Bill Karas isn’t your typical biker. Yes, he’s got the type of facial hair that would make ZZ Top proud. He’s even got his own custom shop where he can build you anything your bike or hot rod needs.
But behind all the facial hair, metal music, and hot rod loving exterior, Bill Karas and his crew at Karas Kustoms have found something far more exciting and lucrative than building hotrods: making iPhone cases.
How does a group of bikers go from building custom steering columns to iPhone cases? It was pretty much a compete accident, but it starts with a pen and Kickstarter.
When Bill Karas opened Karas Kustoms back in 2009, he never expected he would be building custom iPhone cases. Instead, he intended on building custom-to-order parts for car enthusiasts in the Phoenix area… work that pays well, but is extremely repetitive.
One day in 2010, the daily grind of “building a mountain of steering columns over and over” got one of Karas Kustoms’ employees, Dan Bishop, thinking of a way out. Having recently read about a Kickstarter project for a pen that received over $200,000 in early funding, Dan wondered if Karas Kustoms could do something similar.
“We decided we needed to do something crazy and make an iPhone 4 case. The only problem was, none of us owned an iPhone.”
“When I approached Bill with my idea, he said ‘What do I care about pens for?’” Bishop recollects. But the $200,000 sum was too large for Bill to ignore. Eventually, a deal was struck: if Bishop could earn $3,000 on Kickstarter with his own pen design, Karas would allow him to spend more time on outlier projects.
Bishop did better than that: his Kickstarter project funding closed at $70,000. Karas Kustoms’s Kickstarter business had been born.
Hot off the success of their pen, the crew at Karas Kustoms started to explore other ideas. “We decided we needed to something crazy and make an iPhone 4 case. The only problem was, none of us owned an iPhone,” recalls Bishop.
Using schematics provided by Apple, Dan setout to create a unique iPhone case that embodied the Karas Kustoms culture.
“There were so many other cases on the market that all looked the same. We wanted to show off the machining that we were doing here in the shop, so we wanted it to ‘look’ machined,” says Bishop.
Before the success of their pen, the company had tried to make a case for the iPhone 3GS, but had a hard time selling units because it was bulky and hard to manufacture. Encouraged by the success of his pen designs, Dan wanted to design an iPhone case that could take a beating, while still having a minimalist design. “Our iPhone cases are tough, and they’re still smaller than say, an Otterbox Defender. They just have a very different look,” claims Dan.
The design of the iPhone 4’s antenna required Dan to come up with a solution made of metal that would protect the iPhone without bridging the metal sections of the phone and cause signal loss and dropped calls. The end result was a case that solved the same problem as Apple’s iPhone bumpers that were given away to satisfy angry customers.
“Apple gave away millions of free bumpers. Our case solved that problem but it holds up better. You can literally take our case to a belt sander and it will be fine.”
Weeks of prototyping and production tweaks culminated with a final prototype, but because no one at the shop had an iPhone, Bill and Dan couldn’t even tell if their case was going to work.
Dan called up a friend who had just bought the iPhone 4 and “practically bribed him to bring his iPhone to the shop” so they could test their case. It fit perfectly.
While Dan Bishop is no Jony Ive, you can see the passion he has for his design work. “I never thought I’d graduate college and then go into making iPhone cases, but that’s the way it’s worked out,” he says. And he’s getting pretty good at it. With each successive prototype you can see how much metal was literally stripped away from the old design. His latest creation, the Alloy 5 iPhone case, is an elegant metal cage that looks drastically different than the metal brick iPhone 3GS case that originally inspired it.
“What I’m most proud about with these cases, is they’re an American product. All the work and materials is done right here in Phoenix,” says Bill. “We needed some injection molded fixtures, and could have bought them a lot cheaper from China, but we found a shop down the street in Mesa, that can make them for us. Same thing with our anodizing process. The entire case is a handmade American product.”
Eventually, Bill bought a used iPhone off Craigslist to use in promotional pictures for the cases. The cases became a hit. The shop was flooded with orders. Even celebrities like Robert Griffin III were ordering them.
“What I’m most proud about with these cases, is they’re an American product. All the work and materials is done right here in Phoenix,”
Once the iPhone cases became a success, things at Karas Kustoms changed in a big way. “For one, almost everyone here has an iPhone now,” laughs Dan. But it’s also meant that the company’s focus has changed from cars to tech. Dan’s been promoted from slaving away as a machinist, to being the companies Lead Designer/PR Guy/Customer Service/Web Designer. And Bill is now looking for more ways to jump into the tech space with little ideas blossoming around the shop.
Over the last two years, the Karas Kustoms shop has morphed from a custom body shop into an industrial tech accessories studio. “A lot of it wouldn’t have happened without Kickstarter, “ explains Bill. “It’s the perfect platform for us to test an idea, see if we can make money off it, and then turn around two months later with thousands of units to sell.”
There are more projects in the works too, like a Lightning iPhone Dock, speedsters, toy tops, salt and pepper shakers, pens, more iPhone and iPad cases, and they’re still making hot rod parts too. If you ask Bill if this was all part of the plan, he’ll tell you no. But when you look at how iPhones, iPads, and other gadgetry have invaded mainstream culture, it’s only natural for more ‘blue collar’ type businesses to join in. And some bikers from Phoenix got sucked in too.