Inspired by their lack of time and problem with procrastination, Thushaan and Stephen co-founded emit, a smartwatch that aims to boost productivity by showing you countdowns. They launched on Kickstarted and were able to raise +$17,000, which was the 330% of their goal. Now, they are growing the business and getting new customers.
Hi Stephen! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
Hey, I’m a 23-year-old engineering graduate from Imperial College London and co-founded emit with my friend Thushaan in June 2018. emit is a smartwatch that makes you more conscientious with your use of time by using the psychology of scarcity. emit shows you a countdown of your most important tasks, events and goals - and the name is just time in reverse. I’m CEO of emit and as a new start-up we have to do everything ranging from designing the watch and the manufacturing to building a community of supporters to back us on Kickstarter.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My co-founder, Thushaan, and I would often walk back home from university together and talk about how we never have enough time to do all the things we want. As engineers, we wanted to solve this and realized that traditional watches don’t show you how to best use your time. We set out to design a simple and effective tool to change our mindset in regards to productivity and time.
As students, procrastination often plagued our days and was the cause of unachieved goals. We wanted something that constantly reminded us of our priorities and what we should be doing with our time.
The idea was born out of a joke of thinking of making a deathwatch, one that would count down to your death. But we then realized that it would be really interesting to play on the psychology of scarcity to make our minds realize how valuable and irreversible time is. We decided to make use of technology to help change behavior. Keeping it as simple an idea as possible we wanted to bring something fresh to the watch industry which is either saturated with smartwatches that all do the same thing or traditional watches which show you nothing but present time. We’re charged to change people’s attitude towards time and convince them that there is an even better way of looking at it.
How did you build emit?
We started working on emit in Jan 2018 by making a storyboard of the watch user interface and decided on all the important features for a smartwatch that would enable users to improve their time management and productivity. We wanted to keep it minimal in design so went with a black and white color scheme. We then coded an Android app that mimicked the required features and uploaded it onto a Motorola smartwatch - this was our first prototype. It was an MVP that allowed us to get a feel for the usefulness of the watch and show it to other users.
Being Engineering students, we approached the design from a very utilitarian perspective, with the objective of keeping emit as simple and declutter as possible. Our goal is to use technology to change your mindset and behavior versus just adding more functionality.
Using Computer-aided Design at our university (Imperial College) we then made a 3D model of our casing, strap, screen and internal components - which we sent to different manufacturers in China. After figuring out which manufacturer was best in terms of manufacturing requirements, shipping and pricing, we asked for sample prototypes to be sent. We then also developed a phone which will be used for inputting all the user’s countdowns through calendar syncing into the watch.
We had to overcome the challenges of convincing people to first look at time in a completely different way (in reverse) than has been done for centuries. It also became clear that we are trying to appeal to users who no longer use watches because they can see normal time on their phones, and don’t see the point of wearing a device that only does that. We wanted to contextualize time to each person - and our challenge was to find the niche group of people who were specifically looking for a similar solution.
We decided to launch on Kickstarter because it was the perfect ground of marrying investors with customers - a place where we could raise funds and gauge market interest. We wanted to price as aggressively as possible, and are happy that we’ve managed to have Kickstarter tiers at $99, $119 and $139 depending on how early in the campaign you buy them. This is still less than half of what smartwatches retail for, and it ensures that we can compete with both - smartwatches and traditional watches.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
In terms of marketing, we’ve built a social media following on Facebook and Instagram. We’ve released campaign videos explaining the ethos of emit and our vision with starting a revolution on time. We have built a community of people who are focused on improving themselves and their lives by controlling time instead of accepting defeat to its inevitable nature.
We began by building an email list of backers who were interested in emit and wanted to keep up to date with our progress and know when we launch on Kickstarter. We also used targeted ads on Facebook which we realized requires a larger budget for optimizing metrics and decided it was too expensive for us to run on a tight budget. We then started using Reddit to gain some traction from sub-Reddit on discipline, productivity and motivation. We’ve realized that getting the video out there to the right audience is the hardest bit as once we do show the concept, people are often interested at least. It feels great when people proactively reach out to us asking about emit, and when they can grab one as it makes us feel like we’ve made something that’s valuable.
For Kickstarter projects, we have found that Instagram is perhaps not yet the best platform to find backers as much as it can be a great source of telling your brand story. Our university has been great in spreading the word to the wider student community and getting us in touch with other Kickstarter projects too.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame?
The challenge in growing emit is being in a place where the minimum order quantity from our manufacturers is 1000 units which is not much for them, but needing to raise around $45k from Kickstarter which is a large amount for a project with very little market spend. We have had to bootstrap a lot of the marketing, outreach to PR and customers, as well as create the creative assets to showcase emit. It's an exhilarating experience as we get to learn incredible amounts every day, and have to learn to be rapid and decisive but also thoughtful with our actions.
Being a recently graduated student, there is always the pressure of pursuing a traditional corporate career with big names and high starting salaries. It is initially difficult to express your vision with a business especially when it has not yet started generating revenues.
Our hardest challenge so far has been raising funds by exhausting our list of friends and family as our initial group of backers. Apart from being very time intensive as you have to manually reach out to them, it also involves a lot of awkward conversations and unfortunately strained relations too. To the personal relations who do back you, you now have the added pressure of delivering a successful product as it puts your trustworthiness at stake. On the other hand, it also drives us to work even harder to make a success out of emit.
Which are your greatest disadvantages?
The greatest disadvantage we have is being a start-up doing hardware. The saying “hardware is hard” is true. Not having the scale of a large manufacturing facility and being based in the UK, whilst working with Chinese and American partners can be challenging but part of the excitement too.
We are competing against both traditional watches, and smartwatches. Whilst we don’t provide the social media and music functions of smartwatches as we want to keep it purely timekeeping focuses - we also have to convince people that their wrist space can be used to project a part of their personality that is pioneering and forward thinking with emit.
The first pushback we get from people is why not make this an app on the phone or on a smartwatch - which is clear to us won’t work. The mission of emit is to be a physical reminder of the importance of your time and goals - like a wedding ring does to you when you’re married. An app wouldn’t work because it would be lost amidst the clutter of all the other distractions like social media and messaging which would be counterproductive to you. The other common reticence about emit is the fact that it might be stress-inducing which we have countered by limiting the countdowns to 10 events and goals - to ensure that you’re not using it like a minute by minute planner but more like an overall guide of timelines to the most important things to your life.
During the process of building & growing emit, which were the worst mistakes you committed?
In terms of mistakes, we started by asking what now looks like really basic questions about manufacturing to our manufacturers. We have had a very steep learning curve about the process so far. We also realized that spending money on Facebook ads ought to be done with much more tight goals (metrics) as otherwise, you can be fiscally very irresponsible in the chase of acquiring customers. We have learned to set a fixed customer acquisition cost and divvy up the different strategies that we will spend on to trying to acquire a customer.
We are also improving our outreach and media assets in quality with every piece of content we release. We have become clearer on wanting to only produce content that is valuable to our community instead of pure ads as it builds a stronger sense of service for us. We have also become more disciplined in prioritizing goals and milestones instead of trying to do a bunch of different things at once with diluted effort.
We started off by wanting to only show countdowns on the watch, but user feedback led us to quickly incorporate normal time, heart rate monitoring and footsteps as well. We did this to balance being a purely time keeping device with the minimal functions needed to convince a user to have an emit on their wrist. This was probably our biggest pivot - but we stay true to our core of wanting to change a user’s behavior with time by always showing them some form of time.
If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?
Hindsight really is 20-20. We would do a lot of things differently - be more decisive, act faster, do fewer things that weren’t a key to the existence and immediate success to emit but I guess we can only know what they were in hindsight. It would have been hugely beneficial to have read up on the manufacturing process of watches and crowdfunding specific marketing prior to starting work on emit. We should have spent more time building a community for backing emit instead of purely focusing on the product and then spreading the word. We were initially worried about having our idea copied, and very quickly have come to realize that execution is by far more important than just an idea. We’re no longer afraid of competition as it’s a longer-term challenge, and we believe we’ve already got a head start in terms of community building.
Apart from mistakes, what are other sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
There are loads of immensely instrumental books on entrepreneurship, but just a few of the ones we’ve found helpful are: The Hard Thing about Hard Things, Lean Startup, Zero to One and Creativity Inc. It’s much more important, I think, to know what specifically you are looking to learn, than just reading books that are considered generally good.
Paul Graham’s essays and all of YCombinator’s Start-up School content on Youtube is also very helpful in shedding light on common challenges faced by startups and what a good framework to solve those are.
Medium is also a great place to find other Kickstarter projects who have laid out pretty much step by step processes on all the strategies they employed to get funded. Having done as much research as we can on other startups, founders, projects - and continuing to learn as much as we can from others’ experience - we have found that trying things on your own is still the best teacher.
Where can we go to learn more?
Feel free to reach out to us on email@example.com - we’re super happy to answer any questions or just have a chat!
UPDATE: We successfully raised over 330% of our goal on Kickstarter, and with 180 backers pre-ordering and supporting our project - it’s been a great early validation to us that there is a strong interest for a smartwatch that helps people see time in a different way. We are now in the process of manufacturing the watches and raising our seed-round. We are very excited to build the next version of emit with time management analytics and an AI assistant that enables smart scheduling.