Reporter with Silicon Hills News

pleoRefresh Austin presented two wildly different, compelling and entertaining perspectives on the process of designing and bringing a product to market Tuesday night at Capital Factory.
The first talk, Creative Extinction, was about a robotic dinosaur. Pleo was the brainchild of Caleb Chung, co-creator of Furby, which sold more than 40 million toys when it was released in 1998. The secret to Furby, Chung believed and market testing confirmed, was it evoked an emotional response in kids who played with it. They bonded with it. Chung wanted to create another toy with a soul that people would connect with.
So a group of people, working out of a Boise, Idaho garage—including Refresh Austin’s speaker Casey Hunt—created Pleo. Pleo was an adorable baby dinosaur. It wandered, sniffed, explored. If you lifted it by the tail it screamed and clawed the air with its little baby dinosaur legs. One day, in fact, Hunt was holding the dinosaur by the tail in a coffee shop and a woman rushed over, grabbed Pleo protectively into her arms and said “Stop! You’re hurting him!” Pleo would curl up on your shoulder and go to sleep.
Pleo had software, a battery pack so as not to create battery waste, and skin that was pliable and whose design was informed by a dinosaur skin expert.
“Basically we were designing by exploiting human emotion,” Hunt said. “People naturally want to project emotion and intention on everything. If you walk in a room and hit your foot on the table you say ‘That table’s a dick! It hit me in the foot!’ We do that with all kinds of stuff.”
So the Pleo designers worked on several toys, seeing how they could convey emotion. One was simply an eyeball on a stem. Could they convey emotion if the lid closed and the stem drooped? Would people register the sadness? With his animated tail and head and face Pleo was beguiling. So, what went wrong?

What Went Wrong

First of all, Pleo cost about $175 to make and had a sticker price of $350…in 2009.
It did sell, all over the world, but least successfully in the U.S. where. Essentially Hunt said, the team forgot what it was designing.
“The thing that really burns is where it went wrong was with the people who were there first…they forgot the magic. The CEO, he said, was obsessed with doing an IPO. The marketing department had Pleo tethered in a plastic bubble where none of his charms could be experienced. In Italy, they had done Pleo adoption days.
“Our marketing department had no idea what we were selling: An animal that was alive with desires unto its own.” (Hunt was educated as a playwright). Hunt’s direct supervisor allowed Pleo into a battlebot arena where a wedge-shaped black car destroyed the baby dinosaur, evoking screams from the children watching.
Plus, the team that actually built Pleo was operating happily out of a garage—Hunt had a desk made of a board on milk crates—while the parent company, Ugobe, had swanky offices in Emeryville, California. Many of the people at the headquarters had impressive resumes from Apple, Pixar, Lucasarts.
“Their contribution to that company was nothing, but they all thought each other were awesome. I don’t mean to sound bitter but that was really hard for someone sitting at a door desk in Boise.”
People from the headquarters were flying all around the world setting up distribution agreements that actually had them losing money.
“We were operating like a cash positive company when in fact we were cash negative for all but one month. At one point were losing money per unit. How do you do that?”
By the time it became clear to the board of directors what was happening and they dismissed the CEO, it was too late. The CFO who stepped in was unequipped to save the business…if it could be saved. Pleo was sold to the Chinese company who had been manufacturing him.
“They promised they would keep the spirit of Pleo alive,” Hunt said, showing a picture of Pleo as they designed him. “Look, he’s happy. He could be dancing. The emotion is there. His color seems normal, in nature, you could believe maybe there was a dinosaur somewhere that looked like that.”
pleo-wtfThen he switched to a shot of a droopy, blue Pleo.
“What the f… is that? It’s cotton candy with legs. Look at his eyes; they’re dead inside.”
At least, he said, Pleo still exists. So many startups flame out with no evidence they were ever there.

Building a Tool for Eric Cole

The second speaker was Adrian Taylor, founder of Pushstart Creative, who explained how the company used the same design process it employs with clients to create its own product Desk Rail.
The problem, Taylor said, is that “the workspace of a modern designer lives at the intersection of analog and digital creative tools. Like any product it started with ‘Wait, this could be better. Is there something better out there? Our desk areas often become cluttered and inefficient. Artists require flexibility in their creative process and layout of workspace.”
He stopped himself and quipped “I know I sound like I’m oppressed by bad desk accessories.”
So Pushstart started in on its process which begins with four questions:

  1. Does this product satisfy a real end-user need or desire
  2. Does it enable an experience or outcome greater than the required input? In other words, does it really make people’s lives easier?
  3. Does it have the potential to generate profit?
  4. Does it support the broader company goals and brand promise

In the initial phases of answering these questions, the company looks to see if there’s already a solution out there. It also explores 20 other ways to solve the problem besides the one the client suggests—which can leave a client, in love with its idea, disgruntled.
“But there might be an even cooler way to solve the problem,” Taylor points out.
Once it’s settled on a solution it thinks is best, it does initial validation with friends or Google search. If that turns up positively, it does deep dive research.
It creates a persona and looks at every website and product that might lure that persona. In Pushstart’s case, it was Eric Cole, a good-looking, 30ish designer with rectangular glasses and a scruffle.
“We were looking at sites Eric would visit,” Taylor said. “We’d see how he’s being talked to by other brands, read reviews on Amazon about other desk holders….What does Eric aspire to have on his desk? Not what does he have but what does he aspire to have? Eric would lust after moleskin, Ray Ban frames….”
Plus they looked at analogous products, people working on similar products who weren’t their competitors: People who make cool storage solutions for tools or cooking utensils.
They created a rough prototype that they used for a year, changing the angle, of V that gripped the supplies, getting just the right springback, finding the finish that would go with Eric’s iPhone. They showed it to many designers, even put a picture of the not-yet finished product online to see how the market would respond. Some people wanted to buy it immediately. Others said “This is just all the stuff that’s laying flat on my desk now, standing up.”
“A lot of people are so scared of showing their work,” Taylor said. They go into the laboratory and build something in secret and come out with “Look what I have created! And it’s wrong, wrong, wrong.”
They used an overseas prototype which cost a third of what a U.S. company would have.
“If you care deeply about your I.P., it’s something that can be stolen, this is not a good idea,” Taylor said. “But I don’t even think they knew what this was.”
He wanted to go with an American company, he said. But the hitch wasn’t price, it was service. It was tough to get an American company to even respond to calls and emails.
Eventually, they did a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $24,000 which Taylor saw as another positive piece of market validation.
The important thing, Taylor said, is to get over being in love with your own ideas and hiding your product until you think it’s perfect. It’s also important not to make too big a deal about the fact that the prototype you show people isn’t the finished product because they tend to treat feedback with less gravity. “Oh, it’s just the prototype. Okay, it’s fine.”
More than 125 people stayed for the two presentations Tuesday night
at Capital Factory.