Layer, the industrial design firm founded by Benjamin Hubert, is one of the best small studios working today, having designed everything from a 3D-printed wheelchair to a smarter donation box. Now it has its own product line–Nolii a handful of accessories designed to tackle the biggest pain points of digital nomads like tangled cords and dead batteries.
“Nolii” is short for the brand’s characteristics: Nomadic lifestyle intelligence. As Hubert tells it, the idea was to find insights about at least a couple problems, then solve multiple problems with one well-designed detail. For example, Set ingeniously combines a portable battery with a wall wart, so that when you’re plugged in you can also charge up your portable reserve. Keep is a tiny key fob that combines a small battery, 5GB of data storage, and a Bluetooth tracking device. It lets you always find your keys and has enough power to charge your phone in a pinch, and share files. Couple is a modular phone case, which can accept attachments for a slim wallet or a battery—you can snap on whichever you need, rather than being limited by the same case all the time. (All Nolii products can be ordered with either UK, US, or EU plugs.)
Each of Nolii’s five products has a head-slapping quality that makes you wonder why no one’s already done it. Hubert thinks that because the big tech players are so focused on selling phones, they give short shrift to the problems at the edges. “These products are selling really well and so maybe they’re not broken,” says Hubert. “People aren’t investing in things to improve them.” Investment is a sticking point for any hardware startup with a modest vision—no matter how brilliant. That’s even more true now that retail outlets are crumbling. Many smart products such as the kitchenware brand Oxo Good Grips were born on a single insight that people could see for themselves in stores. The road is tougher now, even if online marketing theoretically provides a way to reach a precise audience.
Meanwhile, Kickstarter has given consumers the false sense that if enough people are hyped up about a product, it can succeed. But as many backers have guessed, that’s not enough. To keep things cheap on a per unit basis, a startup typically has to put in large initial orders with a manufacturer—perhaps even a year’s worth of merchandise. Even the most successful Kickstarters don’t raise nearly enough. That’s why you don’t see Kickstarter projects appear in the Apple Store, even years after launch. Rather, Kickstarter has become a testing ground for raising more money. Kickstarter is more a marketing tool that helps some startups raise money on better terms, instead of building a brand from the ground up and securing deals with retail partners.
But the other route, doing business with the few big retailers that remain, is no less fraught. To do business with a huge retailer such as Apple, businesses have to build up inventories that small companies can’t support, thus mortgaging themselves on the hope that they’ll be a hit. In the end, someone has to take a risk up front. Nolii was fortunate enough to have been the brainchild of Asad Hamir, a veteran investor who figured that the accessories company Belkin and its peers have dropped the ball. Having laid out funds for big initial orders, Nolii is making sure it can guarantee pricing that won’t shift as the product rolls out. It’s also making sure that it has the inventory to cut deals with phone suppliers once the product starts shipping around Christmas 2017. (For its work designing the line, Layer is retaining a 25% share of the company.)
Of course, the difficult part is then starting a brand. Nolii’s products are ingenious, but ingenuity gets copied quickly—that’s why the high-design aspirations of companies such as Belkin and InCase became watered down, in favor of simple, mass-market products that can be churned out quickly, with no special insights required. Why bother redesigning the smartphone cord, when you’ve got to pump them out for cheap? (Layer’s solution was Bundle, a cord with a plastic loop that serves as both a tidy wrap and an anchor for sitting atop a table, so that it never slips off.) Why spend too much time designing a nice-looking battery pack? (Nolii’s fifth product, Stack, is a modular battery system, with a large battery for laptops and a detachable section if you need portable power for just your phone.)
The only defense against copycats is to keep creating more clever stuff, until finally, you’ve developed a brand that has enough loyalty to demand a bit of a premium. Which is why if a design firm can’t succeed at it, then it’s hard to see how anyone else could.