BLOCKS is a smartwatch that is built with a modular band, with each module giving its own unique function to the watch. The company aims to bring customization to the hardware world. We sat down with co-founders Serge Didenko and Alireza Tahmaseb to discuss finding the right manufacturing partners, being a startup in the UK, and how to get traction as an early stage company.
Serge: BLOCKS is the world’s first modular smartwatch. Each link of your watch has a different sensor or feature that you choose to make a device that’s unique to you.
Alireza: The whole vision is to model it just like the app store. The reason we think our smartphones are actually smart is because of the apps, and the fact that developers and companies from around the world are creating these apps.
We were thinking about making a platform for smartwatches because we thought the same sensor-driven technology used for apps can also be used in wearables. There are a lot of different sensors and functionalities in a wearable device, and those sensors can be the driving force behind it.
Serge: The reason BLOCKS started was because Alireza and I had similar backgrounds but different interests within the same field. We’re both bioengineers by training; we were studying at Imperial College London. It’s the top engineering university in Europe and within the top five in the world. We were really passionate about wearable technology and what it could do for the body.
A lot of the research that Alireza was doing in his first year of university dealt with brain-machine interfacing and gesture-controlled devices and so on. When I met him two and a half years ago, we had a lot of very interesting conversations about what wearables could bring. At the same time, I was doing a PhD in computer science, but more within the healthcare field, like brain imaging and so on. I was passionate about health and fitness devices.
As we were thinking about a wearable that we could build, we had very different ideas for which wearable would be best suited for each one of us. That naturally brought on a debate about what features a smartwatch should have, and I initially had the idea of doing something fitness and health-related. We wanted to build a gesture-controlled device, but it wasn’t really something that we were happy with. We wanted to add more features, and we had a debate.
BLOCKS came about naturally after these debates when Alireza rang me and said, “Let’s make this device modular.” From day one, we were fascinated by the idea of having a device that would be personal to each one of us, and that’s how we went forward.
Alireza: Serge was the President of Entrepreneur Society at Imperial, and he had the exposure to entrepreneurs in London before that. I started doing a lot of research on human and computer interaction even when I was about 17 or 18 years old, in high school. We met after we went on a trip in Silicon Valley to visit some startups. After that, we had a talk about different ideas and wearables, and that was basically our very first interaction.
Serge: Alireza said how our different qualities influenced the decision-making. Again, we’re very similar in many ways, such as our interest in wearable technology, but different applications of it. This also applies to business very much. Since I was doing a lot of entrepreneurial activity before BLOCKS, I was used to working with teams and leading teams and making sure that they are working well together.
At the same time, I lacked that ability to make decisions on the spot and drive the business all the time by making deals. Alireza is the deal-maker here, and I’m the one who’s actually trying to glue things together.
“From day one, we were fascinated by the idea of having a device that would be personal to each one of us, and that's how we went forward.”
Alireza: We didn’t consciously decide to do a hardware startup at the beginning. It was the problem that we faced and the idea that we had led us to building BLOCKS and later on we discovered it was actually a hardware startup.
Serge: Exactly. I worked on many software ideas before, but with physical products there is this beauty in that you’re building something tangible, something that you can touch, something that people can interact with. Software startups are great, but by building physical products, you really get to see the end product in reality, and somehow it makes it very special for me.
Alireza: It’s the same thing that we both did in our research as well. As part of our research, we were doing a lot of programming and software partnerships. The reason we were moving towards hardware is because we both liked building something physical. We wanted to come out of this phase of programming and make something real—a device.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur who hasn’t yet figured out how they are going to manufacture their product?
Alireza: Manufacturing is a hard process. The main thing is you need to look at your manufacturer as your investor. It’s probably as hard to convince a manufacturer to manufacture for you as it is to convince to an investor to invest in you. You definitely need to look at them as a partner, and if you are lucky enough to convince a big manufacturer, a reliable manufacturer, to work with you, then you won’t have as many worries about the details because you’ll basically be able to rely on them. It’s all about making that personal relationship with the manufacturer and talking to a lot of them and trying to build that relationship with one of them.
Serge: It’s certainly very useful to have a manufacturer on board before crowdfunding. At least it was for us. It gives you reassurance of the prices, that you’re going to be able to ship your product, and the certainty of the delivery timeline. A lot of the crowdfunding projects say, “We’re going to deliver in nine months,” and “This is the price that we’re going to offer you guys,” and then they end up not being able to fulfilling their promises.
The difference that makes BLOCKS stand out from many other crowdfunding projects is that we have one of the largest manufacturers in the world on board. They see it as their own personal innovation project, and they’re putting forward a lot of resources to help us and to build this product. We are very sure about our delivery times, of our costs, and that we are not going to have as many mishaps—at least during the manufacturing preparations later on.
Alireza: It comes as part of the relationships and partnerships that you make. The partnership with our manufacturer and our conversations with other manufacturers came from our partnership with Qualcomm, and that partnership from Qualcomm came out of previous relationships and attending different events and conferences.
I think it’s very important to be able to follow the links, and as Steve Jobs said, “Looking back, you will find the dots of how the whole thing connects together.” It can start from something like a competition that you attend. Then you meet someone to a conference. That experience will take you to another competition. You pitch your ideas to someone else and it gives you exposure. You talk to someone else, and finally it results in finding your main partners and manufacturers.
Serge: Our own, personal story exactly shows this. We started with just an idea. We brought a couple of friends together to help us prototype this as a team. Then we made a decision to publish a video for the world to see, which is very interesting in the world of hardware startups. We were not afraid of publishing at the time when we didn’t really have all the intellectual property, at least, not fully covered. And we saw that there was a lot of interest in our product.
Then we followed up on a number of connections that came out of that announcement—the media press, the attention, the invitations to competitions. One competition after another, and meeting after meeting led up to getting these manufacturers on board.
“Alireza is the deal-maker here, and I'm the one who's actually trying to glue things together.”
Alireza: There is a bit of a story behind the first one we did. Back in March, 2014, we made this radical decision of, “We need to make a video and put it on YouTube.” We were in a competition and they wanted to see traction from us. For a hardware product, it takes you about two years to get to the first version of your product, and it’s basically not possible to get instant validation from traction.
After we uploaded it online, the rest was the hard work of media outreach, sending emails to firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. The emails we sent basically said, “I’m the founder of this company. Have you seen this video?” Some of them picked it up because it’s all about the idea. We realized that if the idea is interesting, then the journalists wouldn’t be afraid of publishing something that is not fully out there yet. You’re not lying that you have the product, you’re manufacturing, or you have a price. You’re just saying, “This is the concept that we have. We thought about this.”
Serge: Reaching out and finding that validation is better than just developing things in secret, obviously, unless you’re doing it for the enterprise. But my advice to hardware entrepreneurs is that if you have something unique, bring it out there in any fashion that you can and make sure that people know about it so that you can iterate together.
Another example is from last year when we attended an entrepreneurial boot camp in south France, and a couple of people there pushed us to do some validation with the customers. They basically said, “Look, if you can get the customers on the phone, try to find out who they are, what do they look like, what do they like, what do they eat every morning, and also then maybe try and sell the product to them?”
We said, “This is crazy. How are we going to sell a product when we don’t even know what delivery timeline?” They told us to just try, so we did, and to our surprise, people were ready to pay $100 for BLOCKS. The product was just so unique. They were fascinated by it. That in itself took us another step ahead.
When we came out to pitch to the CEO of Intel last year and Best Buy and many other famous CEOs in San Francisco, we did the same thing, but at scale. We went out to a thousand people and we said, “Hey, would you put $50 to deposit for this product?” before even our Kickstarter campaign. And they did. That in itself gave us so much validation with our manufacturer and with our future investors. That’s really how we managed to get BLOCKS off the ground in such a short period of time.
Alireza: Well, we were in the U.K. We started at Imperial. We still are students. Recently, I graduated. Serge is going to graduate very soon. There really was no other choice. But the U.K. is very good. There is a good entrepreneurship environment in London. Obviously we also have our plans to expand to Silicon Valley. We’ve already started travelling there, and a lot of our partners and investors come from the Bay Area. We definitely had to expand to that area as well.
Serge: But London, I think, is quite big entrepreneurially, after Silicon Valley. It’s on par probably with New York, in terms of the number of startups that grow here. Certainly, there is a massive vibe. Another thing about U.K. is that there is a lot of support from the government. They give grants, and we’ve been able to get a lot of small funds that helped us to prototype from various places on tax break programs and so on. Also, London is very much a fashion capital in some respect. We’re building our wearable and a watch, so there are a lot of connections here to very interesting people who see the potential of a wearable.
Serge: A modular future. In technology today, software allowed us to customize our digital experiences. However, it only has started to join with hardware now. Examples like Project Ara, what Google is working on now, the modular phone, and what we’re doing in BLOCKS is showing that it’s not only the software that can bring customizable experiences to customers, but also the hardware.
A modular smartwatch is just the beginning. We can bring this smartwatch not only to consumers for general purpose use, but also to niche markets. We are an open platform, so we’re allowing companies to build modules for specific applications in industrial use, medical use and so on. That’s a big vision, but I think we might take it further.
Alireza: This modular smartwatch is your identity, and each of these modules are a piece of your life—one of them is the company you work for, one of them is for your hobby, and one of them is something related to design. The top shells and the colors and designs of them reflect your personality. It’s all about making something personal, making something that it’s about your identity, the different activities that you do, different places that you work in.
Our vision is all about having this wide variety of different modules, developed by different companies, by your own company. The company you work for will have a module, your university has a module, and your bank has a module. You form that wristband based on what you’re doing and how you are living.
Serge: We believe that smartwatches have to be smart, that they are not just an extension of your smart phone. They are unique devices and they have to reflect your own lifestyle in many other ways, apart from just giving you notifications and doing basic activity tracking. There are just so many other ways that they can augment our experiences.
“It's probably as hard to convince a manufacturer to manufacture for you as it is to convince to an investor to invest in you.”
Alireza: Modularity is all about people, their specific needs and the different opportunities that come up. The whole future of BLOCKS lies in its partners and the different companies that collaborate with us, and that’s why we want to have a lot of different companies approach us and work with us in building a smartwatch where each piece of it comes from experts around the world.
Serge: BLOCKS is an open platform, so we totally will be offering developer modules where people can develop a module for a specific use case that they want it to use for, and they don’t have to build a whole new variable for this. They just take BLOCKS as a platform, with a fully-functioning operating system, with a fully-functioning design, and they just fit their own sensor or feature inside a single module and make it work.
Later on, we’re going to introduce BLOCKS store, which is just like app store, but for hardware. This way, these developers can not only just build these modules for themselves, but we can work in tandem with them and without manufacturers to offer them to the wider market and to actually sell it together with these developers. There are a lot of really exciting things we can do with DIY enthusiasts in the hardware space.
If they do want to reach out to us, we have a special mailing list. More information is on our website and you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Developers can ask us any questions through that email as well.