“It’s a little a little complicated story, ”says Adam Leeb with a laugh. The story that landed the Astrohaus in Detroit twice is a bit tangled, certainly. The hardwre startup co-founder and CEO isn’t the kind of city cheerleader you often come across when chatting with executives who have chosen to keep their organizations out of cities like San Francisco or New York.
A native of suburban Detroit, Leeb co-founded the company in Motor City in the fall of 2014 with Patrick Paul. Astrohaus’s first – and best-known – product was born with the aim of providing users with a “distraction-free writing experience”.
“I’m not even a writer,” Leeb says of the product’s creation. “What interests me about the product – what motivated me – is yes, it’s a question of writing, but the most common of all things that interests me is more the process. and productivity. It’s something that fascinates me. And make things easier that you don’t mind and really fun to use. “
Leeb, a mechanical engineering graduate from MIT and Philips, a Michigan state graduate and software developer met through the Detroit startup community and got to work prototyping a word processing device. that offered the benefits of the modern, without the kind of distractions inherent in computers and tablets that writers today know all too well.
The young company introduced itself to the world via Kickstarter, launching a campaign in 2014.
“The Hemingwrite combines the best features of all previous writing tools with the addition of modern technology,” the company wrote. “It’s dedicated like a typewriter, has better keyboard and battery life than your computer, and is distraction-free like a word processor. Finally, we sync your documents to the cloud in real time so you never have to worry about saving, syncing or backing up your work. “
The product was greeted with enthusiasm and a few soft (and not-so-sweet) ribs, including a review that called it a “pretentious absurd hipster”) on a $ 500 reinvention of the typewriter. The crowdfunding community has gone wild, with nearly $ 350,000 raised. In June 2015, the product was renamed.
“We are updating our brand with a more demonstrative name that no longer ties us to the personality of a certain famous writer,” the company wrote in a Kickstarter update in June 2015. Two months later, Astrohaus has moved to New York.
“I couldn’t wait to leave. I didn’t know how we were going to be successful in Detroit, ”said Leeb. “There isn’t much of a material scene and my connections were mostly in New York City. I pushed Patrick – we had raised the money and we went, so I was like, ‘let’s move to New York’. There is definitely more than one material scene and we were definitely a part of it.
Once again, life intervened. Philips left the company and Leeb married Kacee Must, a Detroit resident – and owner of the local yoga chain, Citizen Yoga. In 2018, he found himself building Astrohaus in the city where he began his life. Three years later, the team is still quite thin, with five full-time employees in Detroit and a more distributed team of contractors.
Leeb’s feelings about launching a hardware startup in Detroit are clearly mixed. He laments the difficulty of recruiting and finding funding locally, while acknowledging a sense of local cheerleading that is truly found in big cities. “With these small ecosystems, you really get to know people everywhere,” he says. “Everyone is so accessible. As far as I’ve ever been, the businesses in Detroit are really cheering each other on. There is so much pride in Detroit.
For all the talk of returning manufacturing to Detroit, Leeb says he has had little luck in his quest to get the Freewrite and subsequent products created in the United States.
“There’s a whole other world of high-tech manufacturing startups out there that definitely reap a lot of benefits from being in a manufacturing hub,” he says. “I think for software companies and for us it’s not that good. We make our products in China and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I have good relationship with our factories and spend a lot of time in China. This is what they are moving towards. They make consumer electronics. “
Leeb says he has found the nonprofit Venture for America, founded by Andrew Yang, to be a useful source of recruiting locally. In the years since Astrohaus launched, impressions of the city changed dramatically from a depressed byproduct of the boom and rust belt collapse to a viable place to start a business.
“Over the past 10 years, there is a huge difference in the city,” says Leeb. “[Quicken Loans cofounder] Dan Gilbert almost single-handedly brought the city back. There are a lot of people who hate him, but the reality is, even though he wasn’t the city’s billionaire, he’s the only one who invested heavily in Detroit. He regrouped all his suburban offices and put them downtown and he convinced all these companies to do the same.
The Covid-19 pandemic will undoubtedly continue to have repercussions, as remote working becomes the norm for many or most tech outlets. While hardware startups always have a compelling reason to keep things together, as companies develop and test products. For his part, Leeb says Astrohaus’s next device aims to address concerns about remote collaboration.
“I’m starting very aggressively to work on a new material product that is also collaboration and communication,” he says. “It used to be a problem, and now it’s such a pervasive problem that I feel like we lack communication. There is a lot to do there. I don’t feel as connected as we could be, even with the technology we have.