Meet The Makers: Denny Hamill of iFetch

From idea to product—The Bark talks to a successful start-up about getting the ball rolling
By The Bark, December 2019

Denny Hamill is the owner, CEO and co-inventor of iFetch, makers of automatic ball launchers that provide dogs the ability to play fetch to their heart’s content. The award-winning, family-owned company launched the iFetch from a highly successful Kickstarter program in 2013 and quickly gained media attention, sales and a host of fans. Their family of products now includes iFetch Too (for large dogs), iFetch Frenzy (featuring a more interactive design) and iDig (an interactive digging toy). Denny’s grandson, Grant Hamill, is credited as co-inventor of the product, who along with the family dog Prancer, helped inspire the iFetch concept.

The Bark: How did you come up with the idea for iFetch?

Denny Hill: We came up with the idea for iFetch when our miniature poodle, Prancer, wouldn’t let Grant do his homework because he insisted Grant play fetch with him. Prancer would drop the ball in his lap and then bark until Grant threw it. An exasperated Grant looked at me (a.k.a., his “bapa”) and asked, “Can we make a machine that will automatically throw the ball so I can get my homework done?” And the idea for iFetch was born. Wow, what a chain reaction this question set in motion! At this point in my career, I was approaching retirement after a 25+ year career as an executive at 3M. I also held a PhD in Physics, which certainly helped jump start the design process for a complex idea like this one. Add to the mix my very clever grandson, Grant, who loved understanding “how things work,” and we were a pretty formidable team. It really was that perfect union of the right idea at the right time.

The Bark: What were the main design-mechanical challenges?

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Denny: There were many design challenges. We developed early prototypes using HotWheels® tracks and other miscellaneous items as we tinkered. We then decided it was time to engage with a local industrial design firm to develop design options for the launcher, and then we chose the final concept. We also engaged with another product engineering firm in Austin to finalize the mechanical and electrical design, components and assembly in order to move to the manufacturing phase. Throughout the process, we created and filed patents and trademarks. It was truly a labor of love, and we had great partners along the way.

The Bark: What were some of the surprise problems or glitches that popped up along the way?

Denny: Out of the gate, we really didn’t have many glitches. Given my work experience, I knew how important it was to go through the proper product commercialization phases: Concept, Feasibility, Development and Scale-up, and we made pretty good choices. The downside is that it took much longer than we had anticipated. (So many details!) Once we started shipping products and receiving more customer feedback, we did discover a couple of surprise issues we had missed during the initial testing phase—slobber and sunlight. Prancer and our other dutiful testers didn’t slobber much, so we didn’t experience slobber causing the wheels that launched the ball to slip. We did come up with a temporary solution of having high slobber dogs use squash balls with the iFetch, which seemed to help. We’ve recently discovered a solution—a slobber proof ball for the iFetch Too. It’s a mix of foam and rubber that will launch consistently in the iFetch Too no matter the level of slobber. Check it out on our website here. Since we did most of our testing inside, we also didn’t know that sunlight could interfere with our optical switch until a customer in Florida wrote to us, so we’ve had to make some component changes along the way as well. Launching a product is not for the faint of heart!

The Bark: Please describe your product line—iFetch, iFetch Too and the iFetch Frenzy.

Denny: After the iFetch automatic ball launcher reached the market in 2014, we had many customer requests for a launcher for bigger dogs. The original iFetch used a mini tennis ball best for small to medium breeds. So, we set off making product #2—the iFetch Too—to launch a standard sized tennis ball, which started shipping in 2015. We designed both of the launchers to only launch one ball at a time because we wanted the toys to be interactive. There are long-lasting benefits of engaging a dog’s mind as well as his body, which has always been an important component of our product development strategy. We want our toys to provide both mental and physical stimulation in order to keep dogs healthy and happy. As we were manufacturing the iFetch Too, we came up with a great idea for a new twist on the game of fetch, and quickly developed the iFetch Frenzy, a non-electronic brain game that uses a mini tennis ball, which launched in 2016. Again, Prancer was our muse, as his desire to fetch his beloved blue mini tennis ball never wavered. With the Frenzy, gravity is what initiates the action—not a motor. The dog drops the mini tennis ball into the top of the Frenzy and gravity (coupled with our clever product engineering), feeds the ball down and out of one of the three openings at the bottom at random, creating a stimulating “surprise” for the dog as he waits for the ball to reappear. Believe it or not, our Prancer actually began preferring the Frenzy to the iFetch after a few weeks. He enjoyed the fast-paced nature of the game as he didn’t have to chase the ball across the room to start the fetch process over again. He just scrambled six or so feet to retrieve the ball as it rolled out of one of the Frenzy openings, and then dashed back to drop it in and start all over again. After a whirlwind of product launches over the course of a few years, we decided to take a break from product development for a little while before launching our new iDig digging toy line in late 2018. The iDig digging toys are the first-of-their-kind, designed specifically to channel a dog’s innate desire to dig. The iDig Stay features a compact, plastic base with three flaps containing pockets for hiding toys and treats. The owner loads the flaps and then encourages their dog to dig, root and forage for the treasure. The iDig Go is a collapsible, fabric version of the iDig Stay with the same flaps and similar design. When we launched the iDig last year, we had one of our customers say, “Ok. How did you know that my dog likes to dig in my clothes everyday? It’s like you are reading my mind!” Needless to say, we love getting customer feedback like that! Please visit our website to learn more about all of our products.

The Bark: I see that you funded your initial product via Kickstarter with resounding success, and then later funded your iFetch Too for larger dogs with another Kickstarter campaign. Can you talk about your experience crowdfunding for a product launch and, perhaps, the benefits?

Denny: In 2013, we heard about Kickstarter, a new crowdfunding platform. We thought it would be a good way for us to raise a little seed capital by getting sponsors to “pre-pay” for early product shipments, but, more importantly, it would also give us an idea of the market demand for a new product like this. We set an initial goal of $20,000 with a time period of 30 days. The response was humbling. We ended up raising around $90,000 and had over 1,200 backers! That was the encouragement we needed to continue our investment of time and money to bring the iFetch to market. We also turned to Kickstarter a year later to raise money (and interest) for the iFetch Too ball launcher. And, again, we received enthusiastic support from the Kickstarter community. We had just under 1,000 backers and raised over $100,000 in 30 days. Kickstarter confirmed that there was a market for our dog toys, and six years later our family is still in business and going strong. Kickstarter allows you to market your idea to a community of early adopters, giving you an initial reaction of how your product will be received by the greater consumer community. There is definitely pressure to fulfill the product shipments to these early backers, which was pretty stressful for us as we experienced some manufacturing delays early on. However, in the end, it was a great “gut check” for us before we spent more time and money on the idea.

The iDig digging toy

The Bark: Are there unexpected applications of the iFetch? Perhaps in training?

Denny: Yes! The iFetch is a great training aid for puppies and adult dogs. It makes us sad when we see press about how iFetch toys are for the “lazy dog owner.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth! You have to work with your dog to train them to drop the ball into the top of the ball launchers or Frenzy to initiate the action. Sure, many owners end up being the “dropper” (kids especially love this role), but that’s ok. Playing with the iFetch presents many opportunities for training. We have lots of training tips and videos on our website goifetch.com. Our lead trainer also does Facebook Live videos to field training questions so be sure to follow us on Facebook. Even if the dog hasn’t mastered the “drop,” they need to learn to stand and wait a proper distance away from the chute to avoid being hit by the launching ball. They also need to learn to retrieve and bring the ball back. All of these actions require the dog to use their mental capacity, which is so important for their health. With the iDig, they are using the brains to find the buried treasure. Engaged dogs are happy dogs. And happy dogs usually don’t display destructive behaviors. If dogs are destructive, it can almost always be attributed to boredom or anxiety. Our iFetch toys help with both.