Over coffee in downtown Montreal, Neptune Pine‘s founder Simon Tian told us that he never had any developing skills, let alone any experience in product-design.
Nothing about him screamed out to others that he would ultimately lead one of the most successful Canadian crowdfunding projects in the still young history of wearable technology, when the Neptune Pine smartwatch grossed over $800,000 in pre-orders in December 2013.
The key differentiator for the Neptune Pine is that most smartwatches on the market today are tethered to a smartphone, via bluetooth. They act as a slave to their phone master, as Tian explained. But the Android-based Pine acts all on its own, and “makes other smartwatches look like feeble toys,” according to Gizmodo. It featured up to 32GB of built-in storage, a dual-core 1.2 GHz Snapdragon S4 processor, 512 MB of RAM, front- and rear- facing cameras, GPS, a microSD slot, a 3G SIM slot, Bluetooth, a built-in microphone, a headphone jack, and a full version of Android Jelly Bean 4.1.2.
The Pine has been criticized for being “ridiculously” or “grotesquely” large, but Gizmodo admitted that while other smartwatches can boast some of it’s features, “the Pine is by far the most loaded gadget you can wear.”
Tian, 20, described to us the beginnings of what would be the first truly independent computing smartwatch on the market. He was still at Westmount’s Marianopolis College as a 18-year-old CEGEP student. All he had was what he called a “very large vision” for what personal computing ought to be. To start, he figured he would need to release a small, minimalist product to gain experience. More than anything, he just wanted to put something out there. This was the beginnings of the Neptune Pine.
Tian enlisted a friend at Marianopolis to draw simple conceptual renderings, while he built a simple website using Weebly. He spent $5 on the domain name.
“Naturally no one came to the website,” Tian told MTLinTech. “So I googled how to get traffic- I google everything. One of the searches was on writing a press release, which I didn’t know what it was.”
Tian took a sample press release from Apple regarding a new product launch, changed around some of the wording and sent it out through PRweb. He still had no product- he didn’t even have a proof of concept or an actual engineered product. All he had was the idea for the Neptune Pine.
“I was at school so I didn’t care really, it was just an experiment. I just thought there was nothing to lose,” he said. “So I just announced it through a press release, and Techcrunch covered it out of nowhere the next day.”
The inevitable flood of attention that follows a Techcrunch report of an obscure team doing something no one else had done, followed. Within two months his website had 20,000 non-committal reservations for the smartwatch he would eventually build. Angel investors came fluttering around Tian and he raised enough money to outsource the hardware development. Then he put the Neptune Pine on Kickstarter, and $800,000 later he was ready for mass production.
Tian finished shipping all the smartwatches to backers and pre-orderers at the end of 2014, and earned revenues of around $1.5 million in total. Today Neptune stands at five employees.
Ultimately, it was simply about getting something out there for Tian, something that careful entrepreneurs overlook in their diligent efforts to build the perfect product.
“You need to make sure its feasible, but right after that just unveil it,” said Tian. “Unveil it to the world and start acquiring customers, because that’s really the crucial point.”
As for what’s next for the mobile computing startup Neptune, Tian remained mum on details at the time of writing this. Now it’s all out in the open: the Neptune Suite, available on IndieGogo. On May 14th the campaign was 1,117 percent funded, now having grossed over 1.1 million in contributions.
Wearable technology has failed, thus far, to reach mainstream buyers because it doesn’t offer a unique enough value proposition. Tian thinks Neptune’s new product will solve this problem.
“I think at Neptune we’ve found something that’s really really unique and compelling, and that will bring the category to the mainstream finally.”