Pebble’s story, from Kickstarter sensation to Fitbit acquisition


Pebble’s story, from Kickstarter sensation to Fitbit acquisition

Pebble has had a long, one might say rocky road. As one of the earliest and biggest crowdfunding successes, it showed the potential and perils of hardware startups that were increasingly having to scale from back-of-napkin idea to a global operation almost overnight. Its acquisition by Fitbit now official and word coming down that the company is done making products make for a bittersweet end to an unusually successful hardware startup story.

Here are the main beats from Pebble’s story, starting in 2012 with its launch on Kickstarter.


The original Pebble launches on Kickstarter

2012 wasn’t that long ago, but in tech terms it was another era entirely. Smartwatches were still unknown territory, particularly in the U.S., although Sony and others were attempting (largely unsuccessfully) to convince people that they needed one.

Pebble, launching on April 10, struck a chord with its bold design and choice of an e-paper screen, which made for far longer battery life and easy reading in bright daylight.

Within two hours it had hit its $100,000 goal, and a little more than a day after that it was at $1 million.

By the end of its funding period, it had raised $10,266,845 from over 85,000 backers — by far the most of any Kickstarter project ever.


Victory lap

Drunk with glory, InPulse (the company behind Pebble) founder Eric Migicovsky talked with TechCrunch and others about the company’s success.

“My thinking is: if you can succeed in making something people will wear every single day, you know you’re doing something right,” he told us at the time.

“There are definitely a couple of competitors in the market. I think that everyone is iterating, and we’re simply iterating faster than anyone else. We’ve got a pretty good manufacturing plan in place. We didn’t predict this in any way, but we have a plan in place for a large manufacturing run. We’ve already ordered components, and they’ll be ready for when we go into production.”


First setbacks

No plan survives contact with the supply chain, and the original ship date of September came and went with no Pebbles in the hands of backers.

The reality of testing, QCing and arranging other logistics for nearly 100,000 devices was catching up with Pebble’s small team. One representative update read:

“Our industrial designer was on the ground this week in Southern Taiwan overseeing final modifications (T4) to our plastic manufacturing process. As I mentioned in Update 21, we’re working our way through several test builds before Pebble enters Mass Production (MP)… The great news is that all the plastic components (including the most recent lens samples from T4) look, feel and work great. We’re sending the tools off for final texturing and polishing now.”

The not-so-great news was that Pebble was definitely not shipping before the holidays — which vexed backers to no end.


The Pebble finally ships

Better late than never. The Pebble finally started going out the door for most backers on January 23. Luckily, the iOS app was approved the day after, settling the fears of many a backer that they’d have a smartwatch with nothing to connect it to.

Migicovsky talked with TechCrunch at CES shortly before the shipping date about the troubles the company had encountered and how they’d addressed them. You can watch that interview here.


$15M cash infusion

Sensing a wearables trend on the horizon, Charles River Ventures led a $15 million funding round for Pebble, which Migicovsky said would “help us build out the Pebble development ecosystem and deliver on Pebble’s extraordinary potential.”

By now 70,000 of the original 85,000 orders had been filled.


Wider availability

Just weeks after the big cash infusion, Pebble announced availability at Best Buy plus news that its pre-order campaign had lined up an impressive 190,000 more buyers. Pebble was beginning to change from the scrappy startup to a “real” hardware company.


Migicovsky does Disrupt SF

Speaking at Disrupt SF, Pebble’s founder downplayed the company’s competition as well as suggestions of a follow-up device, although as you may remember, one was on the way.

Backstage, Migicovsky also said he was uninterested in being acquired, though he also noted that no offers had come in yet.


Pebble Steel debuts

Pebble’s next device went live for pre-orders at CES, where Migicovsky explained that really, it wasn’t a new new device, just an improved version of the old one; $100 more got you much-improved hardware, while the software was largely the same.

Having learned from past mistakes, Pebble shipped this one on time, less than a month after announcement. We reviewed it and found it a worthy upgrade, even if more serious competition was on the horizon.


Apple and Android clock in

2014 saw Pebble reduced to embattled incumbent as Android Wear made its debut. Early devices on the platform were of dubious quality, but the pressure was enough that Apple tipped its hand and revealed its own smartwatch ambitions.

Faced with serious competition, Pebble cut prices in September and shortly thereafter announced support for Android Wear apps. After all, if you can’t beat ’em…


It's Pebble Time

Pebble’s response to increased competition was the Pebble Time, which, in a surprise to many, stuck with e-paper, though a color version.

Color, a stainless steel bezel, a microphone for voice commands and other features made for an enticing (and refreshingly compact) device. So it’s no surprise that the Time hit its $500,000 Kickstarter goal in, as we put it at the time, “an absolutely preposterous seventeen minutes.”

Before the end of the day it hit $6.5 million, and at the end of its month-long period had a whopping $20,338,986, well more than enough to make it the most-funded ever.


It's Pebble Time… Steel

Why they waited a week to do it is anyone’s guess, but shortly after the Pebble Time blew through Kickstarter’s records, the Steel version appeared. Original backers weren’t left out in the cold, though, and could upgrade for a few extra bucks.


Time for trouble

Despite the wildly successful launch of the Pebble Time, rumors emerged in May of 2015 that the company was looking for $10 million to “stay afloat.”

As we would later find out, Pebble did manage to raise $28 million in debt and venture financing over the following months, but — as we would also later find out — it wouldn’t be enough.


Time is a flat circle

Shortly before Migicovsky took the stage again at Disrupt, Pebble announced the Time Round, ditching the square face but keeping the e-paper display.

“There isn’t going to be one smartwatch, one wearable, one form factor for everyone,” he said. “With this product, we try to look at people who don’t have a smartwatch on their wrist today.”

He again dodged the question of acquisition, though didn’t, as before, say he wasn’t interested.


Prices are cut again — along with 25 percent of the staff

Watches of various degrees of smartness continued to encroach on Pebble’s market and in March, several discounts were announced to the Time series.

Unfortunately, later that same month came the news that the company was cutting 25 percent of its workforce — about 40 people.

“We’ve definitely been careful this year as we plan our products… Money is pretty tight these days,” Migicovsky told Tech Insider at the time.


One last time

In what would turn out to be its final attempt at carving a permanent niche in the market, Pebble announced upgraded versions of the Time and original Pebble, along with the fitness-focused Core, the company’s first (and last) non-watch product.

We liked Pebble’s bet on simplicity, but it wouldn’t be long before it became clear that bet wasn’t going to pay off.


Time 2 die

A week after rumors broke that the company was being acquired, Pebble confirmed that it was selling to Fitbit for around $34-40 million. We were told that amount “barely” covered its debts. “Many” Pebble employees will join Fitbit, apparently to work on the company’s wearable software platforms.

Unshipped Pebble devices will remain unshipped (Time 2, we hardly knew ye) and backers will receive refunds. Pebble services will continue to work for now, but “functionality or service quality may be reduced in the future.”

Customers, understandably, are crying foul. We’ll be covering transition plans for the services and hardware (and the inevitable lawsuits) as they emerge.

Despite a sad ending, Pebble’s story is still an inspiring one. A handful of people with a good idea and some expertise made and sold millions of dollars worth of gadgets to a large and (mostly) supportive community. But the hardware game is a risky one and there are no guarantees in life, let alone on Kickstarter.