“Eric – you’re wanted up front.” There’s no receptionist at the spookily quiet Palo Alto offices of Pebble–the 35 people make almost no noise in a vast cavern with grey shellacked concrete floors, walls and ceilings. The passing staffer who’d noticed me standing near the entrance tries again: “Eric?” His voice echoes in the near-silence.
A giant in flip-flops and a T-shirt ambles toward me—“Probably taller than you” is one of the lines in an online bio that Eric Migicovsky wrote for himself, and it’s true, in this instance. His 6 feet 5 inches undermine the way he sometimes gets described, as David taking on tech’s Goliaths–Samsung, Apple and Google. The smartwatch that the Vancouver-born, Waterloo-educated engineer and entrepreneur invented and marketed has taken a sizable chunk of the burgeoning wearable computer market–a market that will top $1-billion (all currency in U.S. dollars) this year, according to the U.S.-based Consumer Electronics Association.
Migicovsky at once undercuts his height by sitting down and slouching. He brings one foot up onto the couch and holds onto his knee and, during the course of our interview, pops up and down to help others who enter the reception area. As if, you know, we’re all equals here. As if this fresh-faced 28-year-old hadn’t invented a smartwatch that has taken the Bay Area, and much of the rest of the world, by storm.
Unable to secure serious financing in Canada, Migicovsky came down to the Valley in 2011 and raised a record $10.3-million via Kickstarter with a plain-Jane video of him describing why you might want a watch linked to your phone. His first model, the Pebble, and his second, the more stylish Steel, allow you to get urgent e-mails and texts on your wrist, control your stereo remotely or get instantaneous updates on your team’s score.
It’s early July when we meet, and Migicovsky tells me he’s been using his watch to follow the World Cup journey of the Netherlands. His mother’s family is Dutch, and the loss to Argentina in the semis nearly broke him. Talking about the team takes him back to Pebble’s genesis. He dreamed up the idea in 2008, while on a university exchange in Delft—using both hands to bike left him unable to safely consult his phone. (1) Back in Waterloo, after graduating in 2009, he honed the idea, hacking together a watch, called the inPulse, that worked with BlackBerry devices.
But he soon moved down here. “In 2010 in Canada, there wasn’t that faith, the sometimes blind faith, in start-ups that there can be down here,” he says. He was drawn to the Valley by Y Combinator, the tech world’s top incubator. (2) Its founder, Paul Graham—PG, he’s called—has said Migicovsky may be the next Steve Jobs.
Migicovsky grimaces at the comparison: “You know, it was a niche product when we launched it, the smartwatch, but if only one in 100 people is interested, and you multiply that by the whole Internet...”
His company has sold 400,000 Pebbles in 150 countries. Observers guesstimate that Pebble raked in $60-million in revenues last year, and a venture capitalist who’s an investor in Pebble reportedly said the company is on track to double that take this year. After the success of the Kickstarter campaign, angel investors contributed $15-million to Migicovsky’s war chest.
It’s money he’s going to need as he goes up against the corporate Goliaths. Google and Motorola have announced a late summer release for their Moto 360 smartwatch, and the always-secretive Apple has said it might release its own device as early as October. In the meantime, Migicovsky says, “We have lots of people adopting the Pebble platform—its uses are multiplying.” (3)
Is he worried? “We did okay last year,” Migicovsky says mildly. Indeed, his watch slew the Korean behemoth Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, released last fall—it had a relatively short battery life and no e-mails. (It’s been reported that sales were as low as 50,000 in its first two months on the market.)
While it might have been premature for PG to call him a Jobs in the making, Migicovsky’s products are well designed—especially the Steel, which avoids the dork effect of the Google Glass, the other popular, but controversial, bit of wearable tech. Rumours in the Valley have it that bigger companies have offered to buy him out, but he won’t address them. And he doesn’t speak like someone planning an exit.
At the end of our interview, an iPhone technician arrives in reception. “Nice watch,” Migicovsky comments on the man’s Pebble. “You should try the Steel.” Migicovsky pops that long body up to find the staffer with the ailing device. “A mobile mobile fixer, right?” he jokes when he comes back. “Only in Silicon Valley.”
I stand, we shake, and he draws himself up to his full height. In stature, he’s no David, but his company is still small—about 70 employees and counting in three locations in Palo Alto. If Pebble is unlikely to defeat the Goliaths wholly, already, in these early stages of the battle to own wearables, Migicovsky is giving the big guys more of a fight than they anticipated.
(1) Tech analyst Mary Meeker reported that users consult their smartphones about 150 times a day.
(2) Y Combinator-fostered start-ups include Dropbox and Airbnb. “We were one of the first hardware companies to go through it.”
(3) More than 15,000 developers are working on apps for the watch, including Yelp, Pandora, ESPN and Mercedes.