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.”
“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.)
“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.
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.