This morning, at 10 am EST, Pebble’s homepage countdown finally finished, and pointed users to a Kickstarter campaign for their latest smartwatch, Pebble Time. Unsurprisingly, they blew through their modest target of $500,000 within 13 minutes. By 24 minutes in, they’d hit $1 million. At the time of this writing, they are at $4,526,809 and not showing any sign of slowing down. But there are a lot of questions – many about the watch itself, but also some important ones about the strategy for Pebble as a business in an increasingly competitive space.
To give a little historical context for those not familiar with Pebble’s meteoric and game-changing initial Kickstarter campaign, the story is basically this: in 2012, Eric Migicovsky launched a Kickstarter for “Pebble”, an e-paper wrist-mounted screen that would function as watch, pager, and notification center for your phone. It shattered previous Kickstarter records, and ended up finishing at $10,266,845 (with 68,929 backers). Three years, a second, more refined version (the Steel), and 1 million Pebbles sold later, they’re back again.
But why? With 100+ employees and millions in additional funding, Pebble could have easily launched this product today the same way it launched the Steel one year ago. According to the campaign description:
“We’re back on Kickstarter to give you – the community who cares the most – an opportunity to support our vision for wearables and get exclusive access to our newest product.”
Regarding this community of initial supporters, Eric, now CEO, said in a Verge interview that he “want[s] to take Pebble Time to them first”. Obviously there is something charming about this – a phenomenal success making sure to honor its heritage by launching a new product in the same place it started. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the other benefits.
For one, it’s entirely possible that Pebble Time could have been a huge flop. Although the color screen is certainly attractive, and easily the most-requested feature on the Pebble forums, many already dislike the design and form factor. Clearly they are being outvoted by the 22,685 backers who have already pledged, but in business you try to hedge risks wherever you can.
Launching via Kickstarter also provides Pebble with something that most mature companies can never obtain: massive pre-orders. Rather than building up inventory and frantically working to deplete it as quickly as possible, Pebble only has to build as many watches as have already been paid for (at least until they hit retail stores).
Now it’s possible that since Pebble is effectively “selling” its new watch through Kickstarter, rather than actually trying to receive necessary funding, this campaign may technically violate Kickstarters Terms of Service. But given how much free publicity Kickstarter receives whenever Pebble does literally anything (the “darling of Kickstarter” is a phrase that’s been beaten to death by tech journalists over the last few years), I doubt they would take any action.
But on to the watch itself. Despite previous claims that Pebble “isn’t worried” about the Apple Watch, it’s clear that the timing of this campaign (launched today, ends March, shipping in May) isn’t a total coincidence. Nor is it coincidence that Pebble is drawing heavy emphasis on its “new interaction model”, aka the timeline feature of its new OS. This feature is the focal point that distinguishes it from Android Wear, Samsung Galaxy Gear, the upcoming Apple Watch, and Pebble.
Wait, Pebble? Yes, Pebble. Given how strongly the company is targeting its current audience, it’s possible, maybe even likely, that Team Pebble expects many users will say “no thank you” to the new watch in favor of the one already on their wrist. This is the exact problem that plagues companies with large, established user bases whenever a new version of their primary product is released. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer put it best when he said “our biggest competition is ourselves.” Pebble seems up to the challenge.
With any Kickstarter, there’s a chance that even after succeeding, the product never fares well in mainstream markets. That was certainly the fear after their first campaign, but they seem to have done well enough. Pebble has managed to hit the holy trinity of products: they were (effectively) first, they are also the cheapest, and even with just the previous model, Pebble Steel, they were widely considered the best. Introducing a color screen makes the Pebble Time par for the course, but bringing along with it an entirely new OS is a huge risk. How will the “darling of Kickstarter, twice over” do in the future? Only Time will tell.