Hardware is so hot right now. So hot, in fact, that another European hardware startup is formulating an attack on the smartphone hardware space — joining the likes of Finland’s Jolla and Spain’s Geeksphone to have a go at handset making. The newest comer stepping in with a plan to shake up the “status quo” is called Kazam: a startup co-founded by a pair of former U.K. HTC execs, Michael Coombes and James Atkins.
Coombes, who spent just over a year and a half as a U.K. head of sales for HTC, according to his LinkedIn, is Kazam’s CEO. Prior to HTC he apparently worked for mobile and telecoms companies including Nokia and Vodafone. While Atkins, Kazam’s CMO, spent just over a year as HTC’s head of marketing for U.K./Ireland, and has previously worked in U.K. marketing roles for freesat, LG and Panasonic. The pair’s professional network is clearly tied tightly to the local market, hence, presumably, Kazam’s focus on Europe first.
“Kazam will focus on Europe at the outset,” Atkins tells TechCrunch via email, adding with some typical marketingspeak embellishment: “We are currently establishing a network of regional sales and marketing offices to ensure we deliver outstanding products and customer service.” The startup has a U.K. base in Mayfair, London.
Details of how exactly Kazam plans to assault the Samsung and Apple smartphone duopoly were not forthcoming when I asked. Atkins declined to answer the bulk of my questions — including such specifics as whether Kazam’s planned smartphones will run Android and be skinned with a custom UI or keep the experience familiarly stock. Instead, he trotted out a repeated PR mantra: “Today we are just announcing that the Kazam brand is here, for the rest you will have to wait and see.”
It’s notable that this startup has already engaged a PR company (Noire) — and talks about creating a mobile brand — even before having a great deal to talk about. Which does serve to underline how smartphones have become a game of who can shout the loudest. A game of brash tones (as I have previously described it).
What did Atkins say? Not a whole lot. He declined to reveal how much funding Kazam is backed by at this point, or whether it is currently looking to raise a round. He did at least confirm it has backers, and that those backers have links into Asian mobile manufacturing companies — which suggests it’s following Jolla’s manufacturing playbook.
“Kazam Mobile has been set up by a group of private equity investors, who have previously launched and operated successful mobile telecommunications companies and technology businesses. Some of their current investments include NF Technology Limited, an R&D company specialising in developing and customising mobile phone devices and tablets and Nichefinder (S’pore) PTE Limited, a proven technology procurement and supply company,” he told TechCrunch.
He also confirmed Kazam’s plan is to launch “a range of smartphones at different prices point/specs” later this year. Asked whether it will look at other types of mobile devices, such as tablets, he said only that its initial focus is on smartphones. He added that he and Coombes left their roles at HTC earlier this year “with the desire to build a new brand that really stands out in the mobile space”.
He also declined to be drawn on the differentiation question but in Kazam’s inaugural press release today Coombes said: “We believe your smartphone is a digital reflection of who you are, and since we are all different, it’s important that we don’t adopt a one size fits all approach. Kazam’s dynamic structure and focus on local markets means we can react quickly to the ever evolving and diverging needs of today’s consumer. We aim to provide quality smartphones that are accessible to everyone.”
The release also includes a statement from Atkins hinting that aftersales service might be how Kazam attempts to stand out in a crowded market: “There is a real opportunity for a new mobile brand to disrupt the status quo. We are passionate about delivering a truly positive mobile experience that doesn’t just stop once you’ve bought the phone. Kazam is about stunning design, robust hardware and intuitive technology, underpinned by outstanding customer service.”
Further details about exactly what kind of customer service opportunity Kazam reckons it has identified were not forthcoming.
The size of Kazam’s team at this point is just Atkins and Coombes — a few more if you count the hired help from their external PR company. But Atkins also said the startup has already “established an R&D centre”. Hopefully with some staff in it, but presumably no permanent headcount yet.
Should Kazam get off the ground with its grand status quo shaking plan it will need to significantly boost its body count — if only to staff the network of regional sales and marketing offices it is currently establishing. It will also need to make decent smartphone hardware — hardware that’s worth shouting about. Whether it will be able to deliver that is clearly something to file under “wait and see”.
Asked how a startup with inevitably bounded resources can succeed in such a fiercely competitive space — when veteran players such as HTC are having such a tough time standing out despite making cracking handsets like the HTC One — Atkins’ said only: “The mobile market whilst competitive, seems to have stagnated.”
Stagnation is one word for it. Saturation is another. Smartphone hardware and software has achieved a very high quality bar, with Android OEMs like Samsung pushing high-end features lower and lower down the price-point range to pull up the capabilities of mid- and even budget handsets. This has resulted in a surfeit of great phones, across a very broad spectrum of price-points. Which means precious little room for anyone new to elbow in. Or stand out.
So there are huge question marks over any startup entering such a fiercely competitive space, especially with so many better resourced former mobile giants continuing to struggle. Disruption often starts small but in a market so beholden to carriers, where the bulk of phones sales occur, it’s especially hard for an upstart to get traction. Carriers tend to be risk averse and have established distribution partnerships and (incentivised) relationships with the smartphone giants so have disincentives to push anything too new. Going it alone with online retail distribution is the alternative, but that route requires a sizeable marketing budget to even get noticed.
Creating handsets for an underserved niche may be one way to carve out a business, as Geeksphone has been. Securing carrier distribution agreements to carry your hardware is another strategy, as Jolla has with Finland’s DNA. For now, it’s unclear whether Kazam has any similar moves up its sleeve, but it will certainly be hoping it has enough local telco connections — and financial backing — to give it a regional chance of inching in. To say it has its work cut out to make any kind of impact is an understatement.