I believe the best product ideas start with a need. Often it's easier to articulate that need with a fill in the blank statement such as: “When I ____ I wish I had ____ “
The question is a touchstone that gives the development team a way to look back to see if they’re still meeting the need while they may very well be lost in the weeds of product development. It’s not, as you find out in the trenches, an all encompassing view of the final product but merely a glimpse at a future you hope to achieve.
When the outcome is a product that hits home, it's quite a remarkable experience for customers and developers alike.
I love all kinds of music. Instead of my wardrobe being eclectic, it’s my music collection: from a raucous infusion of the ADD-laced mixes of Girl Talk to the mournful horn of Miles Davis. But, whatever music I'm listening to needs to be where I'm at in the moment. In most cases a pair of headphones will work fine but around the house I never want to be tied to any device. In 2005-2006, that device, for me, was an iPod nano.
Starting with the original question: “When I shower I wish I had a way to take my iPod with me”.
I had been floating an idea around the office of making a waterproof speaker for my shower. For me there was a caveat: I didn't want to wrap my iPod in some watertight sleeve and put the whole contraption in the shower. So the speaker had to have a wireless connection to the iPod as well as some track and volume controls.(1)
Around the halls of the office responses varied from "meh" to "how much time do you spend in the shower?"
To me, the point wasn't a shower speaker but one that went where I did. I already had a nice, though stationary, stereo and a surround sound system. Bose had the SoundDock and Apple the iPod Hi-Fi. The latter was made for portability but only if you were into powerlifting.
I acquiesced and went home to have a beer on my back deck. I had recently moved into a house and it was the most spacious place I had ever lived but there wasn't a central place to put a stereo where it could be heard evenly and all over my house. I spent most of that first year sitting on the back deck overlooking the neighborhood and greenery but blasting music from inside the house just wasn't working (and a speaker up against the window screen made me feel like a teenager).
We had some crappy, portable iPod speaker thing around but it just was a hassle and didn't sound very good. So, over a few beers, I started wondering how big a speaker I would need that A) was portable B) rechargeable and C) sounded good. It turns out those factors are all at cross odds but I figured we could make something as diminutive as the Bose surround sound cubes.
The question, rephrased, became: “When I’m on my back deck, I wish I had a speaker that could go, too.”
The marathon begins
As anyone in the tech world should know product development is a marathon not a sprint. For each product, there isn’t a distinct rhythm that makes for a simple template…not that it would matter because you can’t write a template to account for all the branches/decisions/problems/challenges/highs and lows of development.
For Griffin, an audio system was a bit out of our comfort zone but the idea got enough people excited. We knew how to make amplifiers and built a market around interacting with the iPod so we started pounding the pavement looking for tech.
We spent about a year researching and prototyping a dozen or so different types of wireless transmitters and receivers (TX/RX). The majority of wireless tech in the market happened to be analog and the quality was horrible. They were, for those old enough to appreciate, like adjusting the rabbit ear antennas on a tv.
In a chance meeting with a vendor—I was literally walking by when a colleague said I should see a demo—we found something intriguing: wireless digital stereo.
The demo was of a digital wireless platform called Ensation from NXP. The platform was capable of sending a digital stereo signal over 900mHz. At the time there was a race to higher bandwidths as cordless phones left the 900mHz spectrum and moved to 2.4gHz where Wi-Fi routers had already taken up residence. That meant, for most of the US, the band Ensation was using became more free and less prone to being stepped on. Even though its capabilities were quite extraordinary, our NXP reps couldn't point out a single company that was using it for a commercial product. This should have been a sign of worry but we kept moving on nonetheless.
As we looked further into the tech, we became excited over a feature even the NXP sales reps hadn't thought much about: Ensation was a one-to-many protocol (2). That meant a single transmitter could send out to multiple receivers. Not just multiple, in fact, unlimited. The protocol worked like a radio station with a base transmitter supplying an unlimited number of receivers. (3)
Our wireless audio tech found, now...how do we make a rechargeable speaker?
Charging of the speakers was not going to be a small task. We had settled on a 5200mAh battery (4) for size, weight and our length of use would be variable based on amplitude of audio (3-6 hours). We originally started looking into inductive charging but, after some quick math, we found the size of the electromagnetic field would be so great it would likely erase the hard drive of the iPod. As you might expect, we settled on something a bit more low tech: metal contacts.
A quick digression
I've never been all that excited, perhaps to some detriment, about a one-off product. Products need a way to build on one another if possible. Call it a gestation period/learning curve/marketing run-up/whatever. If we were going to get into the speaker business, there needed to be a line of products that allowed us to stretch our abilities (as well as find the right factories) in new ways.
While we were still outlining Evolve we designed two other speaker systems, one for desktop and another for travel. They became Amplifi and Journi (2). The development time our wireless system was so long both systems hit the market about 6 months before the launch of Evolve.
Evolve would stretch our abilities to think in multiple planes by answering some seemingly simple questions (which turned out not to be so simple)
- How much sound is "good enough"?
- How long should the speakers last on a single charge?
- How heavy should the speakers be?
- How big is too big to carry?
- How do we charge the speakers?
- How do we identify a left speaker from a right?
- How will someone know which speaker is left or right if they mix them up?
- If an iPod nano is small enough to carry around unobtrusively, why would someone carry our remote?
When it came to designing Evolve we had an interesting paradox, one that won't surprise anyone who has built a speaker cabinet but it was new to some of us, how to get big sound from a box that couldn't be ported because it held some pretty sophisticated electronics that required us to maintain some vigilance about moisture and debris. And, well, it needed to be as small as we could make it. (7)
The speakers turned out to be the hardest of the three components. Each one had a custom driver tuned for the sealed enclosure.
The industrial design went round and round while the electrical engineers were figuring out how to make it all work in the smallest package possible. I knew we needed to have a one-handed speaker but we were butting up against the sound quality issue. Our design ultimately got quite a bit larger than the Bose cubes I originally specified. Eventually we found the right size for most people, tried to equalize the weight front to back, give enough of a grip and make the docking super simple.
We knew the costs would be astronomical if we built two different speakers - one for right, one for left. Our big "a-ha" moment was when were discussing how to distinguish between a right and left speaker. Our EE and firmware team figured out that adding one more line, a data line, to the dock and speaker would let us talk to the micro-controller inside the speaker. We needed it anyway to sort out some battery and charging issues so it became the way for us to tell the speaker to be a left or a right.
Within a couple of weeks the base now talked to the speaker every time it was set down to charge. To display it's state an LED would light up in the appropriate corner of the speaker as if to say "I'm a left speaker" and by the color of the LED we could let people know it's charge state (red = charging, green = charged).
I can't tell you how great it is to see someone's face light up when they realize the dock "just knows".
Wooing the buyers
Before we had a tooled unit we needed to get some support from buyers at big box retail. Ultimately it would sit in their stores and we needed a way to make sure they were interested (we believed in our product, would they?)
Trust me when I say retail store buyers looked at us pretty skeptically as we walked in with a tupperware container full of transmitter circuit boards and a single wooden speaker box. But, once they saw we had really made it work the smile wouldn't go away. I remember one buyer walked up and down the main hallway at their headquarters, in and out of offices, until we couldn't see her anymore but the music never stopped.
Without a doubt they liked the prospect. Now the question became could we pony up the cash and enough units to make a retail play work? (8)
With retailer interest and our marketing materials in place we set our big unveiling to the public for Macworld.
At a time when Evolve would have been a complete showstopper in the Mac community it became, at best, a tertiary story among smaller press who couldn't get access to Steve Jobs.
People on the show floor still loved it and immediately asked if it would work with the newly unveiled iPhone.
Sales, Customer Love and Evolve's demise
Despite a somewhat lackluster coming out Evolve found an immediate home on retail shelves (9). We positioned it in the same planogram area as the Bose SoundDock with a video display that cycled through the videos below. Each of the speakers was tethered so a customer could immediately grab one and see the potential.
One of the biggest marketing problems we faced is explaining to a customer who sees your company in one light to accept you in another. In our case, Griffin wasn't known to make speakers. As I said previously, there weren't many iPod speakers at the time but the ones that existed all came from names known in the home audio space like Bose or Klipsch. The problem can be overcome with time and money (quality, too, I guess. Though even that's speculative in the iPod speaker business) but we, as a small company, could have easily bankrupted ourselves competing in that space just to grab a toehold.
Ultimately we dug our heels in and made our play at retail and online and let it play out as long as we could. We did relatively well with nearly 100, 000 units being produced and sold throughout the world. Not a bad play for a company built on smaller accessories.
We had, as some shit luck would have it, another unknown spectre creeping up on us: technology lifecycles. Our friends at NXP had been holding off from canceling the Ensation chipset as we began to roll out Evolve. But our sales numbers, though good, weren't enough to keep the FAB running. We were given the opportunity to get a final one-time-buy of parts. Those parts lasted us until sometime in 2009 where we finally ended all production/refurbishing of Evolve.
While that may seem like the last we would hear of Evolve, even a number of years later, its not quite dead. I'll often have conversations with people on a tradeshow floor or in passing as we talk about tech and what I do. Eventually Evolve comes up. Now, they don't often remember the name of it or the brand but they certainly remember what it did and how they felt about it. Those words of love are magic for people who sweat the details.
Like those early days of seeing the system come to life for the first time in the development lab, people who owned an Evolve are effusive about it. And, like the ones playing music in my house right now...they still have quite a lot of life left.
1. Remember, the iPod didn't have bluetooth, Airplay didn't exist and the iPhone was still a few years off.
2. Ensation was pitched as a way to make wireless rear channel surround speakers. At around 20msec delay from transmission to reception they felt the usefulness of the system wouldn't suffice for front channel speakers while watching a synchronized picture.
3. If memory serves, Ensation had a total of 13 channels over the 900mhz spectrum. So, in theory, you could have 13 radio stations broadcasting to an unlimited number of speakers all in proximity to one another.
4. By contrast, the iPad Nano at the time had a 380mAh battery while the current iPad Air has an 8827mAh battery.
5. Amplifi was originally called "Suono", Journi had some other Italian moniker but prior to packaging it was called "Voyager".
6. In truth, quite a few of the Griffin engineering staff had, as you might expect of Nashville, come from the music industry. Specifically, they worked for various live and recording sound companies and came ready with a plethora of ways to make a small box have good dynamic range and adhere to some pretty aggressive battery specifications.
7. NXP's Ensation receiver required two antennas pointed in opposite directions for signal diversity. Because of the wavelength they were required to take take up a sizable amount of space inside the cabinet and needed to be free from contact with other materials.
8. Retail placement requires $. Metric Assloads of $.
9. See previous.