When Grant Sinclair launched his Poco microcomputer on crowdfunding site Indiegogo in November 2015 there was a sense of history repeating itself. Grant’s uncle Clive Sinclair launched the 8-bit ZX Spectrum in 1982, a personal home computer that inspired a generation of coders and technology enthusiasts. The Spectrum range was eventually bought for £5m by rival British entrepreneur Alan Sugar’s Amstrad in 1986, a deal amusingly captured in a recent fringe play in Manchester. Later both men were honoured by Her Majesty the Queen and were able to put ‘Sir’ before their names.
Of course, being a Sinclair still has its advantages. Grant admits that the name opens a few doors and CEOs of large companies tend to return calls but it’s not so much his trading on the name that is intriguing. It’s more the idea that he has managed to follow the same inventor path set out by his uncle, Clive, and father, the designer and inventor, Iain. He’s cutting his own cloth now and, given his upbringing, perhaps it was only a matter of time.
“I grew up in a household full of electronics,” says Grant. “I remember boxes of electronics and prototypes being around the house, so I was always tinkering with Sinclair stuff and other gadgets I could get my hands on, taking them apart mainly.”
What sort of gadgets?
“Miniature TVs and radios. I remember the first Sinclair radio kits, the Micromatics, which started in the 1950s I think, and ran all the way to the late Sixties - little matchbox radios which you could make yourself. No one had done anything like this and it shipped all over world.”
In 1981 Grant had his first introduction to the UK’s tech industry when he helped out on his uncle’s stand at a Personal Computer World trade show in London. Just nine years old at the time, Grant helped to demonstrate various Sinclair products. It was, he says, “an exciting place to be” and remembers how overwhelming it was that so many people wanted these products.
Learning a lesson
He likens it to today’s demand for the Raspberry Pi and the subsequent shortages in components, but it’s not just supply and demand that is a recurring theme here. Price point, says Grant is important too. He recalls how the success of Sinclair and Acorn and eventually Amstrad during the 1980s was largely down to low price points, something which resonates now given his recent bid for investment for the Poco.
“I've learned a lot from Sinclair and Acorn and what I am learning now with the whole Raspberry Pi maker community is that everyone wants a really low price point,” says Grant.
“I didn't anticipate that when we put our initial release out with a feature-rich product. It’s still getting interest. I am getting emails from people still wanting it but the feedback is that people want a low-cost version of the device and really that’s where volume sales are likely to be. It’s how Sinclair got so big because it did low-cost products and kits.”
So what’s the plan? Have you got to rethink the product, perhaps take a modular approach to meet the different demands of users?
“I have learned you have to listen to customers about which features they actually need. We are still going to keep a high-end version. One thing I didn’t anticipate was the interest from musicians. We put a high-end 24-bit audio chip into the Poco, turning it into a high-res recorder and player. There is a gadget for the Raspberry Pi that turns it into a 24-bit player and companies like Sony are also launching them, but both are pricey.”
The feedback from the Poco crowdfunding campaign has, it seems, been more valuable to Grant than the investment interest, helping to shape his strategy. There are now three different versions of the Poco in production, although the plan is to make this modular too so that each version can be adapted to suit the needs of specific users.
“Musicians want a certain set of features but don’t want the camera, or people just want a music player. We are also finding some people don’t want high-end audio either but want gaming - to load up Minecraft, for example. For a really low-cost version we will leave the camera out, remove the high-end audio chip and the IPS screen and then it can hit a much more magic price point.”
Grant is not looking to put this back to crowdfunding either. He says he has distributors “lined up already” including a major mobile phone distie in the UK, one in the US and one in Russia. The last is a potentially major market, he believes, given the intended price points (ideally under £100) and how the Russian market sources its gadgets through retailers such as EuroSet.
Built on the Raspberry Pi chipset, the Poco is also an attempt to build on the new wave of interest in affordable microcomputing which, it seems, is triggering a renewed interest in programming. Coding clubs are springing up around the globe and governments are including coding in school curriculums in an attempt to prepare a new generation for a digital future. So are we getting it right?
“What is happening in schools now is really exciting, I think; an example being that a lot of schools have Minecraft clubs. We had a kids’ party recently and all these kids brought tablets and were trying to play Minecraft at once. Their parents were terrified their kids were going to drop and break their iPads so I thought that if they had a Poco, a fraction of the price of a tablet, they could play these games without fear.”
Although Grant says he “didn’t feel very inspired at school”, he recognises through his own kids that times are changing. He talks about reigniting that past interest in coding triggered by Sinclair and Acorn, and recalls how many of the leading games company founders started out on Spectrums and how, even recently, a call with a chip company led to a story about how an executive played Hobbit on a Spectrum as a kid. Grant witnessed first-hand the Sinclair history of computing but perhaps now it is his turn to try and make history.
“My son said, ‘why don’t we do a watch, Daddy? We could call it the Woco?”
In most families this would be merely cute or laughable but this is the Sinclair family we are talking about here. We shouldn’t rule it out just yet.
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