FROM RING TO CROWN: THE CINDERELLA STORY OF AN INDIAN SMART GADGET
When the success story of a group of engineering undergrads developing India's biggest creative contribution to the fascinating next generation of touchless technology is narrated again and again in university hostels and dormitories in the future, little will be said of the media engineering that went behind it. Nevertheless, for Rohildev Nattukallingal and his college-mates, an imaginative media strategy gave wings to a dream fiercely pursued in their college precincts, like Mark Zuckerberg and his own friends did a decade ago to create Facebook.
Soon after passing out of their engineering college in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, these 22-year-old computing visionaries, led by Rohildev, decided to realise their dream of bringing a revolutionary smart gadget that could control all devices, literally on to the palms of the people. They set up an innovation startup company, RHL Vision, in Kerala and chose crowdfunding to raise capital. But after gathering only a few hundred dollars initially, the friends became aware that their campaign needed something else — the help of the media — if they wanted their potential consumers to share their dream. RHL came to us in mid-January of 2014, asked us to take up the work, and added with a straight face that they had a zero PR budget!
The technology was unbeatable until another geek woke up in his college hostel screaming of the next big tech thing. But the catch was how to make the market believe in RHL's vision. Rohildev and his friends were geeks with world-conquering ideas, but with no money to go on a world trip. After sitting down with the young entrepreneurs, we agreed to become their media consultant because we believed in the youth power in the Startup Village in Kochi, where RHL was incubated, by being the Village's official public relations agency since its inception two years ago.
Without further ado, we began our work. At the close of the crowdfunding campaign on March 9, 2014, Fin had raised $202,547 from 1,610 funders - 203% of its original goal of $100,000. In just two months, the world had sat up and taken notice of RHL and Fin. Our PR exercise had generated a huge publicity in print, electronic media, online portals and social media,which cannot be measured in terms of money. Rohildev and his friends' dream was about to come true. Their smart gadget, christened 'Fin', was ready to make a beginning.
Fin was a simple name derived from 'Finger', where the tiny ring-sized gadget could be worn to transform the palm into a digital interface capable of controlling your smartphone, car screen, gaming console, music player or TV etc. It worked on a computing logic developed by Rohildev and his friends while they were in their final year at college. The logic was that if assigned different numbers to each section of your fingers, your palm could become a numeric keypad, doing different jobs for you each time you tap or swipe the ring on your fingers.
How did Fin achieve this success from virtually nothing? For a start, Fin was a future's necessity, a thumbs up to touchless technology. Secondly, the decision of the friends to incubate their company in Kochi's Startup Village, the Palo Alto of India for dreamy college pass-outs like Rohildev and friends. Startup Village was India's first mobile internet technology business incubator set up under public-private partnership with the help of the government of India and the state government of Kerala two years ago. Also, in the beginning of January 2014, something happened to Rohildev and his friends in Las Vegas, the City of Dreams, where they had been invited to make a presentation on Fin before an intimidating geeks crowd.
Fortunately for Rohildev, his friends and their company, what happened in Vegas, didn't stay in Vegas. Buoyed by the ‘Top 15’ tag received from TechCrunch CES Hardware Battlefield of Vegas, the friends decided to raise capital to manufacture and commercially distribute Fin. They chose Indiegogo, the crowdfunding platform. So far so good, but the campaign hit an unexpected hurdle when a sluggish market response sent the young geeks soon scurrying for media cover. In a matter of weeks, an adroit media strategy succeeded in unravelling this little-known product before the national and international press. Fin was not the first homegrown smart gadget to enter the market riding piggyback on crowdfunding. But it became the first to raise more than twice its targeted capital.
Chronology is the best leveller here to capture the contours of a commitment and passion that met an equally committed media strategy, which put all its weight behind the belief of a startup. Here is how the turn of events as it happened:
- JANUARY 8, 2014: Fresh from the success at TechCrunch in Las Vegas, RHL Vision launch its crowdfunding drive on Indiegogo to raise 100,000 dollars as capital to produce and market Fin around the world. Lukewarm response in the first five days
- JANUARY 14: A desperate RHL Vision seeks the help of MD Niche to do a massive media push for its flagging crowdfunding drive
- JANUARY 15: MD Niche tells RHL team it is on board and will take up the work. Our team sits with Rohildev and his friends to understand the product and its technology, importantly with the user as the focus this time
- JANUARY 17: First media salvo on Fin and the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign is fired and the news becomes a hot topic across the country the next day
- JANUARY 18: Fin and the young Indian tech enthusiasts evoke a huge interest in the national media. The coverage by Businessline as front-page anchor coincides with the newspaper changing its masthead from Hindu Businessline to Businessline
- JANUARY 19-22: MD Niche organises a series of interviews with Rohildev and his team in the mainstream media, including TV channels following interactions between our teams and IT correspondents.
- JANUARY 21: We prepare the next media salvo on leading global technology websites
- JANUARY 24: Our team sends request to world's top technological website Mashable for featuring Fin on its site
- JANUARY 26: Important day for RHL on global level and true turning point in the crowdfunding campaign! Mashable puts up Fin on its website complete with a video report of the product, which says Fin is the next big thing in touchless computing, urging everyone to come on board and invest if they didn't want to miss out. The Mashable video goes viral and Fin is suddenly trending on Facebook.
- JANUARY 27: Fin becomes talk of technology media world. Our team's interactions with Gizmag, NDTV gadget guru, Chip Magazine and Discovery Channel yield results, Technology websites from US to Germany and Australia to Pakistan shower praise on Fin.
- JANUARY 31: The Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign is on fire. Fin is suddenly a hot product everyone wants a share of.
- FEBRUARY 10: International media push, backed by our team's work among the Indian media, results in huge coverage for Fin. The Indian Express calls it 'The Tech Star'. The Financial Express runs a big article under the headline, 'Have Fin, Have Fun'.
- FEBRUARY 15: Business Standard and The Hindu say Rohildev will be the 'Youngest Speaker' at World Mobile Congress in Barcelona from February24-27 and share the stage with Mark Zuckerberg and IBM CEO Virginia Rometty. Rohildev misses the Spain trip, but the media focus establishes him as the hottest technology entrepreneur in India; Pranav Mistry, Samsung's research wing head and technology blue-eyed boy, becomes a funder of Fin. The man behind the Samsung Gear Smartwatch tweets in support of Fin, which goes viral.
- FEBRUARY 18: Five days before its official closing date, RHL crowdfunding campaign romps home with 840 founders and more than 100,000 dollars. RHL raises the bar a bit higher, sets a new target of 150,000 dollars, extends campaign to March.
- FEBRUARY 20: The Times of India writes about the Kerala state cabinet inviting Rohildev and two of his other RHL promoters to its meeting to have a firsthand knowledge of their story.Enthused by the media campaign on Fin and RHL, Kerala Chief Minister Mr Oommen Chandy announces a new action plan to extend the scope of fresh entrepreneurship to arts and science colleges from the existing professional colleges by giving 20 per cent grace marks, 40 per cent attendance compensation to attend work on ideas and other support to student entrepreneurs.
- MARCH 9-11: RHL crowdfunding campaign collects funds beyond its target. The news is celebrated by Indian mainstream media with The Times of India Business Editor Sujit John writing under a headline 'The World at Your Finger tip' that RHL has raised 200,000 dollars from 1,600 people around the world in its crowdfunding campaign. He puts Fin ahead of Gecko, another Indian startup and smart gadget that raised 135,485 dollars through crowdfunding, also in 2014. The Economic Times says after Made in India software, it is now the turn of homegrown smart gadgets, writes that Fin has now 2,500 pre-orders and the primary market for the product was the United States!
The dream run hasn't ended for Rohildev and his friends. RHL Vision has since set up business in Palo Alto, California. It is gearing up to take Fin into production with the hope of shipping the first products by September 2014.
Rohildev is still going places. He has been invited to speak at the ADMA Global Forum 2014, beginning on July 28 in Sydney.
MD Niche is proud to have been part of a truly challenging and professionally satisfying PR campaign for a product that is redefining wearable technology. It was a conviction that we could do it. It was not about the PR money they did not have. The important thing was the relationship with RHL and Fin that we forged during our work with its inspiring team. We knew the money would come when the idea succeeded.
And happily for us, RHL did end up with a PR budget!