Tuesday, August 21, 2012

If You Like Instagram, You will LOVE Instacube!

[originally composed for Yahoo! Finance]

If You Like Instagram, You will LOVE Instacube!

Instacube Interview August 2012

            "The next big thing will start out looking like a toy." - Chris Dixon

When 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.

Instacube (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.

[This interview lasted nearly 90 minutes so I'm paraphrasing my questions and their replies. Any missteps are mine; any deep insights are theirs!]

What IS this "Instacube"? In FIVE words or less? [Channeling my inner Kawasaki: What's your mantra?]

            "Living canvas for Instagram feeds."

And, 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.

The 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.

We are 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.

About a 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.)

            Takeaways 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 pivots, LOL.

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.
Takeaway for Entrepreneurs: 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.

It's 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.

NK:  There 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.

            Takeaway 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 research.
            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 projects.
            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.
NK: Needs or wants?
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.

[Couldn't 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.

I appreciate John and Savannah's sense of humor in this. But I appreciate even more their competence and most of all their passion.

In the 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"
When I 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.

You 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.

Get thee to http://www.Instacu.be  *
Click “Preorder on Kickstarter”
Check out Instacube and…
Tell me what YOU think!

Twitter: @Instacube; on Facebook, it’s, well, Instacube ;)
Also: @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!