Why being open about your product will help your company

Would you tell people about your idea before you even had a working prototype? John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen (founder of Hidden Radio) did and received great PR because of it.

While most entrepreneurs hide their ideas away where no one can see them, John took a different approach. Sharing his innovative idea for a mobile speaker, he received a lot of support and potential customers. Now he just had to build it. Instead of listening to others who told him it couldn’t be built, he put together a great team of designers and engineers and proved them all wrong. Plus, his team launched one of the most successful campaigns on Kickstarter…raising almost ten times their original goal of $125,000.


Stephen: Hey everyone, welcome to another episode where I interview makers and hardware entrepreneurs. And today we’ve got John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen, with Hidden Radio to talk about how he’s built his company and the cool things that he’s doing. So, John, thanks for joining us.

John: No problem. Hey Stephen.

Stephen: So tell us, what is Hidden Radio? What are you guys doing?

John: Well, Hidden firstly is our company and our goal with our company is to create very simple, intuitive products. Where the product becomes the brand more so than the brand becoming the product. So, the first product is the Hidden Radio which we launched on Kickstarter a few months ago, and basically it’s a simple and intuitive Bluetooth speaker and radio. Literally it’s as simple as it gets, the farther you lift up the cap, the louder it gets. And that’s about as complex as we get. Very simple product.

Stephen: That’s very cool. So, how did this idea come to you?

John: About five years ago I was working for Motorola out of Chicago and I was just brainstorming one weekend on a simple, intuitive product and this came to mind. So I sent it out to Vitori [SP] Milan, and he loved the idea so we started kind of toying with it and developing it. And we put it it on the web, just created a simple website and the response was overwhelming. So, we tried for years to do something with it and eventually we got the right manufacturer and the right development team and that kind of all culminated into the Kickstarter project and that got us the money to put it into production.

Stephen: That’s really cool. So you actually came up with the idea, you didn’t know how you were going to do it yet, but you built a website and you got it out there and you got feedback to see what people wanted?

John: Yeah, we’ve seen a lot of people do a similar structure but it really wasn’t so much with the same goal in mind. But we just wanted to understand our audience, because it was an audience receptive to our product. To be honest the PR that we got out of it was insane. A lot of companies try to get the same level of PR and spend a lot of money doing it and don’t get anything. So we kind of realized we had something pretty special and it would be crazy to waste it. And, you know, people just love the product. There was no hype, it’s a very humble product, they just really wanted it. So we decided to take it forward.

Stephen: And this was before you even had a working prototype? It was really a detailed a concept, and here’s what it would do, and people just latched on to that idea?

John: Exactly. And the concept changed over time, as things do with prototypes, work with development team and it naturally, the function got better, I think, in a lot of ways, and yeah, it kind of went from there.

Stephen: So what’s your background? Because you were working for Motorola before.

John: Yeah, that’s where I met my business partner Vitori and we worked together in Motorola in Milan. Vitori’s still based out of Milan, and then about five years ago I moved out to the West Coast where I was design lead at HP. And eventually from there I left and started this business as well as doing other products, and that kind of brings us up to the current day.

Stephen: So, how long did it take you to go from concept to working manufacturable prototype?

John: You know, that’s kind of a difficult thing to answer. Because we had a working prototype within a few months. But we went through many prototypes in order to get it right. And to get it right took a couple years of, because we’re on this on the side, aside from our full-time jobs as well. And we’re kind of working on getting the mechanism of it exactly right, and a lot of the innovation in this is within the mechanism. You know, getting that to work perfect, making it smooth, and then being able to fit the speaker and the battery and all that stuff together. It’s actually very complex inside. It seems like a simple product from the outside, but inside it’s almost like a Tetris pattern. Trying to fit everything in and still have a small size and have a good base volume. So it was very challenging, but really a ton of fun trying to make it work.

Stephen: So what tools did you build to prototype this? Did you outsource this to a shop, or did you use something like Tech Shop or did you have these tools in your garage?

John: We did a lot of the CAD ourselves, excuse the sirens going past. That’s better. I live on a busy street in San Francisco and usually around 6 pm. on a Friday afternoon I think the after-hours drinks bring out the other ambulances. We did a lot of the CAD ourselves. We worked with a lot of engineers that we met through these companies that we’ve worked for. A lot of guys in the Bay Area have worked for Apple, and Motorola, they’re all great engineers. And so we worked and developed what we call a 3D database of all the moving parts, and then we, from there we create SLA’s which are 3D printed parts. And that’s the first proof of concept to understand if it works because the tolerances in the size of this stuff, you can’t just go into your workshop and build them. You know, it’s very difficult to build them. So once we got that working and we worked out a lot of the details, we then send it out to our model shop, which is kind of a high-end model shop that a lot of the big companies use. To get an idea of one prototype, it does cost around $5000. But it’s a perfectly working prototype and it looks beautiful and it’s just a gorgeous looking thing. But you work out the problems and talking with them is like, we had to [inaudible 00:05:54] here, we actually had to change the tolerance on this part, and we learn so much from that process. And then, once we have it worked out we go and talk to our development team and our manufacturer and they take what we’ve done and they reorganize it through manufacturing so it can be done on a mass scale. So they can make 1,000 to 2,000 a day and so on.

Stephen: Very cool. So when you’re reaching out to these engineers to help you design it, is it sort of like a side project? They have their day jobs and then on the side they’re helping you design this product?

John: Absolutely. You know, if we were to go and do this like a big company and go and talk to a engineering consultant, it would run into the millions of dollars in development and just, we would never be able to afford it. This whole new kind of revolution in creating big companies that’s happening, I think this is all a part of it. You know, finding the right people who are willing to it, maybe for a lower price. Their primary goal is not financial, anyone who wants to do it because they love the product, and pretty much everyone that did it did it because they really liked it. Some people were paid, some people just did it for the joy of it. We tried to pay them and they said, ‘No, we just really enjoy it.’ and so that’s always nice when it’s somebody that just wants to do it for fun and that’s when you get the best stuff.

Stephen: Yeah, I mean, that’s really cool. So how did you find these engineers to help you? Through networks, or like cold call? What was it, how did you find them?

John: No cold call, all people I knew. There’s always a time when you’re trying to be an entrepreneur and starting up, this kind of grace period. When people are willing to do work at a very reduced rate or for free, and then once you start to make money then you start paying people. For us, there was a bit of a grace period and then it got to a point where it was serious, and now it’s like, OK, now we’re investing serious cash. And that’s why, you know, paying like $50,000 plus development, that was prototypes, trips as well as eventually having to pay engineers to do the work. So, you know, there’s always a point where [inaudible 00:08:05] would say, “Look, I’m too busy.” “OK, that’s fine.” So we’d go and hire people and have them finish it off.

Stephen: So was there any issue, IP issues when someone’s working on a project for you but they also work for Apple or HP in their day job? Is there any issue with that major company, because they’re also doing work on the side? Is that something?

John: Absolutely. You know, all these guys that we worked with, the Apple engineer that we worked with, when he started working on this he left Apple. For sure, any Apple engineer can not work on anything, it doesn’t matter what it is, on the side. They want them completely aligned and, you know, even some other areas that were gray. We said, “Look, we’ll take your advice but we don’t want you to do any paid work.”

Stephen: OK.

John: That’s a conflict. And it seems like a lot of the, Google are much more flexible there. I think they encourage people to do other stuff to keep them. So it just depends on the company and we navigate from there. And, to be honest, a lot of the engineering we could do ourselves, when we needed them they advised us, it’s a very fluid process.

Stephen: But you guys are pretty cognitive of that, of who could work on stuff, who couldn’t, and you navigated that. But that was something you were aware of.

John: Certainly. And that got us to a point. But once we got really serious, then we worked with our development team who was really doing the really heavy-lifting. And that’s when we had to start paying people and start doing it with much more of a structure, so the actual IP that’s in the product now, the mechanism that we came up with it was actually Vitori’s invention, the actual mechanism. And then we worked with our manufacturing team to finalize and get it ready for production.

Stephen: It seems like you’ve been fairly open with what you guys are trying to do in your design. Which I’m sure it has helped you get a lot of PR and buzz like you were saying. Was there any point where you were worried about sharing this with the wrong person? Or was it just, you know, the idea seemed simple but actually pulling it off is really, really complicated? So it’s not like someone could just take it and run with it.

John: Yeah, like, you know, some engineers we spoke to, when we told them what we were trying to do, they were like, ‘we don’t think it can be done’. Fortunately we proved them wrong. But, you know, that was a part, there’s a lot of engineering that’s gone into a lot of complexity that we have seen some copycat products, but they’re just not even close to what’s needed. And the other thing is the actual stuff that we’ve shown on Kickstarter and we’ve shared along the way, that’s not our IP. Our IP is an internal mechanism that we haven’t been fully public with yet because we’re still in the patent process. So, we’ve made sure to keep that under wraps. So all the IP is under wraps. But also, we really want to be open and this is something that’s very much a part of the way Vitori and I work. A lot of people, they try to keep everything secret and they’re so scared of things being stolen, and I’m a little bit the opposite. I’m like, well, maybe it will get stolen, but the question is, “Are you going to fight them if they do steal it?,” and a lot of people don’t have the means to do that. If it just stays on your computer and it’s your own secret and never sees the light of day, does it matter? I take one example. When I was at Motorola there was a certain user interface patent that I filed with Motorola and they didn’t patent the user interface design that I had, and it was a very critical function to the iPhone. And then Motorola said, “well, it’s never going to be used in any phone so we’re not going to patent it.” And six months later, iPhone came out and I could have been annoyed because that was my idea but I don’t really think it was my idea, I think it was just many minds come up with similar ideas at the same time.

Stephen: Right.

John: Actually, I’m more appreciative that someone did something cool than it just stayed in my head, you know, and never goes anywhere. So I think people need to be a little bit more open but at the same time not be naive. Still protect yourself and still do the right things to ensure that a big company doesn’t come in and crush you.

Stephen: Right. Protect the things that you can get IP for, but everything else you can be open with and that’s OK.

John: I think so. We’ve really tried, also through the Kickstarter process. Some backers are like, “Well, we need info” and some are being, “Oh, this is really what we want.” And we’ve really tried to be as open as possible, and people have really responded to that. We’ve even shown things we didn’t think people would find interesting like the way the tool opens up. You know, adding draft angles to a part, for us, we thought, well, maybe people don’t care about that. But people have really responded and really enjoyed the transparency and understanding the whole process. And I really think, especially something like Kickstarter, people aren’t just buying a product, they’re buying into a project. And I think that’s the key thing. If they wanted a Bluetooth speaker they would have gone down the road and bought one. But they want to enjoy the process of seeing it all come to life and seeing a company get built up from that.

Stephen: Yeah.

John: You really want to bring people along the way and, you know, live through what we’re living through, and make sure they’re a part of the whole thing. That’s really the fun of it

Stephen: So, being open has really helped you be successful on Kickstarter?

John: Absolutely. And also like, we enjoy it. And also, we’ve done a bit of education. Vitori teaches very often in Europe, and as well as I teach a little bit out here. We just really enjoyed that aspect of it, you know, passing on the info to the next generation. People have really helped us. We wouldn’t be in the position we’re at if people didn’t take the time to help us. So we’re just happy to lend a little bit of a hand if we can.

Stephen: Yeah, so it seems rally your passion and your company is what’s really allowing you to pursue this.

John: Absolutely. And you know, in time it will turn profit and whatever, but really it’s been absolute passion. We’re doing what we love and that’s kind of the dream that every designer wants to do.

Stephen: That’s awesome. Would this project have been possible five or ten years ago with the technology available? Or is it the technology now that’s allowed you to finally do this?

John: You know, obviously things improve over time, speakers and amps and stuff, and so definitely you know, it’s improved over the last ten years. But the primary thing is being crowd-funded, that kind of changed everything. We had, before even Kickstarter and the crowd-funding revolution, the product was ready and many companies had seen it. And they could have reached out and said, “We want to develop this with you as a licensing deal with the company.” The opportunity was out there, but they didn’t do it and now that they’ve seen it’s a high market success through Kickstarter now they’re all reaching out to us and many, many companies are reaching out and saying we want to cooperate, we want to partner, etc. So it’s completely turned everything on its head. It’s interesting to see.

Stephen: So you actually had a working, manufacturable prototype, when you launched your Kickstarter campaign?

John: Yeah.

Stephen: So what has Kickstarter allowed you to do? I mean, you’ve been really successful with it. So what has that allowed you to do?

John: Well, the original design we launched, and this is one of the wonderful things that came out of Kickstarter. The original design we launched on Kickstarter had removable batteries, and it had to have a slightly smaller speaker because of the removable batteries. We listened to everyone, and a lot of the things people were asking for and in the end we decided to put in in-built rechargeable battery. There was a small proportion that wanted removable batteries, but most people it was just, you know, you can plug it in and recharge and don’t have to remove the batteries. So we actually went back and re-engineered part of it. We actually put an in-built battery so it could be recharged.

Stephen: OK.

John: And what this allowed us to do, because at the time we had speaker here, and then batteries alongside it. By putting in a rechargeable battery inside, we’re able to put a much larger speaker and put the battery on top. What that allowed us to do is put a lot more base volume in and just a bit bigger gives you better sound. So actually it meant that delivering a bit later than we admitted, and we told people that before we closed the funding. But, by and large, everyone’s been supportive. The consensus has been, deliver a great product a little bit late than a pretty good product on time. We would have had a great product, but this whole market research if you like has made it a lot better. We just got the new prototype and we put it alongside the market leader, not going to name any names. And it’s a louder device. Once it hits the market for a similar price, I think you’ll get a louder, as good a quality device as the market leader, so that really came through the power of the crowd-funding method. It just made a better product. So we don’t have anything bad to say about the method of engaging the crowd and engaging the group to help us develop a good product.

Stephen: So yeah, so Kickstarter told you what they wanted and then they helped you fund that change?

John: Yeah, they helped us fund it. Really wonderful. It’s like, it could be better. But we’re always like we have to move the date down a little bit, and that’s the most stressful for us because we want to make sure we keep everybody engaged and happy and good customers that want to keep coming back. But people have been so encouraging and, you know, just like, you’re doing the right thing. And that’s such a good feeling to be so engaged with your customers and really know what they’re feeling. A lot of companies spend so much money trying to understand what their customers are thinking, and they tell us right away. We just go to our comments page and it’s all there and people are as rude and polite as they want to be and it’s perfect. It’s really powerful.

Stephen: That’s great. So, last question. What was your biggest obstacle to overcome?

John: The biggest obstacle was probably pre-Kickstarter, finding the right development partner to manufacture the product. We traveled, you know, all around the world looking at the people. We looked in the U.S., Italy, even Brazil. I went on a trip all through Taiwan and Hong Kong and we looked everywhere, and to be honest we ended up with a Hong Kong manufacturer and the reason that we went with them was because they do all the speakers. You know, you go to Best Buy and look at the top brands and they do them. So they’re a very good company and a very good friend of ours is a close relationship of the company so they’re trustworthy, and we wanted to do it closer to home. We looked in the US and Italy. But the fact of the matter is, it’s always tricky. You try to use local but a lot of the stuff is moved, all the expertise has moved over to Asia and it just kind of worked out that way. But, you know, we’re always open to move things back home, but our partner over there is so skilled, they work so hard that they’re just wonderful partners to work with and it’s a global economy now and that’s the kind of reason why people use Asian manufacturers because all the expertise is there.

Stephen: The expertise and then to scale. If you wanted to sell ten of these speakers, you could probably make them in the US, but if you want to make 100,000, that’s different.

John: Exactly. And it’s just, you know, the economy is changing. I think in the 90’s and early 2000’s, you couldn’t even get anything made in the US. And now I think slowly some things are coming back to the US. But still, a lot of this stuff like to do it all it one place is still in Asia. And, so yeah, it’s a global economy now. We’ve been very happy with these guys. Their work level has been incredible. Their skill has been incredible, so it’s been really good.

Stephen: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

John: Of course. I’m more than happy to.

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