Silicon Labs recently had the chance to talk with sleep-enthusiast Eli Lazar, co-founder of Snooz, a start-up company that created a white noise sleep machine that strives to turn people’s bedrooms into a sleep haven. A Kickstarter and angel-funded innovation that has only been on the market since April, Eli gave us a behind the scenes glimpse of how the product came about and how he and his partner successfully brought the Snooz machine to market.
How did you come up with the idea?
I used a fan to sleep in college and would pack a fan in my suitcase when I traveled to ensure I got a good night’s rest. When I was in college studying mechanical engineering, I started noticing that just about everybody I knew would sleep with a fan pointed at the wall, because they wanted the sound, without the cold air blowing on them. Later on, I also found a study from the University of Michigan that showed about half of their student population used sound to help them sleep. Fans are made to drive a lot of air and do it quietly, but we realized people were trying to use them in the opposite way and extract the noise from them and have no air. So we thought maybe we should make a special fan for sleeping. We found one other company that had made a white noise machine – a real fan, but it started in 1960 and the design hadn’t changed much since. I know there are apps and electronics on the market that mimicked the sound of moving air, but they weren’t real fans.
So how did you go about to make that happen?
The first thing we did was a lot of tinkering – experiential engineering. How do you make a “shh” sound? I didn’t know. There are no books on that. So I literally ordered 10 CPU desktop computer fans. I ordered a box of CD spindles. We just started playing around with stuff. We ended up buying a cheap 3D printer and printed out a bunch of different designs. We eventually got to the point where people actually wanted to sleep with it, which took a full year of experimenting.
Then we started the painful process of fundraising. We did a Kickstarter campaign to test the market and raised a half million dollars in 49 days. We also attended angel pitch events and eventually got to an investor who had his own VC firm. He told us we were too small for the firm, but I gave him a fan prototype and his wife ended up loving it. He still told us we were still not well-suited for his firm, but he wrote us a personal check.
The next phase was production. Probably the hardest thing to figure out was the fabric, which seems like it would be the easiest thing. But there are only a niche group of people that understand fabric, and when you have a metal surface, it becomes an even smaller group.
Eventually we got to a place where we produced the first batch of 10,000 units and we shipped 7,000 on Kickstarter and the rest sold on Amazon or our website. We’re still very much trying to figure out how to bring costs down and those sorts of things. We don’t take a salary - we haven’t taken one penny since we started.
What was the most surprising thing that you have learned so far?
Everything moves slowly, it’s really true. Nobody is in a hurry except you. You go to an investor, and months will go by before you hear from them. Even now, we’ll produce something, and it’ll be 20 weeks before we see the product. It has taught me a lot about patience. But the most surprising thing is you kind of lay out how people are going to see the product, but then it’s totally different. For example, you might write out instructions for the device, but people will interpret what you say a lot differently. The other thing I learned is you have to have a thick skin. I mean, you put a lot of time into the product and you end up being very close to it, and people can be brutal. The vast majority of our reviews are very positive, but you do get some people that pick one little thing on the product they don’t like, such as the power cord, something little, and those things can really tear into you if you let it. I never thought I’d be as sensitive to customer feedback as I am.
Do you have any favorite stories from users?
We get quite a few emails from people that would really blow you away. People will say they’ve had bad nightmares their entire life, but since using Snooz, they sleep perfectly. We get a lot of people telling us they haven’t been able to sleep for long periods of time or they had to take medication to sleep and now they sleep fine.
Sleep is everything to people, if you can’t have it, you’re messed up.
Yes, and I think it’s an issue getting more attention. Last year at CES was the first time the conference included an entire section of devices devoted to sleep.
What were some of your design challenges with this product?
We had pretty tight constraints for what we wanted. We brought prototypes to the design firm and laid out our guidelines. They came up with 8 or 9 designs and we were really drawn to the fabric design because it allows sound to go through it unobstructed. We liked the idea of combining fabric and electronics.
Our original vision was the device would be a beautiful product that sits in your room and you don’t interact with it – you don’t even have to touch it. That’s why we decided to use the Bluetooth chip from Silicon Labs because it gave us the ability to program its schedule or turn on remotely.
The fabric was a real challenge. They make the fabric wraps automated, but there’s still some manual work to sew the seams. We did a lot to make sure the fabric isn’t toxic, as well.
Creating the right packaging was another challenge. One thing a design professional asked us right when we were starting was, “Why do people buy products?” And we said for functionality. And he said, “No, no, people don’t buy products for function – they buy them for the emotional connection.” So just having the right package feel, the look to the box – was important to us.
What product did you use from Silicon Labs?
Initially, we used the BLE113, but then we switched recently to the new BGM113. I was already familiar with Silicon Labs, but the decision stemmed from our connection with a design firm in Chicago. The firm highly recommended Silicon Labs products and they had a lot of experience with your company and said the technology always pretty much works – it’s really rock solid. They explained that you can always find other dirt cheap chips out there, but you’re going to have all kinds of issues.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
We have definitely encountered two crowds that we sell to. One group loves the app, loves the Bluetooth and loves everything connected. But then the other group is like, I don’t want any of that – I want it old-school simple. We keep trying to figure out the right balance, where we make things connected but not so connected that they become a nuisance to people. My impression is it’s probably going to be a fight about what things should be connected and what shouldn’t be.
One of the things about Kickstarter is we had 6,000 backers – it’s like having 6,000 bosses. People were telling us to add this and add that, but we didn’t want it to be this super connected device. I don’t think the bedroom should have a ton of connected devices – it should be a place where it’s free of that. I hope IoT’s pace doesn’t go so fast that people try to connect everything, because then people will learn to hate it. But it can be useful if it goes at the right pace, because with some things it just makes sense.
I don’t like when things get too complicated. I’d rather the whole company flop and stick to the vision that we are going to do what’s right for people, not the company. Because I know if we start adding all kinds of new features, the product might sell more, but I don’t think people will sleep better because of it and it’ll cause them more frustration. My partner and I really just want to do what will help people sleep better.