Entrepreneur Start-up

Don’t blink, and other lessons from Pebble’s Eric Migicovsky
by Christian Aagaard

Waterloo - When a giant competitor licks its chops to eat the lunch of a much smaller one, you’d think that might cause a bit of a panic. But, no, at least not at Pebble Technology Corp. last September. Quite the opposite, founder and chief executive officer Eric Migicovsky told an audience last Thursday at the University of Waterloo Humanities Theatre.

Pebble, the maker of Pebble smartwatches, expected Apple would come up with something along the same lines. Just what was a question dogging Pebble through the six years since evolving from an idea at the University of Waterloo to become a Silicon Valley company employing nearly 160. (Pebble also has a Waterloo office of 10).

Now it knew.

“We were relieved,” Migicovsky said. “They were making something that was extremely different from Pebble. They had a very different perspective.’’

The Apple Watch shows off Apple’s skill in design, he said. It’s aesthetically pleasing.

“We have chosen to build the Swatch of smartwatches,” Migicovsky said of Pebble. “It’s fun. It’s affordable. You can make it your own. You can change the strap. You can build your own watchface . . . It’s just a damn good watch.’’

In fact, he added, the launch of the Apple Watch was extremely good for Pebble.

“It brought a tonne of attention to the market. There are a hell of a lot more people who know about smartwatches.”

Pebble’s reaction to the Apple Watch was one of several stories Migicovsky shared in a talk entitled, The Pebble Story: From Velocity to Kickstarter Glory.

Velocity is the University of Waterloo incubator program where ideas are often turned into companies creating new software or hardware. In 2008, Migicovsky, an engineering student, was among Velocity’s first young entrepreneurs.

He later earned a spot in Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley program known for connecting smart, new entrepreneurs to smart, seasoned investors.

Migicovsky’s concept for a smartwatch began as a screen hacked from an old cell phone. InPulse, the company’s first saleable smartwatch, was based on a BlackBerry platform.

Today, Pebble Time, Pebble Watch and Pebble Steel interface wirelessly with iPhone and Android platforms to bring an array of smartphone functions to one’s wrists.

Along the way, Pebble set Kickstarter records, raising $20.3 million earlier this year on the crowd-funding platform. Its 2012 Kickstarter campaign, which started when the company had about $60,000 left in the bank, attracted about $10 million in four weeks.

The trip has been anything but effortless. During a presentation that lasted about an hour — not counting time lost to a fire drill — Migicovsky talked about lessons learned bringing a product to market. He also did a short scrum with media.

Out of both came a number of observations, including:

• Hire an industrial designer, sooner than later: “As a group of hardware and software engineers, we really didn’t know what people would wear on their wrists . . .There’s a time and place for doing things yourself, and for pushing forward as hard as you can on your own. But there is a time for actually going out in the community and seeing that there are other people who can help you get stuff done.”

•Get your product out as soon as possible: “We graduated university in April 2009, but by 2010, we still hadn’t . . . got any watches on people’s wrists. Looking back, that’s probably one of the biggest mistakes that I made. I should have put a lot more emphasis on . . . getting the smallest, working versions out.”

• Embrace hacking: “We built a software development kit for InPulse, which enabled developers to write apps and build watchfaces for InPulse . . . There were only 1,000 InPulses in existence, so you could say we were somewhat surprised that within three or four months, there were over 100 apps and watchfaces available for InPulse . . . The negatives were outweighed by the massive positives. People were hacking on their own watches.”

“When we went back to the drawing board, one of the core things we built into the Pebble was the ability for developers to build apps and share them.”

• Prime the pump: “One of the reasons why (Pebble’s 2012 Kickstarter campaign) took off was because we had actually built up an email list of about a couple thousand people who had expressed an interest in an iPhone-enabled watch.”

• On off-shore manufacturing (namely China): “You have to be on, on the ground. You have to be tightly connected to the people who are making (product), because when things go wrong, you don’t want it to be a series of phone calls back and forth. You want to be right there, on the ground, solving things in real time.”

•What current Eric Migicovsky would tell Eric Migicovsky of seven years ago: “Generally I wouldn’t change too much. Part of the fun of doing a startup is to screw things up and fix them. I would make sure I stayed focused on what’s actually important, and not worry too much about the little stuff. I would definitely remind myself about that.

“I would have definitely gone down to the Valley earlier, instead of waiting until year 3 . . . And the biggest thing I would tell myself to change is ship the product faster.”

First published in Communitech News
Photo Credit Jon Rohr

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