In a recent Fast Company article, writer Kevin Purdy described his experience of owning a Pebble smartwatch; a device he says was “all it promised to be.”
And then, after one week of wearing it, his Pebble watch stopped working.
When he consulted the Pebble support forums, he saw a long list of complaints about delays and other bugs. Rather than getting angry at having invested in an imperfect product, he felt sympathy for the tiny Pebble team. Here was a young company “trying to sell a disruptive piece of near-future tech in an early-stage form, to customers who want both a revolution and a reliable product.”
Functionality flaws and design imperfections were almost inevitable considering the limited resources that would have been devoted to engineering and preparing Pebble for production. Despite increased access to production resources, hardware is still a tough market. What’s most intriguing is Purdy’s passive reaction to having spent money on something that broke after a week. It’s hard to imagine anyone letting Apple off so easily.
The world of commerce has no shortage of David vs. Goliath stories—craft brewers vs. Anheuser-Busch, organic co-ops vs. Whole Foods, independent bookstores vs. Amazon. Regardless of the industry, there is always a customer base willing to forgive inefficiencies and put up with moderate dissatisfaction simply because they believe in the product and admire the company for trying to establishing itself in a market towering with giants. The things people buy speak volumes about who they are and what their values are. In other words, as soon as someone figures out a way to enter a market with an alternative from the mainstream, there is a customer base eager to get its hands on something new, something different.
However, alternatives from the mainstream are not always an option for consumers. Consider the barriers a boutique automobile manufacturer would face in today’s market. And what about the airline industry? When someone as powerful as Richard Branson struggles to put more Virgin planes in the sky, you know that’s a tough market.
When it comes to hardware, Apple was—and mostly still is—the alternative, regardless of its size and profitability. Thanks to its marketing machine, most consumers don’t feel like they are buying a commodity, instead they are buying a work of passion. It can make you feel like you’re part of something important. This same sentiment is rooted in Purdy’s feelings toward Pebble. “I felt like part of a small, clever team,” he says.
Crowdfunding, if done right, has the potential to create a thriving market for indie hardware. Customers will take pride in wearing beta-versions, putting up with all of their flaws and bugs, just because they feel like their part of something unique. You might be the only person you know wearing a Pebble watch, but then you see somebody at a bar or on the bus wearing one and feel cool, knowing someone else in the world has the same values as you.
This could pose challenges to a company like Apple and their marketing deptartment at some point. But Apple never had any illusions about not being a huge, market-dominating company, which, in turn, poses a bigger challenge to younger hardware companies like Pebble. When the scrappy smallness of your company factors heavily into inspiring brand loyalty, how do you grow and compete without losing sight of what made people fall in love with your products in the first place?
What Purdy’s article points to is a sympathetic consumerism that is unique to burgeoning indie markets. Ultimately, there is enough room in the market for both cutting edge indie hardware and masterfully produced consumer devices. “The good news for Pebble,” says Purdy, “Is that it has shown that there’s a real market for a decidedly minimal black-and-white, uni-tasking watch, and it will have time to work out its issues and update before an iWatch or S-Watch arrives.”
Regardless of the size of the company, it’s all about end-user. In the indie marketplace, this is something that companies easily lose sight of in light of the countless other obstacles they face. Pebble has a great opportunity to set a standard and do what all-great companies do—keep customers happy and engaged.
As for me, I just placed an order for a Pebble watch over the weekend. I’m eager to check it out and see what the experience is like. Of course, there have been plenty of complaints of long wait-times, but Pebble says my watch “will ship in April-May 2013”. I’ll definitely share my thoughts on the device when it arrives.