Back to backs: Local designer grows brand from scratch

A background in fine arts, experience in construction and woodworking paired with an urge to make a faulty product better led one Cincinnatian to create a product that both tech geeks and celebrities love.

Like many smart-phone users, Adam Baumgartner, 29, had an iPhone with a glass back. It got dirty and broke easily, so he searched for back replacements and bezels (the front framing of the phone). Baumgartner wasn’t impressed with what he found, and decided he could build a better iPhone back.

His fine arts degree from DAAP, along with woodworking experience, gave Baumgartner the know-how to craft his own sturdier phone back. The first one took seven hours to make, but the result was a modified iPhone unlike any other. Baumgartner worked to refine the process: cut a piece of wood down to the needed thickness and shape, sand it, and seal it with Tung oil.

“I started really slow,” Baumgartner says. “The first sales were to my friends and my mom.”

Baumgartner and his first testers gave JackBacks, the name inspired by lumber jacks, rave reviews. Soon, he started working on branding and building a website for the versatile product that allows customers to send in their own images and receive a custom, laser-cut or computer-manufactured wooden iPhone back. Installation is simple, just unscrew the existing back and replace it with the wooden version. Over time, the natural oils from users’ hands actually polish the wood and make JackBacks look better.

He sold his first products in early December 2010, and JackBacks started to grow. Before long, JackBacks,made headlines on Mashable and Gizmodo. By this fall, Baumgartner had enough success with the venture to quit his day job as a digital media developer at Miami University and pursue a life he thoroughly enjoys. He now cranks out 20 products in four hours.

As he worked to streamline and perfect the JackBacks’ manufacturing process, Baumgartner used his uncle’s tools and sourced out the laser cutting to a professor he met while working at Miami. He also tested out many different kinds of wood. The first laser-cut piece he made featured his own logo, so it’s no surprise that much of his work now comes from companies that want to create their own customized iPhones for employees.

When it came to finding the best kind of wood for the job, Baumgartner started with what he knew best--walnut and mahogony. He had sculpted with them, and knew they could withstand being cut down to less than 1/16 of an inch. Now Baumgartner orders the wood at the exact thickness he needs.

He tried about a dozen types of wood types, but eventually settled on four that he finds the most pliable and resilient. New JackBacks are created using walnut, mahogany, or natural or amber bamboos.

Baumgartner is in charge of everything from advertising to manufacturing and shipping. He read books on advertising and online marketing to find the information he needed to sell JackBacks to the public. His business gained momentum when techie websites, including Gizmodo and Mashable, praised JackBacks earlier this year. Then Wired Magazine invited Baumgartner to Comic-Con 2011. As a retailer at Comic-Con, Baumgartner made dozens of sales, some to the likes of MTV execs and Arrested Development’s Tony Hale (a.k.a, Buster Bluth). The experience gave Baumgartner the confidence that he could make a successful business out of JackBacks.

In August, Baumgartner sold $8,000 worth of JackBacks, all out of his Clifton Heights apartment. He plans to continue with an online only business model for a while, but also expects JackBacks to be sold in some retail stores.

“I will never open a JackBacks storefront, it is a lot of overhead,” Baumgartner says. “I spend $0 a day.”

Instead, Baumgartner is working on new products, including a full body iPhone case. Last week, he received a prototype created by Such + Such, another local startup that operates out of the Losantiville Design Collective in OTR.

Such + Such had already made signage for Baumgartner’s Comic-Con trip, so he knew he could count on them to make a prototype. Such + Such created three different versions of the case. By Early 2012, Such + Such plans on having a production-ready prototype for Baumgartner.

“I like to keep it local,” Baumgartner says of his business plans. “It may be a little more expensive, but it’s is a lot more convenient to drive out to my laser cutter or ride my bike down to Losantiville and talk to them one-on-one.”

While outsourcing the cutting takes some of the workload of Baumgartner, he plans to hire local employees once his LLC is approved. Only one year after creating his first JackBack, Baumgartner couldn’t be happier that he took a chance when an opportunity arose.

“My life is completely changed,” Baumgartner says. “I’m a whole lot happier now. I’m very excited for the future.”

By Evan Wallis (Follow him on Twitter)
Photos by Scott Beseler
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