Hardware People: Meet Christian Smith, Co-founder of TrackR
Continuing our series on the founders behind Hardware Club’s community we have TrackR Co-founder Christian Smith on surfing, obsession and the future of hardware.
This interview has been shortened for clarity.
Hardware Club: So for this feature we’d like to go over your journey with TrackR, the challenges you yourself have overcome as an entrepreneur, your experience with Hardware Club and your vision of the hardware ecosystem. Basically, where you came from, where you are and where you’re going.
Getting Into Hardware
Hardware Club: So I’d like to start with congratulating you on making the one product that everyone that actually owns other stuff needs. I understand that TrackR helps you to find lost or misplaced items. And that there are 5–6 different versions out there: Bravo, Atlas, Wallet, StickR, Tablet & Pixel.
CS: (Outside) I just want to check the traffic isn’t too distracting. Ironically I can see I’ve left my office key at home through the TrackR app…
Ok no worries, the maker of TrackR needs a TrackR?
So let’s start with your background
CS: I grew up in southern California and moved up to northern California, I attended UC Santa Barbara for university, and I made friends with people who were scientists or engineers who skateboarded and surfed. That’s where I met my co-founder Chris. We lived in the same dorm right on the Pacific Ocean. We got to know each other surfing and working on homework together. Surfing came first. We’d stay up late to do our physics homework then get up early to hit the beach.
When did you have your eureka moment?
CS: We’re both engineers (I’m a mechanical engineer and Chris’s an electrical engineer). One weekend we went up to a place called Pismo beach, and what’s special is that you can drive along the beach (which is rare in California).
We drove down to the beach and found a good break. When we returned to the parked car after surfing, we couldn’t find the keys. We realised that the car was parked below the high tide line and the car would be submerged if we couldn’t get it moved.
We tore the car apart and were not able to find the key. Fortunately, we were thinking heads up and ran down the beach for help. We were lucky to find someone nearby with a metal detector to help us find the the keys buried in the sand right as the ocean was lapping the front tires of the car.
After we moved the car, we realized, people lose things because we depend on our memory to know where things are located. Why not have the computers around us memorize where objects are located?
So how did you begin to put this idea into practice?
CS: We submitted the idea to a business plan competition. This was after the iPhone but prior to the app store, so people with flip phones didn’t get that phones were software. We lost the competition the first year but won it when we resubmitted for the second year, coincidentally after the iPhone got big.
Then we moved into a house with a garage to work on the concept, and this was back when Blackberry Curve had a 70% market share. From there we were able to launch a basic product to display at CES in 2009. As we got more and more interest from press and corporates we launched the company after winning the demo god award.
So how did you find scaling?
CS: We realised that hardware business models require cash to scale, and we didn’t know Indiegogo existed. We tried licensing models to companies, as a way to scale up. We really began to scale in 2013 and launched our own Indiegogo campaign right after Lockitron. We took what the Lockitron guys had been doing and tested our own pre-order platform. Indiegogo’s crowd funding platform led us to scale up production with pre-sales.
Were there any challenging moments where you felt “I’ve made a huge mistake”?
CS: No, I don’t think there were any moments where we didn’t want to keep working on it. It’s a big passion project of mine. There are huge ups and downs, you can go from having the best day of your life to the worst and back again. It’s important to realise that this is part of the journey, having the resilience to deal with those things is what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. There’s always been some adversity, but the real character is built in that adversity, in those difficult times, all those really tough situations give you the opportunity to update yourself. It is a chance to improve yourself as well as your situation especially when things are breaking or when you run into cash flow issues… It’s not always been easy but it’s always been fun!
How did you manage your first manufacturing process?
CS: We found manufacturers through relations we had with mentors and friends which allowed us to establish a higher level of trust which immediately resulted in better communication.
One thing we’ve done consistently is always to invest a lot of communication time with our manufacturer whether quarterly reviews, annual business reviews, face-to-face meetings twice a year even just to share meals. Simple things like dinners are great for building relationships, as there are so many different types of cultures in the world really.
What advice do you have for scaling?
CS: Scaling up manufacturing is all about process, solving problems with process, not people. For example, if you want to hire a QA engineer, first outline the highlevel structure before you get the QA person to step in so they can either execute or add to it strategically and improve process. It’s all about being clear on processes, especially in manufacturing. I was very fortunate to be a mechanical engineer, I learned lean manufacturing training after I graduated from university and this training gave me a strong foundation on how to establish good supply chain processes. Supply chain and lean manufacturing skills are invaluable for startups looking to scale up their manufacturing and improve product quality.
How did you go from product 1 to product 2 to product 3+?
CS: We see that the product roadmap is driven by customer requests and finding out about the user experience. We try to align to product roadmap from a strategy standpoint. People kept asking for a coin-size tracking device and we delivered this with our TrackR bravo product.
And so people want a Voice interface, I noticed that TrackR is one of Alexa’s skills?
CS: Our Alexa skill, TrackR find my phone, is a really fast way to find your phone since it gives latitude and longitude & can ring your phone on request. Voice is an powerful tool for customers to control our favourite user interfaces. For TrackR, voice is about giving people the experience that’s incrementally better than our current reality. For example “Honey have you looked at the kitchen, oh it might be in the bedroom?” is replaced by Alexa, to “your keys are in the kitchen, do you want me to beep them”. Our goal is to bend the amount of time people are experiencing searching for items as most people are searching for lost items an average of 16 minutes per day.
Ah yes, the pat down at the start of the day before leaving the apartment every morning.
CS: Yes exactly! It goes back to the memory thesis: we currently have 3 billion smartphones that memorise all types of things for us now, and TrackR is the way of using this memory.
Do you have plans to move beyond the phone?
CS: The general thesis is that nothing would be in that state of being lost again making it impossible to lose things. We are currently locating 2 million items a day through TrackR’s Crowd locate community.
We see TrackR’s Crowd Locate community is a powerful thing and we’re helping other companies use this community to help find their own products. TrackR has 33 other partners who are leveraging TrackR’s Crowd Locate community. We can extend this functionality to any device with a Bluetooth radio.
We want to make it easy for other manufacturers to leverage the community. In 2009 people said we were crazy to try to build a global community. Now, we’ve demonstrated we have the critical mass and are helping people recover everything from wallets to lost dogs. A company called Geozilla was able to to increase their revenue per users by incorporating TrackR’s SDK allowing users to keep track of each other and their stuff. It’s great to help other hardware and software companies to increase revenue by 20–30% because they can offer their customers tracking features.
Where do you see your company in 5 years?
CS: TrackR will be the global standard for interfacing with items, with a global community of users.
What’s your focus right now?
CS: We have this deeply held belief that sales solves all problems, right now we are in an education and mindshare mode, so achieving this at scale is important.
Entering retail: how was it?
CS: Retail is details. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and focus to execute and measure the details needed and results so you can improve them. But once you’ve build the right systems for them then you can more or less understand this industry.
Every retailer speaks a different language and has different way of doing business but once you have the systems to track and manage these things it gets easier. I will make the recommendation to invest in point of purchase training and employee accommodation programs so people can try out your product, and get excited.
If there isn’t a retail strategy your product will stay on the shelf.
Being An Entrepreneur
3 pieces of advice for someone who’d like to start a hardware startup?
- I think it’s super important to find a problem that you’re obsessed about solving, passion is great but it can fade with cycles of interest. Obsession is an indicator for me to be able to focus on and invest my time in.
- Everyone who is successful could have given up at any time. For me, mindset is everything. Making sure that I’m in a good space is a great place to do my best work.
- Don’t do hardware? It’s tough but.. (laughs).
He who dares wins?
Building A Team
What’s the most important in building a team? (And has surfing stayed a key hiring criteria at TrackR?)
CS: We want to have as diverse a team as possible. My cofounder and I have a rule to surf at least once every month so you could call it our monthly “board” meeting...
What are you looking for when you hire someone?
CS: We now have 80+ people so we look for different skill sets and experience, that add value to the culture. We are lucky to have a management team that is growing the Company. Diversity is about making sure that your not unconsciously filtering on biases.
Let’s Talk About Hardware Club
Why did you join the community?
CS: We got involved in Hardware Club because it’s a like minded community of people who are helping each other, that’s a big part of the value for me and my business partner. We like seeing the tide rise to lift all boats.
What does the club bring to you?
CS: We’ve been able to connect with different distributors and retailers, it’s been helpful to form different contacts in the hardware industry.
What’s your favourite thing about the club?
CS: So much of entrepreneurship is work, Hardware Club is great because so many people can do life together. Whether at CES or IFA people you can connect with other great people who aren’t just making widgets.
What’s your experience in raising funding as a hardware startup?
CS: We’ve been super fortunate, being one of the first early hardware companies it was difficult to raise money for hardware until we closed our seed round in 2014. We were able to get enough traction from that to raise a $8.7M Series A with Resolute Ventures and Foundry Group. They were a great early investor, having already invested in hardware startups like Fitbit.
What’s your vision of the current hardware ecosystem?
CS: I really want to see more crowdfunding of production, so we don’t have just three companies making everything for us. It’s important to have that ability for startups to break up into to disrupt the industry. Building a community connecting the user and delivering on their expectations.
The Human Side
Your favourite heroes or heroines in fiction.
CS: Tony Stark is awesome.
If not yourself, who would you be?
CS: Good question.. Robert Plant.
Ok, follow on question, Led Zeppelin III or Led Zeppelin IV?
CS: Led Zeppelin III.