Even a well-conceived, uniquely designed product with universal appeal can still benefit from improvement. This is especially true with artisanal handmade products, like a handmade back scratcher, that requires skill and workmanship to produce.

A prototype is rarely a masterpiece – it's a conceptual design that improves as the maker creates successive copies. An actual example, from concept through production, is my ItchThatBitch back scratchers. The original idea came from the design of the old-fashioned fly swatter – a twisted wire with a piece of screen or, later, plastic mesh on the fly-smacking end. The thought was that several wires twisted together would make a decent back scratcher. The idea was not to make the best back scratcher in the world (though it now is), but to make a funny and useful Christmas stocking stuffer for my three grown children.

As an avid do-it-yourselfer, I am proficient at many handy man household tasks. I learned these skills on my own, before the era of YouTube and with only a few “how to” books to guide me. But when I started making backscratchers, I quickly realized that proficiency does not always equate to mastery, and it doesn't guarantee truly professional results.

I bought a roll of galvanized steel wire at the hardware store, and using a common shop vice and vice grip pliers, twisted the wires to form the original ItchThatBitch backscratchers. They were kind of rustic, but also kind of cute - and most importantly they really, really worked. The family encouraged me to make more and try to sell them online or at craft shows, but I was pessimistic. I really felt the design needed more – something to set it apart from cheap disposable imports.

A year later, while still procrastinating and not much further along, I considered making a backscratcher out of long-lasting stainless steel, so it would be unbreakable. I made up a prototype, added the numbered ID tag and wrote up a lifetime warranty, and decided on a name I thought would be memorable: ItchThatBitch.

It took another five months to get a web site built, write product descriptions, take photos, and go live. In retrospect, I wasn't really ready, but if you wait till you are, you'll probably never start. I was soon breaking even and happy about that, but our review services were sending some negative feedback about the backscratchers being too bendy and even too scratchy.

It's a real wake up to get a product complaint, especially since I'd received good reviews so far. But I was listening. I started using a heavier stainless steel wire with a polished finish. I also switched to jewelry-grade brass and copper wire trim. In addition, I made small but important changes to the manufacturing process and began including a small piece of wire file with each purchase. All this resulted in a sturdier, easier-to-use backscratcher, and a way for customers to adjust “scratchiness.”

The favorable reviews went up, and something else happened, too. After making close to 100 ItchThatBitch backscratchers, the handle and fingers were more uniform and the models with wire wrapping had neater, tighter coils. Now I regularly get feedback from customers that appreciate my product for being “well made” and “professional.” My now multi-year process of creating, making and continually refining and improving ItchThatBitch backscratchers has made me especially appreciative of professional artisans, craftspeople and jewelers.

I’ve learned that even though the original design needed improvement and the original fabrication was less than perfect, something now exists that otherwise would not. Along the way I went from apprentice to master of a narrow niche: the best back scratchers in the world!

Bill Grant

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