Why Being Hands On Was Critical To Fitbit's Success

How Fitbit’s founders didn't let their inexperience in the uber-competitive consumer electronics field stop them from becoming the leader of the pack--and neither should you.

When Fitbit’s highly anticipated fitness trackers were a year late to ship, they still managed to debut to excitement instead of angry customers and bad publicity.

How? The company built a loyal pre-purchase crowd, and used its blog to explain the intricacies involved in creating a high-quality product. “If you look at Kickstarter now, many are following that model,” says Eric Friedman, co-founder and chief technology officer of San Francisco-based Fitbit, Inc. “They’re late to ship, but posting pictures of the founders in the factories, learning what’s going on.”

We named Fitbit a Most Innovative Company in the Fitness category for leading the pack for full-body personal activity trackers, with 67% of the market in 2013.

The Hard Sell

“At the time we were starting Fitbit, there were really very few hardware-based startups,” says Friedman. A major stumbling block was resistance from VCs who’d lost tens of millions of dollars in hardware startups. “There wasn’t a larger number of people to talk to,” he says. Investors initially questioned whether consumers would spend $100 on a fitness tracker. Now, ironically, the question is whether $100 is too low a price?

Friedman and Fitbit Co-Founder and CEO James Park, faced another challenge when launching FitBit: they were both software engineers by trade trying to enter the competitive world of consumer electronics. The two launched Wind-Up Labs in 2002, a photo-sharing site that allowed users to easily get pictures off their cameras to share online. (The company was later acquired by CNET.)

Fitbit Flex

“We’d never done this before,” Friedman reflects. In developing Fitbit, he and Park spent a lot of time in Asia touring factories and asking lots of questions to see what was done similarly, what was different, and synthesizing all that information. “We talked with anyone who was willing to talk to us. You learn a lot that way,” Friedman says.

Learning By Doing

In the early years, Friedman and Park ran production themselves, which was a “great, hands-on lesson,” Friedman says. After all, you learn more from complications and what went wrong, he says. As Fitbit’s grown, the company’s added managers and teams who are “really strong doers” with specific areas of expertise.

The early, hands-on experience was invaluable to Friedman. “By gaining knowledge, you can engage with experts in the field,” he says. Being educated in this way allows you to not have to take someone else’s word for it and, when you need to push back, you know why you’re pushing back, he notes. Another benefit? “It allows us to be better partners with our team and bond as a team better,” he says.

Friedman’s advice to startups is to jump in now, because it never gets any easier. “Get your hands dirty and do it yourself. You learn more that way,” he says.

[Image: Flickr user Peter Taylor]

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4 Comments

  • Judy Nelson

    Have you not heard about the many thousands of us that have been burned and scarred from this company's product? What kind of an example is that? Their methodology has ruined their reputation and may just bankrupt them with having a shoddy startup model including poor manufacturing oversight and worse customer relations.

  • I couldn't agree more- they went cheap on their manufacturing and their customers paid the price. As someone who has had to deal with the "irritating rash", and I'm pretty sure an "irritating rash" should not leave someone permanently scarred, the customer relations were poor. The recall was a necessary knee-jerk reaction to the tens of thousands of complaints sent in to the CPSC. It has been 5 weeks since I sent in my Force and still no sign of a refund check.

  • James Thompsan

    I think you've overlooked the fact that they have done a full recall on their products and communicated effectively throughout the process, their customer relations have been nothing more than outstanding from all parties Ive heard that have been involved with them, Yes its unfortunate that you received an irritating rash from an honest mistake their company made, and are fixing, you need to take a step back and stop complaining for something to do.

  • I find I'm pissed at Fitbit, but for totally different reasons. They recalled the Force but then didn't have a replacement for the device. So my wife's Force gets sent back, but what do I replace it with? I didn't buy a Flex because it was a lesser device than my Fitbit One. And she wanted a wristband form factor. The Force was almost unanimous as being the best fitness tracker on the market, so basically they've left the top spot in the market with no replacement on the horizon.