The crowdfunded product problem with PopSlate as an unfortunate case study

I’ve go in involved in a few crowdfunded products and some of them have worked out but the majority haven’t. The latest example was the high profile e-ink phone cover PopSlate. PopSlate got over $1 million dollars of funding and was widely covered by the media.

“popSLATE 2 is E-Ink for your iPhone done right.” – Slashgear

“It’s an evolution, not merely refinement.” – Wired

Generally I’ve found that they tend to fail for three (non-criminal) reasons:

  • They underestimated the cost or complexity for batch manufacture of items. They have problems with getting tooling moulds to work and have to go through iterations that burn up cash
  • They get gazzumped; their product is sufficiently easy to make that Chinese manufacturers who go through Indiegogo and Kickstarter for ideas get the product into market faster
  • The engineering is just too hard. This seems to have been the problem for PopSlate who couldn’t innovate and get their product into market as fast as new phones came out

On the face of it its a great idea, bringing the kind of dual screen technology to the iPhone that had been in the Yota phone for a number of years. Huawei had a similar snap-on e-ink back available for the the P9 handset in limited quantities.

popSLATE – The smart second screen on the back of your phone

PopSlate had already launched a mark I version of their product.  With the mark II version of their product PopSlate tried to do too much: they tried to make it a battery case but still ridiculously thin.  The following email was sent out on Saturday morning UK time:

Critical Company Update

This update provides serious and unwelcome news.

Based upon your support, we have spent the last year continuing to develop our vision for “always-on” mobile solutions. Our goal was to solve three fundamental issues with today’s smartphones: we wanted to simplify access to information, increase battery performance, and improve readability. Unfortunately, the significant development hurdles that we have encountered have completely depleted our finances, and we have been unable to raise additional funds in the current market. As a result, popSLATE does not have a viable business path forward.

This marks the end of a 5-year journey for our team, which started with a seed of an idea in 2012 and led to our quitting our jobs to start the company. Although we are very disappointed by the ultimate outcome and its implications for you as our backers, we are proud of our team, who worked tirelessly over the years to commercialize the first plastic ePaper display, globally ship thousands of popSLATE 1 devices as a first-in-category product, and re-imagine & further extend the platform with the second generation product. Despite a strong vision, high hopes, and very hard work, we find ourselves at the end of the journey.

We are out of money at this juncture for two key reasons. First, we have spent heavily into extensive development and preparation for manufacturing;  as you are aware, we hit some critical issues that multiplied the required spend, as described in previous updates.

Most recently, we learned that the fix for the Apple OTA issues would involve more significant redesign. While we initially suspected that the Lightning circuit was the culprit, it turned out that it was a much more fundamental issue.  Namely, our housing material is not compatible with Apple OTA requirements. You may think, “Wait, isn’t it just plastic?  Why would that be a problem?” While the housing is indeed largely plastic, we used a very special custom blend of materials that included glass fibers. The glass fibers were used to solve two issues, both of which were related to making the device super-thin: a) they enabled uniform, non-distortional cooling of the housing mold around our metal stiffener plate (the key component that makes popSLATE 2 thin but very strong) and b) they added tensile strength to the very compact form factor. Unfortunately, we have concluded that these added fibers are attenuating the RF signal and that we would have to spend additional cycles to tune a new blend with required modifications to the tooling. This is an expensive and timely process.

Second, we have been unsuccessful at raising additional financing, despite having vigorously pursued all available avenues since the close of our March Indiegogo campaign (including angels, VCs, Shark Tank and equity crowdfunding, both in the US and abroad). Many in our network of fellow hardware innovators have encountered this difficult new reality. You may have also seen the very public financial struggles of big-name consumer hardware companies—GoPro, Fitbit, Pebble, Nest and others—as highlighted in this recent New York Times article [link]. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the recent and sudden shutting down of Pebble, paragon of past crowdfunding success.

There is no way to sugarcoat what this all means:

  • popSLATE has entered into the legal process for dissolution of the company
  • Your popSLATE 2 will not be fulfilled
  • There is no money available for refunds
  • This will be our final update

While this is a very tough moment professionally and emotionally for us, it is obviously extremely disappointing for all of you who had believed in the popSLATE vision. Many of you have been with us since the March campaign, and a smaller set helped found the popSLATE community back in 2012. To you—our family, friends, and other unwavering backers—we are incredibly grateful for your enthusiasm, ideas, and support throughout the years. Just as importantly,  we deeply regret letting you down and not being able to deliver on our promise to you. We truly wish there were a viable path forward for product fulfillment and the broader popSLATE vision, but sadly we have exhausted all available options.

Sincerely yours,
Yashar & Greg
Co-founders, popSLATE

The problem as a consumer you have for much of these gadget is this:

If a product can be easily made in Shenzhen, it will be so you should be able to get it cheaper on lightinthebox or similar sites

If it can’t be turned out in a reasonable time, it has a low likelihood of succeeding

There have been successes of more hobby based products; I have a replica of Roland’s TB-303 synthesiser. It’s the kind of product that can be assembled whilst not relying a China-based supply chain. It also is based on well understood technology and there weren’t issues of with designing for very tight places or Apple’s requirements (in the case of iPhone’s accessories).

What about the poster child of Pebble? Pebble managed to go for longer with a sophisticated product but couldn’t withstand the gravity of declining sales in the wearables sector.

Living with the Casio GWF -D1000 Frogman watch

When you typically look at reviews of products, there are usually reviewed over a short time when they are new-and-shiny. Often a products features and character come out over time – a symbiotic process between product and user.

I picked up a GWF-D1000 soon after it went on sale for considerably less than the £800 that it is the current street price. Up until I bought the GWF-D1000 (which I will call the D1000 through the rest of the copy for brevity), I had owned its predecessor the GWF-1000 (which I will call the 1000 from here on in).

So what is the GWF-D1000 anyway?

The D1000 is the latest in an a series of G-Shock watches aimed at scuba divers. The first Frogman came out in 1993. The overall design has largely been the same with an asymmetric case and a large display to make operation easier. The positioning of the watches and price points changed over time – some of the previous models had titanium cases and came under the Mr-G sub-brand. The last few models have a stainless steel core case with a DLC (diamond like coating) to protect the surface.

Over time it has picked up features as the technology improved. It became illuminated by a small green bulb, then electro-luminescent material. It moved from relying purely on battery power to having solar cells and a rechargeable battery. The watch became more accurate by picking up time signals via radio from six locations around the world that are calibrated with an atomic clock (precursors to the NTP services around the world that keep your computer and smartphone bang on time.)

The key technology gains over the 1000 include:

  • A dive computer rather than a dive timer (neither matter to me), it has the same basic functionality that dive computers used to have 20 years ago (minus PC connectivity). No big shakes until you remember that it is doing this all from a solar-powered rechargeable watch battery
  • Digital compass which is surprisingly handy, it is very forgiving of the way you hold it, expect this in other Casio watches soon.
  • Temperature reading (again more for the diver) or when you are running a bath
  • The display has been rearranged and a bit easier to read
  • Much better display light and crisper to read at night

The real benefits for me were in the build quality:

  • You get a sapphire crystal rather than the usual hardened mineral glass. This isn’t the first time that Casio has used a sapphire crystal on a watch, but they are harder to manufacture and more expensive than the usual mineral glass face
  • The manner in which the strap is secured to the case has been completely revised. There is are new Allen key screws and a carbon fibre rod to secure the strap to the case
  • The strap is made of polyurethane resin reinforced with carbon fibre. The loop that holds the excess strap length is now a section of stainless steel which has been bent around the strap

How do I use it?

It makes sense to tell a little bit around why I wear a Frogman. I want an accurate watch (who doesn’t?). I want a reliable watch (again, probably a hygiene factor for most people; but one that hints at why the G-Shock has replaced Rolex as the default watch I have seen on Hong Kongers over the past 10 years or so. G-Shock offers robustness that 20 years ago would have come from fine Swiss engineering – at a much lower price point.

I love my Swiss dive watches but there is a time and place for everything.  The knockabout case and its water resistance means that you can forget about the watch. You don’t have to coddle it or worry that it will pick up undue attention. You don’t have to worry if you get a bang on an elevator (lift) door, dropped on the bathroom floor or going for a swim.

The G-Shock is an everyman watch – unless its got a lurid colour scheme it isn’t likely to attract the attention of your average petty criminal. I’ve often taken it off in the office so that I can type in greater comfort and left it there by accident when going home. I’ve never had a G-Shock go missing.

It is relatively easy to use, despite the modal nature of its interface design. To change settings, use functions or see recorded information you have to cycle through a series of text menus – it has more in common with a 1980s vintage video cassette recorder or a DEC VAX. Quite how this goes down with consumers more used to iPads and SnapChat is interesting. Casio seems to do alright by attracting them with bright plastic cases reminiscent of Lego -based colour schemes.

I haven’t dived seriously in a long time, I took up scuba diving while working in the oil industry and have never got back into it since moving to London.  PADI diving at resorts is tame compared to British diving club scene I had been used to.

My work environment is creative which means that t-shirts, flannel shirts,  jeans and suede hiking boots make the G-Shock an ideal accessory. I work in the London office of an American digital marketing agency, owned by a French multinational and my clients are scattered in the different offices around the world of pharmaceutical companies. The functions I tend to use most are the world time, date/time and the night light. My iPhone is now my alarm clock.

The reality is that most of these watches will end up on the wrists of people like me rather than people who dive for a living.

What’s it like to live to live with the D1000

The D1000 is only incrementally heavier than the 1000, it felt a bit strange to wear for about 30 minutes after swapping over to the newer model. But in some ways the D1000 doesn’t yet feel like its my watch.

The 1000 strap became shiny in places over time and more pliable, it felt like it became adjusted to me. Give the D1000 a rub over and it still looks box fresh. The downside is that the strap feels stiff and I still feel its edges on occasion – this isn’t about discomfort, but about the watch not feeling like part of you. There are no shiny parts of wear – it feels less like a ‘personal item”. It lacks what a designer friend calls authenticity; unlike distressed jeans, customised flight jackets or combat Zippos.

Zippo Lighters

This sounds great for the resale value, but I feel that it provides a worse experience for the wearer of the watch.

The reinforced strap does have one bonus, it holds securely to the case. Look at these pictures of my two year old 1000

Casio GWF 1000 Frogman

You can see how the retaining screw that held the strap to the case came undone and disappeared over time. You don’t have these kind of problems with the D1000.

The screen on the D1000 uses its real estate in a different way to the 1000.

Here is the 1000

Casio GWF 1000 Frogman

Here is the D1000

Casio GWF D1000 Frogman

At first the differences aren’t obvious. If you look at the top right side of the screen, the tide and moon segments are replaced by a multi-use screen on the D1000. The small icons for alarms and hourly alerts are moved to the bottom and left of the screen on the D1000, the moon icon now moves to the left of the main screen down from the top right. This probably marginally increases the screen real estate and helps make legibility a bit clearer at night.

GWF 1000

The biggest 1000 feature that I miss is the ability to toggle with one press of the top left button from showing the date on the screen to showing a second time zone; it was extremely handy for work. And having come from the 1000 to the D1000 it was a real ‘what the fuck’ moment.

By comparison I have to press six times to get to the world time screen. Instead, it now toggles between a tide table and the day. Even giving it a two press option would be a better fix than what the D1000 currently has. It’s a small gripe, but it annoyed the heck out of me.

My work around has been to keep the watch in world time mode and if I need to know the day or date, I find myself reaching for my iPhone.

If you are really that worried about tide tables, you will be likely using a specialist service as they vary a good deal over relatively short distances.

If the D1000 still sounds like the kind of watch you want, you can get it here.

I like: L2’s seven predictions for 2016

L2 have some interesting ideas for how online business will develop in 2016, more in this video

Mobile OS versus Shop OS

I decided to write this post to reflect on the very different visions of digital retailing that consumers are currently experiencing.

The Mobile OS

Qkr!I went to Wagamama with some colleagues from Racepoint where we were encouraged to all download Qkr!. Qkr! is an application that was developed by MasterCard rather than the restaurant, it isn’t exclusive to Wagamama either. MasterCard has built the application with a view to building a wide eco-system merchants. It is notable that the application is actually card issuer agnostic, so I was able to set up an account with a Visa card. Wagamama bribed us with free desserts to download the application, so they clearly have some skin in the game. We downloaded it, set up our account with at least one mode of payment, our email address and a password. One of us became the host and gave us all a number which was our common bill. We could order straight from the app and food was supposed to arrive. When we wanted to pay we selected our items and paid our share of the bill. A couple of us only had cash, so they paid a friend and the friend paid on the app. If I am absolutely honest with you, it was a lot of work for casual dining and but for everyone around the table working in technology marketing (and so having a modicum of curiosity about things app-related) – it probably wouldn’t have had us all on board. Now that we have the app on our phone, I could see Qkr! hoping that we use it regularly and likely try and steer us to its merchant network though notifications and special offers. From Wagamama’s point-of-view it saves them from building, testing and maintaining a bespoke application. There are also presumably productivity benefits from reducing the order taking staff required. Qkr! didn’t prevent Wagamama from making mistakes with our order and we ended up one chocolate cake down. Contrast this with the approach that McDonalds have rolled out in their new (to me) Cambridge Circus branch. The area between the counter and the entrance is dominated by a series of vertical kiosks. Digital McDonalds

These kiosks contain an identical touch screen interface

Digital McDonalds

With a basic card reader on the bottom, there is no Apple Pay or NFC facilities, just a chip and PIN reader. The touch screen menu takes you through a smartphone app like experience, if smartphones came with 27 inch screens. Once payment was successfully received, you then received a deli counter style receipt Digital McDonalds

And collected from a counter when your number appeared on the screen

Digital McDonalds

This is all designed to reduce consumer interaction and improve efficiency in the restaurant, if there was any way to cheapen the McDonalds’ experience making you queue like an Argos seems like the ideal way to go. The logical progression for this would be to move back to the Automat format (presumably this time using some sort of algorithm to optimise production. automat

The irony of it all is that the rise of fast food restaurants like McDonalds killed off the Automat as a trend in North America and many Automats were converted into Burger King franchises.

Both Wagamama and McDonalds may have had some efficiency gains but lost out in terms of brand experience, they moved a bit further towards commoditised casual dining and fast food respectively – which goes against the brand equity that they have striven hard to build over decades.

Shop OS offers some advantages over Mobile OS, you can standardise on the hardware to reduce coding and testing requirements. It is ideal for tourists who may not want to roam on foreign mobile networks, nor be able to navigate free wi-fi offerings. The flip side is that there isn’t the same opportunity to capture customer data and behaviour, the notification screen on the smartphone is a key place for brands to intercept the customer using geofencing.

The Amazon Dash button post

At the beginning of this month Amazon launched an addition to their Dash ordering hardware with Dash buttons. There was a lot of incredulity amongst the media heightened by the unfortunate timing which overlapped with April’s Fool Day.

Why the incredulity?

I would break the cynicism down into two broad buckets:

  • Dash buttons have a very singular usage / use case, narrower even the Yo! app which was a bit of a tech fad last year. Critics are at best uncertain that consumers would use them? I generally buy toilet roles every 4-6 months, do I really need a button for that?
  • Dash buttons imply that the hardware required is ridiculously cheap. How many boxes of washing powder, packets of Mac & Cheese or toilet rolls would be required for a button to break even?

Business perspective

Rather than ripping into this into too much depth I thought I would share Benedict Evans’ interesting hypothesis about the Amazon Dash button:

Amazon is trying to eliminate both vendor and brand decisions, and turning itself into a utility company – get your house connected to power, water, gas and Amazon. And choosing which commodity product you need is just another piece of friction to be removed by Amazon’s kaizen

There are some interesting directions that come out of this view point. Let’s break Benedict’s analysis down chunk-by-chunk:

  • Eliminating vendor decisions: there are two prongs to this. Firstly, it would reduce the basket size for supermarkets and also reduce impulse purchases. Let’s think about the Walmart ‘beer and diapers’ retail urban legend for a moment – if you weren’t shopping for the diapers, you aren’t likely to have picked up the beer next to it as you would have had no reason to go near those shelves. By implication it is also an attack on some of the categories carried in convenience stores. Given that the button is about ‘just-in-time’ shopping it implies that the users are not likely to have rooms in their lives for big box retailers or CostCo. The buttons are likely to aimed at urban dwellers rather than the suburbs were larger homes and larger vehicles to do the big box store shop are the norm – Sam’s Warehouse is safer than Walmart in this scenario
  • Eliminate brand decisions: since sales are diverted from supermarkets this also affects their private label sales, especially where they are acquired by accident as lookalikes stacked next to well-known brands. Challenger brands find that switching becomes much harder as they can’t intercept the customer at the point-of-intent through shopper marketing and the opportunity cost for the consumer gets raised due to the comparative nature of the friction in purchase.  It also begs a question about how much it affects the share price of WPP and other marketing combines who have spent big on shopper marketing acquisitions over the past few years. Do buttons offer a net gain or loss of value to them? I do know that the button puts Amazon in a much more powerful position versus vendors in terms of discount pricing to retailer and warehousing. The key to understand the power  that Amazon would bring is ‘choosing which commodity product you need…’. The very idea of a product being boiled down to a commodity buy would scare the living daylights of the average brand manager in an FMCG mega-corp
  • Turning itself into a utility: for Amazon this is about locking the consumer in via Prime to the consumer life. At the present time, logistics costs have been an increasing proportion of the cost of sales for Amazon, there must be a hope that the scale of grocery shopping will bring down the price of Prime and drive profits higher?

There is no reason why the likes of Tesco, Ocado or Iceland couldn’t have done this. The wider Dash technology would make it easier for consumers to do grocery shopping and reduce the friction of online purchases. Instead they seem to have wanted to reduce cashier numbers inshore and focused on self-service tills. Time will tell if they made the right technological choice.

What about the user?

This is designed to make the consumers life easier and I can see how it makes purchase of otherwise annoying to shop for items frictionless, but it only works within reason. You can’t have a wall of buttons on the front door of your fridge freezer and just when do you press the button in the bathroom to order up more razor blades or toilet roll? What happens during the run up to Christmas when Amazon has had sub-optimal performance with regards deliveries on occasion? What is the buying frequency required to make the button habit forming, used without thinking about it, without consideration. When does the opportunity cost for the consumer tip in their favour regarding button usage?

What I don’t have yet is a clear understanding on depth and breadth of the customer problem being solved by the Dash button.

Product design

The original Dash device was interesting because it represented a rejection of the broader theme of convergence where functionality is subsumed from dedicated hardware into a software layer running on a computer, via a web browser, tablet or smartphone. Instead Dash is a shopping appliance and wouldn’t look out of place in a cupboard full of Braun kit.

The Dash button represents a further evolution of specialist hardware, a brand-specific, tactile hardware interface. It mirrors software like IFTTT’s ‘Do’ application, the Yo! messenger app and the Dimple smartphone button project.

For non-food products like toilet rolls that come in a plastic bale that is quickly discarded, there may not be a barcode to scan in on your Dash device. Instead you would have to ask for a new pack of Charmin’ or more Mach3 razors. Processing each voice message is expensive, which makes the opportunity cost around creating dedicated buttons for certain classes of product much more attractive. Amazon first and foremost is a data-driven company, they will know which product categories that they want to have buttons for. However, what makes on an Excel spreadsheet doesn’t always make sense to the consumer…

More information
Amazon Dash button
Benedict Evans newsletter edition 106
Investing in smart logistics | Fidelity Worldwide Investments
Amazon, in Threat to UPS, Tries Its Own Deliveries | WSJ (paywall)
Supply Chain News: A 360-Degree View of E-Fulfillment Part 1 | Supply Chain Digest
Amazon joins numerous startups in building delivery networks to disrupt Fedex and UPS. | DataFox
The Amazon Dash post
Dimple smartphone button project | Indiegogo
SpinVox: the shocking allegations in full | The Kernel