HiddenRadio are the makers of the simplest most advanced wireless speakers. The company has launched two lines for the product—HiddenRadio1 and HiddenRadio2—to massive success on Kickstarter. Now, they’ve launched their third product, HiddenHUB. We sat down with co-founder John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen to discuss his Japanese design influences, working with retail and the future of speakers.
Our first product was HiddenRadio1, which we launched in 2012. At the time it was one of the most-funded crowdfunding projects. We’re now shipping HiddenRadio2, which is essentially a very intuitive speaker product..
In everything we do we try to make it about the product so that it speaks for itself. We don’t follow trends or do technological gimmicks. We try to just make very simple, intuitive products that improve people’s lives. Everyone is looking for innovation these days, and for us, innovation is about asking, “Does it make someone’s life a bit better?”
Straight out of college I moved to Italy where I met my business partner, Vitor, at Motorola. Then I moved to Chicago with Motorola and then San Francisco with HP. Vitor is still based in Milan. We were trying to decide on how to do a business together and this one really took off with crowdfunding.
It was like most ideas, where we had a napkin sketch but we didn’t have the capital or expertise yet to make it a reality. We did some cool rendering and put it on the web. The reception was huge—everyone wanted it. At that point it was a matter of learning how to build a business around it, and it naturally evolved from there. Then Kickstarter came along and it was a perfect scenario for us.
I don’t really see them as mistakes because we needed to go through those things to learn. The only thing I wish we’d done differently is to have more customer service people on staff so we could answer questions more quickly.
All the logistics and supply-chain management. It’s always tricky getting orders from around the world, managing all those orders, and getting the product out there.
Pretty much everyone has approached us. We’ve been at overcapacity of people approaching us. We’ve had the luxury of choosing who to go with. We didn’t have to go out there and do sales leads. That’s another benefit of Kickstarter: there’s so much publicity around it that you not only attract consumers, you attract retailers and distributors as well.
It goes back to old-school relationships. We hadn’t worked with distributors in the past when we started the business, so it’s all new to us. We talked to some friends about what things we should talk about, and then we interviewed all these guys. Ultimately the ones that came through with orders were the ones we would work with, and the ones that came through with repeat orders, we’ve continued to work with.
We’re very close to shipping HiddenRadio2, so we’ll have it in major stores around the U.S. and around the world with the help of the distributors for the previous product. Now we have a much larger product that we launched on Kickstarter, HiddenHUB. It’s a larger, much more capable speaker.
“We’ve been at overcapacity of people approaching us.”
I think the holy grail is to sell through your own website, but brick-and-mortar and online retailers are absolutely complementary and necessary. Sometimes I will go to a store to check something out, then order it online. And then there are times when you need that thing right away or it’s just gratifying to go and pick it up from the store. Both types of retail are highly complementary, so we did a mix of the two. Getting the right mix is the tricky part.
Online is getting far better, especially with the shipping solutions available now, but online is so product-dependent. There are some things you still need to touch and hold to get a feel for them. A friend of mine owns a fashion label. They do okay online but it’s not their thing. They do incredibly well with brick-and-mortar. For us, we do exceptionally well online and we’re building the brick-and-mortar side as we go. It really depends on the product and the marketing mix as well.
It’s getting more and more difficult to get walk-by traffic, so brick-and-mortar is still very important. Like I was saying about going to the store to try things out, Apple still needs that brick-and-mortar store.
You get a much bigger funnel: there are so many more people coming across your campaign—you get more walk-by traffic. We’re very much a product of Kickstarter’s business model. It’s a no-brainer.
“We’re very much a product of Kickstarter’s business model.”
There’s no one thing. Obviously, the product needs to be really good, catchy, and blogable. The video needs to be very appealing, very genuine and straight to the point.
There are some products on Kickstarter that are brilliant products but don’t do so well there, but if you sold them at Target, they would be a runaway success. And then there are some really high-selling Kickstarter products that don’t do so well at Target. Certain products work very well in Kickstarter, and other products could be very successful somewhere else.
Without having the big analytics, it’s tough to say. I think it’s more an issue of what people don’t do. There are some people that just put their product on there and they think it will take care of itself, and that’s not the case. For those 30 days on Kickstarter, you work 18 hours a day answering messages and doing PR. It’s incredibly hard work, but you have to do it.
On the front end, build your customer base and start generating buzz. Get people following you and interested in your business.
Second, I think a lot of people don’t know where to start in hardware because they worry, “How can I build a high-tech product without a massive team or big investment?” The fact is if you get started on a basic prototype, you don’t need that much. You can do a lot of stuff with found objects in your studio like we did it. It’s just about getting started and building a rough prototype. The next prototype will be better. You just continue growing from there.
It’s case by case—there’s no formula. We went through the use cases and then used the product ourselves to see what would work for us. The only way you can start on that stuff is by using the product. And it’s only into beta test that you see, “This would be better if it were this way.”
In that particular case, we built two prototypes: one with sound quality A, another with sound quality B. We put them up against each other, and it was clear: “This sound is just so much better.” The battery life was already exceptional, so I could handle that tradeoff.
Something that’s incredibly important, and this is something people gloss over, is that most consumer decisions are emotional and not spec-based. A lot of people will go through the spec sheet and try to make informed decisions, but so often emotions take over.
It’s like buying a vehicle. A minivan has everything you really need in a car: maximum space with all the comfort and control, it’s cheap, it’s economical. It makes the most sense on paper. But then you see a Porsche or a second-hand Boxster for the same price and you’re like, “It’s not even sufficient”—you don’t know how to fit your luggage in the Boxster—“but I really want it.”
That makes no logical sense at all, but buying really comes down to the holistic emotional element. That’s the thing about design: it’s very much a holistic art. In many other jobs, especially in software engineering, you have to work in a sequential fashion. But design is incredibly holistic. You need to keep the vision in your mind.
Traveling is very important: observing people, the way they work, the way they behave. And then I’m really inspired by Japanese designs. I think they have a really good sense. It’s minimalist but there’s always a little poetic story that ties the product together and makes it unique. Japanese designer Naoto Fukusawa is a big influence.
It works pretty well because Vitor does a lot more of the development and engineering, and I do a lot more of the upfront marketing, PR and sales. Then we call when we do need to talk. It also works very well with talking to Asia because one of us is always awake when Asia is working.
As I said before, people get more wrapped up in the technology than the product story and the problem they’re trying to solve. There are so many things that connect to the internet and you don’t even know why—once you put it into the user’s hands, it makes no sense.
People need to step back from that a little bit, forget about the technology and thinking about problem-solving and improving. Then, if the technology fulfills that function, that’s great. But don’t add technology just for the fact that it’s a spec sheet thing, or it’s something you can tap to get funding. It has to be about the product.
I have a big appreciation for the very simple product where the manufacturer has said, “Let’s do something incredibly well.” I love Good Grips. They just do really good household items, like their potato peeler. There’s no technology at all—just very thoughtful design.
“It’s just about getting started and building a rough prototype. The next prototype will be better. You just continue growing from there.”
Right now a lot of companies are trying to make speakers that do too many things. We want our stuff to be timeless. We think of it more from a design perspective. The technology is going to change and improve, but it’s not going to be about microprocessor improvement, because speaker design is still based on old-school physics. There’s new fads, but speaker module designs from 50 years ago are sometimes better than the ones created today.
“There’s always a way.” Things might seem tricky or impossible, but if you sit down and think about the problem, you always find there’s a way to resolve it. Especially in hardware, you’re up against physical constraints and some things seem absolutely impossible but they’re clearly not. You can always find a solution.
A lot of people advised us to go too big too quickly: “You’ve got to go into Best Buy and Target.” Those retailers are great, but you have to do things at the right speed.
A lot of people, especially finance people, think that way.
I really like advice from old-school finance people who are very much about good business fundamentals. Warren Buffett’s principles are so old and basic but they’re absolutely relevant. He doesn’t really get technology, he admits that, but his principles work with technology.
We try to be a very standard profit-making business. We’re not looking to absorb everyone. We’re looking to make good, sustainable profit. That’s always been our focus, from when we first started the business.
What’s your current state of mind?
When and where were you happiest?
In New York.
What is your idea of misery?
What is your greatest fear?
Not having any ideas.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Overcoming my own ego.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
"Hmm,” and “There's always a way.”
Which talent would you most like to have?
To be a really good writer.
Which living person do you most admire?
What do you consider the most over-rated virtue?
Understanding the design business.
With that said, when we started out, we thought it was all about designs and engineering. Now, after three years of doing it, I think if I went back to college, I’d probably study psychology and accounting because you can sell pretty much anything if you understand people and you understand numbers. So much of running a business is managing people and their personalities and getting the best out of them. Then, obviously, you need to understand the numbers. With those two elements, you can do all right.