You might think that with all the new tools for available to makers and entrepreneurs, turning a bright idea into a product on store shelves would be really easy.
Cheap parts that can be FedExed anywhere, CAD (computer assisted design), 3D printing, crowdfunding, social media for marketing, and that whole Shark Tank, Silicon Valley, Consumer Electronics Show vortex that promises meritocratic success.
First off, we all know you can’t just throw up a Kickstarter and expect to be the next Coolest Cooler guy. Money talks, but sometimes it keeps stubbornly quiet.
In this story, the bright idea came two-and-a-half years ago. Mike Boren of Illinois noticed his brother was spending a lot of time driving his baby around to get him to sleep. Boren is a professional musician, music teacher and sound engineer. The engineer in him wanted to use technology to replicate the soothing effects of driving, so his brother wouldn’t have that inconvenience.
Boren found that driving round worked because it simulated the womb: there were white noise, intermittent sounds, pulsing and a low frequency rumble.
He looked into other white noise machines and saw they were missing the rumble or vibration associated with car travel. They were often tinny speakers with just the feeble buzz associated with cell phones.
Boren talked to Bryan Bourdeau, a faculty member in the Management and Entrepreneurship department at University of Southern Indiana. Who in turn brought the challenge to his older brother, Greg, a Portland-area branding professional and media producer.
Greg Bourdeau is a fairly typical Portland creative. He makes ads to pay the bills, and does some branding work, such as Microsoft Bing, Travelers Insurance and Cash & Carry. He also makes short documentaries about people’s passions, under the name oddeseyfilms.net. He works out of his house in Northwest.
He’s also a total Apple fan boi (his words). He bought two Apple watches when they came out because two was the upper limit. (The mirrored one and a gray one.) So having a hand in the making of a gadget was a dream come true. “I’m interested in how technology can change your life, not just in gadgets for gadgets’ sake,” he says.
Together, they came up with Lullafi, a speaker in a box, with three buttons and a rechargeable battery. It makes white noise, or plays lullabies. It can be remotely controlled by Bluetooth and can also be loaded with custom-made sounds. It puts out a strong vibration because it uses a high quality speaker, not just a cell phone vibrator. Some Gorilla tape and a bracket ensure it will stick to anything it’s meant to vibrate against.
Mike Boren spent 18 months testing parts and soldering them to circuit boards, while Bryan Bourdeau planned the business and researched the rules around baby products. They went for the highest level of baby safety.
Lullafi transmits sounds plus vibrations, replicating the sense of touch.
“Babies encounter a great deal of white noise in these environments, plus intermittent sound, low-frequency rumbles, and pulsing sensations. We designed Lullafi to produce the same effects,” says Boren.
The bass or vibration comes from it being a high quality speaker. It sticks on to anything it will vibrate against. They also claim it emits “delta waves” which are associated with deep sleep. They are recorded from an EKG and mixed into the sound.
“We wanted it to be a high quality product,” says Bourdeau. “We could have it made in China at the same quality and it would have been about 20 percent cheaper, but we want to keep jobs in America, and in Indiana and Kentucky there are several great manufacturing facilities.” He expects it to wholesale for $50, so it might cost $80 in stores.
Working for free in their spare time, they assessed their fixed costs. $80,000 for the mold. Lullafi is still at prototype sage. The version Greg Bordeau carries around and has lent to some Portland mothers has the dullness of 3D printing, not injection molding or Apple’s laser cutting. The buttons wobble. The USB port is a fraction of a millimeter out of line. It makes you realize how picky people are about the objects they let into their lives, let alone place in their newborn’s crib.
The sound effects (jungle, water, etc.) were created by Mike the sound engineer. There’s a possible revenue stream — way in the future — of being able to sell custom sound packages.
People make all sorts of spontaneous purchase on Amazon and iTunes, so why not? Plus aspirational baby spending will always be a market.
They hoped to raise $190,000 to get the product made and in the shops by the end of summer, but the Kickstarter has been a flop. As of May 14, with 12 days to go, it had raised just $2,630 from 35 backers.
The professor brother Bryan has “a tweeting relationship” with Marc Cuban at Shark Tank. And there’s also the celebrity angle. Don Mattingly, the manager of MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers, is also from Evansville and has a newborn and wants to try it out with a view to endorsement.
Bourdeau is a Kickstarter fan who loves to read the site and occasionally fund strangers. He’s paid his money and is due a Coolest Cooler some time this summer. He’s read all 26 e-mail updates on it.
“Kickstarters tend to start big then there’s a lull then they can end big,” says Bourdeau hopefully. The team had banked on the pixie dust of mommy blogs, social media and going viral amongst friends of friends. He admits what they really need is some attention from old media — such as the Business Tribune — to cut through the data smog. “We need some mainstream media,” he says. “It’s the traffic. We get great comments...” So they hired a publicity person. With the clock running down, this is their Hail Mary pass. A bit like driving the baby around the block.
If the Lullafi team don’t hit their $190,000 target there’s a chance they could cut costs and take a Mulligan with a lower number, although Bourdeau says there aren’t many costs to cut without producing a cheap-feeling product.
Marketing is hard. Great ideas can wither on the vine. And meanwhile, babies grow up.