The buzz surrounding the Pebble smart watch refuses to subside. With about two days to go before Kickstarter funding closes, the project has raised over $10 million. Even though the initial round of pre-sales is sold out, the dollar figure continues to grow as new backers contribute $1 apiece to be let in on the regular stream of updates regarding the overnight-sensation smartphone accessory.
As a gadget-lover, the Pebble holds my interest for obvious reasons, some of which I touched on in a previous piece. My colleague Joe Levi just yesterday talked some more about the Pebble and its place in the grand tradition of smart watches. But it’s not just us; the founder and public voice of Pebble, Eric Migicovsky, has become a sought-after interviewee, quoted by everyone from International Business Times to Digitaltrends to CNN. In the span of two days, I heard him interviewed on The Verge and NPR, and just yesterday, Wired ran a Pebble story featuring an interview with him.
Dude’s intense about his watches.
Even though Pebble is a compelling product -and very probably the first smart watch the masses will consider worth buying- the widespread interest in this story goes beyond sheer geekery. The record-breaking Kickstarter drive has caught the attention of entrepreneurs and everyday folks looking for a means to raise money for their creative endeavors. But with most news outlets, that’s where the story stops. No one’s taking the time to examine how this pioneering project is changing the way companies interact with their customers.
Fundamentally, that’s what the relationship between the Pebble watch builders and their backers is: manufacturer-consumer. Unlike many Kickstarter projects, where backers are promised something honorary like their name in a program or an invitation to a special donors-only reception, contributing money to the Pebble project above the $99 threshold guarantees you one Pebble smart watch (or it did, until they sold out). It’s essentially a pre-order.
Cynics will stop there, leaping at the chance to strip away all the hoopla about this newfangled Kickstarter nonsense and reveal this charade for what it is: a dressed-up presale. But it’s much different. Here’s why.
On April 12, after the project passed the $1 million threshold, the Pebble team posted an update to backers with an “awesome announcement.” After initially deciding that it was impossible, they’d decided to make Pebble water resistant.
On May 8, another update announced that “your enthusiasm has helped convince us to move the entire Pebble roadmap forward and bring you a brand new feature.” The smart watch, previously expected to ship with Bluetooth 2.1, would instead incorporate the necessary hardware for -and be software-upgradeable to- Bluetooth 4.0.
Both of these were updates to Pebble that users had been clamoring for via Twitter and Kickstarter’s comment threads, and each was a direct result of the company having secured more than the expected funding. That’s not something you see Samsung, Apple, or Motorola doing too frequently, despite having many times the resources of Migicovsky & Co.
Following the design, procurement, and manufacturing processes a company goes through to launch a product sounds about as exciting as watching a Meg-centric episode of Family Guy, but when it’s information about a product you have an investment in -financial or emotional or both- it can be a real treat.
This image is from update #9 on May 4th, showing a purchase order much bigger than any I’ll ever sign. It’s for two of Pebble’s internal components, the ones with longer lead times. The scale of the investment wasn’t lost on Eric: “This will be the first cheque I’ve signed with this many zeros and commas,” he said in the update.
Of course, critical information like supplier identity and component type was blanked out, but the opportunity for pre-order espionage wasn’t what made this update special; the team was giving us a peek behind the curtain, reminding us that a lot more goes into a product than 3D-printing a casing and building some microboards. Laying eyes on the purchase order filled me with the same feeling that seeing a spy shot from Foxconn or a phone testing lab does, except with the bonus that it’s coming from an unassailable source.
“I made this!”
Most updates from larger companies about forthcoming products are polished, elaborate productions featuring a lot of buzzwords like “synergy” and “seamlessly” and meaningless phrases like “leveraging our advanced feature set.” They’re the perfect length, with the perfect amount of gloss, immaculate press images, and the fine print always has the name of a marketing firm, usually one made up of several fancy last names.
Not Pebble. Their latest update, a “quick checkin from [the] boarding gate” at SFO, tells us that Eric and fellow team members Andrew and Steve are off to Dongguan to check on the manufacturers that’ll be “helping us bring Pebble to life.” That’s followed by an announcement that “we partnered with Twine, one of the most awesome Kickstarter projects ever.”
It’s not the professionally formatted, pretty-but-dry copy churned out by an ad agency, and it’s also not a drunken blurb posted on Facebook by a frat-boy wannabe CEO at 2am. Like the tone set by the introduction video, where the “dream team” kind of goofily stumbles into frame, it’s the perfect amalgamation of endearing enthusiasm and youthful confidence. We feel like we know these people. We want them to realize their geeky dream of building a great smart watch, and not just because it’s a product we’d like to own; we root for them because it’s obvious that they care deeply about what they’re doing.
Some of the credit for this must absolutely go to Kickstarter, which provides the structure and formatting cues for things like the introduction video and the updates from the team. Of course, without Pebble itself, Kickstarter would have nothing to kickstart. Whatever the proper ratio of credit, though, the combination of the two has led to something new and exciting. Not just an unprecedented amount of money raised by a startup, or the promise of the first widely embraced smart watch; it’s a relationship between customer and manufacturer that’s as social as it is economic (and not fake-social, as so many corporate Twitter account admins fail to grasp). The biggest benefit: front row seats to a semi-private demonstration of how a category-defining product comes together.
I’m sure none of this is lost on Eric Migicovsky, but I’m also pretty confident he doesn’t care nearly as much about these matters as he does about making a great product. “To be honest,” he said in one of the above-mentioned interviews, “I’m just really happy that I get to make Pebble.”
Me too, Eric.
Pebble updates from Kickstarter