When a crowdfunded product fails: The rise and fall of the Brim Brothers power meter
One of the most highly anticipated cycling products in recent memory was the intriguing Brim Brothers Zone DPMX power meter, a clever cleat-based system that promised the ultimate in portability. After eight years in development, a highly successful crowdfunding campaign, and more than a little bit of media coverage, CEO Barry Redmond announced last week that Brim Brothers was shuttering its doors, citing insurmountable challenges with putting the power meter into production. U.S. technical editor James Huang spoke with Redmond a few days after the announcement to find out what went wrong, and what happens from here.
The spark of an idea
Brim Brothers started out just as so many cycling companies often do — a casual conversation between two friends while riding bikes. An idea, backed by just the right amount of motivation and hope. In this case, it started in 2008, on a club ride in Dublin, Ireland.
“It was basically myself and a cycling buddy, who is also an engineer, hanging around at the back of the bunch on a Sunday morning out riding with our club, discussing the power meters that we could see on a couple of bikes,”said Redmond. “Both of us said we would like a power meter, but we didn’t like the look of the ones that were there, so we started talking about how we would make it better.”
Most of the time, ideas like that are just a flash in the pan, a brief moment of discussion that doesn’t lead to much of anything. But Redmond and his friend — who would rather go unnamed, but whose initials form the other half of the “BRIM” Brothers company name — continued to explore the concept, and eventually decided to dive into in earnest.
“As an engineer, you look at things and you come up with ideas all the time,” Redmond said. “What also happens is that, now and then, you see something for sale, and you think, ‘I thought of that five years ago! I should have done something about it,’ and that’s happened to me a few times. What happened with this one was, we came up with the idea. Then, over a period of a few months, I played around with bits and pieces at home in my garage, and then I just got to a point where I went, ‘You know, I think this could work. I’m not going to let it go. This time, I’m going to do something about it.’
“At that time, I was working full-time as the head of the department of computer engineering at a university here in Dublin [the Dublin Institute of Technology]. I was drifting away from actual engineering; I was becoming an administrator. I just wanted to get back to engineering, so I had a conversation with my wife, and we agreed that I’d give it a go. So I did that.”
And just like that, Brim Brothers was born.
It isn’t a stretch to say that October 24 — the day of the end-of-operations announcement — was the low point in Brim Brothers’ rollercoaster story. Nevertheless, Redmond says he spent much of the last eight years contently developing the Zone DPMX power meter, and relishing in the things that all good engineers do: identifying problems, fixing them, and coming up with new ideas and ways of doing things.
Much of those eight years were very positive and enthusiastic. Redmond still vividly remembers the time when he was at his most hopeful, when the dream of turning an idea into a commercially viable product seemed on the cusp of reality. The Brim Brothers’ Kickstarter campaign ran in early 2016, and quickly shattered its €100,000 target with more than €183,000 ($200,000 )raised. A supplemental campaign on Indiegogo raised the grand total to over €200,000.
“There was [a moment], actually: the first 24 hours of the Kickstarter campaign,” he said. “Because up to that point, we thought, ‘We can’t make this unless we get a big injection of funds. It can’t get to production.’ We launched the campaign and we had no idea what would happen. We put a conservative funding target on it, we put a conservative time deadline on it of 30 days, and we hit — and exceeded — the target within 24 hours. It was just incredible. At that point, I thought, ‘We’re funded. We’ve got it.'”
More than 300 Zone DPMX power meters were pre-sold after both campaigns ended, and the original target delivery date was May 2016.
According to Redmond, Brim Brothers sincerely believed that nearly all of the development work for the Zone DPMX power meter had been completed even before the Kickstarter campaign started. The company had functional prototypes, a concrete idea of what was finished and what still needed to be done, and now, the money to put the device into production.
“We had completed a lot of the production tooling and production testing,” Redmond said. “For example, all of the plastic molding tools were done, and we had tested all of that, and it was all ready to roll. We had a lot of samples of that, and they were all in use for a while. All of the electronic boards were finished, the software was finished. At that stage, the only unfinished things were around the force sensor, which is the metal plate that goes underneath the shoe as part of the cleat, and the flat rubber cable that comes up the side of the shoe.
“All that remained to complete was some of the production preparation for those parts. In particular, the molding for that rubber cable had to be redone. We thought, at that stage, that we just needed to finish those, prepare those, and go into production.”
Brim Brothers had, indeed, produced a number of testable prototypes to that point, enough to at least give the company sufficient confidence to enter the final stages of development. However, developing working prototypes is one thing, but transitioning that into a finished consumer product and manufacturing it on a mass scale is another entirely. Brim Brothers was about to learn firsthand how very different those two stages can be.
From a production standpoint, the first problem related to the Zone DPMX’s physical complexity.
“Perhaps the biggest mistake that we made was that we were probably overly optimistic about moving into production,” Redmond admitted. “I’m a design engineer, not a production engineer, so my experience in production for consumer items is pretty limited. Physically, [the Zone DPMX] is difficult to build as a product. There are things you need molded, there are things you need connected, and other things you need done, and it’s really difficult to do that outside of a lab. There were certain things that had to be changed. There was a series of production-related technical issues that delayed things a little here and there that caused us to have to go back and redo some things, all generally associated with the force sensor.”
At this point, money was also becoming a serious problem, particularly since Brim Brothers — as a startup company with no payment history — had to pay for all of its production costs up front, and apparently had little leverage to require a certain yield percentage. The complexity of the device proved to be a big challenge for the factory, and much of the initial production batch came off the line as non-functional bricks.
“We were there [at the factory],” said Redmond, “but even so, you’d leave one particular production process and you’d tested the first items that came off the process, the first few, and everything seems okay. And then you’d come back a few hours later and there are three hundred of them done, and you pick one at random, and it doesn’t work. Our quantity was very low at the end of the production batch, and it was a serious problem for us, but it wasn’t a showstopper.”
As it turns out, what seems to have ultimately led to Brim Brothers’ demise was the low number of functional prototypes that were subjected to testing.
“Over the months, we had many dozens [of prototypes], but at any one time, the number that were usable was limited. Testing had gone on for a really long time, but at any given time, there was only a limited number of units that were in test at one time, and we were constantly changing things and revising things and improving things. The various problems that came up later were not really obvious with the limited number that we had.”
According to Redmond, that “limited number” was actually on the order of single digits — more than enough to prove a concept, but not enough to reveal a lot of potential problems. It was only after the first production run was completed that Brim Brothers had a substantial number of units in hand — and unfortunately, that revealed a problem that would ultimately prove fatal.
“This was the first time we had had more than a handful of these units to test at the same time and noticed that there were differences between them,” Redmond said. “After a lot of investigation over the last month and a half, it turned out that the force sensor is affected by the flexing of a cycling shoe. A lot of the time, the system is accurate. You think a cycling shoe is rigid, but it’s not; it will flex just a fraction. And what we found was that this was affecting the sensor plates more than we thought it would. And in some circumstances, it could contribute to quite a serious accuracy problem.
“And this problem was unpredictable because it depends on three things,” he continued. “It depends on the shoe itself; certain shoes will flex more than others. It depends on how the cleat and force plate are fixed to the shoe; in other words, where exactly they are. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it depends on the rider’s pedaling style, because some riders will flex the shoe more than others. It was a big problem, and we only got to that point within the last two weeks.”
In fairness, this wasn’t the first time Brim Brothers had encountered the shoe flex issue, but like all the other hurdles along the way, Redmond thought it had been resolved much earlier in the development phase.
“We thought we had fixed it. We were dealing with whole rows of design problems; that was just one of them, and it didn’t seem to be particularly bigger than any of the others we were dealing with. And just like all the others, we thought that we had fixed it. There was a design iteration of the force sensor plates where we strengthened them in certain places. We changed the internal design and the thicknesses. In the tests that we did at that time, it seemed like we had fixed the problem.”
Brim Brothers had supposedly been able to properly calibrate that handful of earlier prototypes, but the scale of the problem in production simply proved too large to work through. They were out of money, and out of options.
“When I realized that the technical problem was going to take longer than a week to fix, longer than a month to fix, I had to go to our board of directors, to our shareholders, and have long discussions with them,” Redmond said. “We tried to find the finance to keep going — because that’s what it requires — but all of our investors had reached their limit of exposure to this particular enterprise. We could not find anyone else on such short notice, and by last Thursday evening, we came to a decision that we had no option here but to close. We spent Friday and the weekend discussing how we were going to do this, and whether there was any way to avoid it — even at this last hour — and it turned out that there wasn’t so on Monday, we had to push the button and say, ‘that’s it’.”
Even taking into account the generous discounts Kickstarter and Indiegogo project backers receive for their investments, supporters were now clamoring for answers. They were out of a lot of money, and even just a few weeks before Brim Brothers announced it was closing shop, there were few indications anything serious was amiss.
“The initial three-week production run finished a week ago, and was a significant learning experience for our team,” read a Kickstarter update from September 13 (which also included pictures of what looked to be functional samples and shippable display boxes). “There’s a huge difference between our development team’s view of the world and the factory production team’s view. The biggest differences are all around assembly sequences and test and calibration procedures.”
Not surprisingly, the unexpected eleventh-hour announcement that the Brim Brothers Zone DPMX power meter would not see the light of day was not well received. That said, much of the public feedback has been decidedly civil, and Redmond insists he’s received plenty of supportive messages in private since the announcement.
“I am pretty disappointed,” wrote Greg Steele of WattageTraining, a Salt Lake City power-based coaching service, in an email. Steele backed the Kickstarter campaign by pre-ordering a dual-sided Zone DPMX power meter. “I have supported several Kickstarters in the past, but this is by far the most expensive that I have chosen to support, and the only one that successfully funded and did not deliver. It was only 13 days prior [to the announcement] that they posted graphs of their product vs. SRM. I was aware that there was a possibility that I would have nothing to show for this. I had heard some horror stories from early Kickstarter days, but this seemed like it was legitimate – and I do feel it was.
“I think they were in over their heads in terms of getting overseas production completed. I suspect they jumped from prototype to a full batch without some sort of test batch to work out the kinks and calibration. They probably didn’t negotiate a reject policy, based on not meeting specs, and thus had to eat the cost of the batch. Then they had spent their entire funding on what ended up being a bad batch of devices, with no plan to move forward. I’ll just chalk it up to the way it goes. But it would have been really nice to have a functional product at the end of the day.”
It’s easy to focus on the individuals who lost money on the Brim Brothers dream, but it’s also important to remember the other side of the equation. Although one Brim Brother cashed out of the venture just a few years in — “He’s the only one who made money,” Redmond said — Redmond rode the ship all the way to the bottom, and at 64, the future is anything but certain.
“I had a secure pensionable job that I gave up to do this,” he said. “I’ve no idea [what comes next]. Up until last Thursday, my plan was to make a success of Brim Brothers. Now I’m out of a job. We spend the next few weeks winding down the company. We do have some patents, some intellectual property, [so] we’ll see if we can get something out of those. As well as our Kickstarter backers who are out of pocket, the company has loans taken out in the last few months, which it’s unable to pay at this point. Basically, I just wind down the company and get to know my family again. I have no idea what I’m going to do. I’ll do something — it’s just in my nature — but I have no idea what.
“I am one of the people who lent the company money, and we’re not going to be repaid. I was unpaid for the last eight years. I got no salary. I just lived off of my family for the last eight years, plus put quite a lot of cash into the company. It’s certainly not as simple as some people think it is — far, far from that.”