Interview with Laurent Le Pen
Co-Founder of www.omate.com/k3
1. How did you end up in China?
I worked for a former Philips Mobile division called Cellon Avantech as a strategic buyer. I was in charge of camera, battery, chipset, and other key components of the Bill of Materials of the cellular phone designs. After a restructuring of our headquarters in Le Mans - France I was sent to Shenzhen in 2007. It was a practical decision because most of our suppliers were anyway in Asia, and our Electronic Manufacturing Service partners were also located in Shenzhen.
2. As a serial entrepreneur, where do you find your inspiration for new product inventions?
Most of the ideas are serendipity. For example for the Omate TrueSmart, we merely connected an iPod Nano display to one of our Android Smartphone PCBA. When we turned it on, and saw a thumbnail version of the Android, it was a “Eureka moment.” I understood that if we shrink the size of the PCBA into the same form factor as the display, we could have the smallest smartphone in the World. Potentially make it the first Android standalone smartwatch. Three months later, with this idea, we were raising a million USD on Kickstarter.
Today one of our primary product is an emergency smartwatch targeting senior citizens. The idea didn't come from me, but when we announced our first Android smartwatch for kids, a European insurance company contacted us to make something similar for their senior segment. We agreed to do it, and today we are the leader in that segment with our service providers.
As for Oclean, after we signed off an exclusive deal on a new sonic vibrator for Kotl, we’ve got the idea of customizing teeth brushing plans through an app. That allowed us to have a competitive advantage and bring value to the end users.
3. Your focus is IoT, why? How do you choose the products of your interest?
I come from the Telecom / Mobile Phone Design industry. I arrived in Shenzhen at exciting times in 2007, because it was the launch of the iPhone, and a year later Google introduced Android too. These inventions changed the tech landscape of our industry, and many companies have built their ecosystem on top of these platforms. Besides these significant product developments, it was also the time when social media started. Therefore, I saw the "Internet of Things" as an extension of a connected life. Today it is still just the beginning, especially regarding voice control.
4. You work with IoT and wearable technology, while also have some experience with crowdfunding. Tell us more about your experience with Omate Truesmart campaign and how you reflect on this experience when approaching similar projects?
The Omate TrueSmart was our very first crowdfunding campaign back in 2013. I received over 20,000 emails the first year. It was hard to manage the community side of the project; we were not prepared for it. We were professionals and respected in our industry, we did pretty well shipping on time and ensuring the quality, but we were not ready to handle that many orders and the administration work in such short period.
Since then, we have launched two more campaigns, and we only use crowdfunding for our limited edition. This approach allows us to provide best-in-class support to the early backers and fans. We don't try to make it as big as possible, but instead, we focus on what's important. Quality instead of quantity.
5. What are the specifics when creating crowdfunding campaigns for IoT products?
It's all about marketing; it is pure science. Anyone can make it big if has a big marketing budget for PR and promotion. However, not everyone will make it well. There are brand owners who can't and don't deliver on time or fail to create the promised quality.
My goal is to cater to a small community of satisfied customers instead of having a large community of angry people chasing after me. A good crowdfunding project manager/ owner has a mindset for the long-term and controls everything before the launch. That way it is possible to ensure happy customers.
6. What kind of products are easier to find a sales channel and distribution once produced?
Naturally, the more unique your product is, the higher the chance you have to gather interest from the distributors, but that’s not enough. When you have a good idea in the US or EU, you will usually have a competitor six months later (e.g., Fitbit Vs. Jawbone; Uber Vs. Lift, etc…). In China, you will have six competitors a month later, and many of them will be chasing you six months later. You’d better make sure your product is hard to copy, and the added value of your brand is clear. Regarding channels, focus online such as Amazon, GearBest, and team up with local distributors to fill in the channels internationally. If your product is right, they will contact you.
7. What would you recommend to our Hubbers inventors when it comes to producing new (IoT) or other items?
Most of the IoT and Wearable Tech companies that started at the same time as Omate are either dead or at the hospital so I will share my Top 5 recommendations with you; it’s what I did and keep doing to allow my companies to survive:
- Become a legitimate expert. No one should know better your industry than you.
- Focus on what you are good at. DO NOT focus on what people want you to do.
- Avoid competing with Tier 1 brands because they will destroy you.
- Build something hard to copy so you will avoid competing with "Shanzhai" companies.
- Find a niche where you have a chance to become World’s #1 and bring value to that segment.
Adjust, change, adapt as many times as your cash flow allows it. Remember, it’s ok to fail a project. At Omate, we started with a smartwatch for sports activities. We weren't legitimate in that field, and six months later Samsung launched Samsung Gear, followed by Apple Watch.
We were in trouble and decided to change and design more fashionable smartwatches. We teamed up with a World’s top leading jewelry company, then Google announced Android Wear and teamed up with Fossil Group. They had a dozen fashion brands including Michael Kors, Skagen, Kate Spade, Diesel, once again we were in trouble.
I pivoted back to focus on Security, and since then we have done pretty well. We design wearable for people who need protection such as kids, seniors, and lone workers. This segment is too small for big corporations like Samsung, Google, or Apple but this is Omate's chance, and we thrive on this segment.
Laurent is expert in IoT, manufacturing electronics, and entrepreneurship.