crowdsourcing
Mobile Communications

Crowdsourcing Innovation: Aubrey Anderson, Monohm

Crowdfunding sites are offering a new path for inventors with original ideas. We talk to inventors looking to gain the public’s favour...

aubreyanderson Name: Aubrey Anderson

 Job title: Founder, CEO

 Organisation: Monohm Inc

 Location: Berkeley, California, USA

 

Product: Runcible

 

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What it does & How it works:

Runcible is a new category in consumer electronics.  It brings the power and workflows of a modern smartphone into a beautiful, carefully-designed, palm-sized, round form factor. 

What makes it special:

Modeled on the traditional pocket watch, Runcible turns the modern smartphone on its head: Runcible creates no notifications or interruptions, is open by design and hackable, and is intended to be easily upgraded and repaired and kept by you for a long time.  In a world of mobile devices with build in obsolescence and planned 8-10 month lifespans, Runcible is a study in planned non-obsolescence, represents a new way to experience your digital life, and is sustainably made right here in California.

What’s your background, and what inspired you to come up with the idea?

I’m been a Digital Creative and an Internet software developer for almost 20 years: I worked at Sun in the old days, was a Partner at The Barbarian Group from its founding until 2005, lead a team that revolutionized apple.com by removing Flash and making it web-standards compliant before HTML5 was even a thing, and have founded several successful startups in the last 5 years.  Search me on LinkedIn for more.

As for the inspiration, I was at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a couple years back and I was overwhelmed by the “sameness” of devices there.  Everything on offer was essentially an iPhone rip off, was the same form factor plus or minus 10%, and I started to think about where all this was going.  I just felt overwhelmingly bored with where we were and where we were going.  I started looking at devices and object that humans have liked and formed emotional  connections with for longer than, say, the last 10 years.  I found a clear common thread with palm-sized, round things (pocket watch, compass, magical stones, ancient mechanisms).  I started to think and ask people about how one might move the brain of a smartphone into that kind of form factor and shortly afterward we founded Monohm to do just that!

Why IndieGoGo?

I have extremely mixed feelings about crowdfunding for hardware.  We didn’t want to do it this way, ideally, but hardware is enormously expensive to develop and we don’t have the deep pockets of a traditional ODM.  We were able to scrape up some baseline funding to get through our initial prototype and design phase but the next steps seemed to be either bring in money from people who didn’t share our vision or sell the company to a large ODM who didn’t share our vision.  Before doing something like that, we decided to take it to our mailing list directly and once we had some enthusiastic responses there, crowdfunding made a lot more sense.

I think IndieGoGo has a better reputation in the hardware space and we were able to work out a better deal with them than we were with the other guys.  Every dollar counts when it comes to manufacturing!

Is Crowdfunding good for innovation? How so?

I think crowdfunding has been a net negative for innovation.  It de-motivates investors from getting on board early, it very often leaves founders VASTLY overextended and over promised and in need of additional funding even after successful campaigns, and, probably worst of all, it is antithetical to the most important thing you need to do as a new company with a new idea: Brand Building.  Your introduction to the world falls under the banner of whatever funding company you choose and that ultimately sucks for you.  Pebble still struggles with a sense out in the world that it is “that crowdfunded thing.”

Some people are able to pull out of the brand nose-dive and do more products, but if you look at the numbers it is an insanely small percentage.  Most things, even successful things, are one and fund or one and done.  And now we’re seeing an increase in what I would call “bullshit crowdfunding” in which fully funded companies use it as a marketing ploy to appear more “legit” to consumers.  Yuck.

IMO, you couldn’t crowdfund an Apple, Google or Twitter today and I can’t imagine how many wonderful new ideas are languishing in obscurity rather than having visionary investors step up like they used to and steward them into reality.  Crowdfunding has become an unwitting part of the unicorn-chasing, race-to-the-bottom we see in the VC community today.

Real innovation is about giving the People what they don’t know they want yet and that is very hard with crowdfunding alone.

Reactions on IGG so far?

People have been incredibly supportive and cool with us.  I expected to encounter a lot of Trolling around the idea and push back on the concept but we haven’t seen that at all.  We have seen only enthusiasm, thoughts about accessories and features, and a lively discussion about the Future!

What have you learned from your campaign?

Explaining a new category to an uninitiated audience is really hard.  Because we are a platform and really a general-purpose device, it’s actually a lot harder to tell the story.  Can Runcible be used as a control surface for VR?  Yes it can.  Is that all it does?  No.  What else can it do?  Anything I want?  < blank stare>

That’s been a difficult story to tell.

When is the product due to ship?

September 2016.

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What sort of challenges does creating a whole new device such as the Runcible throw up?

ODMs spend $3-5 million on this kind of work, even when working on a carbon copy of someone else’s device.  We have done it with a small team and 500k.  On the one hand, that’s a hallmark of how much easier it is to work in the hardware space today than it was, say, 5 years ago.  But on the other, that funding delta gives you some idea about how many favors we have had to call in, how DIY we have had to be, and honestly how lucky we have been to get press attention and resonate with our audience.

The hardest part by far has been the screen.  No one was tooled up to create round screens when we started, and even a year+ later, we have had to really push our supply chain on this part.  There again though, I think the freshness of the idea has helped inspire and has opened doors to us that we would normally have no reasonable expectation to have opened and a small startup.

How many are you hoping to sell?

In this first wave, I just want to pay for the manufacturing.  This push is about getting devices into early adopter’s hands and getting feedback and really co-developing Runcible’s future with the people who love it.  If we can get to about 550 devices, we make our goal and can cover the manufacturing.  If we get to about 750 devices, Jason and I can even stop eating dry ramen noodles from the package!

In your video, you say you want to encourage change within an entrenched global industry – what sort of change would you like to see?

If we do nothing else, I hope we can shed a little light on the state of mobile device manufacturing.  Currently sustainability isn’t a serious factor for them, but literally BILLIONs of these devices are being produced.  That’s going to hit a wall and I’d love to get the conversation about sustainability in small electronics fired up before that.

I think we are also in a real sinkhole in the mobile industry.  Devices are samey, the “app” ecosystem is slowing down, people feel too attached and dependent on smartphones, but there isn’t a clear replacement or alternate path.  If you think about it zoomed out a little, the role of the “glowing rectangle” is going to have to change a lot in a world where AR/VR become ubiquitous, and we’ve been letting products build value on mobile devices by bothering you with notifications and digging through your address book to bother people you know for so long now, I think we’re poised to see a very strong reaction and some big changes if people like Magic Leap have their way, and those people have amassed a lot of money to ensure they get their way….

Possible business use/advantage?

Runcible can go where traditional mobile devices can’t.  In automotive, in the energy sector, for inventors, at point of purchase, Runcible can go places that iPads can’t and Samsung phones can’t.  If we get enough runway to let that vision play out, I think things will get really interesting both for us and for the consumer.

What’s next for the company and the product?

We would love the luxury of thinking more about Next.  We are completely focused on the Now for the moment and bringing this campaign to a successful conclusion.  On the short list are accessories (watch chains, a lid with a forward-facing camera, etc), software partnerships, and community support so people can expand the reach of this device and start innovating with us!

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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