ZBoard are the makers of an electric skateboard that allows users to quickly and easily travel short distances with its intuitive design. The company launched their first product on Kickstarter in 2012 and launched their second product, the ZBoard 2, on Indiegogo earlier this year. We sat down with founder Ben Forman to discuss the value of CES, feedback during crowdfunding, and switching from Kickstarter to Indiegogo.
ZBoard is the world’s first and only weight-sensing electric skateboard. We see it as a cross between a Segway and a skateboard. Lean forward to go forward, up to 20 miles per hour. Lean back to brake and reverse.
ZBoard started on the first day of spring semester of 2009 at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. My co-founder, Geoff Larson, and I were partners for our senior mechanical engineering project. We wanted a way to get from our off-campus housing to class. Around USC, in downtown LA, the streets are really poor, so skateboarding is pretty tough. It’s also slightly ghetto, so bikes get stolen all the time. We joke Lennon-and-McCartney style about who actually came up with the idea, but one of us did and that’s all that really matters.
We originally built it to solve our own problem but there was massive interest from total strangers. Almost everyone—90% of the student body—uses one of these personal transportation devices: a bike or a skateboard. Strangers would come up to us and say, “What is that and where can I buy it?” At the time, it didn’t have a name or a price, we had only one and it was priceless so we couldn’t sell it, but that reaction was a good signal that people other than our girlfriends and our moms saw that this could be sold. That was January 7, 2009. We’re coming up on our seven-year anniversary.
For us the attractive thing about Highway1 was the opportunity to do R&D someplace different than production. We have a facility where we have basically everything we need to do R&D, but that facility is also where we do production, and we found that our production was really distracting for our R&D. There were constantly little fires to put out in production so we could never really hone in on our R&D. We evaluated the different hardware incubators and we were really impressed by the physical shop and the technical knowledge at Highway1. That’s why it filtered to the top of the hardware incubators.
The success of our Indiegogo project this January was several years in the making.
We ran a Kickstarter project in 2012 for our original ZBoard, so our biggest advantage was that we already had a community of hundreds who knew about us and owned a ZBoard, so they trusted the team and the product, and they were familiar with crowdfunding.
A lot of those people backed the ZBoard 2 on Indiegogo and did so on the very first day, which gave us a leg up. We were able to eclipse six figures on day two, based on support from past customers. Once a project hits six figures, it gains a lot of legitimacy. People who are strangers to the project see that third-party validation and their worries—“Is this a fraud? Is this actually going to happen?”—dissipate quickly.
Along with those relationships with customers that we’d been building over the years, we’d had a lot of positive interactions with the tech press regarding our first-generation board. We had made a point to be at the different trade shows and events where the journalists we were looking to cover our product hung out: CES and SXSW.
When it came time for ZBoard 2, we had seen those journalists multiple times over the past few years, so it was a pretty natural progression to talk about our next-generation product.
“We joke Lennon-and-McCartney style about who actually came up with the idea, but one of us did and that’s all that really matters.”
A couple reasons. One, from our experience selling direct online, retargeting was really important to us. We have a pretty expensive product, a pretty considered purchase. Sometimes people have to wait for their next payday or sell something on Craigslist so they can free up some fun money to buy it. It’s not the kind of product where people see one ad, come to our site, and buy. They might have to see an ad, get an email newsletter, and then see another ad. We really needed that kind of multi-touch, retargeting marketing, which Indiegogo allowed and Kickstarter didn’t at the time. Being able to place tracking pixels and retarget potential customers was the needle mover in that decision.
Also, Indiegogo helped us get a booth at CES this past year. We were so head-down getting the prototypes working for CES, that the schedule slipped by and we actually missed booking a space to exhibit at CES. But in talking with Indiegogo we discovered they had rented a block of booths, they got in touch with the CES people to get a booth in a decent location at a decent price pretty late in the game.
Back in 2012 we were concerned that our products might be too expensive, so we had two different SKUs. We had a lead-acid version of the board, which was a bit cheaper ($500) but a bit heavier, and we had a lithium ion version that was a bit more expensive ($750) but a bit lighter. We talked about both on our website but we were only going to put the cheaper one on Kickstarter because we just felt that $500 was more expensive than your average Kickstarter project, and we didn’t want to go higher than that.
But literally, on the very first day of our Kickstarter project, people were asking us, “Hey, aren’t you putting a lithium ion board on Kickstarter? What’s the deal with that other board?” We put the more expensive board on there and it ended up outselling the lower-cost board three to one. We learned that the Kickstarter community has an appetite for a more expensive product like that, and also that they were sophisticated enough to recognize the differences and appreciate why it was more expensive. The two boards looked the same, so people really had to dive into the specs—the chemistry in the battery—to understand and why it’s more expensive, and why it’s higher performance. That’s something we learned on the first day of our first campaign.
There’s a long prototyping period before the campaign, but once the campaign starts my focus shifts to promotion. We’re trying to get the board in front of as many eyeballs as possible. Sell. Sell. Sell. When the campaign ends, my brain switches back to the product. We’ve been working tirelessly to solidify all the relationships with our suppliers in the supply chain, taking second and third looks at every component to make sure that they are reproducible up to the scale that we’ve presold, and making sure that the product is awesome not just on Day 1, but on Day 500. One of the things with hardware is we can’t just send a software update if it physically breaks, so we really have to make sure that physically it’s where it needs to be before we can start shipping.
Back in 2012 we went through a ton of iterations just around the number of wheels. Initially we had a one-wheeled board, where we had a large go-kart wheel in the middle of the board. Back then we had a teeter-totter control. We thought that the one-wheel design was too difficult to balance, so we then shifted to a five-wheel design where we had the one large wheel in the middle and a small caster wheel on each corner, so at any given time you would be leaning on three of the wheels. That wasn’t very reproducible and looked silly. Then we went to a three-wheel design, where we had a skateboard truck in the front, and then a single go-kart wheel in the back. That was tough to reproduce and had really poor turning, because it turned from only one pivot point rather than two.
Then we settled on the final, four-wheel design, which should have been obvious from the start. I mean, there’s a ton of skateboard supply chain infrastructure built around this four-wheel design, and we were already trying to reinvent the control scheme. There was no need to reinvent the form-factor of the board as well.
Once settling on four wheels went through a couple different designs. Initially we had a black-and-red color scheme. We initially went after a more techie, Iron Man look, but we felt that all the other electric skateboards on the market had that similar look, a really black-dominated colour scheme. Instead, we tried to go for a more classic look aligned with our SoCal branding, our roots being at the University of Southern California, so we shifted to a maple deck with black and chrome accents.
It’s a contrast: you’ve got a very classic look on the top with the maple deck, and then a very technical look on the bottom with brushed chrome and black-powder-coated aluminum. People seem to like it. Our board definitely looks different than any other board on the market and that’s important.
“We learned that the Kickstarter community has an appetite for a more expensive product like that, and also that they were sophisticated enough to recognize the differences and appreciate why it was more expensive.”
A lot of what we get out of CES is about being in the right place at the right time. You’ve got to put yourself in that place. We’ve been to CES for four years now. Sometimes it’s been amazing. Sometimes it’s been a dud. But the highs have been so high that they’ve definitely been worth it.
You never know who you’re going to meet. You might meet that one press connect that blows up your product. You might meet that one supplier or distributor—or you might meet no one. That’s how networking works: you’ve got to be there, hand out a thousand business cards and hope you get lucky.
CES is really important if you have a product with an impressive demo. If you can put it in front of someone, show them what it does, and within five seconds they have that “Wow!” moment, then it’s a no-brainer. Then you can just walk around and show it. You have to be a little bit sneaky—you never want to do a demo at someone else’s booth—but if you have a product that’s small and interesting enough, you can safely do a demo anywhere in the aisles. Just look both ways for the security guards.
If you have something that is outside of hardware, if you have an app or a sales product, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to get some real attention with that demo. But it’s the biggest event of the year for us.
I would say if you were in a stealth mode and you actively don’t want people to write about what you’re doing, then it might be too early, but you might want to go around and see if you can meet some people. It’s valuable to go once you’ve really thought out your launch. I would go either with the mindset that you’re trying to tell everyone you can about your product, or tell no one about your product. I don’t see the value of doing something in the middle.
At the very start we were really secretive. We unveiled the product at CES in 2012. At that event we got our first couple preorders, which was incredible. I still remember the first guy who bought one. We engraved his name in the box with “ZBoard #1.”
But we didn’t really want to talk about it until we could capitalize on interest. For us that point of interest was taking a preorder. For other people it might be signing up for a newsletter. You’ve got to have some way to turn that interest into something actionable. At minimum, you have to get their email address, so you can hit them up later when you do have something actionable. Someone just giving you a thumbs up and walking away isn’t that beneficial for you.
It’s more third-party validation. People can watch us, the founders, riding all day and night, but we’re experts. For six years we’ve been riding these boards, so me telling you that it’s easy doesn’t really carry that much weight. But someone who has never ridden before telling you it’s easy, it’s coming from a different voice and with some of these channels, it’s a trusted voice. It adds faces that aren’t ours to the story. It differentiates the content.
It takes it one step further away from vaporware. Not only is this a real thing, because you can see photos of it and you can see us riding it, but we’ve got another person saying it’s a real thing. In any crowdfunding campaign you want to present something that’s in some part magical, but not so magical that it’s completely impossible or implausible. By letting total strangers ride it, it proves that it’s possible. It proves that we’re close.
The other thing is that some journalists are pretty interested in running original content. They don’t want to rehash the press release. They want their own impressions. They want their own photos. Sometimes it’s frustrating, because you have beautiful photos that you’ve manicured and then they take photos with their cell phone, and you kind of scratch your head about why they’re using that one over yours. But the people who follow those journalists appreciate their point of view. People want to know their perspective. The less glossy photos, the less glossy videos, the more off-the-cuff reactions sometimes ring truer than the really manicured ad copy and photos.
“That’s how networking works: you’ve got to be there, hand out a thousand business cards and hope you get lucky.”
Not to fall into the trap of thinking that having X amount of sales with no advertising is really a power position. For a long time we were getting orders and we said they were “falling from the sky” because we didn’t know where they were coming from. We said, “We’ve done X in sales and we’ve never run an ad,” and that was a point of pride. But since then, on good advice from our mentors, we have realized that a real point of pride is knowing where your sales come from and knowing how to get more, having confidence in your paid marketing and demand-generation plan: where if you throw money in, it kicks money out. That’s what I would say is the best of advice I’ve gotten.
I find sales attribution incredibly difficult. I spend dozens of hours a week on this stuff and still we have phantom sales. It would be great if all the data came in and every sale was attributed, and everything added up to one cohesive whole. Instead, there are gaps. There are sales that you don’t know how you got them. There will be a day when you run a ton of ads and sell none. There will be a day when you run no ads and sell a ton. We’re never going to attribute everything, but if we can learn a little bit, enough to feel confident that we have some control over demand, that’s something we can scale.
We’ve dealt with some Chinese sourcing agents who told us they could do everything, which was pretty bad advice in hindsight. Every product is different. Every product has its nuances. For our product, we have big motors, big batteries. Sourcing those items are professions unto themselves, so anyone telling you they can source everything is either a genius or selling you snake oil.
Transportation is changing. The data shows it and a quick spin around many cities shows it. The trends that we’re seeing, especially among the younger generation—not being interested in cars, being interested in public transportation, using ride-sharing services like they are public transportation—are only going to grow. Products and services that play into those trends are going to grow with them. Hopefully it’s electric skateboards. Maybe it’s electric unicycles, scooters, or motorcycles. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be four-seat, 15 mpg, gas-powered cars.
When and where were you happiest?
Playing pool basketball.
What is your idea of misery?
Delays. Chinese Holidays.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Meeting my wife.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Which talent would you most like to have?
To be masterful at Illustrator, or better at Pool Basketball.
What’s your favorite quote?
“Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.”
If you were to die and come back as another person, who would it be?
What is your most treasured possession?
What is your greatest regret?
Not visiting more of my friends at their colleges.
Right now we’re focused on shipping the ZBoard 2. We’ve made some pretty awesome improvements since our Indiegogo campaign. We are in the middle of our beta testing right now, so for the first time we’re getting complete strangers to ride it, with no handholding or personal introduction from us. And we’re learning a lot. It’s always interesting to hear the opinions of someone who is not close to the development of the product.
We’ve been riding the board like crazy. It’s fast. It’s fun. It’s light. It can take a beating, which is an important point a lot of people overlook. We’re really excited to get these boards out into the world.
ZBoard 2 is our focus for the next foreseeable future. As the rideables market evolves, we’re hopefully going to keep a step in front of it, because there’s a big opportunity there.