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Katie Stephens

Episode 14: The Product Testing System Curriculum, with Katie Stephens

Katie Stephens is a problem solver by nature and training who likes to read fiction and bake cookies when she’s not playing around with Arduino. She has undergraduate and master’s degrees in Mathematics and spent many years teaching math at the high school, community college, and university levels. After some time at home raising kids, she started her own website design company and she now spends her time developing educational programming in the Austin area.

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Katie’s background
  • What MakeCrate is and why she started it
  • MakeCrate’s kits that teach electronics, engineering, and coding principles
  • Why Katie focused on having great instructions for her products
  • How Katie works with children to test her products
  • Her product testing system and curriculum
  • The best feedback her kid testers gave her
  • The difference between how MakeCrate does instructions and how other companies do them and how that separates MakeCrate from their competition
  • When MakeCrate will begin adding other countries and languages into their products
  • What gives Katie the most personal joy from her business
  • What’s next for Kate and MakeCrate
  • Building a community where people can learn and teach

Ways to contact Katie:


Welcome to System Execution, the strategy and system behind today’s successful companies. Systems can make or break your company, but here we’ll solve your physical, technological, and psychological systems issues by connecting you with experts that have succeeded in overcoming those challenges in their own business and providing you the guidelines and tools you need to implement those same strategies for immediate results. Now, here’s your host, Vera Fischer.

Vera: Welcome to System Execution, a podcast devoted to using processes and system to drive to a better outcome for your business. I’m Vera Fischer, your host. All businesses, no matter the size, relies on systems. Some of these are physical systems, such as a factory. Some are technological, like project management software, while others are psychological systems such checklists and organizational charts. Many of these systems will overlap in your business. Today’s guest, the founder of a startup STEM educational product company, MakeCrate, Katie Stephens will be talking with us about her product testing system.

A little bit about Katie. She’s pretty awesome. She’s a great problem solver by nature and training, who like likes to read fiction. She likes to bake when she’s not playing around with Arduino, and I’m hoping during this interview she’s going to tell us what Arduino is. Katie has an undergraduate and master’s degree in mathematics, and she spent many years of her career teaching math at the high school, community college, and university levels. After spending time at home raising her awesome kids, she started her own website design company. Now she’s spending her time launching her startup MakeCrate. Welcome to System Execution, Katie.

Katie Stephens: Hi, Vera. Thanks for having me. It’s really excited to be here.

Vera: Full disclosure to my listeners, Katie and I are colleagues and friends. Her experience is so inspiring and I’m so excited to have you here to share your experience with your product testing system. Tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself and really how you got started with this great company.

Katie Stephens: Sure. I have two kids who are makers by nature, and I live in a home that I like to refer to as nerdtopia because there is constantly something being put together, taken apart, built, revised in my home. I’ve watched this for years without really participating in it. My son is involved in a robotics club and it’s a pretty well-funded club at his school. I was in the classroom one day looking around at all the equipment that these kids had access to and listening to the teacher talk to them, and realizing just how lucky he was to be able to be a part of that. It triggered something in my mind. I’m not really sure, I just was in the right place in my life or what was going on, but I thought, “This is something that a lot of kids either don’t have access to or just are too afraid to start with because their parents don’t use it regularly like my kids’ parents do, or they don’t have a teacher that can introduce them to it.”

I thought, “That’s a problem that I can solve. I have all these years as a teacher. I know how to write curriculum. I’m familiar enough with these projects and products to be able to introduce them to kids who don’t have access to them.” I decided for some reason that that was a problem that I could solve and that I really wanted to solve, and so I spent a few months iterating on what that might look like and decided over that time that, given how popular subscription boxes are, that that might be a really great approach to take to this. I began by just buying a whole bunch of parts, one of which is that Arduino you talked about earlier, so I’ll discuss that a little bit. Arduino is what’s called a microcontroller, which means that it is a tiny, little computer that can only hold a single program at a time. The ones that we use are about the size of a deck of cards and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of sensors that can be attached to these.

You can write program to collect information from those sensors or relay information to those sensors in order to make them do things. A simple example is I was working just this morning with a photoresistor, so that’s a sensor that measures the amount of light that is around it. I was turning LEDs on and off based on the information that that sensor was getting. This is a great platform because the code that drives them is fairly simple. You can write programs to this thing to do really fun stuff like build a night light, like what I was talking about in Under 50 Lines of Code. Putting these things together and taking them apart can be done pretty easily with parts that are readily available.

I settled on a subscription model and began the process of developing a year’s curriculum around this product. Once I felt confident that I could do that, I opened a website and started selling it. That brings us up to about today, where we are, where I have a number of subscribers who are regularly building the product and also accessing the online community that I built where we have video content that teaches them how to write the code, how to use the product, how to build the items in their kits, as well as a form for questions and answers and places to put images of their projects once they built them, and things like that.

Vera: Katie, you and I have had some conversations in the prior months. I know that when you had hatched the idea, knowing that the ability for the younger generation to understand how to code and how to participate in that STEM education. For those of you that don’t know what STEM is, it’s science, technology, engineering, and math. You may have heard the acronym many times. Katie, you started with a product or an idea of some products. Is that right?

Katie Stephens: Yes. I started out with a notion that simple projects using these sensors would be fun for kids, and would also be a great vehicle for them to learn something about circuit design as well as how to write code.

Vera: How did you get started with putting the pieces and parts together to come up with those products and then moving on into testing them? Would they work? Would kids like them? How did all that come to bear?

Katie Stephens: Well, mostly via Google search. I just began looking up what kind of projects already existed. When doing that, it became really, really clear to me that this information’s actually fairly readily available, but what it isn’t is easily readable. There’s a lot of tutorials out there that, if you don’t understand how these things work or have any experience with them, would be completely intimidating. It became pretty clear to me through the process of trying to come up with projects myself that a key differentiator for any business doing this would be the clarity of the instructions. With that in mind, that’s really how I went into the product testing. I developed an initial set of instructions that made sense to me and had lots of pictures.

I think of, when you’re dealing with children, the gold standard of graphic instruction is Lego. They have these fabulous instructions that show a picture and a kid can build a universe based on these pictures. That is where my head was, but I’m an adult. I have a lot of experience with this. I can think through this logically a little more easily than an eight- or nine-year-old kid could. I put this original project together. It was a musical instrument, and I put it in front of a bunch of kids. I started watching and listening to them talk as they put it together and realized that there were a lot of really simple changes I could make to the instructions that would make the project a lot easier for them to build. That began to define my product testing regimen in that what I do is I come up with a project. I design an initial set of instructions based on how I built it. Then I put that in front of children. They attempt to build it and they talk to me through that process.

I actually now have a club of kids that I meet with regularly and they know they are the official MakeCrate product testing system team, and they feel really comfortable giving me feedback on what needs to be changed in the instructions, steps that maybe I want to change the order of, things like that. I take their initial feedback, rewrite the instructions, take it back and put it through another round of testing until we get it to a place where I feel really comfortable that what I’m sending into a consumer’s home is something that a kid can do and feel really successful with without a lot of frustration because, like I said, if you want to do these projects and you don’t mind being frustrated, there’s plenty of places to Google instructions that will do that for you. I really hope to introduce a new set of those to the whole concept of making people who might be intimidated by it in a way that allows them access to it without that frustration threshold because the instructions have been tested repeatedly and really are clear and concise.

Vera: Katie, give me some examples of feedback that the kids gave you. I’d love to hear some of it.

Katie Stephens: Okay. In my instructions, each page has both a word description and a picture that goes along with it. In my very, very first set of instructions, I had probably three written sets of instructions per picture. The original people who looked at it said, “I need more pictures.” The first change I made was to not have a single step of the instructions that did not have a picture that accompanied what the circuit should look like after you’ve completed that step. That was one really great piece of feedback that has filtered through all of the product development we’ve done since then. Another was the circuits are built on something called a breadboard.

It’s a little plastic, again about the size of a deck of cards. It’s got rows and columns of holes on it, and these allow you to make the connections for your circuit in a way that you an then take it apart and rebuild it without having to solder it or do anything that makes it permanent. Those columns and rows on the breadboard are labeled with numbers and letters. In my original set of instructions, I had essentially ignored the specifics of those labels because when I’m building it, I don’t need to know exactly which row it goes in. I know it can go virtually in any row and I can still build the thing successfully. There are a lot of kids that don’t get that, and that’s a really hard concept to explain in a set of written instructions. It became really obvious that getting very specific about the fact that the leg of the LED needed to go in spot H2 on their breadboard made the success rate significantly higher.

Vera: Katie, how many rounds did you have to do with your official product testing team at the first round of your products? How many rounds of changes?

Katie Stephens: The very first product, which is in what we call the started kit, is the one that has been vetted the most. By now, it’s probably been in front of about 700 children. We scale that back, obviously, for successive rounds because what happens is all of the things we’re finding out with that product are changes that translate through for every product. For instance, labeling the specific spots on the breadboard is now something that we do for every product. Another great example that we didn’t discover until probably the third round of test on that initial kits was when you wire up the breadboard, there’s a positive and a negative line on each side of that board. The initial sets of instructions had the power and ground next to each other on those boards. We got to a product testing, we were actually at the National Maker Faire and had kids trying this out.

We’d lost about five boards that weekend because kids were inadvertently plugging the power and ground into the same row, which causes the board to start to smoke. Nothing dangerous happens, but after smelling for their fourth time, I said, “We clearly have a problem that we haven’t addressed in our instructions and we need to figure out a way around that.” Now, as a result, every project gets wired to opposite sides of the board, so that even if they happen to put it in the wrong spot on the opposite side of the board, there’s no way for them to make the board smoke. Those products and those learning lessons have occurred with numerous kids. Now, subsequent products get tested at least twice, potentially three times before they ship to consumers.

Vera: How long did it take you to do that first kit, if you will, before you actually shipped it?

Katie Stephens: It took about six months to develop those instructions and get them thoroughly tested before I was comfortable sending them out to folks.

Vera: That’s really interesting. The product is fantastic, but really where the expertise comes into play is the ease of use of the instructions, if you will.

Katie Stephens: That’s exactly right.

Vera: I know through my experience with you, Katie, that you are steadfast in the quality and the rigor that you put your products through, but not all product companies are this way. Are you finding through the feedback you’re receiving that your product testing system is something that’s above and beyond, or is it a system that the big dogs use, if you will?

Katie Stephens: My experience has been that it really is a differentiator. We have had the product at a number of Maker Faires. If you’re not familiar with those, there’s a publication called Make Magazine that organizes these events across the country, and they invite makers. That’s everybody from people who are creating robots in their garage, to folks who make soap, to companies like mine that have a product that involves some kind of building or creating. They have them all over the country. Some are small, some are huge. I think the Bay Area Maker Faire gets about 130,000 attendees. The population at those are generally people who have some familiarity with the items that I’m working with. Parents who have seen things like this before or tried to do it with their children before have all remarked on the fact that the directions really are considerably clearer than what they’re seeing elsewhere.

While I can’t really speak to the process that someone else might be using to develop their instructions, it’s pretty clear that the end result is not of the same clarity, which would maybe indicate that the process is not quite the same. There’s a lot of companies that are just putting these pieces together in a box with a set of instructions that maybe have been translated from a different language not particularly well, and sending those out and ending up not being a really great invitation to becoming a maker to someone who hasn’t worked with them before.

Vera: That makes sense. I know as MakeCrate grows, as it will, it’s an incredible product line. How will you begin to implement the rigor of your instructions and, hopefully, eventually, into other languages? Have you thought about this yet?

Katie Stephens: Yes. I actually have had somebody contact me about that specifically. A woman that I met at one of these events indicated that she really thought that there could be some need for it. She’s originally from Hong Kong and she thinks that there’s a great need for something like this there, so she’s asked about figuring out how we might both translate it and get it fulfilled in different countries. Because I’m fairly new to this, just started shipping a couple of months ago, I haven’t quite tackled that, but it’s definitely in the front of my mind that it needs to be addressed soon. We also get a lot of requests for shipping to foreign countries. I think Australia has been a big one, interestingly enough, and the UK in particular. The fulfillment company that I work with is local and we are doing enough business right now to justify the additional shipping costs to places like that, but again, figuring out how to do that efficiently for both myself and my consumers is something that we’ll tackle early next year.

Vera: Out of the experience over the last year, getting the company up and starting, what part of this system has been really exciting for you? Which part have you loved the most?

Katie Stephens: Well, I really love the product development. It’s just fun to sit and play with these sensors and make new things happen. I mean, I get really goofy and my kids kind of roll their eyes with me as I’m clapping my hands at microphone sensors to make things happen, and putting sensors into all the plants around the house to see if they’re wet enough. That parts really, really fun. The other part that I absolutely love. I was in the classroom for a long time, and I’m currently not, and so I miss engagement with students. Getting to work with kids both at these Maker Faires and in my little testing group and see them respond to this thing that I’m trying to teach them has been really, really wonderful.

Virtually every part of it has been a learning experience for me. I don’t come naturally to marketing, so I think I have too much of an engineering brain to really embrace what’s involved in a full-fledged marketing effort. Learning all of that has been interesting and challenging for me. Figuring out how to procure and fulfill the product itself has been challenging. Really interesting, I’ve had a lot of great conversations around the most efficient ways to do that and continue to learn about the best ways to get the parts that I need and provide the instructions and then get it packaged and shipped out to customers efficiently has been exciting too. I have regular conversations now with a woman in China around when we’re going to get new parts delivered, so that’s really fun.

Vera: That is fun. That sounds exciting. As I’m thinking through your product testing, there’s two elements that I think really stand out that have made you very successful. The first is you already had the experience of writing curriculum for all of the teaching that you’ve done. That definitely prepared you for writing instructions, obviously. Going out and testing your product in a real world environment filled with your actual consumers, not the people that were going to pay for it, but the people who are going to use it. I think in this age group, the eight-, nine-year-olds and up, that’s a big differentiator, rather than trying to go to the people that they’re actually paying the bill.

Katie Stephens: I think that’s very true. I think both from a consumer perspective, kids actually getting to realize how fun it is, and from a provider perspective, getting to see the mistakes that those specific kids are going to make. Because they’re really different than how an adult approaches a product like this. I think that was helpful, but I think at the same time a lot of the testing and revealing this thing to consumers has occurred in an environment where it’s the kids using it, but it’s the parents watching them use it. The parents are generally there and a big part of recognizing to me that this has a tremendous value is watching parents see their kids get something that they’re never gotten before, understand a concept or create something that they’ve never … and watch parents see the fun that their kids are having and have them understand that this is a valuable experience. It’s two fold for me in terms of the product going live and seeing the reaction to it.

Vera: Well, I’ll tell my listeners that I did see Katie at the Austin, Texas Maker Festival. I observed the kids in her booth. It is just, they do the task, they flip the page in the instruction booklet. It’s just as fast as you can keep up with them. They get so excited, their face lights up. I’ve seen it firsthand and it’s very impressive. Very impressive.

Katie Stephens: Thank you.

Vera: Well, Katie, with everything that’s going on and you’re refining that product testing, tell our listeners what’s next.

Katie Stephens: I think what’s next is getting the word out to folks, making people aware that this thing exists and that their kids can have a blast with it, and growing our subscriber base. I’m particularly excited about this community that we’ve developed. A lot of subscription products, what comes in the box is what you get, and this extends beyond that. Part of that is, by design, kids have to go to our website in order to either get the code to run their project or learn how to write the code to run their project. I’m really hoping that as the subscriber base grows that that community itself becomes a place where kids and adults are posting their successes, are asking each other questions. I would love to see a time when I’m not the one who has to help people through the sticking points, that other consumers are able to do that.

This is a product that, as kids become more successful with it, they get to do things with it that didn’t come in the box. For instance, I was talking to a user whose son was working on a project by with he was driving an LED and a buzzer using a button. That’s the project as it comes out of the box, to turn the LED on and off by using the buzzer. He decided, after he was successful with that, that he wanted to … The way it works, as written, is you press the button. As you’re holding the button down, the lights are on and the buzzer’s on. When you release the button, they’d go off. He said he wanted to change it so that when he pressed the button, the lights came on and off and it didn’t turn off again until he pressed the button again. I hope I’ve explained that clearly.

Vera: You did. You did. I got.

Katie Stephens: He wanted to take the parts that I sent him in his box and use them for a completely different purpose. This is the thing that gets me really, really excited about what I’m doing is that there’s genuine learning that can happen and kids can take these things and recreate them, and do something they’ve never done before. I want the community to be a place for them to celebrate those moments as well to say, “Look what I did with this thing. Isn’t this cool,” and have people respond to it. In order for that to happen, and in order for the company to grow and be successful, we need to build that subscriber base. That’s really where upcoming efforts will focus.

Vera: Well, I’d love to have you back in a few months and visit with you about growing that community. I think that process would be very interesting to our listeners.

Katie Stephens: Great. I would love that.

Vera: Wonderful. Katie, why don’t you tell us the best way that our listeners can connect with you?

Katie Stephens: Sure. Our website is www.makecrate.club. Also on Facebook at MakeCrate, and on Twitter and Instagram @MakeCrate. All of those are great ways to communicate with us.

Vera: Wonderful. Thank you so much. System Execution fans, no matter how many notes you took or how often you re-listen to this episode, the key is every successful business uses system to drive to a better outcome. Katie, thank you so much for sharing you expertise to our listeners today.

Katie Stephens: Thanks for having me.

We hope you found this episode of System Execution on product testing systems to be enlightening. For free examples, case studies, e-books, and more, be sure to visit systemexecution.com/resources. Contribute to the conversation by reaching out to Vera directly on email at vera@systemexecution.com. Until our next episode, thank you for the privilege of your time.




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