Engineers and entrepreneurs looking for some bright ideas to take their hardware innovations to the next level may find a model for success in Nanoleaf.
The company’s three founders — engineers by background — not only rethought conventional lighting, but launched a business operation that would make its leading-edge products available to consumers throughout the world.
Jaycon reached out to Nanoleaf’s Canada-based team with the goal of providing insight into the many stages of the startup process, especially for innovators who are focused on manufacturing a potential product.
In the following interview, CEO Gimmy Chu highlights some of the milestones, hurdles and guiding principles that contributed to Nanoleaf’s progress.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Nanoleaf?
A: It was all kind of serendipitous and spontaneous. Nanoleaf was actually born from another product we were creating. I met Nanoleaf’s two other co-founders, Christian Yan and Tom Rodinger, on the University of Toronto’s solar car team. We briefly parted ways after graduation to pursue different career paths, but came back together again in 2012 to create a solar product. We needed an ultra-efficient light to pair it with but couldn’t find anything that matched the efficiency we wanted. So we decided to just make it ourselves. We ended up creating the most energy efficient lightbulb in the world, and it still holds this title today.
Our products have evolved from that energy efficient lightbulb to smarter lighting that people can fully customize to fit into their lives. Since the Nanoleaf Aurora launched in October of last year, we’ve been getting hundreds of social shares each week of different Aurora setups. Everyone’s been extremely excited to share what they’ve created, and it’s truly been fantastic to see how creative everyone gets with their Auroras.
Q: Would you briefly walk us through a simplified journey of your product creation?
A: We only want to create products that help to solve a problem or provide a service that doesn’t yet exist with other products on the market. If someone is already doing something, we don’t want to be doing the same thing unless we can take it to the next level. With that in mind, our product creation process begins with brainstorming pain points that someone might have in their daily life; something they may want that can improve their current way of life. Once we have a solid idea, we will do mock-ups of concepts and collect feedback data from our consumers and supporters before we dive into prototyping. We have a dedicated list of beta testers who are fantastic about helping us improve our products. Once we’ve gotten all the feedback we need and make the necessary improvements, that product is ready for mass production and rolling out into stores.
Q: Can you name and describe some of your company’s major accomplishments or notable milestones?
A: Nanoleaf is going into its fifth year now, and looking back I’m still amazed at the things we’ve managed to accomplish in such a short period of time.
2013: Our first Kickstarter Campaign
We had hoped to raise $10,000 to help us create a small batch of lightbulbs and fund our R&D efforts. It turned into a huge success raising more than $270,000, which led to Nanoleaf gaining investors and becoming established as a company.
2016: Getting into Best Buy
The first time our products reached the shelves of a major retail giant waswith our first smart lighting product, the Nanoleaf Ivy Smarter Kit. That was also the moment we realized we were doing something right — something that truly resonated with people.
2017: Aurora launch in MoMA and Apple Stores
We were thrilled to get into the MoMA Design Stores in New York, and later Tokyo. Seeing our Aurora panels in the large window displays of the MoMA Design Store and then selling out in just one week was unreal. The Aurora is also on the shelves of Best Buy and Apple stores all over the world.
Each entry into these retailers has been an incredible milestone. They are huge achievements for our team and together they serve as a reminder that we’re now playing in the big leagues.
Q: What is the next step for Nanoleaf?
A: We have two major product releases this year.
First is the Aurora Rhythm, our new music visualizer which transforms audio into dynamic animations. The Aurora Rhythm is a small module with a built-in microphone that plugs into the Aurora like the controller does. We’ll release new effects to the app that let people experience music in a whole new way. I’m the type of person who has music on all the time when I’m at home, and the Aurora Rhythm will be a whole new visual experience. It’s like music for your eyes.
The second product we’re releasing is the Nanoleaf Remote. With smart lighting, especially something like the Aurora, your traditional light switch no longer makes sense. In your smart home, you’ll want to tap into more personalized options like color, brightness and animated scenes. The Nanoleaf Remote is a wireless remote unlike anything else available today. It has our signature dodecahedron shape. Switching or rotating the die will automatically change scenes and brightness. All of this is fully configurable through an app.
These products are all about continuing the experience the Aurora has created. We see them as new ways for creating your personal smart home.
Q: What would you say were your company’s most difficult hurdles?
A: In the life of a startup, there are new hurdles every day. I think the biggest and most difficult hurdle is coming up with new ideas that are fresh and truly innovative. Our philosophy is that we should always be doing something different. We should work together to really push the boundaries of technology and introduce new ideas to make the world better, not just recycle the same things.
Another hurdle we’ve had to overcome is finding the balance between maintaining our sustainable roots and scaling our growth. We’ve always positioned ourselves as a “green”company because it’s what we stand for. But we realized that being green doesn’t have to mean shouting it out to the world at the top of our lungs. People weren’t really responding to that approach. Now, instead of using our energy to tell people we’re green, we’re more focused on creating beautiful products that inject some joy into everyday life — products that also happen to be incredibly sustainable. I think that’s a much stronger statement that resonates with our supporters.
Q: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are in the early stages of product ideation or design?
A: My advice is to approach every opportunity with blissful optimism. The journey of building a product is a long and hard one, but it’s the people with blissful optimism that are able to get through each hurdle along the way. If I knew how difficult our journey was going to be when I first started, I probably would have stuck with my day job. Because we had no idea what to expect, we were able to get to where we are today by taking on each challenge as it came our way. When I talk to my team, I often say that there are a million ways we could possibly fail. But there is one way we can succeed, and we just need to find that one way.
Q: How did you choose your manufacturing partner, and what do you think are the top three things startups should look for in a manufacturing partner?
A: Luckily for us, one of our founding partners ran a factory in his previous life, so we were a few steps ahead when we first started Nanoleaf. Our manufacturing partner took a chance on us when we were still making our first products, and we were quite fortunate to have that opportunity. We had tried out a few different partners beforehand and had major setbacks — mostly around quality.
In choosing a manufacturing partner, you first need to find one that has experience building similar technology. Second, you want one with the right quality control processes. Making a product is similar to cooking: you need to start with the best ingredients in order to make sure the final product is great. Most importantly, you want to find a manufacturer that you can trust — both technically and financially. Manufacturing often happens overseas, so having a partner that you can trust in delivering your product is the most critical aspect. As your business grows, your manufacturing partner will share in that growth. Things like cash flow, production issues, inventory and logistics all become intertwined.
Make sure you build the relationship into a trusting one because it’s one of the most important business relationships you’ll need to be successful.
Q: How important would you say your entire team is to the creation of products, including external partners such as investors, manufacturers, and mentors?
A: The creation of all of our products is a team effort and we are very fortunate to have an exceptionally talented team. We’re quite picky about who joins our team, but we’re incredibly lucky to have a team of creative, passionate and incredibly intelligent people. Without investors, we wouldn’t have the funds to achieve our dreams, but without our team, we wouldn’t have the dream to begin with. When it comes to external partners, every partner has a role to play, and when we all come together, great things happen.
To find out more about Nanoleaf, visit www.nanoleaf.me/en/our-story/.
Jaycon Systems specializes in bringing products to life by offering a complete service line that takes product concepts — like Nanoleaf’s — to mass production.
Our offerings range from product and electronics design to prototyping and manufacturing. We apply our knowledge of technology to most markets, among them consumer electronics, computer hardware, marketing/multimedia, and environment. With our entrepreneurial spirit and as a rapid-prototyping firm, we believe in building products right the first time and introducing them quickly to market. For more, visit jayconsystems.com