The story of how we bootstrapped the Pirl Charger
We have spent two years developing the Pirl Charger. Here is our story. It is best read with images turned on in the email.
Idea is born
Moran and I met in 2015, online. I was looking for a 3D modeler on Dribbble for an idea I had. It was smart battery that needed high quality charging circuits. When we tested off-the-shelf USB chargers, and we got very frustrated with the low quality. Most chargers simply don't deliver what they claim. Others are dangerous. Since most people don't know this, the market is flooded with chargers you shouldn't be plugging your devices into. There are YouTube channels, blogs and even a Canadian Government site warning you of bad chargers.
The only way to get what we wanted was to build it, and in October 2016, we placed the battery project on hold and started working on the charger. Our goal was simple: to build the best charger possible. It had to be beautiful, electrically superior to anything on the market, mechanically robust, and be flexible to use with different input sources.
Here is one of the first renders Moran did.
We have no external funding. We are 100% bootstrapped. I sold my condo on the East Coast, Moran cashed out his retirement savings and we've relied on credit cards ever since. We could never do this in our twenties when we had no assets. Kickstarter is our first source of external funding. While bootstrapping is stressful, we relish the independence to focus on what we want.
By March 2017, we had the first single chargers ready. Engineering was fairly trouble free from the time the single chargers were complete to the 3D-printed case prototypes below.
Engineering and supplier challenges
In October 2017, we sent the prototypes to Jim for testing. Jim is the third member of our team and he has a nice, large lab. It'd taken us a year from development to prototype, which is not too bad for hardware. I started planning for a late January/early February Kickstarter launch, but the next series of setbacks would delay that by 8 months.
We had to rearrange the parts and re-trace the circuit a few times until we weeded out the issues found in the testing phase.
We also faced our fair share of supplier challenges for the aluminum plates and FR4 middle layers. We lost significant time due to out-of-spec parts from suppliers that we simply couldn't use and it took two months to receive replacement parts in one case and a refund in the other. In another case, our contact went on an extended holiday, and no one else there would respond to us.
By December 2017, we had finished the production-ready prototype and we were now ready to work on marketing. So we set up our landing page, and in January 2018, I went to CES in Las Vegas. My proudest moment was out-hacking the former Uber CEO, whose post on how to hack CES is legendary. I spent only $154, which has to be among the lowest anyone has spent over seven days in Vegas. I stayed with a friend, packed my lunches, walked for miles, and got free entrance tickets from someone I'd never met before. I could write a long post on examples of the scrappiness of the Pirl team.
We handmade several units and started sending to reviewers. Our strategy was to send as many units to YouTube reviewers to drive traffic to our landing page and get technical feedback. A couple of reviewers went silent after receiving the prototypes, which was disappointing, but thankfully we received 15 videos with over 80K views. I reached out to 154 reviewers in all via email and Patreon. I ran into Shannon Morse at Maker Faire 2018 in San Mateo and gave her a prototype, which she was happy to review (start at 16:14 if it doesn't automatically start there).
In April 2018, we worked with Houston-based MacroFab to manufacture a pilot batch. We wanted to test the ease of manufacturing the charger (Design For Manufacturing or DFM in technical parlance) and be absolutely confident that we could deliver before we launched. The boards we received were excellent, and we were now ready to launch. There are so many failed hardware Kickstarter projects that wanted to de-risk the process before taking orders.
That was an interesting experience shooting the video. We shot half of it ourselves and worked with a videographer for the rest. The first videographer ran off with our deposit, and the second one lived an hour and a half away and needed two takes to get us usable footage.
We were incredibly nervous the week before launch. We had no press releases lined up after reaching out to over a hundred news outlets. We only had this newsletter, BackerKit's newsletter, and friends and family.
We didn't sleep much and the video was ready about 30 minutes before, but at 12:03 AM on June 7th, we hit the launch button. We sent emails and waited. Elrico (username) was our first backer - thank you Elrico - and 9 hours later, we were fully funded. The first pledge was exhilarating. Those 9 hours rank high among our most thrilling life experiences. A few days later, Kickstarter tagged us with "Project We Love", a rare honor for a hardware project.
So that's how we got here.
In the meantime, you can catch Moran and me next Tuesday, July 3rd, at 6 pm PST for our weekly live stream where we take your questions, show demos and do fun tests. We still have 10 more days, but what a journey it has been. Truly, thank you to all our backers.
From: Kobby, Moran, and Jim.
FAQ on USB-C and USB-PD.
One question we get often is why not incorporate USB-C and USB-PD. Now that we've hit our funding goal, we can more confidently say that yes, future Pirl products would have them.
Most people didn't know our founding story, and that merely 20 days ago we had no idea anyone would buy our product. As a new company, our price point would have been higher and development time even longer higher if we had different USB technologies on the same board.
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