Our Story So Far
Kokoon’s headphone, “Kokoon Relax”, was a very personal project for me. Having suffered tremendously from poor sleep, I was determined to find a more convenient way to improve it. I’d been lucky enough to receive some great advice from a sleep clinic and found how effectively I could use audio to slow my busy mind. However both accessing this advice and using audio was so inconvenient that I set about looking at how to change this.
In 2015 my co-founder Richard and I launched on Kickstarter. It was here that we began our journey in developing a solution to bring people better sleep. We’ve come a long way since that initial launch, and grown immensely over the 5 years since.
As we find ourselves looking back to where it all began, as an established business, it’s amazing to see how far we have come since then – the lessons learned, the developments made, and the relationships we’ve forged with our backers and customers along the way. I wanted to share with you how we got to where we are today, and what we learned along the way.
The Initial Campaign
We launched our first Kickstarter as a tiny team with little more than a working prototype and a dream. Our initial campaign went far better than we could have hoped, raising just under $2 million, with over 8000 backers. To this day, it’s still humbling how successful our initial campaign was, having originally set a funding goal of $100,000 and we’re very thankful to our backers who gave us our start.
At this stage we were very happy to know that the product resonated with so many backers and we set out to deliver on what we had promised. We didn’t know that the journey to get there was going to be a lot longer than we had envisaged at the time!
Standing at the foot of the mountain as just one mechanical engineer and one electronics engineer, Richard and I needed to recruit quickly. Within 2 months of the campaign closing, we hired 6 new teammates with the right experience and expertise to realise our project.
Looking back now, I am immensely proud of what this small team accomplished. With never more than 10 full time employees in the technical team, we persevered and scaled the mountain, bringing a new technology to market. As you can imagine, this didn’t come without its own challenges; as a new start up with limited funds, we didn’t have the option of upscaling our team to match the size of the task at hand. This caused us our own sleepless nights and disheartening delays as the team battled to keep up with our launch schedule.
With 8000 backers to please, we needed to re-evaluate whether our design would be effective for such a broad range of people. We now had to ensure the headphones would fit people up to the 95th percentile of head and ear sizes, to ensure the vast majority would be able to comfortably wear them.
Our original prototype relied on flex within the headphone to accommodate the different head sizes and shapes. The challenge was this couldn’t accommodate the full range of sizes we now had to account for, and also introduced fatigue issues under extended testing. A blow to our design, this meant that the headphone had to be fundamentally redesigned to include arm pivots and arm extensions. Even the audio chamber itself was redesigned to allow more room for a comfortable fit around the ear.
Pivot design changes, to allow a better fit for a full range of head sizes
CAD model of changes made to the audio chamber
As we know with product design, one small change ‘over here’ will inevitably alter what’s ‘over there’. Kokoon was no exception; changes to the arms and audio chamber had a knock on effect on the design of the earcup itself, requiring a new shape to accommodate the pivot. The new shape of the earcup alone caused further delays to the final design.
As a sleep headphone, comfort was always our top priority. Our initial design had been thoroughly tested for comfort pre-Kickstarter, however, we now had to start over. As with our initial design, we had to test each iteration for potential pressure points and ensure the earcup was ergonomic and comfortable for users. This involved hundreds of comfort tests, improving our design with each set of results. We were lucky to have some of our backers help us with comfort testing, and to give us their unbiased opinion on the progress of the product.
Setting out, our goal was to create a headphone comfortable enough for sleep, with some noise protection, to stop our users being woken in the night by their environments. At the end of our campaign however, surveying our backers proved that the noise cancelling aspect was a far more important feature than we had initially believed.
Our original prototype’s mechanical design would not have offered an effective enough acoustic seal to give the noise protection we now needed. A reliable audio seal is critical as any air leakage will have a negative effect on the acoustic response (especially bass) of the headphone. With the ANC functionality, it is doubly important to get a consistent bass response, as the ANC filter circuit is designed to match it.
Again, the changes to the design had knock on effects across the whole project, even as far as the acoustic tuning, which had to be delayed until the final acoustic chamber had been locked down in design.
The other major challenge was faced was our EEG system design. Originally, we had hoped to use a design including a sensor placed in the headband, a common reference point on standard EEG systems. However, this was unfeasible in mass manufacture.
Thankfully, we had tested alternative EEG systems in parallel with our design work, and benchmarked them against standard wet-electrode systems. This gave us the confidence that changing our system to the single channel set up we have today would continue to provide accurate results. The downside, of course, is that, this also led to delays as we worked to implement the new system. It also required further EEG benchmarking and data validation, the results of which we regularly sent for independent review by our sleep scientists at Imperial College London, to ensure the accuracy of our system and results.
Benchmarking the Kokoon Relax against wet electrode EEG
As we progressed with the single ear-to-ear channel, we also had to refine the sensor design for comfort. While considering a variety of ear shapes, and sensitivities, we spent a large amount of time designing sensors that would be high enough to make proper contact with the ear while sleeping, without pushing too hard on a user’s ear. After numerous comfort tests, this resulted in changing the original in ear sensor design and shore hardness of the parts:
The sensor design
Due to the lack of off-the-shelf components in our design, we faced a large challenge in sourcing suppliers for materials and parts. In the design that you see today, the only part of the headphone which uses off-the-shelf-components is our Bluetooth module. Even parts as simple as our acoustic cushions were custom made for Kokoon.
An off the shelf cushion (left) compared with the Kokoon bespoke cushion (right)
Today, we have a supply chain for nearly 200 individual components which make up the headphones, accessories and packaging, sourced from numerous companies. It took time to get this right, and balance quality and cost. In the initial stages of our Kickstarter project, the team were focussed heavily on our design challenges, working to progress the project. However, it became apparent during the assembly of ES2 (Engineering Sample 2) that our supply chain was going to require equal attention.
While the design was beginning to come together at last, we were let down by the aesthetic quality of ES2. The materials were not the high quality we had hoped, with fabrics fraying and the mediocre finishing. Up to this point, we had been relying on fabric samples being sent to the team in the London office for review. After the ES2 review however, it became clear that to prevent further delays, and to ensure suppliers were working to our requirements and quality expectations, the engineering team needed to temporarily relocate to the factory in China. This decision paid in dividends, as we were able to work more closely with our suppliers and quickly bring forward the final design specifications.
Poor fabric finishing
In the same light, we hired an experienced operations director – River - to work full time on the ground in China at the factory, ahead of mass manufacture commencing. River’s expertise has been invaluable, and helped to reduce any further delays by working closely with the factory and our suppliers on a day to day basis.
What did we learn?
We’ve learnt so much on our journey about manufacture, support, logistics, fundraising, sleep, design, research, development, marketing, users and so much more, it would be hard to summarise in one post. I have however picked out a few learnings useful for any budding Kickstarter entrepreneur:
- Try to launch on Kickstarter as late as you can afford in the development cycle, ideally when you’ve a factory already producing working products that you’ve been able to test at some scale with users. You’ll have a much better idea of realistic shipment dates, costs, risks, challenges and issues, which will ensure you’ll stand a dramatically better chance of ever shipping your product and meeting your backer’s expectations. Don’t underestimate the additional stress and worry of having thousands of eager backers waiting for a product yet knowing there are a multitude of challenges and risks that need to be addressed before your product can deliver upon its promise.
- Minimise R&D risk as much as you can and focus on what the one core thing that you really need to get right is. Innovating in multiple areas introduces new uncertainty and risk which invariably ends up impacting the time it takes to get right. When developing ground-breaking products, things rarely go as smoothly as you think and there are always unforeseeable issues. From the start try and minimise these unknowns and try to build upon the shoulders of others as much as you can, enabling you to focus on the key critical innovation and focus on the biggest risks.
- Things will probably take longer than you expect even if you have the right team and a good plan that mitigates against the foreseeable risks. With products the simplest of things often completely outside your control can introduce delays impossible to mitigate. Set out to under-promise while working to over-deliver from the beginning.
- At least 95% of what you’re doing has been done before in some manner. Find team members, partners, advisors, experts who have been there and done it before. Be careful, as many will claim to have the right expertise and will have all sorts of opinions but with a bit of due diligence & filtering you should be able to build a team who have learnt the hard way, and made the mistakes before. An experienced team can save time, money, stress create a better end product.
Today, Kokoon has shipped nearly 30,000 products, around the world. The mountain to fulfil our first Kickstarter project was higher (and longer!) than we ever anticipated, but I’m thrilled with the result, and the dedication of the team that brought our product through to launch.
It would be wrong to claim this as a success story; changes and delays left our early backers confused and unfulfilled. I’d like to apologise to them, and the wait they had to endure. Your support was invaluable to the launch of Kokoon. We didn’t always get it right, and despite our best efforts, were forced on more than one occasion to delay our launch. I regret not being more transparent with the extent of the work behind the scenes and the issues we faced. There were times we were unsure if we could even survive financially, and our focus turned to the additional challenge of fundraising. A distant memory, but important lesson for our business that now sees fantastic sales month on month, which supports our growth and development.
It is in this spirit that we launch our new community initiative, with complete transparency to our backers in all areas of the project, good and bad, as we continue our work on our ever evolving platform.
We’ve been making some exciting new hires to ensure we have a team ready with the skillset and experience to complement our existing team in making Kokoon a further success; one of which includes an experienced Product Manager, who joins us to ensure a heavier customer focus and advocate for you – our backers – and your needs. We’ll be sharing a post soon with lots more information on our current team – please keep an eye out!
It’s an exciting time for Kokoon, and we’re looking forward to hearing more from our backers, through our new community board and team talk sessions.
The past 5 years have been a long road for Kokoon. We’ve fought through challenges which beset us time and again, survived a lengthy R&D process with limited finances, and (rightfully) faced heavy criticism. But through this, we’ve created a product which I’m incredibly proud of, and now, I hope to make this next phase at Kokoon even more successful. I hope you’ll join us on this next part of the Kokoon journey, engaging with the team on your ideas and needs, to bring the world better sleep and relaxation.
As always, we'd love to hear from you. Please keep an eye out for our new Kokoon Kommunity initiative to share your ideas for the future of Kokoon, or leave us a comment on one of our social media channels. For any enquiries related to your order, please contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.