From vision to reality: a look at Pebble’s launch into the wearables market
When Eric Migicovsky started designing smartwatches six years ago, there were few players in the wearables space and a lot of skeptics. He was an undergraduate student at the time, developing the earliest iterations of Pebble for a school project. But much has changed since Migicovsky’s graduation from University of Waterloo in 2009. In 2013 alone, Migicovsky, now the CEO of Pebble Technology Corp., shipped 400,000 smartwatches and is competing head-to-head with giants like Apple and Google.
“We have grown a lot — from one founder, to nine employees, to a team somewhere around 130 (depending on who is out sick),” reads Pebble’s website.
Gartner predicts by 2016 wearable devices will emerge as a $10 billion industry — giving trailblazers like Pebble the leg up and the ability to expand faster. Sounds like a dream story, and it is. As an engineering student, Migicovsky had a big vision: to create technology that would make people’s lives better, integrating seamlessly into their routines. An avid biker, Migicovsky wanted to build a smartwatch that allowed him to see incoming calls or read texts and calendar reminders. He wanted a device that kept him from having to pull his phone out of his backpack every time he received an alert.
However, a startup with a young CEO and no credit history, Pebble still had a lot to prove to investors. After failing to attract traditional backers, Migicovsky turned to crowd funding. Little over a month later, Pebble received more than $10 million from early contributors, breaking all Kickstarter funding records and making the company’s vision much more viable.
From crowd funding to prototyping
It was after Pebble’s Kickstarter success that Avnet Account Manager Cindy Vitales and Sales and Marketing Representative Anita Ratra were able to prove that their customer was worth the attention. They received authorization to extend Pebble enough credit to purchase the components needed to start shipping its first batch of smartwatches in January of 2013.
“Unfortunately the success rate of startups is low, but we saw a spark with Pebble, and we took the chance,” said Vitales. “The market responded really well, and now they have two successful watches in the market.”
“Everyone was in distrust when we came to them with quotes for a million parts,” added Ratra. “Kickstarter solidified what we were saying — no one has a watch out there like Pebble.”
But, raising money was just the beginning of the startup’s journey. Aside from extending credit, Avnet’s global power and ability to hold inventory — therefore reducing lead times — was vital in meeting Pebble’s short production timeframes.
“The key here was being able to move fast and keep pace with Pebble’s growth,” said Ratra. “If orders went from 40,000 to 100,000 overnight, we made it happen at a drop of a hat.”
Taking advantage of Avnet’s broad line card
In mid-2011, Pebble first came to Avnet looking for a memory LCD display that would fit specific capabilities: low power consumption, small size, quick refresh rate and clear outdoor visibility. The company worked with display expert Leland Wardell, regional business development manager for Avnet Embedded. Wardell, along with Vitales, Ratra, and Field Applications Engineer Colin Lee, helped Pebble design-in a variety of components from leading suppliers including Sharp, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments, Freescale, Micron, and Molex.
According to Vitales, helping Pebble select the best parts for its product, understanding the manufacturers’ capabilities, identifying and fixing design issues, while making accurate, swift decisions during prototyping is just as crucial as any other part of the manufacturing process. And as for any startup, quick access to samples, datasheets and evaluation boards is instrumental — especially when it comes to keeping expenses low.
“Many distributors will try to fit customers into a box. Avnet works with them and finds a solution that will fit their needs, we design a program especially for them,” said Ratra. “We want to see them succeed as much as they want to succeed.”
A bright future
As far as the future goes, things are looking bright for Pebble. The company didn’t seem at all shaken up by Apple’s recent launch of its luxury smartwatch, saying Pebble’s lengthy battery life, multi-OS compatibility, affordability and waterproofing hardly make Apple a suitable competitor. Migicovsky is betting that the open developer ecosystem in which Pebble operates will unleash the real value of the watch through apps anyone can build, without needing permission from the maker. In February, Pebble launched an appstore, which now offers over 5,000 apps, including popular sports and fitness trackers such as ESPN, Jawbone and Pandora. Currently, there are 18,000 registered developers with more to come. And as the “Internet of Things” continues to evolve, Migicovsky, a self-identified sci-fi geek, hopes to play a part in the evolution of wearable devices, enabling Pebble’s connectivity to devices in the home, or maybe even sensors in the body.