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From surviving to thriving as a hardware startup

When a friend forwarded this tweet from Paul Graham, it hit close to home:

Startups are subject to something like infant mortality: before they’re established, one thing going wrong can kill the company. Hardware companies seem to be subject to infant mortality their whole lives.
I think the reason is that the evolution of the product is so discontinuous. The company has to keep shipping, and customers to keep buying, new products. Which in practice is like relaunching the company each time.
I don’t know if there is an answer to this, but if there were a way for hardware companies to evolve more the way software companies do, they’d be a lot more resilient.

Looking back on our startup journey at Minut, I remember several moments when we could have died. However, surviving several near misses we learned to tackle these challenges and have become more resilient over time. While there will never be one fully exhaustive answer, here are some of the lessons we learned over the years:

Subscription revenue is the only revenue that counts

While you can sell hardware with a margin and make important early revenue, it’s not a sustainable business model for a company that requires both software and hardware. You can’t cover an indefinite commitment with a finite amount of money.

Many hardware companies don’t consider subscriptions early enough. While it can be hard to command a subscription from the start (if you can, you might have waited too long to launch), it needs to be in the plan from the beginning. Look for markets where paying subscriptions is the norm rather than markets that operate on a one-time sale model.

Set high margins and earn them over time

It’s tempting to set low prices for hardware to attract customers, but in the beginning you should do the opposite. Margins allow for mistakes to be rectified. A missed deadline might mean you have to opt for freight by air rather than boat. You might have to scrap components or buy them expensively in a supply crunch. Surprises are seldom positive, and you don’t want to use your venture capital to pay for them.

Healthy margins can also be used to cover marketing costs while you learn what kind of messaging works and what channels you can sell through. If that wasn’t enough reason, starting with relatively high prices will help you avoid another common mistake, selling too much at launch.

This might seem counterintuitive — why wouldn’t you want great success out of the gate? The reason is that you will inevitably make mistakes with your early launches, and the bigger the launch, the bigger the blow. There are plenty of companies who achieved amazing crowdfunding success and then failed to deliver even the first units. Startups tend to chase growth at all costs, but for hardware startups in the first few years there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 will land on phones in Q1 2021

As promised, more info following yesterday’s Snapdragon 888 announcement. First off, as expected, the company’s next flagship SoC will arrive in the first quarter of next year. We’re still waiting on specific models, but as noted yesterday, the San Diego-based chip giant already has a lineup of smartphone makers planning to employ the 765 follow-up, including ASUS, Black Shark, LG, MEIZU, Motorola, Nubia, realme, OnePlus, OPPO, Sharp, vivo, Xiaomi and ZTE.

The focuses are also what you’d expect: 5G, AI, speed, security, imaging and gaming. As Qualcomm announced earlier, the new system sports the third-gen X60 5G modem, which supports both sub-6 and mmWave variations of the wireless technology with speeds up to 7.5 Gbps. Also on board is support for Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2.

The sixth-gen version of the company’s AI Engine brings faster processing speeds at lower power consumption — specifically up to 3x performance per watt, per Qualcomm’s numbers. That’s capable of up to 26 tera operations per second (TOPS). Compare that to the “incredible” 5.5 TOPS the company was talking up on the Snapdragon 765 roughly this time last year. The AI stuff is primarily used to boost camera, gaming, connectivity and voice assistants like Google’s.

On the camera side, the new chip features the improved Spectra 580, sporting the line’s first triple ISP (image signal processor). That’s going to go a ways toward fostering multi-camera setup, with the ability to simultaneously have three cameras at up to 2.7 gigapixels a second. The system also supports capture of three 4K HDR videos at once — overkill, perhaps, but neat. There’s improved low-light support as well, to brighten up dark shots — always a nice thing.

The on-board Adreno 660 GPU can do up to 35% faster graphics. The Kryo 680 — based on the new Arm Cortex-X1 architecture — brings up to a 25% uplift in CPU performance. Game rendering has been improved by up to 30%, and titles will get access to Variable Rate Shading — a first for a Qualcomm chip. As for security, the new chip offers a number of new features aimed at protecting on-device data, including the Qualcomm Secure Processing Unit.

Looking Glass’s next product is a holographic digital photo frame

Looking Glass’s technology is extremely cool, but has, thus far, been prohibitively expensive, ranging from $600 for its 8.9-inch product to $6,000 for the 15-inch model — and an undisclosed sum for its 32-inch 8K display. Portrait might not be the most technically ambitious or versatile product the Brooklyn-based startup has produced, but it’s easily the most accessible.

At $349, it’s still not cheap (though it’s $199 if you get in early via Kickstarter), but it has to be one of the most affordable holographic displays on the market. Along with the pricing, the company is taking a more populist approach to functionality, as well, offering up what is essentially a very advanced digital photo frame. The system offers up to 100 different perspectives on a 3D image, which, unlike products like Sony’s new 3D display, can be viewed by multiple people at once.

Image Credits: Looking Glass

The system can also be run without being tethered to a computer. Its standalone mode relies on a built-in computer to deliver a 60 FPS holographic image. Those photos, meanwhile, can be captured with an iPhone and edited into a 3D image using the included HoloPlay Studio software. Holographic videos can also be captured with Azure Kinect and Intel RealSense cameras.

“It’s the first step toward holographic video calls,” the company notes, perhaps tipping its hand a bit about future plans.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I dreamed of the moment that I’d be able to have a holographic display of my own,” CEO Shawn Frayne says in the release. “I imagined what it would be like to send someone a holographic birthday message, or to say hello as a hologram to my great-great-great granddaughter. Looking Glass Portrait, the culmination of six years of work by our Brooklyn and Hong Kong based team, makes those dreams real for more people than ever before.”

The Portrait goes up on Kickstarter today, and will be available to early backers for $199.