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PopSlate: When a Successful Crowdfunding Campaign Is Just the Beginning

After a successful Indiegogo campaign, startup's founders spent another two years bringing their product to market.

Inventors Yashar Behzadi and Greg Moon won over investors with their idea for a smartphone case that would act as a second screen — displaying images and useful information at a glance.

Their product, popSlate, exceeded its fundraising goal of $150,000 with an Indiegogo campaign in 2013 that attracted backers from all over the world.

But that successful crowdfunding initiative was just the starting point for the inventors, who would spend another two years raising capital and working with component suppliers and manufacturers to bring their product to market. Amid fits and starts, and heavy reliance on what Behzadi has described as his “charm campaign,” the popSlate case with its E-Ink display will finally ship April 21.

“Little companies like us were coming up with novel product concepts … and doing it in a lean way; there can be a little bit of a mismatch between what your vision is and what crowdfunding can do for you,” said Moon.

Indiegogo has hosted more than 300,000 campaigns since 2008, though it doesn’t track how many reach fundraising goals. Some 15 million people in 224 countries have donated to various endeavors, which includes the first campaign to crowdfund the expense of in-vitro fertilization.

The idea for popSlate was born out of an insight, in 2012, that smartphone users were repeatedly waking up their devices to fetch information — to retrieve a boarding pass while traveling, say, get driving directions or glance at the weather forecast.

“We unlock the phone, launch an app, access one bit of information — and do that over and over again. That’s a broken paradigm,” said Behzadi. “To give people the little bit of information they need, there’s a huge amount of effort.”

PopSlate takes advantage of the unused real estate at the back of the smartphone to display information on its always-on E-Ink screen (think Kindle). The thin, low-power display rests on a case that comes with its own power supply (so as not to drain the phone’s battery) and a wireless Bluetooth chip to connect to the smartphone.

A companion app lets users send information (or images) from the phone to the popSlate display.

 popSlate’s flexible E-Ink display
popSlate’s flexible E-Ink display
Myriam Joire/popSlate

The Indiegogo campaign validated the market for popSlate, but Behzadi quickly learned he had more hurdles to leap to get the product to market. One vendor wanted $1 million worth of orders before supplying needed components, he said. Others were looking to shift expenses to the small startup. Some needed to be convinced that a crowdfunding campaign signaled market demand.

“Bringing it to mass production required a little bit of hustle — Greg and I affectionately termed it the ‘charm campaign,’” said Behzadi. “We had to educate everybody, being first in class, with nothing to point to, that this is a space people are interested in.”

Behzadi and Moon raised additional money from friends and family to build a working prototype, which they brought to early-stage investors. Their concept received backing from hardware-focused investors, including Tandem Capital and Plug&Play Ventures in Silicon Valley.

With persistence, Behzadi and Moon also convinced manufacturers (and component suppliers) to agree to favorable terms. Manufacturing has started and the first iPhone 6 case will begin shipping to Indiegogo backers on April 21. The company also will begin accepting orders from its website.

“The thing that allowed us to persevere through this, and ultimately deliver to our backers, is two-fold,” said Moon. “Seeing positive reactions to the product, and knowing we are onto something that needed to be brought to market. That commitment, the promise that we made (to investors) kept us up at night. We didn’t want to be those guys that didn’t deliver on what we promised.”

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