No recent product launch has grasped the Zeitgeist as much as the Pebble watch. It represents a perfect storm of elements coming together all at once and its success is going to be studied for years.
The story of the Pebble is intimately bound to the story of the website that enabled it: Kickstarter. Much of the media attention has been about this new marketplace, which must be an absolute boon for economists; for it represents the operation of market forces in a pure microcosm, and like evolution isolated on a small island many weird and wonderful creatures are born. Eventually there can be Island Gigantism and this is a story of such a monster being formed.
Initially Kickstarter was the “crowd funding” startup servicing geeks from places like the “Maker” sub culture. Those who actually wanted to be able to sell their ideas, but lacked the backing of the dragons. Perhaps theirs was too small an idea or too niche to attract normal backing. However, in this modern era of the internet, what we come to realise is that being niche is absolutely no barrier to success. I met a guy, a friend of my mother in law, who lives in an enormous house in the British countryside and is very wealthy. What did he do? I asked him. He tapped a little 5cm badge in the shape of a helicopter on his chest. Wow, you make helicopters?
“No, I make these badges.”
Yes, you can make a fortune with niche ideas, if you can produce and sell them. The main advantage is that you will not have many, if any, viable competitors and like all animals devoid of predators, you can build your colony (your brand) and the world will be your oyster. Brand is the key and must be jealously guarded if you want to be the next SuperDry or Cambridge Satchel. On the other hand, Apple has killed off many Young Turk brands who threatened theirs. Kickstarter, as the name implies, quickly evolved from just having good ideas to being a way of building that brand and with it building noise.
This is the point the economists got interested, because this brought competition for attention and competition is the primary force in the market. It was no longer enough to have a great idea, now you needed to have a great presentation to go with it or it would be lost in the pile. Many ideas have been touted for how these presentations should go. Some have mixed in the sexy, always a bonus if one is selling to a geeky market:
Are these guys selling keyboards or hot backsides?
Others have played hard on their geek cred by hiring geek celebrities to present (if only Douglas Adams was still alive – some lucky product would be making millions).
Neal is a well known Geek icon, only topped by perhaps…
Others still have used humour and power of their already existing geek brand.
Penny Arcade‘s (very funny) Kickstarter was to remove adds from their site –
However, most have gone for the Apple-style presentation mastered by Jobs and Ives with high production values and cool designers talking to camera. This was the first element that drew me to the Pebble. The video they produced showed a carefully worked out professionalism, while at the same time being down-to-earth enough to come across as genuine.
The Pebble Kickstarter video
The next element was the product itself. It was simply a brilliant idea and exactly on time.
In the past few years, the iPhone has not given anyone palpitations of excitement. I have owned every generation of the device and picking up my iPhone 1 (now in the hands of my 2 year old with no simcard) and comparing it to my iPhone 5, I do not see anything revolutionary between them at first glance. Of course, generationally the iPhone has come on in leaps and bounds and my nicely bevelled iPhone 5 is incredible in that respect, but its nature is essentially unchanged. This has led to a noticeable frustration on the part of the consumer who wants to be in the excitement of the “revolution” promised by Apple devices and delivered by the first iPods, iPhones and iPads. Such frustration has allowed Google to catch up and overtake in the phone market, and even Microsoft has done it right with Windows Phone 8. People are hungry for something new.
Smart phones, smart watches.
Watches are the utmost niche product. They represent who you are, the expression of one’s personal style, much more than they represent a way of telling the time. The third reason Pebble took off is that it came at a time where the phone has supplanted the watch as a time device for the vast majority of people (although definitely not for me). Pebble represents the watch making a comeback and saying, hey – if a phone can do what we have done for generations, we can do what a phone does just as well! So far, smart watches have either been expressions of high art, divine and unreachable for anyone who cannot wear glasses like this guy:
This guy invented this watch, the SPARC:
Which is wonderful with one problem: it costs £4000!
Alternatively, they have been for sporting use, like the Suunto outdoorsman and its incredible diving ranges, or the Garmin GPS hybrids, or the Nike running watches. All of these are niche activities again. It shows how popular they are “under the table” when you see websites like the excellent DCRainmaker who makes a great living out of simply reviewing running watches in depth and with style. Strangely, the best “watch” to be the progenitor of the Pebble is the old square iPod Nano. One of the first and most liked Kickstarter was for a strap case that enabled you to wear the Nano as a watch. Combined with the quality of the Apple screen (touch, colour graphics, etc.) this was a great – if little bulky – idea.
As mentioned above it was “killed” by Apple when they changed the design of the Nano. This is perhaps the best indication that a watch was in their R&D department’s to-do pile.
What Pebble realised is that if you follow the classic Microsoft PC (and Apple with its devices) route then you make the platform first and let others make the usage apps. Thus, you make a product for everyone who wants one and bring all the niches together to form a nexus. What a nexus the Pebble was. I surf Kickstarter every now and again as I am waiting for it to come to the UK (when I am going to relaunch my film idea) and I came across the Pebble. I was quickly sold. In a fit of insanity I bought a pre-order ticket in the knowledge that I would get my cash back if the idea failed and a product of some quality if it succeeded.
I was aware though that this was buying sight unseen. My willingness to do so is the final element of the perfect storm: online shopping and the death of the highstreet. We buy almost everything online now, even our food. We do this sight unseen of the product for two reasons, one: it is far easier and quicker, and two: products – even high end ones – are mass-produced to a standard. You see a photo of the product in question and you simply know that the item delivered will be exactly that thing. What Pebble did was make us believe they could give us exactly what they promised.
Then someone hit the viral button.
Viral is a pure expression of the internet and the speed of thought it represents. Going viral with a product involves getting it in front of the evangelists and curators of that part of the web. For watches that could interact with a smartphone this was simply to entice the websites of the techno-glitterati such as Engadget, Wired and Lifehacker;
followed by being picked up in the “new press” of the podcasts such as This Week in Tech.
Before you could shake a stick these guys had more orders than they could have predicted for 10 years. I can imagine them rubbing their hands with glee at having passed the “funded” barrier on Kickstarter and then this excitement rising as they smashed their most optimistic projections and then the slow creeping horror as It. Just. Kept. Rising.
So much money raised, the numbers don’t fit in the box!
Success is truly a two edged sword and as the Epicureans would have said pleasure is not measured in the amount. Too much of a good thing hurts and 100 times their predicted orders must have been like iced water down their backs.
That I have the product in my hand, that it exists at all, that they didn’t take the money and run or fold or kill themselves or end up in prison… well, it deserves a standing ovation just for that. It has validated Kickstarter as a market. All thanks to a digital watch.
At the moment, Pebbles are shipping at a rate of 5000 a week. The stats are:
My Pebble, understandably months late, is here. Now.
Unboxing and first impressions
The Pebble box is clearly the result of compromises and more the better for it.
Reminiscent of an Amazon box, the device sits inside together with its charging USB cable and a single sticker saying to visit go.getpebble.com. The watch itself clips out easily and my first impression was how light it seemed. Mine is the black one, but other colours exist.
My normal watch is the very big and heavy Hamilton Jazz Master Maestro during the week and the equally enormous Casio G-Shock A-1000 at weekends and compared to these giants, the Pebble is as light as a feather. It comes with a simple rubber strap of good quality and with a nice weighted buckle.