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Start-Up Spotlight: Chris Herbert & TrackR

SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. — Like many great ideas, Chris Herbert came upon the idea for TrackR by way of an accident.

After losing his keys in the sand while surfing — his car parked on the beach and threatened to be swallowed by the rapidly approaching tide — Herbert concluded that there must be a more reliable method for remembering personal belongings than relying on our personal memories.

“If you look at enterprise over the last century, retailers have RFID scanners that record up to Cloud databases. But consumers still had nothing,” he told TWICE. TrackR wants to “take that database in our head and move that into our phones so our software can keep track of where everything is for us. So one day we can say, ‘Siri, where are my keys?” and she will say, ‘In the kitchen.’”

Herbert, as part of a three-person team, developed the TrackR Wallet in 2010, a thin Bluetooth tag that can be attached to personal belongings and tracked with a smartphone. TrackR attempted to sell the device on its own website and through Amazon, but the response was less than overwhelming, and they found it difficult to attract the attention of consumers and retailers.

They were instead approached by Cobra to create a Cobra- branded Bluetooth tracker (the Cobra Tag). “They were looking to create a device in the space,” said Herbert. “We were able to create a product together and get it out to market. This was done in a traditional sales process. … We got to learn a lot from them.”

Eventually, though, Herbert said the TrackR team wanted to create its own brand and have control over how the product was sold. So they turned to crowdfunding and launched an Indiegogo campaign in February 2013.

“We looked at both Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and at the time Kickstarter was being very selective in what tech products it wanted. They didn’t have tools, and still don’t, necessarily, to launch a [tech] startup, in terms of sharing tools.”

The TrackR blew away its campaign funding goal of $5,000, reaching nearly $48,000 from more than 1,000 contributors. The campaign also helped spur website sales, and the company received over $200,000 in orders in the next three months from TrackR’s website.

The success of the Indiegogo campaign, Herbert said, was instrumental in getting the device in front of retailers. In the past, he said, retailers had to make a blind bet if a new product from a start-up could be sold to scale. “Now you can point to the crowdfunding campaign and show you have a product that is selling and has a certain degree of success. This is essential for bringing products to retailers today, and showing that success publically is very powerful for hardware startups today.”

Alexandra Harding, vendor management and purchasing director at Ingram Micro Consumer Electronics (IMCE), confirmed that crowdfunding sites are on the distributor’s radar. She noted that Ingram has signed a contract with Canary, a manufacturer of smart-home security and a former Indiegogo campaign.

“We absolutely monitor the crowdfunding sites,” she said. “This is where some of the coolest new technologies/products are coming from these days. Everyone is looking at these sites — especially early adopters.”

The process was also a fundamental learning experience for the TrackR team. “We got to learn what aspects of our product customers enjoyed and what features they wanted. A lot of crowdfunding is customer discovery,” said Herbert. “We learned how to market and message the product. This was critical for a founding team that was very technical.”

TrackR, which has grown that team to 11 people, currently has three SKUs available: the Bravo ($29.99), Sticker ($4.99) and Wallet ($29.99). Products are sold online by seven U.S. retailers, including Newegg, B&H Photo/Video and Bloomingdale’s, plus Best Buy Canada.

The company recently began shipping the Bravo, a coin-sized Bluetooth tracking device that can also integrate with the Nest ecosystem. TrackR has also begun developing its Crowd GPS Network, designed to help consumers locate TrackR devices even when they are out of Bluetooth range, relying instead on other TrackR users in the network.

And although it already had a successful product under its belt with the Wallet, TrackR once used Indiegogo to raise funds for the Bravo. It launched a campaign for the Bravo in August 2014, eventually raising $1.6 million.

The act of manufacturers returning to the scene of their first success is a process best exemplified by Pebble, a start-up that twice shattered Kickstarter’s funding records with its smart watches. When asked whether he thought such a tactic could end up overshadowing smaller, newer start-ups, Herbert was emphatic in his response.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “I really think it’s a great win for everyone around. It’s a huge win for crowdfunding because [consumers] are going back to crowdfunding sites. I think Pebble is using this platform to create noise and a wave against the largest company on the planet [Apple]. A small start-up is going head-to-head against Apple and one of its core products. We haven’t really seen that done before.”

It also exposes more people to the act crowdfunding, he added. “The more people who are on these crowdfunding platforms [the more they] are basically increasing the size of market … They’re creating that networked effect. eBay became a viable platform to sell products on because all the buyers were on that platform already. The more people we can get on crowdfunding platforms, the more opportunity there will be for a variety of start-ups.”

Kickstarter clearly agrees, pointing out to TWICE that those who fund campaigns are more likely to return to the site to fund other projects. According to spokesman David Gallagher, the 2013 “Veronica Mars” and Zach Braff (“Wish I Was Here”) film projects brought thousands of new users to Kickstarter, who later went on to pledge more than $1 million to 6,000 other projects in subsequent weeks.