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Why Vancouver-born Pebble smartwatch founder isn't afraid of Apple and Google

Pebble smarthwatch inventor Eric Migicovsky

Rachel Idzerda/Rachel Idzerda

Every time wunderkind Pebble Technology Corp. chief executive officer Eric Migicovsky glances at his watch I get a little more irritated and nervous. I'm halfway through an interview with the wearable-tech pioneer and I am worried he's getting bored, or that he's going to cut short our time.

We're socially programmed to think somebody constantly checking the time is being rude, even dismissive. But Mr. Migicovsky is checking his Pebble smartwatch whenever it notifies him of an incoming e-mail, text, or calendar event. Even though he never loses the flow of what we're talking about, the body language is disconcerting (though having someone stare at their phone while you talk to them is obviously much worse).

The 28-year-old entrepreneur who grew up in Vancouver has remarked in the past that his chief competitor is not Google's new Android watches, or Apple's rumoured device, but the trend of young people who wear no watches at all. He could just as easily say his chief competitor is culture.

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"We want things to kind of mesh into your existing life, technology that disappears and just works for you, that's what we're going for," says Mr. Migicovsky, who is busy attracting developers to help build out the ecosystem of apps that enhance the Pebble watch. "You don't have to change your life around the product … the product should let you live your life without restrictions."

A recent survey by consumer research firm NPD Group found that while most Canadians are aware of wearable technology, and 43 per cent of young men aged 16 to 24 intend to buy a device, fashion concerns over clunky, geeky-looking products and potentially high prices are the factors most likely to scare people off.

Like any good hardware startup founder, Mr. Migicovsky eats his own dog food and is wearing a sleek new Pebble Steel watch on his wrist. The Steel (which sells for about $250) is the second version of the Pebble smartwatch. The first was a bulkier plastic device (now available in several colours, for $150) made famous by a Kickstarter campaign that netted Mr. Migicovsky more than $10-million in crowdfunded cash in May, 2012.

So far, software for the device can act as a remote control for your music, can pair with your car's information systems, and perform some fitness tracking jobs, all behind a battery-sipping e-paper screen. In 2013, Mr. Migicovsky shipped 400,000 Pebble watches, an impressive figure in an anemic device class. ABI Research estimates slightly more than one million smartwatches were sold globally last year, and they expect seven million to ship by the end of 2014.

A childhood tinkerer from a family of entrepreneurs, Mr. Migicovsky's journey to independent hardware phenom in Silicon Valley started in Southern Ontario.

I sat down with Mr. Migicovsky while he was visiting his alma mater, University of Waterloo, to take part in an innovation summit. He's taller in person (about 6 feet 5 inches) than he appears in his company's promo videos, and dresses like he just came from class, sporting a rust-coloured crew neck sweater, grey jeans and brown leather slip-on shoes. We sat in an almost featureless white room between panel sessions – he munched a blueberry muffin, I chowed down on a banana.

"I was always building things, robots, little bits of software and tools, in the spirit of trying things over and over again until something clicks," says Mr. Migicovsky.

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"Hardware is a great way to encapsulate your idea in a physical embodiment of your project, it's sexy and cool and visual."

He was in one of the first classes of students to come through the Velocity accelerator network for students with startup business ideas at Waterloo (he took the five-year Systems Design Engineering program), and also did a co-op at the Netherlands' Delft industrial school in 2008 (his grandfather attended the same school in 1946).

His first smartwatch prototype was built in his dorm at Delft, and when he returned to Waterloo, local high school kids helped him fabricate the first versions of what became the InPulse, a smartwatch that paired with BlackBerry devices to serve up text notifications. Modest InPulse sales earned him some revenue, and got him to California for the 2011 winter session of the famous Silicon Valley tech accelerator, Y Combinator, where he continued to work on InPulse with a cohort of fellow entrepreneurs.

"It's not like this startup school or anything, you just hang out on Tuesdays and have dinner with Marc Benioff [CEO of cloud computing company Salesforce]… the real value of YC is the network."

That's the 500-plus person e-mail list composed of "graduates" of YC that Mr. Migicovsky would later consult frequently for everything from referrals for lawyers to potential contract manufacturing partners.

"The first year in the Valley I didn't actually do networking or anything like that, we were just building the product," Mr. Migicovsky says.

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But then he made a bet that almost lost him his company.

When he got his first really big pile of angel-investor seed money in 2011, coupled with an enthusiastic pile of preorders, Mr. Migicovsky spent almost everything he had (about $350,000) on manufacturing a boatload of InPulse devices. Disastrously, only 50 per cent of the preorders came through, leaving him choking on inventory he couldn't sell.

Why? "We didn't build what people wanted," says Mr. Migicovsky. What they wanted was a device that paired with newer Android and iPhone handsets, and InPulse was stuck on BlackBerry's platform. "It failed, so we had to start Pebble, because that one wasn't going anywhere. We just reinvented it from the ground up. The second time worked, it clicked." Pebble works on several platforms, does far more than serve e-mails, looks cooler and has longer battery life.

Mr. Migicovsky's normal speaking voice is only a few decibels above soft-spoken, but he speaks rapidly in full, quotable sentences without seeming to be working off a mental list of talking points. The only moment he appeared flustered was when I asked him whether he had media training after becoming Internet-famous thanks to the Kickstarter campaign. No, he assures me, dealing with the media just came with practice.

"After our [Kickstarter campaign] blew up … I went out for a burger with one of my friends, who coincidentally is a Waterloo grad but he lives in the Valley, he was like 'Dude, you need to capture this PR wave and ride it.' We hired a PR firm within 48 hours."

In the years since Pebble's Kickstarter, a number of major hardware and software companies have released or planned a smartwatch or other wearable gadget. Sony just announced a new wrist device, Samsung has several, LG too, Motorola finally unveiled its round Moto 360 watch on Friday and Apple is widely expected to unveil some sort of wearable at an event next week. But Mr. Migicovsky is not worried.

"In five years, more and more devices that you wear on your body will be … either Pebble-made or Pebble-powered," he says. "Pebble is one of the only operating systems in the world that is purpose-designed to run on a wearable."

He's confident that the early lead Pebble built by allowing developers to make apps for the smartwatch will continue to give the company an edge over competitors like Google and Apple. Their software model doesn't offer enough access to core device functions to create truly innovative wearable experiences, Mr. Migicovsky says.

"As a consumer that's not what I want: I want an open platform that people can hack on top of – this is the future of computing."

Warming to the subject, he leans forward and insists Google's Android Wear – used by most of the new players making smartwatches – is not really designed to be a wearable operating system. Rather, he says it's designed to be like a smartphone OS that will be locked down and likely feature limited options for customization.

"When you have a hammer, every solution is a nail and you just hammer it with the same thing that you've always be doing," he says of the competition.

Mr. Migicovsky's team has grown rapidly to more than 80 people (with a few back in Waterloo), and he plans to double that number by the end of next year.

He's gleaned lessons on building a Silicon Valley network and team from reading personal and corporate biographies.

He's a fan of Piloting Palm, by David Pogue and Andrea Butter, that tells the story of the PalmPilot's development. "I've hired people from that book: Ron Marianetti – he implemented Graffiti [the handwriting app] on the PalmPilot – he works at Pebble now.

"That's the magic of the Valley, that's the network: Everyone's still there, they know 15 years' worth of people, they know who's smart and who is not."

Using this technique he's picked up skilled workers from the former Palm, the hand-held camera maker Flip, Logitech and even Apple. "It's the fact that there's not just one company here who's done it before, there's like 50 or 100 companies that have all done hardware," says Mr. Migicovsky. "That's the coolest thing in the world."

That may be some harsh medicine for boosters of Canada's technology outposts, who insist we have all the talent we need to build successful companies locally. So far, Canada has been unable to compete with Silicon Valley's multibillion-dollar ecosystem for startup funding, but if our professional networks can't compete either, what's left?

For his part, Mr. Migicovsky doesn't believe that Canadian hardware or software startups need to move south. He is friends with, and supportive of, some former schoolmates who are the founders of Kitchener's Thalmic Labs – they went through YC, too, but chose to stay in the country and have managed to raise gobs of cash to build Myo, their armband wireless device controller. He insists that just because Pebble is another Valley story, not all startups have to be.

"I don't look at my experience as a template … the only way that people can learn is by taking some of these experiences that I've had, that other people have had, and recombining them in their own way and just making it up as they go along."

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Evolution of the Pebble smartwatch

2008: While at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Mr. Migicovsky uses an arduino board and a Nokia phone screen to make a device that receives text messages. When his phone buzzes in his pocket he wants something he can glance at while keeping both hands on his bicycle handle bars.

2009: Graduates from University of Waterloo, and over the course of a year, prototypes and finalizes his first product: the InPulse watch. It had a 1.26-inch-wide OLED colour screen and a battery that lasted about seven hours, according to reviewers.

October, 2010: The first beta versions of InPulse ship to customers who had preordered. "We sold about 1,500 and earned $200,000 in revenue," he says. The company is called Allerta at this point.

October, 2011: Mr. Migicovsky unveils InPulse 1.1, which connects to Android devices.

2011: Mr. Migicovsky participates in famous Silicon Valley tech accelerator Y Combinator. Also that year, he orders too many InPulse 1.1 devices from his contract manufacturer and cannot sell them.

May, 2012: Mr. Migicovsky breaks all previous crowdfunding records on Kickstarter with a video pitch for his new Pebble smartwatch, raising $10.2-million with most of the almost 70,000 backers ordering a watch as part of their support. The company is renamed Pebble.

2013: Ships the first real Pebbles to backers starting in January and to the general public in July.

January, 2014: Unveils new model, Pebble Steel. It's thinner, metal, has a Gorilla Glass screen, steel or leather band, and now has a light for notifications. It is also back-lit for use in the dark, activated with a "flick of the wrist" gesture.

August, 2014: Pebble announces a range of new colours for the plastic version. The company has sold more than 400,000 smartwatches to date.

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About the Author
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More

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