Brian Seckel is the co-founder of PenSimple an innovative automated portable grinder.
Hear how Brian scratched his own itch and created PenSimple. From working at libraries to using his local townships 3D printer, this scrappy founder did whatever it took to make it work.
[2:12] – What is PenSimple?
[2:34] – Brian’s background
[3:32] – The idea behind PenSimple
[4:38] – Co-founders complementary skillset
[7:03] – Brian talks about the software used to create PenSimple
[7:43] – How Brian and his co-founder Jessie work together
[9:15] – Does resin clog up PenSimple
[10:16] – Manufacturing process of PenSimple
[11:09] – Frustrations in developing PenSimple
[13:01] – Brian talks about his CanopyBoulder experience
[14:30] – Educating prospects on PenSimple
[17:03] – What condition herbs should be in before grinding
[17:56] – Brian’s advice to entrepreneurs
[19:46] – Brian talks about possible future PenSimple products
[20:31] – Brian answers some personal development questions
[22:16] – Brian talks about manufacturing overseas
[24:49] – Contact details for PenSimple
What are the five trends that will disrupt the cannabis market in the next five years?Find out with your free guide at https://www.cannainsider.com/trends
Innovative entrepreneurs are creating new market segments in the cannabis space that didn’t exist before. One of those entrepreneurs is Brian Seckel, Co-founder of Jaeb Designs, the company behind PenSimple. We’re fortunate to have Brian on the show with us today. Brian, welcome to CannaInsider.
Brian: Thank you.
Matthew: Brian give listeners a sense of geography. Tell us where in the world you are today.
Brian: Yeah so we started Jaeb Designs and PenSimple in Ohio and we are now in Boulder, Colorado.
Matthew: Okay and I am in Destin, Florida today.
Brian: Sounds nice.
Matthew: It is nice. White sandy beaches, sunny. I’m not complaining. Brian, give us a high level overview of what PenSimple is.
Brian: Yeah so PenSimple is a grinder, storage device and dispensing device that is unlike anything else on the market right now. It’s a portable grinder that allows you to dispense your herbs at the simple push of a button wherever you want them to go.
Matthew: Where are you from originally and what’s your background prior to starting PenSimple?
Brian: Yeah so I’m from Ohio originally. Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. I went to Miami University. My background is actually tech startups. I started my first company when I was 19. It was a collegiate Craigslist, sort of online hub for students to buy and sell amongst each other.
Matthew: Every any elicit substances on there like Silk Road?
Brian: Fortunately we were pretty heavy on our moderation and we ensured that everything that was on the site was above ground.
Matthew: Okay. What was the hottest selling item on there?
Brian: Furniture was really big. For seniors that were moving out and then sophomores and juniors that were just getting their first house. There was this marketplace where seniors were just throwing away their furniture and we opened up where they could then sell it to the younger students so that they could give it some life.
Matthew: Oh that’s great. What gave you the idea to start PenSimple and how did that happen?
Brian: So there are really a few drivers that push me towards making PenSimple. I mean the first is I wanted a grinder or something that wasn’t a one-hitter plus dugout that I could take golfing with me and use on the go. I was also finding that any time I was using my grinder I was ending up with sticky fingers because I had to pinch it from the grinder to the device. Then the final push towards PenSimple is when I spilled and lost a whole grinder’s worth of herbs and instead of spending that afternoon relaxing I then spent it trying to figure out how I could prevent that from ever happening again.
Matthew: Okay. So I can just picture like a distressed look on your face as you slowly watch your grinder fall. Nooooo. Okay. The disc golf, you didn’t want the sticky fingers. That all makes sense. Tell us about your co-founder. How did you meet him and how did you guys get together to start PenSimple?
Brian: Yes. So that worked out is we were actually random roommates our freshman year at Miami University. So I kind of had this idea. I knew I didn’t personally have the engineering skills to bring it to life. So I gave my good friend Jessie a call. We ended up living together actually all four years of our time at Miami University. He was a great mechanical engineer so I called him up. He saw the problems I was talking about and we agreed that we would move forward and just see if we could solve this problem.
Matthew: Okay. Tell me about the early days in Cincinnati developing PenSimple.
Brian: So I moved to Cincinnati to live with Jessie so we could live and work. I took a part-time job helping to run a before and after school program. I would spend my afternoons at the Cincinnati Public Library 3-D printing prototypes in their Maker Space. In the evening when Jessie was off work and we could work together we would then test and iterate at night, make a new 3-D file for the next day and then continue the process with very fast iteration speed.
Matthew: Okay. So how long does it take for a 3-D printer to actually print out a prototype for you?
Brian: Fortunately we were printing some small parts. I mean they would take anywhere from probably 10 minutes to 45 minutes to print. Any time we had some larger parts or like a full prototype, it would take probably about 2 to 3 hours to print a full one.
Matthew: How important do you think having access to a 3-D printer in the early days was to iterating this idea?
Brian: Having access to that 3-D printer really pushed us along. I don’t think we would be where we are today without this 3-D printer access we had. There really just isn’t a way to prototype as rapidly as you need to to make this kind of breakthrough. I mean we spent about 3 years testing different 3-D printed configurations, testing different designs and mechanisms and it really would not have been possible if we weren’t able to rapidly prototype using the 3-D printer.
Matthew: What kind of software did you use to create something like this and model it?
Brian: We are using AutoDesk Inventor right now. It’s one of the two big names in the space. My co-founder has used that in previous jobs and in schools and is very comfortable with it so we’ve been moving forward with that.
Matthew: Okay. So there’s design work and mechanical engineering. What is the best way to marry those two because they are really two different parts of the brain. One’s maybe left brain and one’s kind of right brain. Do you do more of the design or does your co-founder do that or do you guys just happen to have both the skills there?
Brian: So I mean I think this is where Jessie and I kind of make a really great team. He’s the sort of educated engineer. He knows about material properties and tolerance stackups and all of that. Whereas I am much more kind of ignorant on some of the design specifications and all that. So the way it kind of works is we both work together to kind of get our base design and decide how we want whatever feature it is working on to work. Then from there he’s able to use his sort of right brain to make it happen and problem solve through what we talked about at a higher level and turn it into a real product.
I think that it works great because with our different backgrounds and different knowledge levels it really allows us to sort of design for the lowest common denominator so we can make products that are really easy to use even if you don’t have a background in using a grinder or packing a bowl. We wanted to make a product that anyone could just sort of pick up and figure out how it worked.
Matthew: Now resin is a sticky substance that kind of gets on everything if you’re using paraphernalia of any kind, a bong or a grinder or a one-hitter. How does the resin get, does it clog up the device at all in any way?
Brian: so that was probably our biggest design challenge with PenSimple was the fact that we needed to be able to dispense very sticky herbs. So basically the way we designed the dispenser it has a lot of movement and activity that helps shake a lot of that sort of the trichomes or any of the sticky stuff off. We use coatings to really ensure that it’s able to dispense really no matter what herbs you’re throwing into it. Whether it’s Colorado or California or whatever you want to put through it, it will be able to handle it.
Matthew: Okay. How did you initially manufacture the prototypes beyond the 3-D printing at the library? What was the next step to bring this to an actual, physical prototype you could touch and it was working and operating besides getting the parts and sizes right?
Brian: Yes we used Chinese manufacturers for our initial prototypes’ runs. The way that kind of worked is we’ve probably done about four or five different Chinese made prototypes at this point. Really those were more to figure out the materials, just the exact feel and look of the product. So the 3-D printing gave us a very good functional prototypes, but then kind of moving over to the Chinese manufacturers in just a little bit more professional quality that we could then put into the hands of people and to use for promotional materials and such.
Matthew: Was there ever a time where you felt like you and your co-founder were really frustrated with the progress and you thought maybe this PenSimple thing might not work out, but you overcame the challenge in the end?
Brian: For sure. We had those a couple of times at least. I mean after our first year of development we initially had started with a manual push button dispenser and we found after a year that we could not make a manual push button dispenser that had the user experience we wanted to. Electronics was something we had no experience in and didn’t know much about but we decided at that point we needed to make it an electronic dispenser and we were able to sort of get over that hurdle by switching to electric and then we ran into a problem a year later when we found that the biggest motor we could fit in the pen was not strong enough for these sticky herbs and it was torquing out and causing a whole bunch of problems.
So we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to dispense electronically either, but then we were just able to mess with the design, do some more research into motors and we were able to design a dispenser that actually fit more motor inside than we thought we could and we were able to get the torque necessary to deal with these really sticky hers without any clogging or gumming up.
Matthew: Well that’s a great barrier to entry because people that are just like oh I’m going to throw a motor inside this cylinder and call it PenSimple cheap. They won’t be able to solve these problems as elegantly as you who obsessed over the details for years. So there’s some first mover advantage there for sure
Brian: Yeah I definitely agree with that. This is a very competitive space so really the higher barriers to entry you can have the better. So that technical barrier to entry is great. Now we’re sort of establishing a brand hopefully that will increase that even further.
Matthew: You were in the CanopyBoulder technology accelerator program. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about your experience there?
Brian: The CanopyBoulder accelerator for us was really an incredible experience. We were able to learn a ton about not only just the cannabis industry but just anything that you would need to know to get a strong business foundation in which to launch a startup. I mean I had some startup experience before and that helped, but the CanopyBoulder experience really kind of tied everything together and put us on a great foundation. It gave us a ton of knowledge and even better it connected us with the people that we needed to connect with to learn and to grow the business. We have a great lineup of advisors and mentors that Canopy connected with that have been incredible for our initial growth.
Matthew: So there’s a real challenge and opportunity when you’re creating a new market segment like you’re doing now in that you can have that first mover advantage and be first in a prospect’s mind when they understand what your product is, but they don’t have a category in their mind where they can neatly put this product so it requires education , and education is a friction point to getting a sale. So how do you surmount that challenge to educate prospects and get out in front of prospects so they become interested in PenSimple?
Brian: That is a really big challenge because for so long the idea of an her grinder has just been a multipiece hockey puck and it can be made of metal or acrylic or whatever, but pretty much if you say herb grinder the same sort of hockey puck image pops into somebody’s mind. So it has sort of definitely been tricky positioning the product as sort of a traditional herb grinder versus the dispenser and herb dispensing capabilities that we’re also offering. So sort of with our product positioning it’s been a very kind of touch balance between how much we want to be an herb grinder and then how much we can really push this new market and how much education is really required to get people understanding that there is this new market beyond just a grinder that can only grind.
Basically what we do at this point is we just have to ensure that we efficiently get our product benefits across to the consumers. If once we’re able to sort of establish in their minds why they would need the product, and that differs for all types of consumers, they really kind of understand and get it and their usual reaction is like oh my god I want that right now.
Matthew: Right. Actually the video on your website, to give you a plug there, is very good at that because what we’re talking about you might as a listener be thinking hey I can kind of conceptualize this but you did a really excellent job of framing what this is and showing what it is in a very simple way. Now the video on your website it’s like the grinder spits out perfect amounts in size of ground cannabis. I mean does it really look that picture perfect when it comes out or is it more variant?
Brian: So for our videos and all of our public facing things we have to use oregano and other more kitchen herbs so that we’re not having any actual cannabis in our promotions or advertising. That allows us a little bit more leeway in terms of marketing. But what it also allows us to do is still show exactly what the product does without breaking any laws in the process.
Matthew: Okay so any recommendations for someone that does go out and buy a PenSimple in terms of do you want it to be dry as possible or how do you want to the herb to be when you get it in there so it works ideally?
Brian: So I mean you obviously want the herb to be properly cured. If it’s not properly cured and is too wet, it won’t grind properly and then it will have a little bit more trouble dispensing. Really so long as the herb is properly cured. It doesn’t need to be super dry. It just can’t be not cured enough, but then it really can go through and deal with just about any herbs that are thrown at it.
Matthew: If there’s some entrepreneurs out there or founders that are thinking about starting something, they have an idea to scratch their own itch like you had and they’re on the fence whether they should start or not start, is there any words of wisdom you would give them about getting started or overcoming difficulties or just going forward?
Brian: Yeah I mean really the only thing you can do is start. I mean there’s no real substitute for actually doing it and actually getting things started. You can do some market research. You can do some competition research, but really until you’re actually going out there, finding, trying to build a team, trying to really cover your bases in terms of what you need to actually get this product to market, I would say just kind of getting out there and doing it is the only thing you can do.
Matthew: Yeah and solving a problem in my mind is usually always better than other forms of product creation because people are much more willing to throw money to solve a perceived problem in their mind so that’s always a good place to start is to solve a painful problem.
Brian: Yeah exactly. It does make things a lot easier when you’re able to propose a product to someone and they can kind of say oh well yeah I have this problem and that will solve it. It makes the sale much easier versus hey I can make your day slightly better. I can make a very small increase to your overall happiness levels, but really being able to put that product out there in front of them and say hey this will solve a problem you have. It may even solve multiple problems you have, really kind of gets their brain working and then they can start picturing themselves without having those problems and when they’re doing that, they’re sort of seeing the product in use which is what we want them to do.
Matthew: Now PenSimple is a young company but any thoughts about other products you want to create down the line or is it too early for that?
Brian: We definitely have some products in the pipeline behind PenSimple. They’re very sort of general at this point, but basically with all the sort of customer research and customer interviews we conducted with PenSimple we just hear about so many problems that people are having with the herb consumption experience. So basically we kind of want to follow up PenSimple with really just more products that solve these really basic problems in the herb consumption experience.
Matthew: Brian at this point in the interview I like to transition to some personal development questions to let the listeners get a better sense of who you are. Is there a book that has had a big impact on your life or way of thinking that you would like to share with listeners?
Brian: Yeah I mean really the one childhood book I can really remember that kind of inspired me was the Phantom Tollbooth. That was really a book that I loved as a child. It really got my creativity going. It really just kind of (20.49 unclear) this you’re on an adventure, make the most of the trip. Don’t just worry about where you’re going to end up, and I think that has been a really great book for me over the years.
Matthew: Very cool name too, Phantom Tollbooth. I’m going to go check that out. How about is there a tool web based or physical other than PenSimple that you love and consider totally invaluable to your day to day productivity?
Brian: I mean really there’s not just one. There’s just a lot of these tools to connect with different professionals and contractors and really just a whole set of tools that put a lot of power in the entrepreneur’s hand. So for example we use Upwork to connect with engineers and engineer contractors and Upcounsel to connect with lawyers. We use mfg.com for our manufacturing and really these sites are great because what they allow us to do is they allow us to post and say hey this is what we need and then a large amount of experts and people that can handle those requests then send us quotes and how much they can do for us and it gives us just a huge amount of choice between our engineers and our manufacturing that I can’t even imagine doing some of these things ten years ago without them.
Matthew: Yeah. What are some of the challenges when you’re doing manufacturing overseas? Any lessons learned there?
Brian: Really you just need to find somebody that you trust and can work with. We’ve had some problems with language barriers so having an overseas firm that has a very solid grasp of the English language and can understand get back to you very quickly is also very helpful. Really with overseas manufacturing what we found is just trying to minimize as many of the hurdles or communications has been the biggest help to us.
Matthew: And where is PenSimple and your company in terms of fundraising? Are you still seeking outside investment right now?
Brian: Yeah so we closed a $100,000 round a few months ago and that was to get the initial PenSimple product out into the market. We do plan on raising another round in about four to six months that will allow us to expand the PenSimple line further and then push through some of these other product lines we have on the backburner.
Matthew: And if there’s any investors listening that would like to participate in working with you on that, how can they reach you?
Brian: Yeah any investors that are interested, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matthew: Okay. And one more question before we close. I recently read an article about how the Midwest will have more technology startups than Silicon Valley in the next five years. You mentioned you’re from Columbus. There’s a lot of startups in Columbus. Is there anything you’re seeing or hearing about there that is inspiring you in terms of all the startups out there or is it still kind of in the incubation stage?
Brian: I mean while we were living out there, I mean especially in Cincinnati we were definitely seeing that they’re trying to increase their profile with startups and really just at the base of that it’s just having the resources that a startup needs to succeed, and I’ve seen that there’s been some sort of big venture funds that are now opening up. I believe there was a $300million fund that just opened up in Columbus. Really now that there is sort of more venture funding moving outside of the coast and towards the Midwest I think they can really grow that startup culture in the Midwest and I think that Ohio is very well-poised to do so.
Matthew: Yeah. Well Brian in closing, let listeners know how they can find you online.
Brian: You can find out more about PenSimple at www.getpensimple.com.
Matthew: Yeah and it sounds like you’re the guys that solve painful cannabis consumption problems. If people want to email you or Tweet you or contact you through your website and let you know the problems they’re having in consumption, would you welcome that?
Brian: Of course. If you have a problem consuming herbs, please let us know and if we’re not already looking into a solution for it, we will definitely start.
Matthew: Great. Well Brian thanks so much for coming on CannaInsider today. You have a really cool product with PenSimple and I wish you all the best.
Brian: Oh no thank you for having me so much, I enjoy listening to your podcast all the time.
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