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CrowdView: Alex from Palo Alto Innovations

| Crowdfunding

Behind every crowdfunding campaign is a person or team with a story. Ultimately, we connect to these people and their projects on a crowdfunding platform but before they go live, a lot of behind the scenes work takes place.

Welcome to CrowdView, a new series, where we will interview epic crowdfunders and tell their stories. With the goal of providing insight and tips to fellow crowdfunders.

My name is Dakota Gallimore the Founder of Dreams.Build and Doppler has caught my eye recently and I reached out to them asking for an interview. We had tons of questions and wanted to learn the backstory of Doppler which is currently successfully funded on Kickstarter right now! Alex was kind enough to hop on a phone call to answer our questions and provide a helpful inside look at what crowdfunders face and how they overcome the hardships of crowdfunding.

Without further ado here is our conversation:


For those who may or may not know you, who are you and what have you crowdfunded?

My name is Alex Tramiel CEO and Co-Founder of the company called Palo Alto Innovation. We’re bringing back the era of simple, practical but still very useful gizmos, and gadgets. Sandman Doppler is our second product that we have released. The first one was the original Sandman which is much more bare-bones. The Sandman had a big LED screen, four USB ports on the back, an alarm and a nice auto dimming display. The Doppler which is live on Kickstarter right now, is basically an upgraded version of the original Sandman. It has speakers, WiFi, Bluetooth, and an RGB LED display which means you can change the lights to any color you want (blue, red, white). Because we have WiFi in the clock, we can also have Amazon Alexa integration. You can even set dashboard indicators and a light bar, so it’ll tell you the day of the week, the weather, the traffic, really anything you want.

 

About that light bar, how do you convey the colors or different events like weather and traffic? Are they user definable?

Yeah, exactly. So what you’ll do is go into the app and let’s say you want to display the weather. You put in your zip code and the light bar will change color depending on the temperature of the day. At a quick glance you’ll be able to see that three-quarter of the way through the day it’s going to get hot. It’s really awesome!

 

Are there specific things that you considered when you’re designing the speakers as well as the whole overall product?

So our lead designer, David, is a huge audiophile, so when we realized we needed speakers in the next version, we gathered a bunch of speakers, ripped them apart, figured out how they worked, what the ideal size and type of the speakers would be and went from there. Actually, originally we had just a single speaker and a bass port on the other side but during prototyping we 3D printed a bunch of samples, figured out some good geometry for the bass port and quickly moved the bass port to the back and added another speaker.

In terms of sound quality, speakers need to have an enclosed air volume to really pump the sound and so we essentially had to seal air inside the Doppler. So we did all of that and came up with sounds that are really really good. However, speakers are all personal preference, so probably not at launch but later on, you’ll be able to actually tune the speakers to your liking. Also, you’ll be able to stream Bluetooth which doesn’t have the best quality, however, since the clock is directly connected via WiFi it’ll be able to stream directly from the internet allowing the Doppler to have much better fidelity. So the Doppler will have great sound quality, especially for the price point. When you compare it to the Amazon Echo, we blow it out of the water in terms of sound quality.

 

Interesting, isn’t the Doppler Amazon Alexa enabled?

It is! Amazon wants to get as many Alexa enable devices as they can. So they provide a service called AVS or Alexa Voice Services that third-parties can use. Which probably 90% of the features that Alexa can do is directly integrated into the Doppler. This allows the Doppler to work just like an echo, you just say “Alexa” and it’ll start listening. Then you can ask it for the weather, tell you a joke, turn on home automatons like music, news, alarms, timers,  anything really.

 

Very cool, sounds like the alarm clock to buy! Where can people who are interested get involved?

So our Kickstarter runs until August 16th I believe. They can visit sandmanclocks.com and it will link them directly to the Kickstarter or they can simply google Sandman Doppler and we should show up. They can also navigate to paloaltoinnovation.com and they’ll be able to see our other projects and pre-order the Sandman Doppler post-Kickstarter!

 

I’m glad you brought that up. Palo Alto Innovation has crowdfunded three projects, what made you choose crowdfunding over other funding methods?

I was born and raised in Palo Alto and I’ve worked at Venture backed companies before and they don’t have what’s best for the consumer and that’s what I really care about. Take myself as an example, I buy things, everyone does, and when your company focuses on what’s going to give the best return… it’s just frustrating.

I mean, I’m sure, I have no doubt in my mind that I could have brought some sketches of the Doppler that David drew up. Maybe a render and be like “Hey we have this awesome alarm clock, it’s the best you’ve ever seen I promise. It’s going to be amazing if you give me a bunch of money I’ll give you a percentage of the sales and you will help us fund it. I’m sure we could have done it that way and we could have taken it straight through to production and instead of having a crowdfunding interview I could be having an interview with a product. That would’ve been awesome, but unfortunately, when you take some else’s money, you have to be careful that they’re aligned with your values.

So like I said, my values are for the consumer, that’s what I care about. I guarantee you if I take venture money and I told them that I was selling the thing for a hundred and twenty dollars, they’d tell me I’d need to raise the price or I’d never get the money.

 

That’s actually really important! I think that’s the power of crowdfunding. You’re kinda democratizing startup funding and instead of having one person having overarching control of the product, you retain that kind of control and let those who will be using the product every day shape it into something they desire. 

Absolutely, however, crowdfunding doesn’t come without its risks, as you don’t know who you’re taking money from effectively. Joe Schmo from Lincoln, Nebraska could not understand how Kickstarter works and I guarantee you a week after my campaign is finished I’m going to see people saying “Hey, where’s my Doppler? It should have come here last week.” and I’ll, unfortunately, have to tell them “Oh no, it says pretty clearly that it’s going to be delivered on this day.” and so there is a lot more education that has to come with crowdfunding. On the other hand, you also get incredible people and a community of people who want to see your project succeed because they are literally invested and those people are why you crowdfund.

 

How do you try to convey the process of crowdfunding to people who are not well versed in the process or generally where in development your project is at? For a crowdfunder who is dealing with this issue, what is a way they could overcome it?

It’s hard, really hard and first of all, I think it helps if you’ve crowdfunded before. If you have experience, it really helps because you know “ok this is a very likely point where this could go wrong.” If you don’t have someone who is on your team who has launched a similar product before, at least go find someone that you can talk to and pick their brain.

For example, I was talking to one of my neighbors at my old office and they were designing a product that had this great upgrade that they wanted to include. They were going to announce it as one of their crowdfunding options. So we decided “ok, let’s hold off just in case something happens cause they’ve done this before.” They decided not to announce that there was actually carbon fiber integrated into their product. At first, the carbon fiber worked, then the manufacturer said “oh the carbon fiber doesn’t work” then the supplier had issues, then it worked, then it didn’t work, then it worked again. If they had announced the feature at the beginning and they had to go back on it, all of their backers would have gone through a roller coaster of emotions and you just can’t do that.

On the flip side, you also have to be as transparent as possible. It’s a fine balancing act. Show people what you’re doing, don’t get their hopes up, and when the product is done, show them that it’s done. When a part of it is done, say “Hey this is what it looks like” take a video, show people, don’t hide anything. If you want to upgrade the product without your backers knowledge, wait until the thing is nailed down on the onset, don’t tease any huge news unless you have huge news to tease.

Another thing you have to be careful with is making sure your product is actually viable before you launch it. So much of crowdfunding happens before the campaign, before you even take anyone’s money from a pledge.

Kickstarter does.. honestly, not a very good job with vetting products ahead of time. Their approval process is basically non-existent and you know it’s in their best interest to take as many products as possible. It’s up to you as the creator to have morals and standards and understand “oh my gosh I may have raised a hundred thousand dollars instantly but I have to actually make the thing.”

So yeah, it’s very exciting you get a bunch of money, you get to know what [we have] eight hundred people now who are super excited about getting the Doppler. You’re also in a contract with these guys, that you’re going to deliver this thing as promised. So we have a bunch of features which we’re super excited about but we haven’t told people about because we don’t want to get hopes up in case we can’t deliver. You have to make sure you know what you’re doing, again make sure you have someone experienced on your team and make sure you’re completely transparent, without giving too much away.

I know that’s kinda a direct contradiction but you have to be really really careful. So I hope that was an answer and didn’t contradict its self too much.

 

No, I think that’s so true. I mean we see it with our crowdfunding platform in general. We have so many cool things and we can’t wait to share them but you have to wait until the time is right. There are so many different steps involved in the iteration process, that you might think you’re finished and then you wake up the next morning and go “You know that would be really cool if we changed this around” but if you’ve already announced it you don’t have that luxury. So I completely agree with you on that.

Well, that’s another thing; Feature Creep. You have to be really careful about that too, especially with software projects. If you go look at the comment section of our Kickstarter you’ll see people really wanting a bunch of features. One feature, for example, is projecting the time onto the ceiling. This is not a new concept, there are a lot of these clocks in the market but it’s a fundamentally different product from what we have now, you know?

There are no optics in our product. There is no light emitting source which could beam something onto the ceiling. So yeah it would be awesome if Doppler had projections but why don’t we include a wake-up light or a bed shaker or six speakers or nine microphones? Eventually, the feature creep gets to you. At some point, you gotta say “Ok, I’m not going to make everyone happy but I’m going to make as many people as happy as I can reasonably.”

 

I completely agree, so you’ve bring up some of the pain points in terms of crowdfunding. What are some pain points or some issues you’ve faced along the way in crowdfunding your three different projects and how did you overcome them?

Ok, so the three projects that we’ve crowdfunded are the Doppler which is live now. The original Sandman clock and then something kinda fun we did during the Pokemon Go craze called the Pokey Pack. So I’ll get to that in a second but… actually you know what, let’s start with the Pokey Pack. So we were playing Pokemon Go and realized we were walking around and litterally everyone was carrying around a charger in their pocket. It just ate everyone’s battery life and my brother thought it would be funny if we made a pack with a battery backup inside and called it the Pokey Pack. We didn’t really think this is going to sell. We did it more because we just launched our Sandman and wanted a little fun project. If it worked great, if it didn’t great, we had fun with it.

So you know just like the potato salad on Kickstarter, not everything is designed to be a hundred percent serious. So what I think we did wrong there is we didn’t really decide internally if it was a joke or not. We kinda said “Oh if people realize it’s a joke, awesome! If people think it’s real, awesome! We’ll make it anyways” and we were kind of stuck in the middle.

In hindsight, we should have just picked one. We should have said this is a joke or no, we’re actually making packs of batteries for Pokemon Go players. So really know what you’re trying to do with your Kickstarter. Are you trying to raise as much money as possible? Are you trying to have fun? Are you trying to make something amazing? You have to figure that out.

My first Kickstarter, the Sandman was a little over two years ago at this point. There was really one thing we did wrong and it’s something we did very well. We had no pre-campaign. Your Kickstarter is not your first foray into the world. You don’t announce your product on Kickstarter. You announce your product in a pre-campaign. Then you launch on Kickstarter and my gosh it would have been so different if we did that. We had I think around five hundred people on our original Kickstarter raising around thirty-four thousand dollars saying “you know we love this product, it is awesome, it is amazing. We want it.” but it took us four weeks to get all those people.

If we had done a pre-campaign like we should have, like we did with the Doppler, we would have hit our goal on the first day. Then all of the Kickstarter magic could have happened. We could have gotten another thousand dollars and it would have been much better. So you have to to do a pre-campaign, it’s super super super important. You know there is a lot of secrecy involving “I’m launching a Kickstarter next week.” No there should be no secrecy. You want as many people as possible to know about your product. Have a pre-campaign page. Announce your pre-campaign page and push as many people to that pre-campaign page as possible. Then email them as soon as your Kickstarter goes live and you’ll get instantaneous backers. It’s just better in every way, so that’s my advice.

 

You know we have people come to our crowdfunding platform that just put their project up within an hour and we, unfortunately, have to decline them because they haven’t conducted pre-marketing and without that, it’ll be near impossible to hit your goal. So I have people contacting me, asking why are you pushing so many people to do Thunderclap and pre-marketing, just approve them. I just can’t without showing them how vital pre-marketing is to crowdfunding. You have to build that e-mailing list and your pre-community.

Yeah, it’s super important. We had one dude on our pre-campaign, Jamie, he’s fantastic. He managed to get over two hundred and fifty people to sign up to the pre-campaign just because he loved the product so much. We also had a viral reward package and so he’s getting a free Doppler. He didn’t spend a single cent and he’s getting a free product because he pushed the pre-campaign page.

That’s all you have to do, just push that pre-campaign page and you know as a business person, if just four of those people convert from Jamies’s two hundred and fifty, I’ve made my money back. So it’s been awesome. We used Kickoff Labs personally and it worked great, it’s a little on the pricey side but their service was great and the results were fantastic.

 

I’m glad you brought that up because I wanted to ask you what tools did you use that really helped you while funding?

Yeah, so we’re on Mailchimp, Kickoff Labs, and Facebook ads. Those are the three tools we used oh and we built our own pre-campaign website. I’m a huge proponent of not teasing. I saw an ad the other day, it was like a picture of a living room with this orb just blacked out and it said something like “The future is here” and it’s like… what is it? You’re not getting my email address until you tell me what it is.

Don’t do that. If you want people to be qualified to know “ok these people actually like the product” tell them what it is. The only thing we didn’t announce until the Kickstarter was the price. We’re still not sure if that was the ideal thing to do but that was the only thing we teased. We showed the full product, everything.

So we built the website off what is effectively Dreamweaver and then installed Kickoff labs. We then pushed all the collected emails into mailchimp. I can not say enough good things about mailchimp. We did what’s called an auto-responder campaign, we basically emailed people every other day for a couple of weeks with some different updates and basically showed them “ok this is how the product came to be and this is where we are currently and this is what we have to do. Make sure to tell your friends” and then we used facebook ads to push traffic to that pre-campaign page.  That’s how we hit our goal in just 38 minutes.

 

That’s fantastic! So a few more questions, for someone who is just new to crowdfunding, who doesn’t necessarily know what to do and are trying to gain exposure, do you have any advice for them on how to increase exposure?

Absolutely, your best sales people are going to be your customers. So if your customers are excited about the product, tell them to help spread the news. That’s it, it’s really that simple.

You know, there’s a million ways to get the word out there but with just one update to your current supporters you can get fifty, a hundred, two hundred, three hundred, people to say “oh I’m gonna tell five people about my new product today” and just by paying it forward it’ll grow and grow and grow and grow.

It’s best to incentivize those people so we ran referral campaign with it so everyone who got other people to sign up got something. Whether it be a free T-Shirt or a Doppler, that’s what we did. So you want to incentivize your customers who are already excited about your product and tell them to spread the word.

 

I think we covered a lot of good topics and thank you for taking the time to have this discussion.  So what do you love about crowdfunding and where would you like to see it go?

Ok, where I would like for it to go is a really easy question. I want it to be more heavily regulated… maybe not regulated but policed. The number of people who have been hurt or scammed or lost money due to crowdfunding is terrible. It’s really really frustrating and better platforms that do a better job of policing these guys need to exist and they need to overtake the people that don’t care or the people who don’t care need to start caring. They need to start doing a better job of regulating products and the projects and we need to get crowdfunding a higher success rate.

You know you need to have these super high-end clients or high-end products which get a bunch of interest but they also need to be successfully delivered on time.

When you say your launching on Kickstarter, people roll their eyes these days and say “oh how late are you going to be?” and then of course when you have a reasonable timeframe like we do on the Doppler, they’re going to say “oh why does it take so long?” You can’t make everyone happy but that’s what I would like crowdfunding to be or to go.

What I do like about crowdfunding is you’re able to reach a tremendous audience and mostly people that understand that you’re buying a pre-released product that is still in development. These people tend to be unbelievable supporters and advocates and it’s incredible to have them on your side. Then you get some dude you’ve never met who’s just fallen in love with your product and will do so much for you and give you so much information. The community is just so unbelievably supportive it’s incredible.

 

That’s great! So to wrap it up, where can people reach Doppler as a refresher and where will you be taking Doppler in the future, now that you’re successfully funded?

Yeah, sandmanclocks.com will send you over to the Kickstarter and paloaltoinnovation.com will let you learn more about our company and our current products as well as future products. Once the Doppler is finished on Kickstarter, we will be changing our ship’s course into making the Doppler.

We have our production drawings, will start tooling and making sure everything works. We also have some pretty cool products coming out after the Doppler which is all I’m going to say now because they’re not finished yet. Make sure you sign up and follow us on social media where you’ll see all of our new products and of course the status of the Doppler as it starts to hit store shelves.

Fantastic, well thank you for your time again and we look forward to watching the Doppler in the future!

 


That’s it for this CrowdView, we’d love to get your thoughts on the series as well as Alex’s adventures in crowdfunding on social media! Give Alex and Palo Alto Innovation some love by backing their crowdfunding adventure as well as sharing this on social media!

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