Pebble: This is your intervention. Sell before it's too late

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 22, 2013

From The News Desk

PandoDaily is historically anti-acquisition. Google acquiring Sparrow ruined one former employee's morning, as it signaled the beginning of the end for one of the few good email apps for iOS. Microsoft's acquisition of Yammer was seen as something to be feared and, once the deal closed, failed to lead to a better, more reliable product. The site itself was founded after TechCrunch was acquired by AOL, and Sarah has been clear about her desire for PandoDaily to remain an independent company. We tend to root for the underdog, the startup challenging the status quo and refusing to settle for an acqui-hire or an ill-thought acquisition.

Yet I can't help but find myself thinking that it's time for someone to go ahead and acquire Pebble. Past time, actually.

You've heard of Pebble. The "e-paper" smartwatch is the most-funded project on Kickstarter, raising more than $10 million in total -- more than 10,000 percent more than the company's $100,000 goal. It's received a metric shit-ton of press, and is often heralded as one of, if not the, first modern smartwatches. So far as financials and buzz are concerned, Pebble suffers from an embarrassment of riches.

The only problem is that the company has largely failed to execute. Its Kickstarter project promised shipment by September of 2012 -- the initial shipment of "less than 500" watches didn't come until the end of January 2013. Many Kickstarter backers have yet to receive their watch, which is to say nothing of everyone who's preordered through the Pebble website.

Now, to be fair, some 84 percent of Kickstarter top 50 most-funded projects shipped later than initially planned, according to Fortune.. That's a lot of projects. But, unfortunately, most of those projects didn't raise more than $9,900,000 more than their minimums. Pebble is in a tier of its own -- only the OUYA has raised close to as much as Pebble on Kickstarter -- and has been perceived as such. Pebble is a victim of its own popularity. With great popularity (and cash) comes great expectations.

American Giant is another startup making tangible goods that's facing "catastrophic success," as the BBC calls it. The company, which makes all-cotton hoodies in the United States dubbed "the best hoodie ever" by Slate's Farhad Manjoo, has failed to offer its signature product since before the holidays. Preordering new hoodies requires a trip to the site's blog and then further interaction via email. That is, if they bother to even email you back. For the lucky few who get to place an order, they aren't receiving them until months after they've been placed.

Scaling hardware companies is hard, and Pebble is far from the only startup to fall prey to its own success. Even the first iteration of the Jawbone UP had to be recalled, and Jawbone is one of the best hardware upstarts to launch in recent years.

Still, we aren't talking about a $79 hoodie. We're talking about a smartwatch that people have paid between $99 and $150 and waited for more than 6 months to receive. And then, even if they do get their Pebble, the devices are malfunctioning for many purchasers. The company's support forums are overwhelmed -- as are the members of its support staff, judging by the many threads mentioning a lack of support -- with people whose Pebbles simply stopped working.

So one of the most popular products funded by Kickstarter and critically acclaimed by sites like Engadget and The Verge has yet to ship to thousands of purchasers and is plagued with issues. Pebble is perhaps the greatest example of why Kickstarter doesn't want to be thought of as a store or a place for technology products and just how difficult it is to make hardware work.

It's a bit of a cop out to say it's because Pebble is a startup. After all, so are Square, Nest, Romotive, Lark, and FitBit. Even Jawbone bounced back from its UP glitch and made it up to customers. There is a reason why VCs fund the teams as much as the ideas-- teams have to execute through the outsized problems you face being such a small organization. All those VCs who passed on Pebble and were shamed might be uttering a few "told you so's" if this continues.

But no doubt the world is harder for hardware startups. Manufacturers and suppliers alike are less willing to work with smaller companies. Even HTC is said to be facing delays with the HTC One, its new flagship device, because suppliers don't consider it a "tier-one" customer. Pebble isn't anywhere near as large as HTC, and has had less time to build relationships with manufacturers and suppliers, perfect its process, and do well by its customers.

An acquisition could change that. A larger company with a more capable support team, supply chain, manufacturer relationships, and engineers could turn the Pebble smartwatch into the product customers were promised almost a year ago and tech bloggers raved about. And, depending on who purchases the company, its smartwatch could be better integrated into other products instead of relying on hacks and limited access to mobile operating systems.

Pebble is a sound idea that has been remarkably poorly executed. Despite the rise of hardware startups and their popularity on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms, keeping up with demand and scaling to support many customers requires experience and connections within the industry that many startups simply don't have. It would likely be better for Pebble's customers, both those who have received defective devices and those who have yet to unbox their own devices, if a larger company were to throw its weight behind the project.

[Image Credit: Valerie Everett on Flickr]