By Franz Struwig
When I started my career as a Software Engineer my grandma took me aside one day and told me: “Don’t be afraid of failure. If you do something crazy like starting your own business, the worst thing that can happen is you go broke – then you just start again!” Her passion moved me.
When Denho Geldenhuys and I founded iKubu in 2006, our goal was to create an authentic workspace where Engineers could express themselves. Nolan van Heerden was our lead Engineer and was instrumental in our technical vision of “helping people to see what they can’t” – using computer vision and radar technology.
Our journey was colorful and full of surprises, but also filled with failures and sacrifice. We spent the early years in the business just surviving without building significant long term value. As a team we were fully enrolled in the school of life, and we were learning hard lessons related to reinvesting in your business, building a strong vision, growing a brand and letting go of failed products. I believe that we can only really learn by doing – so putting yourself in a position to learn is incredibly important.
With our offices in Stellenbosch we were set on changing the world through radically innovative products. Towards this end we employed theatre improvisation as a means of internalizing a number of basic innovation principles.
During this time Nolan encountered an elderly gentleman cycling on the wrong side of the road. The cyclist got off his bike and apologized, but stated that he was simply too afraid of being hit from behind by a careless motorist. We realized that this was a real problem, and decided to investigate the use of radar technology as a possible solution. Backtracker was born! A small radar device that gives cyclists a sixth sense.
A month later we had a working unit. Nolan had taken his December holiday to build a thin slice. It proved the concept, but we had to miniaturize it. We decided that the next step should be to get funding. Big mistake! After a year of pouring a significant amount of energy into securing funding we decided to just do it ourselves. Three months later we had done it. Lesson: never look for funding if it’s not absolutely necessary.
We then decided to get a big brand involved to take our product to market. We set up an agreement with a company in the East, and were bullish that the royalties were going to roll in. A year later we were very disappointed that our product was still not commercialized. Another hard lesson: nobody will ever put in the same amount of effort into taking your product to market that you do yourself!
At this time we were part of a year-long GrindStone accelerator program presented by Knife Capital. They challenged us to think big, and we set our goals for 2014 on doubling our turnover and selling 1000 units. This helped us to realize that we had to make a strategic change: we moved away from the OEM route, and decided to embark on a crowdfunding campaign!
People often think of crowdfunding as a way of getting funding. This cannot be further from the truth: believe it or not, crowdfunding is primarily a marketing tool! Our challenge was to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and crowdfunding was the perfect vehicle. We focused on the Boston area, and used Dragon Innovation as a platform.
As a last throw of the dice for Backtracker, we knew we had to make it count. We tapped into some local talent to create a very strong product identity and a super crowdfunding video. We launched with great fanfare, and expected an avalanche of sales to follow. Boy was I mistaken! We were reminded that selling is really hard. As a team we had to roll up our sleeves and start driving the campaign: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, print media, blogs, radio, TV and direct sales. It was exhausting, but the exposure was priceless.
During the campaign I visited the US to fully capitalize on our marketing exposure. We were very well received in Boston and NYC, and I was struck by the respect that people had for our technology and our capabilities. A message for our SA Engineers: take heart, we are on par with the best in the world!
As an Entrepreneur you do everything you can to improve your chances of success, but in the end you still need a bit of luck. In spite of all the exposure, our campaign wasn’t doing very well. We tried to get maximum value by extending the campaign to coincide with a major international trade-show, and then by divine appointment we hit it off with Garmin!
Garmin is a NASDAQ listed company with lots of soul. The company is run by Engineers, and has through adversity cultivated a distinct appetite for innovation. From the start it was clear that we had great synergy, and conversation quickly turned towards tying the knot.
When I sold my business to Garmin in January 2015 I was reminded of my grandma’s wisdom to not let fear dictate your life. What a journey. Thanks grandma!
Franz describes himself as passionate about people, technology and business. As an Engineer and an MBA, he says he was super privileged to be a part of establishing iKubu – a radar and computer vision company with a heart. After crowdfunding the world’s first bicycle radar called Backtracker in 2014, iKubu was acquired by Garmin. Still learning and growing.