2020 – A Year in Review
It goes without saying that the end of this year can’t come soon enough. There’s only a few days left, but 2021 still seems like it’s a long way off. So as we take some time to take a look back at this year and recap the highs and lows of a Karas 2020, we’ll try to keep it as positive as possible.
We go into every year with a fairly aggressive plan in terms of product development, production schedules, R&D schedules, release calendar, etc. and this past year wasn’t any different. I distinctly remember the planning phase and how quickly we filled up one sheet of paper with plans and moved on to a second. I remember the first six months of 2020 in my Google calendar be a wash of colored bars covering everything from potential releases, anniversaries to celebrate, sticker ideas, pen shows, meet ups, and sales. But even as the last few days of 2019 wound down, there was a sense of unease as I messaged back and forth with acquaintances in Hong Kong and Singapore and started to headline watch for news of some new illness popping up in China.
We forged ahead with big plans for our INK V2 release, the finalization of our new website, a major production increase in the Vertex pens, and numerous other projects being added to the work calendar. It became apparent rather early on that we’d need to be flexible with almost all of our 2020 plans as deadlines morphed into projected release weeks then into targeted monthly ETAs. By the end of February, we’d successfully accomplished about 25% of our plans and shifted the entire calendar out by three months. We figured it was a safe, incremental adjustment that would allow us to get back on schedule. We had no idea that March through May would completely derail our plans.
We had multiple employees fall ill in late February and March, before known spread of Covid had hit Arizona. Those employees were out for weeks at a time and though they were back to work by mid-March their recovery was slow and progressed into April and May. Like much of the country, major closures and restrictions hit Arizona in mid-March with a statewide stay at home order starting March 30th. Luckily we were able to continue operation with some changes to how employees worked in our space, increased cleaning, closing our shop to the public, and a few other added precautions.
By now all of our targeted release dates were pretty much thrown out the window. We were fully in adapt-and-overcome mode. Throughout April we contacted our partners in different industries to ascertain how much we’d be impacted by supply chain logjams or closures, industry closures and lockdowns in other countries, and projected planned collaborations that would need to be scrapped or moved. When it came down to it, these areas became our biggest roadblock to getting our calendar back on track.
Numerous historic anniversary releases were scrapped altogether because we were unable to source companion products or marketing material. We began sourcing stickers from multiple smaller suppliers as our main source moved all of their production to work on PPE production. We proactively pushed back the release of the next Karas Pen Club coin to January 2021 due to the uncertainty of getting new art completed and the coins finished in June 2020. Our planned Vertex production increase stalled then stopped completely, and when we were finally able to get back on it we ran into major quality control problems that forced us to explore other avenues to accomplish our goals.
In late 2018, we’d outsourced our website development and relaunch to a company that seemed to have their ducks in a row. Our initial talks with them and early development phases were extremely promising. They started missing deadlines in mid-2019, and our launch date moved from pre-holiday 2019 to early 2020. In early 2020 it became nearly impossible for them to get any work done on our website at all. Phone calls went well, but weekly deadlines past with zero changes to the new website. Eventually we made the call to move on to a freelance web developer here in Arizona, and in May were able to launch a very stripped down version of our planned website. Needless to say it’s still a work in progress, but it’s coming together bit by bit.
Those were just the highlights, but it became a daily task to walk in to work and immediately check to see what had gone off track since the prior day. It’s always felt like we do a good job juggling things around and being successful at reacting to uncertainty, but this year takes the cake. It was a complete effort from our entire staff and not something I’d like to have to tackle again, but I can honestly say we did a great job coming together and doing our best.
So what did we actually accomplish this year?
To start off with we dipped our toes in the “new material” area when we released the INK V2 in bronze for the Pony Express release. Though it was released later than the actual anniversary, the pens came out amazing, the corresponding material showed up looking great, and customers had nothing but positive feedback on the updates to the pen and the bronze addition in general.
Though the website is still a work in progress, and we’re learning it on the fly; I can honestly say that from our end it will allow us to do a LOT more than we’d been able to do in the past. It’s far easier for us to create product pages than our previous platform. As we get it more uniform, the entire page will be more what Bill Karas envisions when we started working on a website update. We’re working on adding functional gift cards, full integration with our newsletter, quick access products for our top-sellers, and a variety of other functions that were never possible in our previous platform.
We successfully prototyped changes to the Retraktable pencil product that take it from a concept to a working product. The production run of Retraktable and Retraktable Slim pencils has already begun, and we’re hopeful that the first production variants will be available in spring 2021.
Another shop expansion occurred this year with two new machines being added that will allow us to manufacture more pens and pencils. While these additions were taking place, Bill and Josh were also able to implement some new standard operating procedures to shorten some production times and increase our “straight-off-the-machine” quality thus reducing our post-machining processing times.
We sent out two more batches of SWAP program pens to schools around the nation. Over 800 students received pens this past year in 12 different states. We continued to accept new applications from teachers this year despite the upheaval to schools in most states. We made some plans to incorporate notebooks and pencils into the SWAP program in the future, and we’ve been compiling a list of partners that want to collaborate in providing items for students in future SWAP batches.
We successfully wrapped up the R-Type and BMX Inspired special releases this year with some awesome additions that put a great cap on those series. Completed an unofficial set of “man-of-iron” inspired pens. Paid homage to Bugs Bunny, Paul Revere, Pac-Man, Roswell, The Space Force, and several other cultural and historic icons. Had a full slate of Vertex Special Releases go off without a hitch (for once). And started our current cryptozoology inspired series Karas Kreepers that will be our most expansive special release series to date.
We wrap up 2020 extremely grateful to have been able to overcome a rather challenging year. The safety and employment of the Karas Team became even more paramount this year than it usually is. We’ve been fortunate to have weathered Covid with all of our employees healthy despite a few cases of Covid. The few team members that moved on this year did so to explore other opportunities, and we’ve been lucky enough to bring on some quality people to fill open positions.
Looking back it’s an understatement to say this year was a rollercoaster. I’m not sure the English language has the right descriptor for 2020. Maybe Tiger King was just a portent of how bizarre this year would end up. We’re just grateful to still be here. Coming to work, making quality writing instruments, and interacting with a really amazing group of fans and customers. We’ve got BIG plans for the year ahead (I wasn’t going to say it but it wouldn’t be a yearly recap without it), and we’re excited to start this adventure with you. Hopefully, it will be a less bumpy road in 2021, but we’ll strive for quality and success regardless of the circumstances.