Velo Labs crowdfunds its Skylock, but that might not be such a wise move

By James Robinson , written on May 16, 2014

From The News Desk

Two former engineers for Jawbone and Boeing launch a startup incubated by manufacturing giant PCH. They then decide to crowdfund a piece of hardware. So far the story behind Velo Labs and its Skylock is almost boring.

Velo Labs was founded at the start of 2013 by CEO Jack Al-kahwati and CTO Gerardo Barroeta. The Skylock is a connected bike lock and is about what what you’d expect from such a device: it can be controlled and opened from a smartphone app and has an accelerometer in it that can alert you if your bike is being tampered with. It looks nice, but is still very much just a bike lock.

Where Velo Labs gets interesting and deviates from a story you’ve heard too many times is that it is crowdfunding off the grid, turning its back on Kickstarter and Indiegogo for a dark-ages style pre-order campaign to raise $50,000. It is a difference that might work out being to its detriment.

Velo Labs CEO Al-kahwati is casual about the decision. “The platforms don’t bring that much to the table,” he says. “They were great two years ago. But this way we can control the message and leverage our advertising.”

It feels flippant. And risky. Velo Labs' crowdfunding campaign began this morning with a blast of coverage from the usual tech press suspects. But it doesn’t seem to have much of a direction to go past here. Al-kawhati mentions social media, but with just 244 fans on Facebook and 58 Twitter followers, a viral groundswell might be elusive. Tomorrow, those same tech sites that were featuring the Skylock will be writing about something else. Today's coverage will become a memory, quickly.

Crowdfunding is going through some growing pains, but a platform is still a powerful thing. Al-kahwati says that the website for the Skylock will eventually add in a forum to its website for Skylock fans to communicate and interact with each other and the company. But community building can't be an after thought. On Kickstarter and Indiegogo, campaigns are launched into a community. There’s an ecosystem in place. People wind up there organically and end up sticking around and contributing. A pre-order feels like a purchase, where a crowdfunding contribution feels like a purchase and an investment. Early supporters on campaigns become product evangelists. Velo Labs will have no such boost.

There’s also the benefit of an established infrastructure. More than anything, as an independent Velo Labs needed to nail the launch for the Skylock. The meter on its web page currently sits at zero and a message on its Facebook informs users that its payments system has crashed. With Kickstarter and Indiegogo, you're only consideration is promotion, not making sure your payment system works.

It is really difficult to launch a pre-order campaign with a big bang. It took a barnstorming appearance at TechCrunch 50 to net 3,000 pre-orders of the Fitbit, CEO James Park has said before.

Park has also commented that the moral and ethical implications of collecting and holding onto people’s card information weighed on him. Velo Labs will debit its supporter’s accounts when it accepts their pre-order. It says that it will ship by the end of the year, but when you read the fine print what is guaranteed is as nebulous as any crowdfunding campaign. The shipping date can be changed, orders can be canceled or rejected, discounts can be withdrawn, prices changed and product descriptions altered. (Of course in all circumstances money has to be returned.)

Al-kahwati says that the the Skylock app doubles as a social platform, which he hopes sets it up down the road to be the Airbnb of person-to-person bike sharing. The company, even if it can work out the independent crowdfunding riddle, might still find itself boxed in on all sides. Lock8 and Bitlock launched Kickstarter campaigns for essentially the same product at the end of 2013. Bike sharing is taking off without Velo Labs, but offering pools of bikes in fixed locations for people to use, rather than sharing at an individual level. It is also just a bike lock. It might negate the need for a key and let me know if someone is stealing my bike, but if I’m across town, that doesn’t save my bike, I just know about it before I would have otherwise.

Velo Labs has been bootstrapped with some angel investment, Al-Kahwati says. The company filed an S-1 with the SEC this morning saying that it had raised $95,000 already out of a planned $800,000.

Like all crowdfunding campaigns, it might get the Skylock to market with or without the financial support.

But setting itself up outside of the comfort of the crowd might get lonely, fast.