A Lay Of The Land
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
I'll start by providing a lay of the land to ensure we're all on the same page.
I have had this idea lingering for more than five years, in fact, maybe closer to ten. To me, bike theft is such an evident problem, and we have watched it worsen for years while bikes have become more and more valuable!
“If our phones have a GPS chips in them, then why don’t our bikes, let alone our cars!” That was my mentality and what has led me down this path.
A couple years ago, a friend of mine (that happens to be one of the most relevant athletes in MTB over the last decade) had his truck stolen. It was a new Tacoma that was targeted and stolen right off his driveway overnight. The fact that Thomas’ truck didn’t have any GPS or internet connectivity boggled my mind, and still does to this day. Yes, now Tesla has integrated GPS and is beyond SMART, but as a consumer i'd expect more than only Elon Musk to offer this - I’m talking about mobile app connectivity, not simply GPS navigation.
Can you see your cars location on your phone/computer? How about your bike?
My bike has been stolen before, and I have felt the emotion that comes alongside that cruel act. Albeit I was young and Ronny (#1 Dad) had bought me the bike, but my bike was absolutely everything to me, so it hurt just the same.
Fast-forward a couple decades (literally), and I have witnessed countless bike thefts that have left people high and dry. There have even been times where the authorities have caught the thief but the owner can’t provide proof of ownership - at that point, it’s word vs word and legally, no one wins. In this case actually, the thief wins! They didn’t keep the bike, but they can snag another one tomorrow and learn from their mistakes.
Enough about the problem, let's move on to the HOW, WHAT, and WHY.
The concept is relatively basic, let me run you through the (physical) user experience: the user inserts a device into their bike, downloads the snik mobile app, and then uses the app to virtually ‘lock’ their bike. When a bike is ‘locked’ and it moves, the user is notified and can leverage a map to connect and collaborate with the immediate community.
There are four major elements to this unique product:
Hardware - The electronics at the inner core of the product, including: GPS module, bluetooth receiver, microcontroller, accelerometer, etc. The battery also lives in Hardware although recent battery learnings suggest they should be treated separately!
Firmware - The microcontroller and other elements of the Hardware need to be programmed to be able to speak to the Software. This is not to be confused with software development, which people tend to bundle together - programming hardware requires a different skillset (language), and it’s quite hard to come across a person that can do both.
Mechanical - Now that we have a PCB design, populated with all our electronics that have been programmed, we need an enclosure to hold it all together. The current mechanical design of the snik enclosure (injection molding) has become increasingly sophisticated.
Software - Believe it or not, the software is actually the ‘easy’ part. Very advanced Software developers are relatively readily available, at least compared to the equivalent on the Hardware side of things: ideally an overseas factory. I have worked with more than a handful of great software developers in my career, I can not say the same thing about hardware. The challenge has never been finding extremely talented devs, the challenge is coming up with the concept and functionality, and then executing.
'So dude, Where are you at?!'
I just scrolled up to a page and a half, and I haven't begun speaking about product development yet, cool. That’s okay, if I still have you, you’re genuinely interested and that fires me UP!
As a result of some unfortunate circumstances, I began the year being laid off. It wasn’t all bad though, I was able to build lasting relationships and had the honour of working within an extremely powerful and established executive team at a company led by one of Canada’s most prominent entrepreneurs, Lane Merrifield. I mention this because Lane has helped ‘steer the ship’ along the way and without his guidance my I would hit a LOT more speed bumps...but hey, I do love hitting speed bumps!
It’s January and at this point, I have a GPS-enabled chip that I have sourced from overseas - my thinking was that if i could get a pre-existing chip and just shove it into a plastic case, we’re set! Wrong. Very wrong. My opinion at the time: fuckin rights, this thing fits in my bike, let’s move on to the plastic case!
Scott. I connected with Scott online using a freelance site, Upwork.com - highly recommend! I posted a ‘job description’ that outlined what I was looking for and he was one of the (many) applicants. He liked biking, he was Canadian (Halifax, NS!) and he had some very applicable experience - Scott and I were destined to connect.
Right out of the gate, Scott brought the heat - I had concept drawings within days and we were on our way already.
This fired me up and I was excited to send him the chip to get a better feel for it, and eventually try to put it inside of the enclosure - Scott has his own compact 3D printer.
The chip arrived in Nova Scotia and although I had done a few baseline functionality tests, I had yet to plug it in. Scott plugged this thing in and it began to smoke profusely - this was my first exposure to cheap overseas manufacturing, a trap that I've come to learn many entrepreneurs fall into.
Not only was the battery complete garbage, the signal was useless and there were countless other things wrong with this ‘off the shelf’ solution from Shenzhen, China.
Needless to say, that speed bump hit HARD. But at this point I am beginning to understand and relate to credible founders that have explained entrepreneurship as problem solving - there are WAY more hurdles that come your way than you expected, learn to absorb, digest, conquer, and learn from each one.
From there, I quickly realized that I was going to have to design my own custom circuit board (blog post to come) to suit the needs of my project - that is no easy undertaking, by any means. I figured Scott could continue to work on the Mechanical enclosure while I try to source an electronics engineer to begin from scratch on the Hardware.
In my (extensive) research, trying to grasp even the core roots of this foreign thing called Hardware, I came across a podcast by John Teel. I spend a lot of time digging bike trails - this year I have been doing it with an Airpod in one ear, listening to all things Hardware. As much as I get chirped by the bros for being the loser ‘plugged in’ on the trails, it’s been super valuable to get up-to-speed quickly.
In the podcast, John Teel spoke extremely intelligently about (Hardware) product design and the many steps to take a concept to market. He dove into overseas manufacturing, vetting factories, costing/pricing strategies, IP protection and many more of the topics I knew little about. By the time the podcast was over, I knew I had to connect directly with John Teel. I had to get this guy on the phone. The next day, we were in-touch - bless the digital age.
John founded the Hardware Academy after 10+ years working as a senior designer at Texas Instruments. It’s an online community the hardware professionals can join for $80/month to gain access to an expert panel of admins. And when they say expert, they mean cream of the crop - for example: you almost certainly own several products with microchips inside, that contain John's personal chip designs.
Fast-forward to today and I am extremely excited to say that John is on the Board of Advisors at snik and is an incredibly valuable ongoing consultant.
After first joining the Hardware Academy, I posted on the forum about my product outlining the journey that has led me to the forum. I had some outstanding insight and advice from a variety of experienced professionals. One individual was particularly interested in the concept and had just recently taken a GPS product to market.
Elliot. After a few back-and-forths on the forum, Elliot and I connected privately. He was fascinated by the idea and understood the magnitude of the problem - living in Toronto, there is no shortage of bike theft! Emails progressed to video calls and before you knew it we were talking about a partnership - Elliot owns a 20+ year old software company that frequently works with clients that request hardware development. The combination of his expertise and recent GPS experience brings tremendous value to the table and will fast track the process (hardware and software dev) ten-fold, and that’s maybe not an exaggeration…
Meanwhile on the mechanical design, we now have several printed prototypes of the enclosure that I had been testing in my bike, along with my friends’ bikes. It worked great in a MTB and I was excited about that, but not so much in a road/commuter bike and that was a major issue - the ‘everyday commuter’ and ‘avid roadie’ are two of my target personas that I need to cater to 100%. With this design, there were enough unforeseen obstacles that would prohibit a cyclist from using snik.
And at that moment, it was back to the drawing board.
NEXT WEEK on snikFM...
The Integrated TOP Design
These are the major barriers that forced me back to the drawing board:
‘U’ brakes use the steerer tube as a mounting point
On road bikes and commuters, fenders are mounted in the steerer tube
Carbon road bikes don’t have a hole in the bottom of steerer
Mountain bikes have tapered steerer tubes - design requires additional piece/mold
The GPS antenna was facing downwards, presenting signal challenges.