Kazam Is Another European Startup Hoping Against Hope To Inch In To The Smartphone Hardware Market

Posted: June 19, 2013 in Europe, Gadgets, GT, Mobile, Startup
Tags: ,

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Hardware is so hot right now. So hot, in fact, that
another European hardware startup is formulating an
attack on the smartphone hardware space — joining
the likes of Finland’s Jolla and Spain’s Geeksphone
to have a go at handset making. The newest comer
stepping in with a plan to shake up the “status quo” is called Kazam: a startup co-founded by a pair of
former U.K. HTC execs, Michael Coombes and
James Atkins. Coombes, who spent just over a year and a half as a
U.K. head of sales for HTC, according to his
LinkedIn, is Kazam’s CEO. Prior to HTC he
apparently worked for mobile and telecoms
companies including Nokia and Vodafone. While
Atkins, Kazam’s CMO, spent just over a year as HTC’s head of marketing for U.K./Ireland, and has
previously worked in U.K. marketing roles for freesat,
LG and Panasonic. The pair’s professional network is
clearly tied tightly to the local market, hence,
presumably, Kazam’s focus on Europe first. “Kazam will focus on Europe at the outset,”
“We are currently
establishing a network of regional sales and
marketing offices to ensure we deliver outstanding
products and customer service.” The startup has a U.K. base in Mayfair, London. Details of how exactly Kazam plans to assault the
Samsung and Apple smartphone duopoly were not
forthcoming when I asked. Atkins declined to answer
the bulk of my questions — including such specifics
as whether Kazam’s planned smartphones will run
Android and be skinned with a custom UI or keep the experience familiarly stock. Instead, he trotted out a
repeated PR mantra: “Today we are just announcing
that the Kazam brand is here, for the rest you will
have to wait and see.” It’s notable that this startup has already engaged a
PR company (Noire) — and talks about creating a
mobile brand — even before having a great deal to talk about. Which does serve to underline how
smartphones have become a game of who can shout
the loudest. A game of brash tones (as I have
previously described it). What did Atkins say? Not a whole lot. He declined to
reveal how much funding Kazam is backed by at this
point, or whether it is currently looking to raise a
round. He did at least confirm it has backers, and that
those backers have links into Asian mobile
manufacturing companies — which suggests it’s following Jolla’s manufacturing playbook. “Kazam Mobile has been set up by a group of private
equity investors, who have previously launched and
operated successful mobile telecommunications
companies and technology businesses. Some of their
current investments include NF Technology Limited,
an R&D company specialising in developing and customising mobile phone devices and tablets and
Nichefinder (S’pore) PTE Limited, a proven
technology procurement and supply company,”
He also confirmed Kazam’s plan is to launch “a range
of smartphones at different prices point/specs” later
this year. Asked whether it will look at other types of
mobile devices, such as tablets, he said only that its
initial focus is on smartphones. He added that he and
Coombes left their roles at HTC earlier this year “with the desire to build a new brand that really stands out
in the mobile space”. He also declined to be drawn on the differentiation
question but in Kazam’s inaugural press release
today Coombes said: “We believe your smartphone is
a digital reflection of who you are, and since we are
all different, it’s important that we don’t adopt a one
size fits all approach. Kazam’s dynamic structure and focus on local markets means we can react quickly to
the ever evolving and diverging needs of today’s
consumer. We aim to provide quality smartphones
that are accessible to everyone.” The release also includes a statement from Atkins
hinting that aftersales service might be how Kazam
attempts to stand out in a crowded market: “There is
a real opportunity for a new mobile brand to disrupt
the status quo. We are passionate about delivering a
truly positive mobile experience that doesn’t just stop once you’ve bought the phone. Kazam is about
stunning design, robust hardware and intuitive
technology, underpinned by outstanding customer
service.” Further details about exactly what kind of customer
service opportunity Kazam reckons it has identified
were not forthcoming. The size of Kazam’s team at this point is just Atkins
and Coombes — a few more if you count the hired
help from their external PR company. But Atkins also
said the startup has already “established an R&D
centre”. Hopefully with some staff in it, but
presumably no permanent headcount yet. Should Kazam get off the ground with its grand status
quo shaking plan it will need to significantly boost its
body count — if only to staff the network of regional
sales and marketing offices it is currently
establishing. It will also need to make decent
smartphone hardware — hardware that’s worth shouting about. Whether it will be able to deliver that
is clearly something to file under “wait and see”. Asked how a startup with inevitably bounded
resources can succeed in such a fiercely competitive
space — when veteran players such as HTC are
having such a tough time standing out despite making
cracking handsets like the HTC One — Atkins’ said
only: “The mobile market whilst competitive, seems to have stagnated.” Stagnation is one word for it. Saturation is another.
Smartphone hardware and software has achieved a
very high quality bar, with Android OEMs like
Samsung pushing high-end features lower and lower
down the price-point range to pull up the capabilities
of mid- and even budget handsets. This has resulted in a surfeit of great phones, across a very broad
spectrum of price-points. Which means precious little
room for anyone new to elbow in. Or stand out. So there are huge question marks over any startup
entering such a fiercely competitive space, especially
with so many better resourced former mobile giants
continuing to struggle. Disruption often starts small
but in a market so beholden to carriers, where the
bulk of phones sales occur, it’s especially hard for an upstart to get traction. Carriers tend to be risk averse
and have established distribution partnerships and
(incentivised) relationships with the smartphone
giants so have disincentives to push anything too
new. Going it alone with online retail distribution is the
alternative, but that route requires a sizeable marketing budget to even get noticed. Creating handsets for an underserved niche may be
one way to carve out a business, as Geeksphone has
been. Securing carrier distribution agreements to
carry your hardware is another strategy, as Jolla has
with Finland’s DNA. For now, it’s unclear whether
Kazam has any similar moves up its sleeve, but it will certainly be hoping it has enough local telco
connections — and financial backing — to give it a
regional chance of inching in. To say it has its work
cut out to make any kind of impact is an
understatement.

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