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This week we speak with Glassy Pro founder Mikel Alonso Berrotarran. Spain-based Glassy is a Brinc startup whose launch of the Glassy Zone on Indiegogo was successfully funded at 144% over its initial target. Here, Mikel shares his thoughts on everything from ideal surfing conditions, what it’s like to transition from developing software to building hardware, and what he thinks the advantages are of Asia for hardware founders.
Read below to learn more about Mikel’s journey from software to hardware founder and what’s next for this international IoT startup!
What gave you the inspiration for Glassy?
I’ve always loved surfing and came up with the idea in 2008 when I lived in Basque country in Northern Spain. It’s all about surfing there with its world class waves and is the best surfing spot in Europe.
When I had to move to Valencia in 2009 with my wife, I wasn’t able to surf because the conditions for surfing were very different (frankly, they were really bad). Instead I adapted to other sports like running and thought about developing a fitness app for surfing that could eventually encompass all of the other sports that I also love, like running.
At the time, I thought that Quicksilver, Billabong and other established brands were going to do something similar, so I put the idea on hold until I realized that no one was seeing the opportunity like I did. Once I was able to put a team together, we launched the app initially for iOS in November 2012 and then for Android in March of 2013 and it was a HUGE hit with the surfer community. The app has now been downloaded nearly 200,000 times and I’m proud to say that our community continues to grow with almost no marketing or PR.
You’ve successfully built an app with a great following. What made you decide that you needed to build a connected hardware device?
We’ve built an incredible user experience through a design that’s made for surfers, which people have said is the best in the market. We’re really happy with this, but there is more to the story. The idea to build a hardware device came in 2013 after an investment event in Bilbao, in northern Spain. An investor mentioned the possibility of developing a wearable to complete the user experience. After thinking about the idea and speaking with others in the surfing community, I realized that we needed to accurately track surfing activity to complement the app experience. This is where the Glassy Zone began.
We initially started out testing a smartwatch in 2014, similar to those you see from the big names in surfing. Then it changed to a band as the technology and user experience was better. It also decreased the risk of getting the product to market because there are fewer components in a band form factor vs a watch.
Glassy has a large and very engaged community. Do you have any tips for community building?
Create something of great value to your users. With Glassy, the users are building the community tracking systems for each other. It’s really a thing of beauty.
When we first launched the app, we had some critics tell us that no one would bother to record their surf sessions. Now we have 100,000 surf sessions that have been recorded and the biggest database of surfing data in the world with more than 12,000 spots. And our users are still busy building the community!! It’s really been a case of people not knowing what they needed until we gave it to them!
Advantages of being in Asia? How are you managing things remotely as you’re now based in Spain and fly back and forth?
I think as a hardware founder, you have to be in the Pearl River Delta, PRD (south China). The factories are there, the knowledge and engineers are there, and the cost of development is not even comparable in the US or Europe.
We have a diversified team, both culturally and geographically, and embrace remote work using all of the best communication means. We have people on the ground in Valencia, Iceland and Brinc is our close partner in Hong Kong and our home base when we’re in the PRD.
If I didn’t have to go back to Spain and fundraise, I would have stayed in Asia for 2-3 years to learn more about manufacturing, since my background is in design and software development. I didn’t know anything about manufacturing, design for manufacture (DFM) or prototyping previously, but would love to stay in Asia full-time. Eventually, my focus will have to be in the States, which is the primary distribution market for us, but while we’re in R&D and manufacture mode, it’s all about the PRD.
What advice would you give other hardware founders which may be unaware of the typical challenges that come with building a hardware business?
1) Find the right partners – My primary piece of advice to other hardware founders is to partner with an accelerator program that has the knowledge and understanding of hardware and the contacts to ensure you can handle every stage of building a hardware business… it’s not easy, trust me!
2) Hire the right talent for the current stage of your startup – When making your initial hires, hire people that actually know you. I personally don’t use LinkedIn or social platforms but rely on people in my own network – ask talented people… they know other talented people. A top developer will always recommend another top developer, and will rarely recommend someone who is not at the right level. For any hardware startup, I recommend that first hires be a CTO and COO due to the complexity in the initial development process and to begin validating the product.
3) Start fundraising well ahead of when you need it! Raising capital takes a LONG time – my advice is to start at least 6 months before you need to draw on the capital, say for a launch campaign. If you’re a CEO, plan to spend 80%+ of your time on fundraising. It is a lot of work and it’s really the CEO’s job. And hire a really good lawyer :-).
When it was time for fundraising, it was tough to transition the team back to Spain after we had made so much progress by being in Hong Kong and China, working on customer development and prototyping simultaneously (it’s SO much faster being in Hong Kong). But I had to do it so that I could fundraise with my network, which is in Spain. Also, it’s critical to be able to project cash flows and account for how much cash it will take to get your product to market and when you’ll run out. Brinc has been a HUGE help here. They have amazing tools and people to help you ensure you get it right from the very beginning.
The good news is that we spent eight months raising a new round. Now that we’ve launched on Indiegogo, we were able to close a new round of investment from angel investors and government lines, all valued at total of $1.2 million USD, so we are back to work!
You’ve decided to make some design changes based on user feedback. What was your approach for validation and why do you believe these design changes are ultimately the right decision for your customers?
For our app, we decided the features on our own. Although, we have received some interesting ideas from our users, from the very start, we were clear on what we wanted to do (after all, we are our users… surfers). We did create a group of testers with the live app, but it confirmed what we were doing already. It never hurts to test. Having said this, we love any feedback that we get and analyze and respond to all of it!
Our hardware was a different story. The percentage of users who asked for the device to tell the time was so high that we decided to make the change. And I think it was a good choice, even though it meant that we had to delay our delivery times. This is the tough part of hardware; sometimes you have to make tough decisions that will hurt your short term goals in order to survive in the long-term.
What’s next for Glassy?
The priority is to finish Glassy Zone and have it available for sale next Summer 2017. Our goal is to sell 10,000+ units next year. Our main sales channels are e-commerce, Indiegogo, and global retailers. We’re working on a software migration to the cloud so that we can add new features, which will take four to five months. In the meantime, we are re-evaluating our timelines to see if we can get it earlier to our backers. We’ll be testing more algorithms and new features later this Fall so hopefully the product will be even more robust than we initially imagined.