Jeff Sheldon started Ugmonk as a T-shirt store, but now he wants to make it into something much bigger. But he knows that hardware is difficult.
Some people know about Jeff Sheldon’s desk. You might have even seen it before: Sheldon is the founder and CEO of a high-design shop called Ugmonk. A few years ago, he uploaded a few photos to Unsplash. Since then, more than 400 million people have looked at his ultra-clean setup, which is full of natural wood and white colors. Even though it’s an Ikea hack, he’s been asked where he obtained his sleek monitor stand for a decade. Sheldon’s home office is in a suburban area of Pennsylvania. The desk is in the corner of a sunny room with so many windows and trees right outside the windows that people sometimes ask if he lives in the jungle.
On the day I meet Sheldon, it’s a bright, hot day near the end of summer, and he’s looking at that desk from the other side of his home office. He’s wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, and a soccer injury has left him with a slight limp. His workspace looks fine—maybe a little cleaner than usual, and Sheldon just spent a few minutes making sure all the accessories were at perfect 90-degree angles. But just a few feet away, there are a few people and a big pile of camera equipment. Two of them slowly and steadily move a makeshift dolly with a red camera on it toward the desk as Sheldon walks in and sits down. At the end of the shot, Sheldon is hard at work, and his dog Pixel is lying on a bed just a few feet away.
The crew is here to make a video for Ugmonk’s latest Kickstarter project, which is called Gather and is a line of desk accessories. Gather’s unofficial mission statement is that it’s okay to be messy, but it should be easy to clean up. Sheldon has young children, and he seems to always be fighting between his minimalist and fussy designer tendencies and the simple truths of life. Gather is, in a way, just a set of beautiful containers, like a wooden pen holder, a padded phone stand, a metal bin for business cards and other small things, and a monitor stand with a slot for your papers. Even if things aren’t always where they belong, there is a place for everything.
Gather is also the most complicated, ambitious, and hard thing that Sheldon has ever made. The first time he tried to make these kinds of products, things didn’t go as planned. This time, all of the pieces are of the highest quality and cost the most. Sheldon looks up to designers like Dieter Rams, Saul Bass, and Paul Rand, and he wants to make things like the classic Eames chair. Sheldon wants them to be “definitely heirloom quality,” even though they might not be heirloom desk accessories. Ugmonk wants to make things that last as long as you need them to in a world full of cheap junk and planned obsolescence.
Sheldon is obsessed with the details of the shot while the crew is resetting and director Jon Rothermel watches the footage on a monitor in the hallway. He notices that the clocks on his computer and wall are not the same. Will anyone notice? He’s also worried about how many cables are visible, how the desk shakes when he sits down, how the sun hits his face when he leans slightly forward, and, oops, Pixel just left. Before Sheldon and Rothermel are happy with this shot, which will be the very important beginning of the Kickstarter video, they do five takes of it.
After a lot of close-up shots of Sheldon’s desk and the things on it for a few minutes, there is a big change. Almost everything in those photos that went viral is gone and has been replaced with gathered parts. This includes the Ikea-hacked monitor stand, the phone holder, and the different bins and containers for all of Sheldon’s stuff. Sheldon has been working on a new set of desk accessories for years, but he hasn’t upgraded his home office, which is where it all began, until now. Since he started Ugmonk to sell T-shirts, his home office and desk show evidence of more than a decade of work. With a few new pieces, he has just moved into a new time period.
Maybe I’m making too much of what’s going on. But after spending time with Sheldon, I’m sure he felt the same way. Gather means a lot more to him than just a bunch of desk accessories.
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Sheldon established a side company in 2008. Vermont design firm employed him full-time. He had little money and work due to the recession. He enjoyed Threadless, Woot, and DesignByHumans T-shirt design contests in college. He eventually won.For $500, they promised to ship five shirts. When Sheldon started winning more and landing jobs, he understood how unjust this was. “”They have all the rights to my painting, and they’re making all the money by printing 5,000, 10,000, or 15,000 shirts,” he explains. With a $500 check.”
Sheldon was sure that people would like his designs, so he decided to sell the shirts himself. He borrowed $2,000 from his dad, set up a store on the Big Cartel platform, made some new designs in his signature minimalist style, had them printed on 200 American Apparel T-shirts, and started selling his stuff in forums and online. He named his shop Ugmonk, which is a meaningless word that Sheldon doesn’t want to explain because he’s afraid people will be disappointed with how boring the story is. He did this mostly because he didn’t want to call it something like “Jeff’s T-Shirt Designs.” Most of the shipping was done by him and his wife, and a lot of the inventory was kept in his parents’ basement.
In 2017, Sheldon decided to take a bigger risk and start from scratch with a new product. He wanted a place to put his phone and somewhere to keep his pens. All he needed was a simple organizer that he could stick behind his keyboard. So, he made a small, modular set and called it Gather. He then started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for it. Sheldon wanted to get about $18,000 in preorders from the campaign, but he got $430,960 instead. He says it was a big enough deal that the people who make Shark Tank called, but Sheldon had to tell them no because he hadn’t made the product yet.
This seemed like a good problem to have at the time. Sheldon even made Gather its own brand with its own website because he thought it might be bigger than Ugmonk and could eventually take its place. He thought that Gather could go to Target.
Sheldon wanted to take advantage of the interest in Gather and fill all those orders, so he went to a company in Texas that had a factory in China. He quickly figured out how to make a lot of the same thing. “We injected-molded the parts,” he says. That means parts cost less than $1, while moulds cost $20,000–$30,000.That meant there would be no small orders, no tests, and only big orders. It turned out that the factory in China had never worked with wood before, and the first models that came back were warped, crooked, and just not up to Sheldon’s standards. So, he told his contact in Texas what he thought. His contact in Texas then told China what he thought, and a few weeks later, he got more products. Rinse and do it again and again. for weeks.
Sheldon thinks that 30 percent of the products he sent to Kickstarter backers had to be replaced in the end, even after all the back and forth. Most people liked the product, and Sheldon eventually sold all of it, but too much of it didn’t meet his standards. He had more than one thought about just giving up on the whole plan. He says now, “I was so far away from the process.” I should have gone to the factory, but I didn’t. I wasn’t the one who was talking. I would just wait until pictures or models came to my house. He decided right then that if this was what it took to be a big Target brand, he didn’t want to be one.
In the tech industry, “Hardware is hard” is a common saying, and for good reason. Many companies have made and sold cool prototypes, only to find that there is a huge difference between making one product and making 100, and an even bigger difference between making 100,000 products. Sheldon kept learning this lesson as he went along. One of his first batches of shirts couldn’t be used, which he says taught him a valuable lesson: “how to eat costs.” As the stakes got higher, he realised that the only way to get what he wanted was to take much more control over the process and try to make a few great things instead of a lot of bad ones.
Even that turned out to be harder than it seemed. Sheldon decided to think smaller and more locally when he made his next product, a paper-based productivity system called Analog, which was also a hit on Kickstarter. He hired a printer in Indiana to make the cards because he thought that working close to home would help. Not at all. There were just too many orders, and because of that, the quality went down. Sheldon had to throw away most of what he made, but he kept a few of the things that didn’t work so he could remember how things really work. But then, through a friend, Sheldon met a woodworker in Pennsylvania who grew up working in his Amish father’s furniture business and later started his own. Sheldon recalls, “They saved us from the Analog Kickstarter by replacing all the bad ones and putting us in touch with the Amish and Mennonite groups.”
In the tech industry, “Hardware is hard” is a common saying, and for good reason.
Sheldon says that analog makes up about 80% of Ugmonk’s sales. This means that Analog is now Ugmonk’s most popular product. But he always thought about Gather. He still wanted to make desk accessories, and he had lots of ideas for new parts. He found an industrial designer, Jack Marple, who agreed to help him figure out how to design and make desk accessories in a more local, predictable, and high-end way. They started sending each other 3D-printed prototypes and reaching out to more shops and fabricators in their area.