Feeling Captured @ Podo
I love everything about San Francisco. From Bernal Height’s chilly air, frosted by the morning fog, to the Mission District’s aromatic air, infused with bags of hipster coffee beans, the city offers everything I love.
In the middle of this hipster coffee neighborhood, there is a hard-working hardware incubator that is named after one of the most beautiful roads in the world, Pacific Coast Highway 1.
Among the many impressive startups incubated by Highway1, Podo, a startup that makes a GoPro-like portable camera for casual photography, captured my attention.
Podo is a small, app-controlled camera that sticks on nearly any surface with a reusable, micro-suction pad. The company says using Podo means, “what you capture is up to your imagination, and not the length of your arm.”
Thanks to Eddie, one of the co-founders and President at Podo, I had the opportunity to visit Highway1 to hear about team Podo’s road trip story.
Q1. How Did Podo Get Started? How Did You End Up Here at Highway1?
Three co-founders, Jae Choi, Sam Pullman and I, all graduated from UC Berkeley. We first entered the startup scene through Plug and Play, a startup incubator based in Sunnyvale.
Plug and Play accepted us as a team, but with the “strong suggestion’ (with hints of ultimatum) that we change our business idea upon acceptance. So we had a series of startup idea meetings to figure out what we were gonna do. During one of the meetings, I got a Snapchat from one of my friends, and while I wanted to reply immediately, I couldn’t really take an awkward selfie at the meeting. The meeting went nowhere but we discussed the idea of a separate camera on the drive home; the world’s first stick-and-shoot camera.
People around us loved the idea, especially our peers at Plug and Play, and everything quickly started to take shape. It was quickly apparent that hardware would be a different beast entirely form a software startup, so we were looking for help. We were fortunate enough to meet Brady from Highway1, who believed in our idea and introduced us to Highway1's incubator program. We applied earlier this year and got in last March. The program lasted about 3 months, including a trip to visit factories in China and a large Demo Day filled with press and industry leaders. Highway1 and its parent company, PCH, are powerful players in the hardware space, and it’s given us everything we need to reliably produce a quality product at scale.
Q2. What Do You Like about Being an Entrepreneur? — You Mentioned You Were Thinking of Going to a Law School at Some Point.
You can never stop thinking about work. [laughter] The co-founders, Jae, Sam and I all live together, so even in our downtime we will start talking and thinking about Podo at any moment. But at the same time if I needed a break, I could go to the gym anytime or drive down to Los Angeles to see my friends.
“But still, there is never a moment when you can turn off the thoughts about startup.”
I’m glad that we are working on a project that we are really passionate about. Otherwise, it would not be as fun and enjoyable as it is now.
Q3. What Is the Most Important Thing That You’ve Learned Since the Inception of Your Startup?
Everything. We are learning everything everyday. I would be cautious, though, claiming we’ve learned this lesson or that with any hint of finality. Our story is still being written. Knowledge changes rapidly in this world, and it’s dangerous and sub-optimal to rest on assumptions.
If still you were to make me choose, the biggest hurdle we encountered was actually starting; and in the process of starting, I’d say that there is nothing more important than your team.
Anyone can talk about how they are going to start this thing and work on this thing, but actually incorporating the company, building prototypes and nailing down the manufacturing process are not things you can do alone. There is an enormous amount of emotional stress that’s impossible to carry alone. You need to devote yourself to something bigger than just yourself.
“So I believe that team building is the most important factor when it comes to startups.”
Luckily, we are all very close friends and aligned in goals and values. We also happen to complement each other’s skills perfectly with our different backgrounds. Jae has been instrumental in raising money and executing key business deals, and Sam has led product architecture from the beginning — hardware, firmware, app, web, everything. They say it takes a certain measure of luck to succeed, and we hit lucky sevens when it counted most.
I think living together as co-founders is very important, actually. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary or appropriate always, but it definitely speeds up communication and you can always reach the appropriate person to address the bottleneck of the hour. You simply get more comfortable with each other and build more trust. Of course we were already a good match to begin with, so this is more of an anecdote than a suggestion.
Q4. What Is That One Thing That Surprised You the Most So Far?
How hard it is to start a hardware startup, especially handling the manufacturing with factories in China. There is a language barrier, for sure. Even with emails and Skype calls, the fact that we are working with them remotely significantly affects the directness and quality of communication. That’s why Sam and I are actually visiting China in person soon.
It’s also surreal to think about the scale of these operations in the factories. I thought that most processes were automated and efficient, but I was surprised during our visit. There is a lot of human labor involved. There is one person putting the stickers on all day, while there is another person folding the packages all day. Actually, there are just lots of people in general.
“It’s surreal to think about how hardware is actually manufactured in China from where we are in San Francisco.”
Designing the assembly process is also challenging because you have to achieve efficiency in the larger context of doing the right thing. For example, a certain paint color or type of plastic might involve toxic chemicals that could harm workers. Part of the benefit of working with a company like PCH is that they understand that at the end of the day, companies are about people, and have the knowledge and experience to help us make the right decisions.
Q5. What Makes Podo Unique from Other Competitors?
I like that Podo is very consumer-oriented. I like the idea of people being happy and enjoying their lives more. Pictures and videos are powerful ways people can feel connected and involved with each other, and I hope that Podo can make it easier and more fun to do just that. We don’t define how people should do it — we want to make a powerful, flexible tool that people can use for whatever they want. The fact that Podo can bring joy to all people is what I like the most.
I think we are very different from GoPro. When we first purchased one to test, we were very disappointed by how user-unfriendly it was. The package was a mess, the camera itself was ugly, and it required a discrete SD card that was not included and barely mentioned on the box. We couldn’t use it until we went back to the store. Not to mention that if we wanted to use it for all these creative angles, we needed to buy and carry all sorts of expensive, plastic mounts. We quickly learned that GoPro is not just for anybody. Which is fine, because it’s quite successful at meeting the needs of athletes and the extreme action crowd. But for average guys who take fun videos of random hangouts and non-extreme weekend excursions, well, let’s just say our GoPro stays in it’s box. As average consumers ourselves, we wanted Podo to be super useful and fun for anybody, and hardly more effort than just using a phone.
“With its bright colors, casual design and intuitive integration with a smartphone, our brand stands for fun and casual photography.”
We’d like to thank everybody who’s helped us throughout the process, as well as our friends at Plug and Play and Highway1.
After listening to his entrepreneurial story, seeing the Podo team 3D-printing prototypes to finalize the design, and imagining all the cool creative photographs I could take with a Podo, I was convinced that Podo is going to bring something stellar to make creative photography for everyone. Podo certainly managed to capture a pre-order from me. I’d like to thank Eddie again for sharing his story and showing me around Highway1.