- Doppler Labs, a startup with $US50 million in funding, is shutting down.
- Doppler’s flagship product was the Here One, a pair of super-smart earbuds that competed with the Apple AirPods. However, they were a sales flop, with some design defects leading to negative reviews.
- Company execs say that the spirit of Doppler lives on in products like Google’s Pixel Buds, and the era of “hearable” computing is still on its way.
- The execs believe that it’s still possible for startups to compete with the tech giants, it’s just hard work and takes a lot of cash.
Doppler Labs — the startup behind the Here One earbuds, a super-smart alternative to Apple’s AirPods — is no more. It informed customers on Wednesday that it’s in the process of shutting down.
When Business Insider reviewed the Here One, we wrote that they were “the wildest pair of headphones I’ve used.” The Here One came with a companion app that let you tune the earbuds so they could do things like drown out aeroplane noise while allowing you to still hear the person next to you, or amplify the bass at a concert, as well various other neat tricks.
Despite this nifty technology, and $US50 million in venture funding, the Here One was a sales flop. In a candid profile, Doppler told Wired that Here One only sold 25,000 units, well below the hundred thousand-plus it expected. As a result, investors were unwilling to put more money into the company, and couldn’t find a reasonable buyer.
And so, the company decided to use the last of its cash to pay employees what they were owed, and gracefully shut down. As a farewell gift, Doppler released a long-promised app that lets the Here One act as an app-assisted hearing aid, fulfilling one of the company’s big ambitions for its products.
I spoke to Doppler Labs founder Noah Kraft, CEO Brian Hall, and VP of Advocacy & Accessibility KR Liu about what went wrong, the legacy the company hopes it leaves behind, and whether or not it’s possible for a startup to compete with the Apples and Amazons of the world.
“There’s some bittersweet irony” in seeing Google promote the Pixel Buds, its new wireless headphones, says Kraft.
The headlining feature of the Pixel Buds is real-time translation, like something out of “Star Trek.” Doppler Labs had made great strides building a similar feature for its own headphones. Indeed, when Google first revealed the Pixel Buds back in September, it used a very similar image as Doppler’s own Here One marketing.
Really @Google?! See @hereplusme (launched 1+ year ago) vs. Google Pixel Buds announced this week. I guess “don’t be evil” ≠ “don’t copy”? pic.twitter.com/fL8TjCagi3
— Fritz Lanman (@Fritzanity) October 6, 2017
“It’s almost theatre of the absurd,” says Kraft.
And yet, it also means that the market that Doppler Labs was trying to create will live on. In a farewell LinkedIn post, Liu wrote: “I know our legacy will live on through the products that will follow from other companies and the movement we helped spur.”
Liu says that the market for hearable computers will eventually come to fruition, as Google, Apple, and others invest in smarter headphones. Still, she says, Doppler should be remembered by history as an innovator, and one of the original inventors in the space.
“My hope is that what Doppler has created doesn’t die,” says Liu.
What went wrong
In that Wired profile, Kraft places the blame squarely on the fact that Doppler was in the hardware business — a cutthroat market that requires massive amounts of capital to get started, and pits you against the likes of Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon. Companies like Jawbone, Pebble, and now, Doppler Labs, have all folded under that pressure.
“I wouldn’t advise anyone at this stage to start a hardware business,” Kraft tells Business Insider.
And yet, Doppler Labs CEO Brian Hall says that it’s not as impossible as it may sound to build a stable hardware business. A big reason the Here One didn’t sell is because a design flaw gave it lower-than-expected battery life, plus an issue where the charging case didn’t work quite right. It meant early word-of-mouth was worse than hoped for.
But Hall, formerly an executive on the Microsoft Surface hardware team, says that even hardware from the big guys has flaws — the first Microsoft Surface RT tablet was a famous flop, after all. The difference is that Microsoft could afford to pick itself up off the floor and find a fix, while Doppler had an extremely limited cash supply.
If Doppler’s Here One had hit that hundred-thousand sales mark, says Hall, the company could have gotten more cash. The cash would have gone into making the follow-up Here Two more usable as a hearing aid and translator, which Hall believes would have differentiated the product even further from Apple’s AirPods or Google Pixel Buds.
“I’m a firm believer that we would have made a business,” says Hall. “I will go into my grave believing we could have done it.”
Kraft agrees, with a caveat: “It would have put me in an earlier grave,” he says.
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