Tile co-founder Mike Farley on the perils of crowdfunding (Interview)

Nearly a year after a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign the Bluetooth LE startup still isn't shipping. Co-founder Mike Farley spoke with me exclusively to clear the air.
Written by Jason D. O'Grady, Contributor
Mike Farley Co-Founder of Tile - Jason O'Grady

I spoke with Mike Farley today, co-founder of Tile (@TheTileApp). I first wrote about Tile on June 21, 2013 after backing the company's crowdfunding campaign.

Tile is a Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) "tag" that's about the size of a pack of matches. It's small enough that it can be attached to just about anything so that you can locate it via an app running on your iPhone.

The most common use case for Tile is as a keychain that you can locate via the companion iOS app (free, App Store) on your iPhone or iPad. Rather than using GPS, which is cost and battery-prohibitive, Tile use BTLE when you're within range (<100m or <330 ft) and crowdsources the location of the tag with other users that have Tile app installed. Even if you're not a backer, you can install the Tile app to help the cause.

During Tile's crowdfunding campaign last summer the company raised $2,681,297 from 49,586 backers – an impressive feat. Since the campaign closed people have Tweeted backer numbers as high as 188,883, but the company hasn't confirmed how many customers it has beyond the original 49k backers posted on its website.

Since Tile launched in June 2013, dozens of BTLE tags have flooded the market (Fobo MAXLassoTagduetBringrrXYStickNFind, and TI's SensorTag come to mind). Most are crowd-funded (like Tile) and are in various states of production and shipping. (I'll be reviewing FoboMAX and LassoTag in the future).

Anyone who has crowdfunded a hardware project on Kickstarter or Indiegogo can attest to the fact that they're fraught with delays – and Tile is no exception. I backed Tile on June 21, 2013 and almost 11 months later Tiles still aren't shipping. The delays are excessive, even by crowdfunding standards, but the company attributes them to the sheer volume of orders it received.   

The long wait for Tile, and a slipshot communication strategy have given rise to a vocal group of critics that have raised issues about the project and its authenticity. I spoke with Mike to ask him about the status of Tile and about the perils of crowdfunding a wildly successful piece of hardware.

Q. How's it going with Tile?

A. It's an exciting time at Tile. We're really close to shipping out units to more and more of our backers. As we put out in our last backer email we started an Early Access Program that was designed to reward some of our earliest backers and give them the earliest look at the product possible and also to gain as much feedback as possible before we really start pushing this thing out there. That's been really valuable and the feedback has been great. The app has been approved, of course we're still making some updates to it but we plan to make it publicly available/visible on the App Store very shortly.

Q. Tell me more about the Early Access Program?

A. It's a limited program, it's about 50 people and they are our real backers. We hand selected some of our early backers primarily geographically located here in the bay area – for obvious reasons – and also, they are under NDA, which is pretty common for this kind of thing, and why you haven't seen any Tweets and that kind of thing.

Q. Will you be expanding the Early Access Program?

A. The reality is that we are very, very close to production shipments. As we ramp up more and more of these things will get out there and the geography will expand as well. We continue to send more EAP units out too. We are preparing press kits in the next week or so. That is right around the corner.

Q. Is the next batch of Tiles going to be Early Access Program or production releases?

A. Very soon we will have non-EA program, full-on, no NDA required, products.

Q. You said in a backer email that the Tile iOS app was approved, but it's not publicly visible, why?

A. The app is currently in a private status, but it's going to go public very, very soon. [Update: The Tile iOS app is now shipping].

A Tile being manufactured - Jason O'Grady
(Photo: The Tile Blog)

Q. In my story from last summer I posted that Tile's dimensions were 36mm x 36mm x 4.2mm. Has that changed?

A. Those dimensions were from Twitter. We haven't been super-specific about that because as you start to manufacture these products, tweaks are going to happen, there's a lot of things that need to be done to get a product into mass production and once you start to build the giant quantities that we're going to be, you've got to be able to build them fast and tweaks need to be made. Right now the size is little bit smaller than what we have on our website – 37mm x 37mm x 5.3mm.

Q. Are those dimensions subject to change or is it locked down?

A. It's locked down for now, but of course once we start building tons of these things, there's always the possibility for potentially a tool mod.

Q. Tell me about Tile's battery. Is a clock ticking?

A. After Tiles are manufactured they get put into a deep sleep mode and I can show you a Tile right now (Mike shows me a Tile via video conference) and it will ship in low power mode – you hit the "E" to wake it up – so we have extended shelf life essentially. (Mike also demo'd Tile's wake up feature and sound which I can best describe as a multi-note riff that would be right at home in an 8-bit NES video game).

Q. How many backers does Tile have? The website says 49k, but people have Tweeted numbers as high as 188k.

A. We can't share our backer numbers at the moment but I can say that since our 34-day campaign where are numbers are "stuck at" we've continued to pre-sell at a good rate, so there's a continued stream of orders.

Q. So the 49k number on your website is only from the initial campaign?

A. Yes. That's where we ended after the 34-day campaign that closed at midnight on July 23 (2013). 

More development Tiles at the fab - Jason O'Grady
(Photo: The Tile Blog)

Q. How many Tiles are going to be in the first batch, second batch, etc.?

A. Our ship schedule and actual quantities are something that we'll be releasing shortly but right now we're hesitant to provide that information.

Q. Will you be telling backers where they stand in the queue? 

A. We will.

Q. I ordered my Tiles on June 21, 2013. Where do I stand?

A. Current estimates are that you will get your Tiles in early June. 

Q. Are the pictures that you've been publishing on your blog, development or production units?

A. The major of units shown on the sites have been DVT (Development, Validation and Testing) units. So those are batches that we've been getting from our manufacturing partner.

Q. Are there any specific issues that have caused Tile to be delayed for this long?

A. In general, the volume, the sheer number that we have to build brings up a whole set of challenges that you don't have in a small batch.

Q. Is it safe to say that order volume outstripped your estimates?

Yes. Our original goal was $20,000 in pre-sales.

Q. So now you're the Pebble Watch of Bluetooth tags? (laughs) Do you know those guys? Do you share war stories with them? Is there anything that you can learn from Pebble?

A. (Laughs) Yeah, we do actually know the Pebble guys! They're here in the bay area, [Tile co-founder] Nick [Evans] has chatted with Eric [Migicovsky] multiple times, they're great guys. The bay area is an incredible place to be for any tech company, everyone's here and knowledge flows pretty freely.

That's the conclusion of my interview.

Development Tile units at the fab - Jason O'Grady
(Photo: The Tile Blog)

While I don't have a Tile in my possession to validate and test, I did see one in my video interview and Mike seemed genuine and dead set on shipping. Mike and his PR associate promised to send me a review unit in a week or two and I plan to hold them to that schedule. I'll write another follow-up post when I do. While one year is a long time to ship a product – and Tile's communication has been far from stellar – I can't write it off as another iCache Geode" just yet. I'm giving Tile until June 21 (a year since I originally backed it) to deliver the goods.

What's your take on Tile? What about Bluetooth tags in general?

The Tile iOS app - Jason O'Grady
(Source: Tile)
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