Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

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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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Irish startup Galvanic has just launched a Kickstarter
to crowdsource funding a wireless stress biosensor
it’s calling PIP. PIP — which stands for ‘personal
input pod’ — is a Bluetooth biosensor that monitors
its user’s stress levels by measuring their galvanic
skin response (GSR) as they hold the PIP pinched between thumb and forefinger. GSR means skin
conductance — so basically how sweaty you’re
getting and therefore how nervous you’re feeling. PIP isn’t just a quantifiable self-tapping biosensor; it’s
been designed to work in conjunction with iOS and
Android phone and tablet apps to provide a
gamification element. The company has created three
games designed to be played using the PIP, which
utilises Bluetooth as its data transport tech. The user’s stress level is then incorporated into each
game as the core gameplay mechanic — with the
ultimate aim being to help the player learn what they
need to do to relax. It sounds a bit counterintuitive, since competitive
gaming can be synonymous with sweaty palms,
which is presumably why Galvanic’s project extends
to designing stress-busting games. It’s created three
games to be used in conjunction with the PIP — a
relaxing racing game, a seasonal mood game where players meditate on a wintery scene to turn it into
spring, and a more playful lie-detector multi-player
game — but it does also plan to launch an SDK in
future to get third party developers expanding the
PIP’s gaming ecosystem. With this initial handful of in-house games the PIP
can only be so interesting, but if Galvanic can
convince enough people to buy in to the gadget and
thus lure enough outside developers to join in, there’s
plenty of potential for other cool biosensing software
ideas. The price per PIP is $79 for a limited number of early bird Kickstarter backers, or $99 thereafter.
Presumably each new PIP-compatible game may
also carry a consumer price-tag. Galvanic is gunning for $100,000 in Kickstarter
funding, with the money to be used for finalising
manufacturing and readying its own apps. Assuming
it hits this rather ambitious funding goal, the company
reckons it can gear up for mass production by the end
of 2013, and expects to be shipping in Q1 2014. In future it said it plans to expand platform support
beyond Android and iOS, to add Windows Phone,
Blackberry, Windows, MacOS and also game
Consoles and set-top boxes.

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Last we saw Lumu Labs it was in Hardware Alley at
Disrupt New York where the Slovenian startup was
showing off a prototype of its digital light meter plus
iPhone app — aiming to convince photographers to
replace “bulky” traditional light meters with a
pocketable gizmo that plugs into their iPhones. Now, the startup has just kicked off a Kickstarter
campaign, aiming to raise $20,000 over the next 25
days to get its light meter into the wild. Lumu’s hope is to replace the standalone light meters
that pro photographers carry around with them by
harnessing the iPhone’s processing power and
battery, and coupling that with its own digital light
sensor. The sensor plugs straight into the iPhone’s
headphone jack. Lumu says its hardware is more sensitive than the on-board iPhone light sensor,
hence it’s able to provide photographer-friendly
luminance measurements. The basic idea is for a photographer to grab a light
reading using Lumu on their iPhone, then input the
suggested settings into their camera. Settings are
displayed in Lumu’s app, which also allows the user
to save data to the cloud so they can retain light-
setting and location info, plus add voice records, notes, pictures, photo parameters, and more. Returning to Kickstarter, Lumu said campaign funds
will be used to help with the manufacturing costs of
the device, and to recruit more coders so it can
further extend the features of the app. The startup’s
main software guy, Benjamin Polovičm, told
TechCrunch: “We want to take advantage of the smartphone’s processing power and different sensors.
The plan is to make different smartphone apps with
custom functionalities for all sorts of professionals
(photographers, videomakers…). “We also believe that other developers are more
creative than us and hope that they make their own
software with new ideas and features, or inspire us.
Further, we have to make Lumu work on (almost) all
Android devices. But we don’t want to be too specific
about our future ideas, because we don’t want to limit our supporters’ creativity.”

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It was only in March that one of Russia’s hottest
startups — hotels booking service Ostrovok.ru –
raised $25 million in a Series B round led by billionaire
investor Yuri Milner. We said at the time that this
market is very capital-intensive, especially in a
market like Russia. But today we learn just how difficult this might be in the mid-term. Today the
company has announced on their blog that they are
letting go of a third of their staff. Staff will be
compensated with 3 months full salary and bonus,
and their options will also vest. To Ostrovok’s credit
they are making the news public so that their staff can find new positions: “If you need great people,
write to Kate (katya@ostrovok.ru)”. The reason, blogs cofounder Serge Faguet, is that
they want to “take the company to break even”
something they said they’d wanted to do last year.
However, it’s clearly not happening as fast as they
predicted, hence the lay-offs. Unfortunately, the hotel booking space is a crowded
one in Russia, and despite there being a rising middle
class in Russia, the cost of travel can take out a
hefty chunk from people’s expendable income. And while Ostrovok probably needed cash to scale
up, the margins in travel booking are well known to be
thin, requiring a lot of scale to make sense. It’s the
age old problem of burning cash to get to that scale –
or cutting costs to make the numbers work better. Faguet however is, understandably, trying to be
upbeat about this move, noting that brand recognition
is up “20%”, and he says they have hit 100,000
bookings and “are growing more than 50%” in the last
quarter. Faguet told us via email: “The story is pretty simple…
We’ve taken on too many people and projects
simultaneously and, after raising our Series B,
decided to pull back and work in a more focused way
(and make ourselves more attractive for future
fundraising). We still have over 130 people at the company.” He goes on to say on the blog: “Our strategy remains
exactly the same as before, and the quality of
customer service will not change.” So is seems it’s more of a case of a startup cutting
lots of side projects and focusing on what it does
best.

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What better way for an anti-social app to get noticed
than by insulting its target audience? London-based
app design studio ustwo has just put up a pair of
billboards in the hipster heartland of Shoreditch, East
London, a stone’s throw from where its own studio is
based, which brazenly proclaim: You have no friends and No one likes you. The billboards, which will be teasing Shoreditch’s
hipsters for two weeks, are an experimental ad
campaign for one of ustwo’s recent apps: random
photo-sharing app Rando, which launched back in
March on iOS. Rando has now also been rolled out on
to Android and Windows Phone. Last month ustwo said the app had racked up a full five million of its
entirely social-less random photo shares after around
two months in the wild. So what’s with the anti-social insults? Rando’s
schtick is that it eschews all the usual social
paraphernalia developers typically embed in their
apps. There’s no Facebook sign-in, zero social
sharing options at all, no comments, no likes, no
favourites, no followers/followees. There’s also no way to tell who gets the photos you share/receive,
beyond a general location. It’s deliberately —
liberatingly — stripped of context. Turning to a fixed-location, paper-based advertising
medium may seem pretty old school but Silicon
Valley has long had a bit of a thing with billboards.
ustwo’s Matt Miller tells TechCrunch that’s certainly
one reason he was keen to experiment with papering
giant fliers atop one of Shoreditch’s busier junctions. “I’ve always been interested in billboards since flying
out to San Fran in 2012. I remember during a taxi
journey over there, being really impressed with the
billboards and thinking to myself how I’d love to see
our work pushed that way back home,” he says. The cost of the Rando billboard campaign is “around
the same amount it would cost us to develop a small
app”, according to Mills. But it’s the only paid
marketing ustwo intends to do for Rando — relying
instead on “the virality of the concept” to keep it
travelling, which, ironically enough, has led to plenty of organic chatter on social sites like Twitter and
Instagram. “The irony of Rando is that the majority of promotion
very much is driven by the virality of the concept.
We’ve had a range of people talking about it on
Twitter and Instagram — with a lot saying how much
they love the anti-social element of the app. Other
than the billboards we won’t be advertising though… we’d rather someone influential picks is up organically
and spreads the word,” he says. The point of the billboards is thus to provoke and
spark debate – ustwo is certainly not expecting them
to trigger a goldrush of downloads — but if it’s virality
you’re after, debate and controversy are your (anti-
social) friends. “We hope people will talk, and be
intrigued,” Mills adds. That said, he does also reckon the billboards help to
“validate Rando as a quality brand” — showing how,
despite everything going digital, paper advertising is
still clinging to cachet and a lasting sheen, perhaps
even more so as digital ads have cheapened and
proliferated. And that despite the impact of paper- based marketing being far more elusive vs
measurable clicks. “We wanted to raise awareness of Rando within the
tech and design scene in and around our studio in
East London. Also to make the point that in a world
so dominated by digital development, we still believe
that old school display advertising has the power that
no digital can match on a local level in terms of making a big statement,” he says. “We originally came up with the straplines a few
months back and mocked them up into billboards. We
had a lot of interest with people asking if they were
real or not – which made us decide to actually run
them. The ‘no one likes you’ and ‘you have no friends’
message was something we wanted to get out there. The straplines themselves are perfect for Rando and
so far removed from the majority of other advertising
messages you see out there by big brands, that we
had to go for it.” As for the anti-social stuff in general — that’s always
been and continues to be another experiment for
ustwo. “Consolidation of anything that people want to
engage in, without social validation, is something that
really fascinates us and hopefully Rando means we
learn a lot more about it,” he adds. So yeah, Shoreditch hipsters, for the next few week
read this and weep…