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Kicking off

New Zealand entrepreneur Sam Lee raised nearly $100,000 on Kickstarter to get his wearable camera meMINI off the ground. Now in its last test production run, the team is participating in the Wearable World Labs accelerator in San Francisco, the world's first incubator focused on wearable technology.
Published —
07.01.15
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Let’s start at the beginning – what is meMINI, and how did it come about?

In the past, video creation was something I’d indulge in when I had a lot of spare time. Now, as technology develops, my ability to create using video is more prevalent in everyday life. I have my smartphone and other devices – devices that use the traditional methodology of video capture, which was originally designed to create TV shows and movies – things that are often storyboarded out in a very predictable environment. However, the environment we live in is seldom predictable. We don’t get to do multiple takes of something – nothing is planned out in that same way – so we have to start the camera well in advance of what may or may not happen.

In the moments leading up to the event that we’re trying to capture, we end up creating a lot of content that we don’t want or need, which needs to be edited later so that we can share it. Such a long process to get from video captured to video that you can share can become an inconvenience, so a lot of great content never gets shared and a lot of great moments get missed because we choose not to pull the camera out. After all, we’d rather be experiencing the moment than going through the process of capturing it on camera. The idea behind meMINI is to bridge that gap between the moments we want to capture and the inconvenience and awkwardness that can be part of that process.

How did you identify a need, and therefore a market, for this kind of personal camera device?

The idea has been a long-standing one for me personally, but I was further inspired by some the footage I’d seen from dash cameras around the world. Those devices have captured some incredible events – the meteor landing in Russia, the Korean airline disaster, those kind of huge events (unfortunately not always positive). It’s made possible because these devices continuously overwrite the footage they’ve recorded until you instruct the device to stop recording, and the footage saved is of the moment you want.

With a traditional digital camera, all of the footage is saved onto a memory card, which requires a huge amount of digital memory. Dash cams – and our device – automatically overwrite content after a time period pre-determined by the user. This allows the user to record important moments without taking up too much memory space – we think it’s something that people in the consumer tech market greatly appreciate. It’s something that’s improved my own life personally – I have six nieces and nephews, who live far away with my sisters, and so I like to keep in touch with what’s going on. Thanks to the meMINI, my sisters can send me albums of clips of the kids’ day-to-day lives, which I then get as a feed on our smartphone app, in a similar way to Instagram and other apps. It’s something that’s obviously very appealing for millions of people around the world who are in similar situations, and the beauty of it is that they don’t even have to own the device to receive that content. We have two types of users, in essence – our content creators with the cameras, and the consumers of that content.

me:MINI wearable tech, digital cameraHow did you get from your initial concept to making your vision a reality that became the focus of your professional life? What challenges did you face along the way?

For me, getting older was a big part of it. I’ve had the idea for many years, but simply didn’t have the time to invest in it. Firstly, I was busy running a ski resort in New Zealand, and – more fundamentally – I didn’t know how to build a camera. I realised how important video is in the modern age, and I suddenly found myself in a situation where I was free of my commitments and able to take the next step. I had to start from the very beginning – I simply Googled information on how to build a camera from scratch, and came across a consulting a company who I could talk to about the viability of the idea, based in Auckland.

The initial prototype was pretty bulky, but it allowed me to explore the reality of what we wanted to achieve – it was so nice to be able to wear a camera around, without thinking about what it’s doing – and that inspired me to take the idea as far as it could go. From there, the main challenges were practical ones – how to make the product more compact, and how to streamline the user process of sharing their content after you’ve recorded it. Something else that we have explored a lot is the implication of sharing circles and privacy settings, to make sure that our users are able to easily share their content to the right people. We’re always looking at ways to improve that user experience even more; it’s an ongoing process.

The project was crowdfunded through Kickstarter. How long did it take you to get the ball rolling in terms of your campaign?

Well, we took about four months to figure out what the process would be going forward – how we were going to manufacture the product, what the marketing strategy would be, etc. Then, it was getting towards the festive period, and we’d read a lot on how starting a crowdsourcing campaign around any major holiday was usually a bad idea – people tend to have allocated their disposable income around those times, for obvious reasons, so it’s not ideal. At that point we held back and launched a few months later. We had to create the video, and get all the surrounding information primed, then go on Kickstarter to pitch our idea. The funding campaign ultimately went well – we had aimed for $50,000, and we raised almost double that. There was a lull in the middle of that campaign where we struggled to reach our goal, but thankfully we reached it in the end, and then it picked up from there.

There were difficulties, but we learned a lot from the process. The dynamic around crowdsourcing seems to be evolving a lot. There’s a bit more of a mix now, between the idealistic young entrepreneurs who want to realise the dream project that they’ve been visualising for years, and the big corporations who want to know what people want.

Since the campaign was successfully completed, commercial release has been slightly delayed in order to make changes to the product. What did this entail, and at what point after the initial funding push did you decide to make these amendments?

It was probably about a month after our campaign had reached its goal. We were advised that we would now be allowed to use a more advanced chipset, which wasn’t previously available to smaller clients, so we had to sit down and weigh up the pros and cons of doing that. The thing about technology is that – because it moves so quickly – if something like that is available now, and our product’s not going to be on the market for a period of time, we need to consider whether it’s best to go with what we have in the interests of getting it out there, or to make the product even more up-to-date to hit the ground running.

Ultimately, we made the decision to adopt the new chipset. One of the main factors in this decision was battery life. During the early validation period with the product, there were some issues, which was disappointing. We knew that we needed to maximise battery life as much as possible, and this new chipset gives us enhanced battery life. We’ve been able to extend it beyond three hours now, which – for a camera that’s constantly recording in 1080 HD – is impressive.

There were a bunch of other things that arose which we didn’t predict. Sometimes some decisions can lead to unintended consequences, that can cause further delays, and a couple did, but ultimately that gave us the chance to refine the product and make something that we were even more proud of.

How was the engagement with the Kickstarter community?

We have kept in touch with the Kickstarter backers, and let them know what was going on at every juncture – that was hugely important to us during the setbacks. I have to admit sometimes we were a little late letting them know. When you have 550 people get behind you, and for a while you can’t meet their expectations, that’s always going to be challenging. It was very difficult for me on a personal level – we essentially let them down twice, which was tough to swallow. Now, we’re a couple of months out from our official manufacture date, and the future’s looking good. It was really hard, though – these people deserve to get their product on time, and when you’re faced with unforeseen challenges, you have to go back and explain that to them sensitively. It’s difficult, but keeping our Kickstarter community in the loop is vital to us.

One of the things we’ve done recently is engage with the backers and invite some of them to become beta testers. Soon, we’ll have 50 units out of our last test production run. Some will be handed out to backers, and we’ll encourage feedback, positive and negative, on the product. That first-hand consumer insight is invaluable to us. Specifically, it’s crucial to us that we get the hardware right from day one on the market. There may be software issues, but these are far more easily fixed further down the line. The physical product is what’s most important, and consumer feedback is crucial in ensuring that we get it right.

The company is currently participating in the Wearable World Labsaccelerator in San Francisco. How did this come about?

Last year, I attended Websummit Dublin, as an alpha startup. One of the big advantages of this was that we were able to meet people from lots of other startups, who told us about their journey. In New Zealand, we were geographically isolated, and we knew we’d probably have to set up operational bases in key markets at some point. We’d heard a lot about startup accelerators in various different countries around the world, and while we were at the Dublin event, we were warmly introduced to representatives from those organisations, which led to meetings. We ended up at Wearable Labs in San Francisco, which is the world’s first accelerator which is purely focused on wearable tech, which also has a big focus on the concept of the Internet of Things (IOT). We produce a wearable product which is also an IOT device, so it was a natural fit for us. It’s also run by passionate and most importantly, genuinely good people, which makes it a great environment in which to work. It’s exciting going to work and knowing that you are going to able to network with the best and brightest minds in the wearable tech world. It’s a very supportive, co-operative community.

How has basing yourself in San Francisco for the accelerator affected your operation, and how do the two different business environments compare?

I guess the main incentive behind San Francisco is the well of experience that you’re able to tap into. You can speak to people who have been working in the consumer tech industry for years, even decades, and gain invaluable information and advice from that. Back home, it’s hard to find someone on that level, who has built a consumer electronics product and taken it to the highest levels. There are a lot of software companies, but not a huge amount of hardware producers.

The move has had obvious benefits in terms of connections, too – when trying to find investors and mentors, it’s important to find someone that knows your industry and is passionate about your space within it. When you’re operating in a country with a relatively small population, it’s pretty hard to find those people. Out here in the states, and particularly in Silicon Valley, you’re spoiled for choice. It’s such a huge consumer market in America, too – it’s a country that does retail incredibly well, and has a lot of experience in that realm. When you’re operating in a thriving business community, and there is a larger market for your product, you’re going to strive for bigger and better things.

The wearables market seems somewhat unsettled at the moment, with several of the big corporations flitting between the idea of staking a corner in the consumer market or pursuing corporate partnerships. How do you see the wearable technology market developing over the next few years?

I think the winners in the wearables market will be the ones who are able to create meaning from cold, hard data. Say, for example, you have a Fitbit which counts your steps taken in a given day – why is that important? What is it about that which affects your life in a positive sense? Is it something you’re going to engage with long-term? Obviously, smartwatches are going to change things, but ultimately there will always be two basic types of consumers – those who want a device that does everything, and those who want a device that does one specific thing really well. Having a specific device that helps you to achieve something that you think it important is a wonderful thing.

The market’s incredibly big, too – the key is to focus on a small part of that market; be something for someone – but it became obvious once we moved to the States that having even a small part of this market is huge. Smartwatches will affect activity and sales in the industry, but who knows by how much. It’s very hard to predict, but I think the winners will be the ones that can take the data that the device creates and turn that into something meaningful for the user. That’s what we’re trying to do with meMINI – allow people to catch the important moments in their life, and do more with them. For example, no one I have spoken to has ever been able to record a video of their child’s first steps, because obviously you never know when it’s going to happen, I’m confident that our device will enable people to do that.

The launch date for the meMINI is coming up soon – will the Kickstarter backers get their product first? How will the product roll out from there?

Yes, the Kickstarter backers are our absolute priority. We’re going to be shipping to them first. Once their products have all shipped, we’ll turn our attention to our pre-sale customers, who will be the second group to receive their products. Following that, we’ll trial it in different retail environments. Part of our beta trial is testing out different enterprise opportunities – looking at the ways in which our product could improve or help another business – there’s a few of those which we are looking at presently. As for retail – we’ll have to wait and see, to some extent. We’ll be trying to ascertain which of the major retailers we want to partner with in order to follow on and introduce the products into bricks and mortar. We will also be introducing our product to Amazon, as that’s usually the first stop for the online consumer.

Beyond the launch, what’s next for meMINI?

With any wearable device, the producer always has to be open to new ideas around how they can make sure that their customers get the most out of it. There’s a few accessories we’re looking at – specifically in terms of increasing battery life and enabling our users to use their devices in different environments. Having said that, what’s equally important is what our customers are able to do with the footage when they obtain it – how do we make it easier for them to compile clips into albums and movies? We imagine that there will be a lot of development that will occur as a result of the feedback from our first customers, and we need to be mindful of that. We’re trying to make the primary user experience for these first users as incredible as possible, and then developing all the other auxiliary things around that. As I said, it’s an ongoing process, and we’re looking forward to learning all we can along the way.