Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Jack Yao, our company is Mobile Pixels Inc. We started the company when I was a graduate student at MIT. During an internship at Amazon, I urgently felt the need of using a portable monitor as I was working in a co-working space. The idea came to when I was doing some programming work, I wished that I could have had a monitor that can be expanded from the back of the main laptop display.
When I return to school the following semester, my roommate Stephen and I started to prototype this idea. With funding from Northeastern University and MIT, we launched a Kickstarter/IndieGoGo campaign which raised 1.5MM in presales.
Our product is the Duex monitor, we did 4.3MM in sales in 2019, and are on track to do $12MM for 2020.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I have used multiple screens my entire life as a professional and as a student. When I was forced to work on a small laptop screen at Amazon, I could not help but think about how much productivity was being lost across from the organization. That was the light bulb moment for me.
It is important to know your market and market size and then crafts your service or product specifically for that market.
I was discussing this problem over lunch with a colleague, and the idea of sliding a second monitor out from behind the first just came naturally. It was an idea that I could not shake.
I worked in manufacturing my whole career at GE Aviation. Also as an engineer, I had a basic understanding of how to put this product together. With the help of my roommate, we created 4 prototypes. Each based on feedback we gathered from interviewing folks in co-working spaces across Boston.
At the same time, we enter MassChallenge, which is the largest startup incubator in the world, and launched a Kickstarter campaign with funding from MIT and NEU. We were both students, our plan was to get a job first and work on this project on the side.
Little did we know, we won the Diamond Prize from MassChallenge which gave us $100K to work on the startup and we raised $860K in presales (Later raised another 700K on Indiegogo). All of sudden we were on the hook to deliver 6,000 monitors, and that is when we decided to pursue this full time.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I made the first prototype by using an LCD screen from my mom's broken laptop. I build the housing at MIT's hobby shop using acrylic and an off the shelf driver board. That allowed me to gather people's interest around whether or not a portable display will prove to be useful.
Then with the help of Stephen, we started producing the prototype using CAD and 3D printing the components to build a functional prototype. We also hired a solutions provider to design and manufacture a sample run of 10 custom video driver boards.
From there, we did more market research/consumer interviews and refined our prototype more to the point that we can use it to shoot a commercial for our Kickstarter.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We didn't think we were going to raise as much as we did in presales. We were planning on getting a job and doing this on the side. The huge success with IndieGoGo and Kickstarter created a ton of publicity for us. We were eventually covered by Business Insider. That generated a ton of interest from distributors and resellers. Amazon, Office Depot, Touch of Modern, Woot, and many other resellers got in touch with us and wanted to sell our product. That allowed us to place orders of the Duex while mitigating inventory risk. Much of our business happened organically without a lot of planning.
Initially, I spent an afternoon putting up an informational website just to get our contact information out there. Then we hired an Indian firm to develop our first checkout ready website, however, we didn't see much success in converting incoming web traffic. Recently, we hired an eCommerce service firm to do thorough research on our online consumer behavior and revamp the website, which is live today.
Crowdfunding definitely allowed us to prove there is a market for our product. With that success, we were able to pitch to an Angel Investor who invested $500K. We only spend a few thousand of our own money in the very beginning. MIT and NEU gave us $37K to fund development. Crowdfunding financed most of the tooling and travel-related expenses as well as inventory.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We don’t really retain existing customers since this is pure hardware. However, we have added a ton of clever branding to our product such that it stands out in the public. In essence, every user becomes our brand ambassador when they deploy our product in public. We have sold to American Family Insurance, Human and Health Services, and USC all from decision-makers picking up our product in public.
We used a crowdfunding marketing agency to launch our Kickstarter campaign. We interviewed 5 agencies and went with the one that had the most reasonable fee. We also hired a PR company to pitch to different media companies.
The marketing agency ran a pre-launch campaign for 30 days prior to the actual launch of the campaign on Kickstarter.
We did have a target user group, but we were not sure whether that overlapped with people who often purchase on Kickstarter. The marketing agency had launched many electronics products before, we were able to utilize the list of previous backers from those campaigns.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Fortunately, we have been doing well. With the COVID-19 situation, almost all operational companies are transitioning to WFH. This has created a huge lift in demand for our product. This has prompted us to start thinking about other productivity products we can create to complete the Mobile Pixels platform.
Figure out how to pivot into adjacent verticals based on the current market. This will lay the footwork to make an argument for funding. People do not want to fund one product, they want to fund a company. A product will never make a company.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One sobering lesson I learned is that to be “always ready to walk away”. This is fundamental in any negotiation, you must have a second option or you have no negotiating power. In our business, if you do not source a second supplier for your components, the original can be late, cause quality issues and there is no way to hold them accountable.
Many people say you can reject the product until quality standards are met, but things are never that simple. You have open POs to fill, ocean freight capacity may change, manpower issues due to Chinese holidays will all come into play
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We mainly use Quickbooks and Google Suite.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I love listening to How I Built This on NPR. It has been very inspirational listening to the wins and losses of other successful entrepreneurs before me. It also makes it easy to stay determined when faced with a challenge because this is the right of passage for any entrepreneur.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Many people talk about how difficult it is to raise money. I think that is the one area to focus on in a startup. It is important to know your market, and market size and then craft your service or product specifically for that market.
Also, figure out how to pivot into adjacent verticals based on the current market. This will lay the footwork to make an argument for funding. People do not want to fund one product, they want to fund a company. A product will never make a company.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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