Romo is an iPhone and iPod accessory, it features a cute, stylized “face,” and it’s a robot. The self-appointed “smartphone robot for everyone” is almost guaranteed to be a Kickstarter success. Again.
Romo is actually Romo 2.0, an evolution of the original everyman robot from Romotive. The company had raised almost $115,000 for the original Romo, around 3.5 times the $32,000 project minimum. Now, almost a year since the original Romo’s release and following a Series A funding round led by Sequoia, Romotive has turned back to Kickstarter to make Romo 2.0 a reality.
Though the new Romo is a definite upgrade over the previous version, one question lingered in the back of my mind when I heard about the project: Why are they turning to Kickstarter, if they just raised funding and already had one successful project?
My suspicion was that Romotive was using Kickstarter as a sounding board to see if it would be worth introducing Romo 2.0. Other companies that have turned to Kickstarter for new product releases, including one that I wrote about in June, use Kickstarter almost as a sample group that helps the company figure out what it should do next. Others, like SmartThings, used Kickstarter to make some noise about their product and drum up the largest possible audience.
Romotive falls into the latter camp. Keller Rinaudo, Romotive’s CEO, says that the company decided to go the Kickstarter route again to build a community around Romo. “[Romo]‘s only going to be successful if we have people constantly hacking on the robot and trying new things,” he says, and Kickstarter had already proven itself as a community-building powerhouse with the first Romo.
The company, after weeks and months of soldering the original Romo by hand, had shipped around 2,000 robots to Europe — and they didn’t work. Rinaudo says that fixing the issue would have cost Romotive between $10,000 and $15,000 in shipping fees to fix, and the company was thinking about what to do when a project backer contacted them.
“One of the backers in Europe said, ‘Look, I have a programmer. Just have everyone ship their circuit board to me,’” Rinaudo says. So they did. European customers gutted their new Romo robots and shipped the circuit board to that backer, who updated the firmware and shipped the circuit board back. The update worked, and the previously non-functioning Romos sprang to (robotic) life.
The new Romo was designed to make sure incidents like that don’t happen again. Instead of shipping hand-assembled robots, Romotive is working with the same manufacturer that builds the Roomba to streamline its processes and build a more durable product. There are other improvements being made to Romo 2.0, like the removal of the “On/Off” switch and some software features, but the name of the game seems to be evolution, not revolution.
Still, the company is looking for these intrepid, happy-to-tinker customers that are as committed to Romo becoming a hit as Romotive itself. “There are no customers in the world that would buy a product in a retail store and be fine with doing [what the backer in Europe did]” Rinaudo says, and I’m inclined to believe him. Romotive is hoping that turning back to the Kickstarter community will allow Romo 2.0 to be better than it would be if Romotive released it on its own.
Which isn’t to say that Romotive wants to put all of that responsibility on its customers’ shoulders. They aren’t “leeching” off of Kickstarter — Rinaudo makes it clear that Romotive wants to improve the project creator and project backer relationship. Instead of making promises that it couldn’t keep, slapping a few “proof of concept” images onto a project page, and raising all kinds of money with nothing but an ad and a promise, Romotive spent a lot of time working to make sure they can build everything that’s on their page.
This included moving to China for six months while they found a manufacturer that could provide the expertise necessary to build Romo, as well as waiting to use functioning prototypes before announcing that Romo 2.0 was underway. Romotive makes this clear on the project page as a way of reassuring potential customers that Romo 2.0 won’t be another flash in the pan product that doesn’t work out.
For Rinaudo, it’s about doing the homework and then talking to customers. He takes the relationship with backers very seriously — evidenced by the four months that he and the Romotive team built Romo by hand, skipping showers so backers could have the robot done in time for Christmas — and hopes that Romotive can inspire other project makers to do the same.
“Under promise and over deliver,” was repeated during our conversation. The company actually set its projected finish date — January — a month later than when the first robots could roll off the assembly line and make it to backers’ homes. “We’re losing sales because we made the decision to under-promise and over-deliver,” Rinaudo says. “We would rather have a lot of our users be totally ecstatic when the robot shows up a month early, than disappoint some backers that don’t get it in time for Christmas.”
So, why make such a huge commitment to Kickstarter backers?
“Kickstarter created this company,” Rinaudo says. “If we hadn’t gone to Kickstarter, we would have failed.” Because the Kickstarter community made Romotive possible, the company is hell-bent on proving that it’s worthy of that trust.