couple of years ago I decided to take a longer look at Blender. After studying it, I immediately mentioned to Jerry that Blender needed an easy-to-use kitbashing system, and KIT OPS was born.
Since then, Jerry and I have partnered on several KIT OPS products, including the brand new KIT OPS BATCH. We use several different developers, including proxe and Ahmed, who are both really good at Blender Python. In a past life, I spent some time coding and, in an effort to learn bpy (Blender Python), I wrote the Chalk Style Pro addon. That said, with all that goes into supporting products, I’ve decided to offload the programming to the team. I still create the product concept and do a lot of the UI work. I’m also in charge of marketing, sales, and support.
I’ve learned a lot from Jerry about marketing to the Blender crowd. More on that later.
Just about the time that KIT OPS was released, I was diagnosed with cancer and spent some time in various operating rooms as well as 6 months of chemotherapy. Thankfully, I’m cancer-free at the moment. I used the downtime to study Blender more and planned new products to match my needs and learning curve.
Here’s a quick list of my products, in the order that they were created after KIT OPS.
One of the first things I wanted to do was to create great renders. And since I had some good results rendering interiors in Unity, I wanted to try doing the same in EEVEE. So, I studied it carefully and put together a workflow, then brought together 18 beta testers, including Eric Klein who is a true master at Interior rendering with EEVEE. I worked with all of them to get the tutorial formula right. At the time, this was the very first course to go into detail on how to create interior renderings in EEVEE.
Next, I wanted a systemized approach to creating great materials. Again, my knowledge of Unity and GPUs let me know that GPU memory can take a hard hit with too many textures, so my goal was to build high-quality efficient materials that rendered great in EEVEE and worked fine in Cycles, as well. I worked with Eric Klein again to fabricate a really good EEVEE glass, and then added materials I knew designers would want to see. I was able to use KIT OPS to add materials to objects easily. I think we're up over 140 materials now in EMS.
Early on, I was asked by a client to create a concept design for a LIDAR backpack, and I knew it would be a very iterative product design. Jerry had told me about modifiers and how you could create things in a non-destructive fashion. So, I studied it carefully and started to use them in my work. I found I could create lots of product designs in a non-destructive manner. So, I decided to create a full course, with examples, on how to create and design using only modifiers.
My next project was to learn the ins and outs of Freestyle, Blender's own NPR (non-photographic-rendering) system. My goal was to create designer-like line drawings, something I had done in SketchUp and Keyshot in the past. Freestyle is very complicated, and it seemed like an addon could simplify things a lot. The team also focused on something Freestyle couldn’t do: apply override materials to only certain objects. One example is you could have a black and white sketchy render of a building, but still have the glass transparent and reflective.
I was contacted by a AAA game client to do some sci-fi nextgen conceptual design so Jerry and I worked together—him modeling and I doing the texturing and rendering. It was a heavy project with probably the largest amount of textures, polys, and lighting we ever worked on. I ended up using Painter to do most of the texture work and we linked in massive files to get to the final rendering. I wanted to also create some wires to show the client-- and this was an arduous task involving lots of Photoshop compositing as well as OpenGL renders. I decided to write my own addon to help with this process and added some AO post-process shading, as shown to me by Bohdan Lvov. It worked great and I released it as both a free addon and paid addon.
In Unity, there's this cool animation tool called Cinemachine. With it, you just create multiple camera positions and it figures out all the animation in-between. No path animation or rigs or anything. I wanted to do something similar in Blender and QUICK SHOT was created. It automates the creation of multiple cameras and moving between them in a super-simple interface. It's not for creating complicated animations, but it does great with product shots and interior animations. Ahmed was instrumental in coding it.
KPACKs are folders of special .blend files that work with KIT OPS kitbashing / asset manager. I'm a huge fan of Ian's (who's not?), and I approached him about using some of his STEAM 2D smoke animations and creating a set of INSERTS so they could quickly be applied in any scene. We decided to partner on the project with me doing the marketing, selling, and support.
The focus on the KIT OPS 2 release was simplification. And one of the big problems with the V1 product was the convoluted way we went about batch creating thumbnails. So, it was decided to remove all batch operations from KIT OPS 2, and move them, plus a lot more, into KIT OPS BATCH. Now we can quickly process existing kitbashing collections, create new collections from .blend files, batch thumbnails, and even create decal INSERTS quickly from a folder of PNG images. With it, people can harvest objects and/or collections from their existing files and repurpose them as KPACKS for KIT OPS.
And coming soon: KIT OPS BEVEL, coded by the young and talented bonjorno7, and KIT OPS SYNTH with none other than Mark Kingsnorth, the man behind the curtain of all those great nurnie- and greeble-generating addons. SYNTH is based loosely on a series of tweets I did recently called #DesignPatterns. Worth a look if you’re interested in learning more about how to design.
I'm about as excited about both of these products as I've been about any. Can't wait to get them out!
What does it mean to you to have a “successful” product launch?
Well, of course, sales are always a good thing! And it’s nice when I see a product get to the front page at Blender Market. Still, longevity is the goal. It's important that people find value in the products we create. And most important is the goal of ease of use and simplicity. While not always achieved, I strive to create a single product that does one thing well.
There was this odd character named Mr. Green Jeans on a kids’ show called Captain Kangaroo back 50+ years when I grew up. Mr. Green Jeans had a dozen or so pockets on his overalls. And whenever he needed a tool, he could reach into one of his pockets, and he'd find just the right tool.
I think computers have gotten away from that sort of thing with all the software applications (i.e., Word, Photoshop, iTunes) trying to do too much and be everything to everyone. Smartphones have it right. You download one app and it does one thing and it's extremely easy to use. That's the philosophy I have with regard to addons. Keep them simple. So, my focus is to create a product launch that is not confusing and keeps the messaging simple.
Once you’ve finished crafting your product, how much time do you generally expect to spend on preparing your product launches?
I think a good rule of thumb regarding overall effort is 50% designing, coding, and testing and 50% sales and marketing. Only part of that second 50% goes into the launch, but it’s still a significant amount.
When I launch a new product I typically have a "pitch" video and some explanatory "how-to" videos. I also have product documentation—and big thanks goes to Michael Semprevivo for his continuous help editing! I prefer using Google Docs for documentation because it's really easy to get feedback.
And of course, I have to create the pages at Blender Market and Gumroad. Both typically say the exact same thing. Much of the copy can come from the design spec I create before the project is started.
For most design specs, I talk about WHAT, WHO, WHY, and WHEN. This information helps to establish the customer value proposition.
- WHAT is the product in a short paragraph. Any longer and it's confusing.
- WHO is the product for and most importantly WHO is it NOT for?
- WHY am I creating this product? Empirical data is better than gut feelings for the WHY question.
- WHEN do I expect to have it completed by? All of this goes into the creation of the product and keeps me focused on the launch messaging.
What sorts of things are on your “launch checklist” that you want to be sure are in place before your new product publishes?
Well, for the most part, it starts with testing. I want to make sure the product is robust enough to be released, so I have a beta test channel on Discord and I use other Blender users to help out. I keep an issue tracker in Google Docs that I update as I check off completed features, fixed bugs, and resolved issues.
All along, while I test, I create different scene files—and many times I pre-announce a product with images or animations on Twitter. I feel this seeds some of the savviest Blender users with an idea of what is coming. Sometimes I get comments that help me understand better how I can be clearer in my communication of what a product does or who it’s targeted at. These test files are also great for the promo video.
Speaking of the promo video, I typically write it out—at least the first couple of minutes. I may end with a demo of the product where I'm not scripted and just talking about how it works. But, the beginning has to be on message, and that's what the script is for. Writing for performance (reading) is very different from writing documentation or answering interview questions. It needs to be conversational—and that's sometimes really hard for me. I have a friend, Floyd Wray, who is a professional writer and sometimes I'll run stuff by him.
I have a few Blender presets where I can take existing screen recorded video and create quick clips, 5 seconds of them in perspective with DOF, etc. It's a cheap way to create some motion while I'm talking. And now with QUICK SHOT, it's also really easy and quick to create a 10-second animation or two.
Depending on the product, a promo video needs to be followed by more explanatory videos. And, over time, even more are added. Documentation needs to be completed and viewed by an editor.
- I also create a logo for each product and keep them similarly themed. You can see what I mean on the chippwalters.com home page.
- All the sales pages need to be created and reviewed.
- The product needs to be built and versioned from the most recent build at my GitHub repository.
- Sample images need to be created as well as an animated gif lead image (thanks for that tip Jerry) for Blender Market.
- Update my Discord Server with the new product channel for support and conversation.
- And I get the message out to my Patreon followers.
What channels do you use to get the word out about your new product? Have you found that some are more effective than others?
Good question. Here’s what I’m doing. I know it’s not the best, and can use improvement.
- I really like what Bart Veldhuizen has done with BlenderNation, and I subscribe to his Patreon as a commercial patron. He also has a Blender-only advertising section on Blender Artists which absolutely helps.
- I also use the email systems at both Blender Market and Gumroad to get the word out about a new product. I have well over 40,000 folks who have downloaded my products on Gumroad, so that’s easy to post to the email list.
- I use Twitter a lot and it is continually updated with interesting information about design and products.
- I now have my own Patreon with over 400 patrons and I typically give them a heads up when something new is going on.
- And of course, my YouTube subscribers typically hear about it as soon as I upload the promo video. I’m careful to try and read and answer any YouTube comments.
Is the hard work done once the product has been published?
My goodness, NO! haha. The hardest work is doing your best to provide continual support, and also to keep finding new ways to promote your products without being too pushy. I like to create new designs and use my products to create them—and create videos. I also like to share what I'm currently doing on Twitter and sometimes Instagram.
Also, frequently the product needs updating to become compatible with a new version of Blender or to fix an issue. It's an ongoing process. Like I said, 50% development, 50% sales and marketing.
How do you keep the momentum going and maintain customer awareness of and interest in your product after the initial sales and reviews are in?
There's certainly momentum behind having several successful products. And, of course, with it comes the pressure to make sure your next offerings are as easy to use and productive as the previous.
I try to keep in touch with users via all the available channels I mentioned: YouTube, Patreon, Twitter, Blender Artists, BlenderNation, and Discord. Sometimes it's a few images, other times a quick video, and other times a full-on tutorial. Staying current to users is important.
One of the most amazing things about the Blender community is the friendly camaraderie with people from all over the world. Currently, I'm working with people in Egypt, England, the Netherlands, Tokyo, and several cities in the US. And, for the most part, we talk almost daily. I find great energy in these groupings. They help me stay motivated. And for anyone out there creating products, get on Discord! It's a great community creation tool.
What do you know now about preparing new products for sale that you wish you had known when you first started selling products on Blender Market?
So, a confusing thing about Blender is the size of the user base. It astonishes me that Jerry's products, Hard Ops and Boxcutter, have stayed atop the Blender Market list for over two years! I can't even remember it not being there (it's back at number one as I type this). And here's the most amazing part: he's never asked for a single upgrade fee! Rule 1 of marketing is: Your existing customers are your best customers to sell new offerings to. And Jerry has never once tried to upsell.
So, what do I take from that? Well, first off the Blender user community must be very large—and is growing. I believe it's easily the largest 3D community in the world—and by a lot. Secondly, staying engaged with users is important—and Jerry does that daily. I imagine it’s the primary reason he's still so successful. I try and follow his advice.
One last comment. If you're a developer, and you are making money with your products, please consider becoming a gold sponsor in the Blender Development Fund. I think it's under $40/month which is way less than a subscription to Adobe, or Maya, or whatever other 3D product you may use. And it's of course for a great cause!
I really hope this helps anyone out there who is considering the jump into developing products for online sale. Approach it like a real job. Understand the 50/50 rule I mentioned earlier—and overall, enjoy yourself! Best of luck!
Big thanks to Chipp for sharing his approach to launching new products with us! What's an essential part of your product launches?