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What Starfish can learn from its failed Macworld appearance

If you haven't read it yet, please check out Lex Friedman's account on Macworld's site of his attempts to view the Starfish smartwatch prototype. Lex does an amazing job summarizing how the company stumbled and stumbled again in its attempts to show the Mac community its competitor to the Pebble smart watch.

TUAW got lucky. It was by pure chance that I happened to return to the booth just as the working prototype was being passed from hand to hand. After about five minutes, the prototype was handed to me.

Tale of a failed watch

Midway through our Friday afternoon coverage of the show, TUAW editor-in-chief Victor Agreda forwarded the team a tweet from Panic Inc. co-founder Cabel Sasser that talked about the watch. "An AirPlay mirroring... watch? But... how would it.. and how do you.. can someone at Macworld report from Booth 214?!" Sasser tweeted. I was in-between stories, so I scooped up my camera and headed to the show floor.

Starfish was on the far side of the exhibit space. A few booths were clustered near the tables where people grabbed a hurried bite to eat or rested their aching feet. It was easy to miss Starfish's booth at first. There were no products, no people clustered around the table like at the Square Jellyfish booth a couple steps away. Two women sat at the table doing what we all do when we're bored -- messing with their phones.

I asked one of the booth attendants if I could see a demo. There was a delay, and the prototypes aren't here yet, one told me. I could come back tomorrow. I asked them a few more questions about the watch, but they didn't know much about it.

Saturday morning, I returned to find no one at all at the Starfish booth. I shot a few photos of the empty table and headed off in search of a better story, namely the monkey across the room. A couple of hours later, I swung by the booth with TUAW colleague Randy Nelson shortly before 12:30 p.m. to find that the prototype had arrived, along with several watch bands with empty spaces where the device should be.

The man at the table, who was not CEO Jason Buzi, admitted that neither he nor Buzi had ever used the prototype, and that he wasn't even quite sure of what it did. He told me to come back in 30 minutes to an hour.

What Starfish can learn from its failed Macworld appearance

During that wait, I did some research. I found the Pocketables story from November 2012 with the initial ad in the November-December issue of iPhone Life. I found SlashGear's post about the plan to debut the watch at Macworld/iWorld 2013, and I checked out Starfish's Facebook page.

About 30 minutes later, Kelly Guimont sought us out. She and Rod Roddenberry had gone by the Starfish booth after my initial report that the prototype had arrived. They approached the booth to ask some questions. The man covering the booth told them that he would be right back -- and then he walked off, leaving the booth (and empty watchbands) unattended. Kelly wasn't impressed.

I decided to check the booth one more time. There was the usual throng of people wanting to check out a new product. And there was the watch, looking nothing like the magazine mockup. I made sure to capture a video for posterity.

When it was passed to me, I held it, not quite sure what to do with it. I pressed a few buttons, tapped the screen, and nothing happened. I gave it to Buzi and asked for a demonstration. You could tell he wasn't used to this sort of attention, and he admitted on Facebook that it was a stressful experience because he didn't have a product to show. But neither he nor his friend were as combative toward me as his friend (the one who spoke with me earlier) later was when speaking with Macworld's reporters.

I returned to the media room and showed the raw footage to Victor. "That's not an AirPlay watch," he said as soon as the first frames flickered on his MacBook Air. His guess? Buzi was obtaining a watch from China and trying to re-sell it here for a profit, and that's why he knew so little about his own prototype. Friedman's subsequent interview with Buzi confirmed Victor's suspicions.

What can be learned from this?

One of the main reasons that the Pebble smartwatch was funded successfully was because of how prepared they were at the beginning of the process. While production delays caused the watch to be delivered months after it was funded, they had working prototypes on hand before beginning the publicity process.

Disclaimer: I have successfully run one Kickstarter in the past, and I'm in the middle of conducting a second one. Starfish has a long road to go if they want to succeed at funding any sort of Kickstarter, and to start with, they have to earn the trust of their potential backers. As one Macworld commenter pointed out, thanks to the catastrophic Macworld/iWorld experience, they're pretty much doomed from the start. As Friedman said, it's odd that this sort of vaporware doesn't show up more often at expos (though I am still waiting for that TARDIS iPhone dock from CES 2011).

What could Starfish have done differently?

  • Hold off on advertising. They shouldn't have run any ads or reserved a Macworld spot until a working prototype was in hand. They should have known exactly where they were going with the watch before spending thousands of dollars on magazine ads and an expo booth. That's money that could have gone into research.
  • Choose the friends helping you wisely. Whoever is helping to pitch the product -- from booth sitters to best friends -- needs to know just as much about it as the CEO, and given the circumstances that's not much of a bar. Supply them cheat sheets. We heard answers ranging from "the Kickstarter has been conducted" to that it was coming later (the latter being the right answer). Teach them how to interact with people asking the rough questions. The friend trying to help Buzi who got aggressive with the Macworld reporting staff wasn't doing him any favors. The entire point of the expo was for reporters to come and ask those questions.
  • Make face time for yourself. A CEO launching a product should spend as much time as possible at the booth, even if the product isn't there. Have your laptop out, show people schematics and discuss the product with them. These are your potential backers, and you owe it to them to be as open as possible about the project. Also, show enthusiasm about your product. Be excited about it, be into it, and convey that to people. Yes, it's extremely hard when you're not used to doing that. But that passion about your own work will go a long way toward convincing people to back you.
  • Use prior experience you have to show that this isn't just vaporware. When I launched our first Kickstarter, I had never published a print book. But, I did have 10 years of newspaper experience as a reporter and designer. My partner and co-creator had two books published in Canada. Between us, we had a 14-month archive of comic pages online. Having that content available, along with our combined experience, helped both Kickstarter projects to be successful.
  • Be realistic about your project. As we know with Pebble and Nifty MiniDrive, there could be massive production delays. Components might be faulty, and other factors might cause you to adjust your schedule. Be open about them with potential backers. Perusing the Pebble and NiftyDrive update schedules on their Kickstarters will help you get a good idea as to what can go wrong. Even smaller products can have this happen. With my current Kickstarter, our printer suddenly bailed on us. I had to rearrange for the book to be printed elsewhere very fast.
  • If all else fails, bail out of the expo. Yes, you'll be out a few thousand dollars, but it could have also saved face for Starfish in the end. A straightforward "our prototype didn't arrive on time, and we didn't want to show people a product we didn't have" will go a long way toward earning good will. It means you're acting in good faith and not trying to scam folks.

Things could turn around for Starfish, they could be successfully funded, and we could see Starfish watches alongside Pebble at some point in 2014. Or, they're not funded. Or, they could turn out like Code Hero developers and potentially face a class-action lawsuit, and that's something I don't want to see happen to anyone.

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