The Moment screenless watch transmits information through haptic feedback. Somatic Labs CEO and cofounder Shantanu Bala talks about the importance of being about to iterate quickly and how they’ve found simplicity to be the key when introducing new technology.
What is Moment, and what does it do?
We’re working on a technology that animates your sense of touch. Moment is a wearable that stimulates the surface of your skin and allows us to draw different shapes and patterns around your wrist. Currently, we use it to communicate information like caller ID notifications and navigation to someone who is blind or visually impaired, or also to people who just want to be more productive and not have to look at a screen.
What was the inspiration for the product name?
We had noticed a need for communicating time – and the passage of time – more effectively.
One of the things that really resonated with us was listening to the story of a man who was blind. He told us about how in order to check the time, he had to have his watch or phone read it out loud to him – something that’s difficult in a meeting or while in class, as its intrusive and interruptive to the people around him.
So he ends up going through his day without the same level awareness of how much time he spent doing different tasks and without the accessibility to the same information as sighted people, who can just look at a clock.
So we were thinking about that experience and why a lot of the interfaces we interact with require us to either be listening or looking at something, when there is an entire surface of our body that is relatively untapped.
Computers almost never give us information through touch. We’re setting out to change that, because we think that eventually with any wearable device – whether that’s a Fitbit, an Apple watch or something else – if we’re placing them on our bodies, they should be doing what our bodies do best, which is feel.
Why did you choose a wearable watch?
The reason we chose a wearable watch is because the form is something that is easy to understand. It’s not something that will scare people away from the technology. What we’re doing is a little bit new and different. And often, how easy it is to understand how you’re supposed to use a device can be a barrier to entry. So we’re trying to lower that and make this as simple as possible for someone to get started with it.
We brainstormed and were thinking that we could make a more complicated piece of clothing, like a vest or shirt, or maybe something that fits on your back, or bicep, or ankle – there are so many places that you could put a wearable device. But we wanted to stick to the location that people are already comfortable and familiar with – the wrist. It gives us the opportunity to slowly ease people into the idea of putting a device on their body that interacts with and communicates through their skin. Maybe later on we’ll come up with some more ambitious and some out-of-the-box form factors for the device.
How are you planning on disrupting the wearables industry?
The main thing we are trying to disrupt is the design pattern. If you look around the market, all wearables have LCD displays that are extremely tiny and the text that you read on them is also very, very small. We’re not just talking about the 285 million people in the world who are blind or visually impaired being affected by this; there is a very large portion of the population that doesn’t have perfect vision and simply can’t read text that is small.
We think that there are much more intuitive ways of communicating the same information.
To give you an example, for caller ID, rather than forcing you to look down and try to squint at the screen and read a person’s name, we assign a unique rhythm and pattern that gets associated with people in your contacts list. Over time, you can learn to recognize them by how they feel. It’s something that happens very naturally and doesn’t require too much effort on your part to understand. It’s in tune with how you effectively learn new symbols and learn the meaning of different cues.
How did you guys just come together to start Somatic Labs?
I started off working on assistive and rehabilitative technologies at the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing at Arizona State University. I was there even before I began my undergraduate degree and I continued through my undergraduate studies, for about six years. A lot of the devices and prototypes I was building, as well as the type of research I was doing, was focused around communicating information to someone who is blind.
So you take someone’s facial expressions, the shape of their smile, the movement of their eyebrows in the middle of a conversation and turn that into something that you can feel on your back as you’re sitting down on a chair. We accomplished that using some pretty interesting technology where we translated the features into image and then to movements across the surface of your skin.
It was a really fun project but also something that really got me thinking about all of the ways that the computers we interact with don’t provide us with meaningful information through touch. I realized there weren’t many companies pushing the boundaries of computer interfaces. It seemed to make sense to start one. I met my cofounders Jake Rockland and Ajay Karpur at college. We got together after realizing that there’s a lot more that we can add to the typical experience.
Shantanu Bala CEO & Co-founder, Jake Rockland CPO & Co-founder and Ajay Karpur CTO & Co-founder
You’re currently in the Techstars accelerator program; what has your experience been so far, and what advice do you have for people who are looking to do the same?
Techstars has been amazing. One of the things that we’re doing right now is going through the process of meeting a lot of different mentors. They schedule meetings for us with people with a wide range of tech industry experience – investors and VCs, scientists and technologists. People who have different opinions and sets of expertise.
It’s a great opportunity for us to present our technology to a wide range of people and get a whole lot of good feedback about how we can improve our business model and our operations and make our company more effective. I think that is really where the bulk of the value of the program lies: in that network of people who are excited and willing to help you every step of the way.
As far as getting into the program, there are a lot of fundamentals that it took a while for us to work on, from making the initial product and shipping it to some of our first customers to getting their feedback and iterating. But that’s just the type of work it takes to get a product off the ground. I think that doing as much about as possible of that before the program has allowed us to make the most of the opportunity during it.
How have you been funding your work so far?
We haven’t raised any seed money yet – it’s been bootstrapped up till now. We’ve received a few awards along the way from Avnet, one of the largest electronics distributors in the world. They gave us some grant funding that allowed us to develop out the product and the supply chain for our manufacturing. Then we also received a little bit of funding from Techstars. That has been enough to get us to a point where we are ready to raise the seed round, which we will be doing soon.
What have you learned through the process of designing and manufacturing the product?
There is an aspect of it that the design is never complete. It’s almost a living and breathing entity, in that we’re constantly making improvements and adjustments. As far as manufacturing and getting the details right, I think the hardest part is balancing the practicalities of what’s possible with equipment that you can find in an assembly or contract manufacturer.
When we were initially designing different form factors, the biggest principle for us was to keep things as simple and as straightforward as possible – which is why the device doesn’t have a screen. It doesn’t have a lot of the complexities that you see in other products. It’s a very conscious effort to make a device that offers an extremely simple user experience.
Before we actually did have some more parts to the user interface. There was an LED light that would pulse with different colors and on the side we had a couple of buttons. Over time we realized that we wanted to remove as many of those design elements as possible and make it as much of a seamless experience as we could.
We took as much user feedback along the way as we could. We’re still collecting it. We shipped our first 250 units out to customers and they’re all giving us excellent input on how we can make improvements, as well as what we can do in the next version.
What type of market validation did you do?
Market validation is – like the design – a constant process. We’re working on it consistently and trying to improve. As a startup, we don’t have a large amount of resources at our disposal – but we also don’t have a large amount of customers, and there’s an advantage to that. We can ask all of our customers in a lot of detail about what it is that we’re doing that provides them with value. We have an opportunity to know each of our customers on a very personal and individual basis. Our market validation ends up becoming much more personal than just the numbers.
We did do some back-of-the-envelope calculations but the biggest challenge for a startup is that you can almost set an arbitrary market size. You can say that you are targeting a really, really big market. The hard part is understanding who in that market is actually going to want what you’re making. Are you building something that people are really enjoying? Are you building something that people are enjoying so much that they’re willing to tell their friends?
You can go after a trillion-dollar market but if you end up building something that people have a lukewarm or negative reaction to, you end up having a lot of hardship and potentially, failure, along the way.
So I would say that we’re still finding product market fit. As a startup you’re always trying to figure out how you can grow your audience and your reach; we think about this a daily basis.
We’re targeting a very small market initially and this is focusing our efforts on understanding the needs of people who want information through touch, whether that’s someone who is blind or someone who works in an environment where they need to have their eyes either on a task (like driving on a road).
The main lesson we’ve learned is that if you pick up the phone and call people, a lot of the time they’ll be happy to answer your questions. So we would call our customers as soon as they made a purchase and ask them questions about why they were interested in our product, what is it that they thought they would get in return, why they wanted it, the features that they were most excited about, etcetera. These are questions that are very basic and simple but I feel if we didn’t take the time to ask them, we wouldn’t be close to where we are right now. We’ve learned that taking that five to ten minutes is an effective strategy.
So how has the response been so far?
There’s been a good combination. As far as the negative goes, we shipped the product early – we wanted to get it in people’s hands as soon as possible. That meant that there were some bugs that we needed to fix and that was a process that we learned a lot from as well. We’re constantly engaging our users to make sure that if they run into any problems we can fix them; that’s been a good experience because it’s allowed us to build a better product along the way.
In terms of the positive, there’s been an overwhelming number of developers who are creating their own apps that see an opportunity to use our device to add a new layer of interaction or experience. One of our customers is hacking our device and turning it into a drone controller, so you can get a sensation that corresponds to different sensors on the drone, which is a really cool project. We’ve been surprised by the enthusiasm that people have for, not just using our product, but also building on top of it and making entirely new experiences.
What are your future plans for your company – are you looking to expand globally, for example?
We definitely allow anyone who’s interested to purchase the device. Even though we don’t have a focus outside of the US –our website is entirely in English and most of our promotional materials are focused on the US – but we encourage people to contact us to try out Moment if they’re abroad too. We definitely want to be global but one of the other lessons we’ve learned is that we should focus on getting the user experience as good as possible and then the process of expansion will happen organically.
What have been your biggest pain points up until now?
Right now we’re intentionally staying a little bit small: we only make Moment in batches of a few hundred units at a time. We’re not trying to make tens of thousands of devices because what we want to do is slowly ramp up our production and make sure that we get things right. And we make meaningful improvement to that user experience with every iteration.
That said, this also allows us to iterate really, really quickly. And this is why I say being small can have its advantages: we’re able quickly to respond to user feedback and make changes. When you’re a big company, you have more power when negotiating deals and so can make things inexpensively. But as a startup, what we can do is pick up our phone and talk to our users, and if they tell us they want something slightly different, we can immediately make that change. So we can make changes in a matter of hours or days, instead of over several months like you would see in a big company.
How are you approaching your future needs for capital?
The seed round is definitely our focus coming up. Beyond that, we try not to think too far ahead. The advice that we’ve been given is to think about our funding needs for the next one to two years. So when do our pitches to investors for the seed round, that’s going to be the amount we need for one to two years of growth and product iteration – so we can get to a point where it does start to flourish and grow.
Have you struggled to get good advice?
Mentors come in a lot of different forms. I would encourage anyone starting a company to think very deeply about all the places that they can get advice – because it’s not always investors and business people who will give you good advice. It’s important to seek out thoose people who can help you scale your startup but sometimes the needs you have can be interpersonal. Some of my close friends are really great to talk to because they understand me and the ways that I communicate with other people; they can give me advice on a more personal level. And I’ve found people from my academic background, Arizona State, have been really helpful for understanding things from a more scientific and a technical perspective.
For me, the biggest benefit has been trying to get as many different perspectives as possible. Just like seeking investment, if you’re trying to find mentors, one of the best ways to get started is to talk to as many different types of people as possible, even people with unrelated careers, and see what their perspective on your company. Often they end up giving you really interesting advice because they are a little bit removed and have a little distance.
What has been the best piece of business advice that you have received so far?
My favorite business advice, although it wasn’t given directly to me, was from one of my mentors who was quoting Gmail creator Paul Buchheit.
He says it’s better to make a small number of people really happy than to make a large number of people feel just a little bit good. That to me is a really important point, and it’s something that we try to keep in mind.
Our growth comes from focusing really hard on being exceptional at a small scale. Because you can’t start with a very large volume of mediocrity and expect that continuing to scale will result in an improvement in quality. Usually when you scale, you have to make sacrifices and a lot of companies end up cutting corners and sacrificing the user experience. And that’s something we definitely don’t want to do.
For more information visit Moment.
Interview by Vishnu Rajamanickam. email@example.com