Fitbit and Zomm. The return of the Sinclair business model?

There was a time when it was expected that most teenage boys would have a soldering iron.  In those days we didn’t buy audio amplifiers or calculators, we built them from kits.  And anyone who grew up in the late sixties in the UK will remember the adverts in Wireless World and Practical Wireless for a succession of kits from Sinclair Radionics.  (The turbulent history of Sinclair and the resultant founding of ARM is very affectionately covered in a recent BBC drama – Micro Men.)  Before he went on to greater things with the Spectrum personal computer and the C5, Clive Sinclair founded his empire with the promise of the most dazzling technology that we could have in the near future. 

That bit about the near future was important.  Whenever you ordered one of the early products from Sinclair, it never arrived by return of post.  The reasons for delays are documented at the Planet Sinclair site and ranged from subcontractors making mirror images of the printed circuit board, through non-delivery of chips to products that were impossible to make. As a result, there was a common perception that Clive cashed our postal orders and cheques to provide the cash flow before he bought the kit parts.  I suspect there was no truth in that rumour was true, but it taught us the principle that you had to wait for cool technical things to appear.  But Sinclair invariably did a good job of keeping us early techies on-board, happily waiting the promise of things to come.

After a number of years in which we’ve come to expect the instant gratification that is available from the web, whatever our desires, I’m intrigued to see the re-emergence of that principle of having to wait. In particular, the tactics of small start-up companies similar to Sinclair Radionics, who tell everyone what they’re going to make well in advance of delivering it and then try to keep the customer interest level up until they actually deliver.  I assume they’re not taking the upfront cash, as today we have Venture Capital to fund their development pains.  But they’re playing to the same customer psychology that Sinclair did so well, of promising tastier jam tomorrow. 

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