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. 


One of Sinclair Radionics's delayed Audio Amplifiers
(One of Sinclair Radionics's delayed Audio Amplifiers)

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working with consumer medical companies for several years, so I was fascinated when FitBit came onto the scene a few years ago.  I liked what I saw – they seemed to have all of the right ideas and a credible business model, but one thing worried me – could they deliver?

I’ve been involved in product design for many years.  Much within the design of electronics is very well understood and is predominantly a matter of doing things in the right order.  But there are still a number of areas of design which fall into the black magic category, where it’s much more difficult than it looks.  From my experience there are four of these ready to trap the unwary:

  • RF (radio) technology (and I’ve just finished writing a book on this to help product designers),
  • Rechargeable Batteries
  • Power Management, and
  • Design for low cost Manufacture

What worried me about FitBit was that their product incorporated all of these.  Would they get it right first time?  I hoped they would, but sadly they’ve hit all of them.  Two years on, they’re only just shipping.

It’s now almost two years since they first announced the product.  FitBit have been wise – rather than taking the old fashioned route of keeping their customers in the dark, they’ve written a blog which has shared their pain with the customers.    As they’ve discovered that the radio range wasn’t what they’d expected, the batteries haven’t held their charge or lasted as long as they needed, and that production and assembly takes ten minutes instead of one, they have been brutally honest, letting those who had signed up for the first devices feel as if they were part of the process.  FitBit are now finally shipping. 

I hope the product goes well and works as they hoped.  But they provide a cautionary tale for any consumer or medical fitness company that doesn’t understand the issues of manufacturing wireless consumer products.  And for VCs that place their belief in a business plan from a company without that manufacturing experience.

A more recent example is Zomm, who burst onto the scene running full pelt this year’s CES, where they won the 2010 Best of Innovation Award with their Bluetooth tag.  They’re not the first to have the idea that it would be nice to use something to discover where you left our phone – I was involved in a similar Bluetooth product for the Palm Pilot back in 2002, which allowed your Palm to make a tethered data connection via the GSM network (at a blistering 9.6kbps), as well as getting your phone to ring, even if it was on silent.  But in those early days of Bluetooth, it only sold to a few techies.  Zomm marshalled the full force of the media with the most impressive consumer launch of a Bluetooth accessory that I’ve ever seen.

Zomm is the brainchild of Laurie and Henry Penix, a couple, who, with their friends, are good at losing their phones.  They’ve come up with their Zomm Bluetooth tag, which acts as a virtual leash, which can warn you if your phone goes out of range, as well as letting you answer calls remotely, and acting as a personal panic button.  It’s by no means the first such tag, but it’s the most attractive and feature packed one I’ve seen.  And it has a PR campaign to die for.

As was the case with Fitbit, Zomm don’t have a product to ship yet.  They’re playing the same “near future” game and taking pre-orders, which they will fulfil in late spring and summer.  It’s a product that will face many of the same design issues that plagued FitBit, so it will be interesting to see whether they meet their shipment dates.  They’re already doing a great job of engaging their community through Twitter and Facebook, with the offer if discounts of they can get 100,000 pre-orders.  With a potential value of $8 million, that will be a very nice pre-order to get Zomm going.

I really hope they do get their product out, and will keep an eager eye on their process.  As soon as either company accepts orders from outside the U.S. I’ll be placing mine.  Except that unlike my early Sinclair kits, I’ll be taking these to pieces to see how they work, rather than putting them together.