[originally composed for Yahoo! Finance]
If You Like Instagram, You will LOVE Instacube!
Instacube Interview August 2012
next big thing will start out looking like a toy." - Chris Dixon
one of the Valley's premier gurus of new product design decides to walk the
walk and create their own new product, it's hard not to notice! To begin with,
Design2Matter [www.design2matter.com] is a fascinating
company anyway, given its roots in Stanford's legendary Design School. And
launching it on Kickstarter? OK, I gotta know more. I like the Instacube idea
but I wanted to understand the processes and the people that made it happen.
(www.instacu.be; @instacube) launches on Kickstarter Tuesday, 21 August, and
from what I've seen, a very interesting entrepreneurial story is unfolding.
(A) Not only is this an essentially
intrapreneurial effort from a proven firm with a rock star reputation -that
they are potentially putting at risk…
(B) They also chose to test
crowdfunding as a strategic option.
interview lasted nearly 90 minutes so I'm paraphrasing my questions and their
replies. Any missteps are mine; any deep insights are theirs!]
this "Instacube"? In FIVE words or less? [Channeling my inner
Kawasaki: What's your mantra?]
canvas for Instagram feeds."
yes, it's a cube: 7" X 7" X 2.5" thick with a 6.5" diagonal
screen that shows pictures, specifically pulling from the Instagram API
whatever feeds from Instagram you desire -- your photos, others' feeds that
you've subscribed to, feeds customized by hashtag or ??. Lots of freedom to
play with this.
best part of this were the interviewees: "Supreme Designer" John
Whaley and "Queen Bee" Savannah Peterson of D2M. By the time I was
done, I wanted to go work for D2M (they must need a janitor? LOL) En route I
managed to pull out some juicy details of how Instacube was conceived and how
it gestated along the way. Without an Instacube in hand, I wanted to get inside
the heads (and hearts) of John and Savannah. It was enough to tell me that whatever
the initial market reaction is, D2M will learn and pivot brilliantly. I can
only hope they'll forgive the many liberties I'm taking with our conversation
p.s.: As you’ll see, I
found several delightful takeaways for entrepreneurs to share!
NK: How do you customers get "it"? Or
is this like selling to golfers, who are so obsessed, they'll damned near
anything golf-related? Are you counting on Instagram addicts to give you the
benefit of the doubt?
D2M [again, paraphrasing liberally]: Who will
get REALLY excited? Actually, it's not the power users of Instagram, although
they should be intrigued.
NOT trying to be all things to all people, but the ability of Instacube to help
anyone self-curate their Instagram feeds
and do so effortlessly should appeal to many.
NK: What IS the value prop for customers? What
are THEY screaming for? How did you figure that out?
D2M: Do you want an "app full of
thumbnails"? Even really cool thumbnails? Sure, if you don't see an
alternative. Watching instagrams roll by at 600x600 pixels on a phone screen
or... in their full(er) glory on a 6.5" diagonal screen? Your call.
NK: Backing up even further... How the heck did
this idea even emerge?
D2M: To practice what we preach? As a firm, we
made the strategic decision around a year ago to be more entrepreneurial
ourselves and committed to developing the first of what should be a series of
products or services that would be an internal venture within D2M.
dozen ideas were pitched seriously and John Whaley pitched this, based on the
pain points above. Again, for most people it's a PITA to set up and scroll your
Instagram feed in a way that you can actually appreciate it.
NK: So how did this idea win out?
D2M: Passion. Active championing and gathering
intel and building allies. (Judging by the Twitter activity, John and Savannah have
been proselytizing for months now.)
for Entrepreneurs: Sometimes a new product offering is a natural extension
of what you're already doing and those often make perfect sense. However, there
are ALSO times where you need to be a little self-disruptive and stretch. It will be fun
to see how D2M succeeds at this.
But implementing that strategic
intent to be more entrepreneurial is easier said than done; you need sound
processes to accompany the passion. D2M obviously has long successful
experience at advising others; I'm intrigued by how they are actually
"eating their own cooking." Consider using an internal competition.
That has long been seen as a best practice, but surprisingly few walk the walk
(and fewer still do it well.)
NK: Let me shift gears... How have you pivoted
during development? What have end users told you that suggested (forced?)
changes in design?
D2M: The design and functionality has remained
quite stable. We are usually pretty proactive at encouraging frequent, rapid bold
We did make it a little bigger because of
manufacturing concerns. D2M has an active office in Hong Kong that gives us
great familiarity with Chinese manufacturers. Sometimes a great, great design
hits a roadblock because they don't understand how things get made. A slightly
larger mechanical or electronic component might be much more reliable and
cheaper. And faster to market.
NK: From knowing the Pleo and [now the
also-crowdfunded SymbeeStars**] crew here in Idaho, I remembered how their deep understanding
this about manufacturing had been both a godsend and the source of amusing
stories, such as the need to locate a component in an "interesting"
spot on Pleo.
This is a facet of design that we often lose sight of. Yes, we need to be rigorous
about our business models but that extends to value delivery (and thus to value
capture.) Manufacturing competence can look quite mundane but it's a crucial
competence for getting reliable (and cost-effective) new products to market
without compromising elegance and functionality.
NK: Why crowdfunding?
D2M could finance this in-house trivially.
D2M: Crowdfunding is not just about getting the
funds to bring this prototype to market. It is also a wonderful way to connect
with customers. Kickstarter is a way for D2M to reach the right people, to
learn more about them and what they really want. It's all part of the market
validation process. And, yes, it lowers the execution risk significantly.
also a way for D2M to learn how entrepreneurs can use crowdfunding brilliantly.
The number of entrepreneurs now trying to use crowdfunding is exploding, but
how many of them are learning from the process? D2M wants to gain expertise in
what is in reality a very new financing model.
is considerable concern that crowdfunding could get in the way of future equity
financing, but as an established firm,
this isn't going to mess up any future equity financing for you.
for Entrepreneurs: This might be the most important thing I learned here.
Crowdfunding is certainly blowing up globally. But are we using it properly? It
might be a very good idea for existing firms to explore and experiment with
crowdfunding, not just as fundraising but as a unique vehicle for market
From working with so many social
ventures I see crowdfunding is going to be more powerful for projects than for
trying to boot up a company. It's so much more elegant to deploy for specific
There seems to be a Social Media
Expert on every street corner these days (sigh!) but Crowdfunding Guru is
catching up. It's going to be equally important to identify those consultants
and other allies who really get it. And the only way they are going to get
it... is to experiment themselves.
NK: Everybody with a remotely successful design
now says it's a great example of excellent "design thinking"... But
you & I know better? So... in the development/evolution of Instacube, where
has badass, cutting-edge design thinking really, REALLY made a difference?
D2M: Great design thinking is about need-finding.
Find and articulate the right need and the design process gets easier.
D2M: If you do a great job of need-finding, you
ARE want-finding. If you really solve the problem, fix the pain point and communicate
that, then you connect with end users at a deeper level.
get John or Savannah to bite on the excessive proliferation of 'design
thinking' as a buzzphrase. How dare they take the high road? ;) ]
NK: One final question: What if I don't have a
smart phone which makes it awfully hard to have the Instagram app... so tell me
why I should buy this bad boy?
D2M: You don't need Instagram on your
phone at all. Instacube accesses the API, you program it with a simple
on-screen interface and as long as the wifi is working, photos will scroll
across your Instacube effortlessly.
appreciate John and Savannah's sense of humor in this. But I appreciate even more
their competence and most of all their passion.
venture world, the mantra is "don't bet on the horses, bet on the
jockeys" and since there is no prototype for me to break, er, test... I
wanted to understand the "jockeys". I meet entrepreneurs with great
passion; I meet entrepreneurs with great skills; I meet too few who have both.
On that count, D2M impresses me. (And I'm not easily impressed.)
A parting thought... "Elegant"
was at Caltech, "elegant" was perhaps the highest praise that you
could give for a process or solution. Prove a tough theorem in 10 pages is
cool; doing in 2 pages is better. Proving it in 2 pages that everyone
immediately understands AND helps solve other problems? Elegant.
might have noticed that "elegant" keeps showing up. Instacube
certainly seems an elegant solution but I also believe now that what made the
product elegant is the elegance of its processes and of the people.
Thank you, John. Thank you, Savannah. I love learning from great people.
“Preorder on Kickstarter”
@Instacube; on Facebook, it’s, well, Instacube ;)
@JohnRWhaley @Design2Matter & @Savannah4Peace
** p.s. Symbee Stars is an amazing Eagle-based product already launched by my buddy John Sosoka & friends of Pleo fame - PLEASE go to http://www.indiegogo.com/SymbeeStars & preorder there too!