Monday, December 21, 2009

Zeemote Assets Sold to Aplix

Five weeks after Zeemote ceased operations it was announced Thursday that the assets of the company have been sold off to Aplix Corp.

The obvious question then is who is Aplix?

Aplix Corp is a Japanese based company that creates a JVM / KVM called JBlend that it licenses to handset manufacturers. I've seen JBlend on older Motorola feature phones (like the RAZR and PEBL) as well as few Windows Mobile devices. As far as I know though they have very little market share in the US or in Europe.

It seems like an odd marriage but hopefully they can help add Zeemote support to more games and devices and to improve the overall user experience. I also hope they allow, encourage, and aid in getting the Zeemote supported on non-JBlend devices since MIDP (Java ME) based devices (Aplix core business) are quickly dying in favor of more capable smartphones. Just Friday the press went wild with reports of the rising success of the java-hating iPhone in Aplix's home turf of Japan.

Congrats to those at Zeemote who got the deal done and are continuing on. I decided to turn down their offer but will be watching and rooting for them to turn this into a success. Good luck.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Lesson #1 - Hardware is Hard

Among my first lessons learned at Zeemote, Inc. is that hardware is hard and in my opinion start-up companies should avoid getting into the physical product business if at all possible.

For some time I believed that physical products held a huge advantage over software-only products. Consumers are after all used to paying for items that they can touch and feel whereas most software these days seems to be free. The high barrier to entry of the hardware market also ensures that you will see much less competition than you otherwise might.

Having said that, I now feel that the disadvantages of creating hardware products far outweigh the advantages. The barrier to entry is high for a reason and it is not just your competition that needs to cross it!

Compared to software, hardware is several orders of magnitude more expensive to prototype, manufacturer, and distribute. One software engineer can develop a basic demo in a matter of hours and the manufacturing / distribution costs approach zero. Creating and distributing a hardware product requires much more expertise across a wider range of domains. It requires hiring more staff and partnering with outside (and expensive) vendors. An initial prototype may not be seen for months. If you make it to manufacturing, each unit you build costs money and everyone along the value chain needs to get paid. You must figure out how to distribute the product and manage all the logistics it entails. You also need to carefully manage inventory which is non-trivial since forecasting demand of a new product is almost impossible.

The larger (but related) issue is that of iteration. Start-ups are usually attempting to create a new market or segment an existing one. A start-up is usually founded on some hypothesis which almost always turns out to be wrong. Experienced and successful entrepreneurs will tell you that the key to success is through experimentation, learning and iterating on your product idea. Get your product into the market as quickly as possible and modify it based on what you learn. Often the final winning product bares little resemblance to the initial idea. The sad reality is that today the costs of manufacturing and distributing hardware makes iteration impractical for most. If you don't get it right the first time then you are dead meat.

Unfortunately at Zeemote we spent much more time dealing with the basic issues of just bringing the device to market than we did (or could) on iterating the product based on user feedback.

If you are considering a hardware product I'd urge you to think long and hard about it. Is there any way that you can develop an initial version or a similar product that doesn't require hardware?

I think a good example of this done right is Boxee. They provide an internet media streaming service that ideally would run on a dedicated set-top box connected to your TV (like your cable box). When Boxee launched however they did so with desktop software only (no hardware). This let them test their product idea and build a user base. Sure, ideally, it would be a set top box but the software allowed early adopters to try the service and provide feedback. It wasn't until this week that they announced a dedicated hardware device. Smart move.

I don't see myself getting into the hardware business again any time soon but if I do you can be sure it will have a software-only strategy at launch.

- mpv

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Game Over for Zeemote

I'm disappointed to report that last month my (now former) employer, Zeemote, Inc. laid off its staff and shut down operations. The news was first reported in Mass High Tech the day after it happened a few weeks ago.
According to investor Michael Fitzgerald of Commonwealth Capital Ventures, the company has shut its doors, but he declined to offer any further details of the closure, except to note the plans to sell Zeemote’s assets.
I spent three and half years at Zeemote, Inc. That may not sound like a long time but in the world of start-ups and the mobile industry in particular that amounts to several lifetimes. Remember that back in 2006 the number one cell phone was still the Motorola RAZR and few people could envision high quality games or applications ever running on mobile phones.

I joined the company back then as the first full time hire after the founders. Like all roller coasters this one had lots of ups, downs and unexpected turns. During my tenure I had 4 different bosses and 3 different CEOs. We worked in 2 different office buildings and saw the company renamed. We celebrated a few big launches and deals but were disappointed by the failure to close many more than we landed. We had a few hiring sprees and two major layoffs, the last of which was my own.

The failure of the product and company is a huge let down for everyone involved. A lot of time, money, and heart went into this effort but we ultimately failed.

With that said, Zeemote was undoubtedly the best professional experience of my life. I strongly believe that failure can provide the best learning experiences and this is no exception. We did a lot of things right at Zeemote but we also made a ton of mistakes. The lessons I learned here will stick with me for years and I hope (in due time) to share many of them with you on this blog.

For now I'm officially one of the many unemployed but I'm very excited and optimistic for what is next.

DISCLAIMER: This is a personal weblog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer (I don't even have one!)