Don’t Steal This Idea.

If it’s on my porch, you soon won’t be able to.

Mike Grabham is well known in the Seattle startup community. He runs the popular, Startup Grind Seattle, which puts on excellent talks with very well-known and successful tech entrepreneurs and business people in the Seattle community. Mike’s a gracious interviewer and a good person, I had the chance to meet him for the first time last month.

But this isn’t about Mike. It’s about an email I received from him.

A few days ago, I received an email from Mike. He just came out with a new campaign that’s on Kickstarter. It’s a package protector, about the size of a Frisbee, that fits on your porch. Delivery people can stack packages on the device, and packages can be removed only when an authorized user unlocks the device. The device unlocks from your phone.

I’m speaking as someone who had an important belonging stolen off my porch by a thief (my back porch!) and who manages a property in Seattle with five inhabitants constantly receiving packages, I found this idea to be particularly interesting. I decided do a Design Teardown.

What’s a Design Teardown?

It’s advice Jon Bell gave me when I first moved to Seattle. If you were designing or re-designing something, what would you think about? I just write for an hour or two about all the different perspectives on a product. Then I pray some good ideas come out of it. I did this with a clothes hanger (yes, a clothes hanger) a while back. It was one of the first pieces I published on this blog, which I dedicate to design thinking and entrepreneurship (with occasional ramblings allowed for politics).

Let’s begin with the shape of the Package Protector. How will multiple packages of different size balance? One idea is to use a larger rectangular shape over the current circular shape. There’s a precedent here.

Every time you use the self-checkout at the grocery store, the bagging area has a weight sensitive rectangular shaped device that can tell when a new item has been added and when an item has been removed.

My concern is that the current circular shape is too small, and once more than two or three packages are added, it may tip over.

Large packages. A lot of times at our house, we receive large packages, maybe 4 feet tall and narrow. There’s no way this would fit on the prototype. I know you can’t reasonably design for all use cases, but I’m wondering, how would the package protector handle large packages, that need to be placed on the porch elsewhere?

Clothing donations. If I’m not mistaken, the original inspiration for the idea came to Mike because was donating clothes. He left them in a bag on the porch. Then before they were picked up by the recipient organization, someone stole it.

I’m not sure how the current shape accommodates a large 55 gallon trash bag filled with clothes. What if there are two bags of clothes? A larger space/area for the package protector would allow for bulkier bags of clothes to fit without falling off the device.

My idea is some kind of “smart tarp”. Something a bit larger than a door mat. Packages can be rested on this smart tarp and it will still register a change in weight. So it can handle small, medium, and large packages. Remember there’s a precedent in the smart grocery store checkout machines.

One of Seattle’s best dive bars has Jenga, the popular wooden block game where you pull blocks out of the tower without the tower collapsing. In theory, a thief could slowly begin to take one item out of the package stack, while he slides in a dummy package of similar weight.

Thinking like a thief

Let’s think like a thief for a second.

The book “Simple Rules”, by Kathleen Eisenhardt and Donald Sull, mentions that house burglars use simple rules to decide which houses to break into. For example, “don’t break into a house where there is a car parked in the driveway”. This isn’t a written rule, but a mental heuristic or rule-of-thumb, by which a thief operates. I’m not going to leave a full book review here, but the idea is that people can and should utilize simple rules when making decisions.

So if I’m a thief and I want to steal, my simple rule might be, “don’t steal a package from a house that has the Package Protector”. While there may always be a way for thieves to outsmart the system, the package protector is a deterrent and, that might be enough.

Most people don’t realize this, but delivery people are expected to deliver packages to a certain number of houses each hour. The Cascadia Courier did a fascinating interview about the life and times of a 34-year veteran driver at UPS:

UPS expects her to make twenty stops an hour — one every three minutes, in some of the country’s most congested traffic and with a constantly changing array of packages loaded onto her truck every morning.

This is how they’re measured. In other words, drivers always on the clock, and they need to move fast.

If a driver can’t put a package quickly and easily on the package protector without tipping the boxes and tripping the alarm, this is going to be a HUGE problem for the device. You don’t want to upset the delivery drivers who might accidentally tip over the carefully balanced boxes I saw in the product video. This system will need to work for drivers without sounding the alarm. The drivers might have real concerns with this device. Delivery drivers are a user group in this product.

Having a delivery area might be easier for drivers leaving packages. A delivery person doesn’t have to worry about playing Jenga when dropping off a package. They can simply toss the package into an area that they know is monitored/secure. Like a smart tarp 4' by 4'.

Or even more sophisticated could be an area on the porch, that uses lasers to measure the area set on the porch for packages. Having a delivery area on the porch, will make it easier for delivery drivers.

Thinking from Mike’s view in terms of product development, one smart way I could see Mike marketing this product, is to sell not one, but TWO products.

One is the circular package protector that maybe retails for 29.99. It can handle two or three packages at a time, which might be enough for most people. But for folks who lives in large houses with many inhabitants or obsessive users of Amazon Prime (or both), sell this group a second type of package protector like 4' by 4' smart tarp that takes up more area, can handle more packages, and retails for say 79.99.

Now what prevents the thief from stealing the device itself, when there are no packages on it? It might be too expensive to embed a GPS into the device to locate if it can be stolen. Perhaps the alarm can sound if the device is moved, unless the device is unlocked.

Prototype testing. Can packages balance on this device?

The prototype in the video looks about the size of a Frisbee. Cheap prototype testing in my head looks like this: take a Frisbee, put it on my porch, and see whether I can balance a few packages on it.

How would I test this?

I’d save the cardboard boxes of everything that gets shipped to me. Over a month or two, I’d have a bunch of empty boxes I could fill with a little bit of gravel or sand. Then I’d put them on my Frisbee.

(Sand is cheap. You can buy a 50 lb bag from the hardware store for <$10. I once built a homemade set of dumbbells in Brooklyn using Ziploc bags, sand, and duct tape, but that’s another story).

The homeowner/user

How can we make the removal of packages seamless for the user? This is the the product’s key design question.

Right now in the design, you send a text message to the device to unlock it. So when you get home after a long day of work, you have to pull out your phone, punch in some words, and then receive a response that you can unlock it. Imagine if every time you wanted to open your mailbox, you needed to text your mailbox that it was safe to be open.

If I’m going to stay over your house, you need to text me more often :)

I just want to get home and bring in the packages. How much would a Bluetooth enabled device add to the product’s cost? So that when you’re within range (or any authorized user like a roommate), he or she can pull out a package without thinking about texting.

Hmm…but I guess that also means I’d have to have enable Bluetooth on my iPhone, which is a pain to remember. So this is a tough one.

Can we use GPS? Is there enough technology available that the device can recognize one of say four phones that are authorized users when they are in range without Bluetooth being enabled, simply by using GPS?

Maybe we could make this fun instead. Keep text messaging, but make it more fun. Here’s an idea. When you’re ready to remove the package, text some words like “Open sesame” to the device’s number. The device is saved as a contact in your phone, like any other person, with a ten digit phone number.

No app is needed for the initial product. Just a phone number. Anytime you or your roommate sends a text to Li’l Package Protector, it unlocks.

This also solves the problem of how to authorize users. You use a simple web service/web site to add your roommate’s phone number as an authorized user.

Only phones as authorized users can open the device with a text. So a thief would have to steal your phone and unlock it in order to text Li’l Package Protector.

Imagine this scenario. When any of your roommates want to take a package off the device, they text “Open sesame” or whatever message comes to mind to the Package Protector number, and it’ll respond with “Unlocked”. It will re-lock automatically after 60 seconds, so you don’t have to worry about incorporating command to re-lock it.

This way it’s fun. You can text “Open up”, you can text “Lemme get my packages”, you can text “You complete me”. No matter what words you send it’ll reply with “Unlocked”. The security comes from the fact that only an authorized phone can send a text to the Li’l Package Protector. With reliability like that, you don’t have to worry about being in range, it’s fun, and it’s really easy for the user to find “Li’l Package Protector” on your phone and text her (it?).

Anyway that’s all I could think of in an hour. If you have additional ideas for the package protector, or stories you’d like to share about your own package experience, leave them in the comments below.