The problem: it is very awkward to type on the phone
How many of you are using this classic line as your email signature: “Sent from iPhone. Please excuse typos!”
The QWERTY keyboard was designed in the 19th century for the typewriter, and this scrambled arrangement of letters has stayed the same for over a century, even making its way to our digital screens.
This peculiar layout was meant to prevent the physical keys from jamming up and getting tangled mechanically when they were hit after one another– such as “th” or “st” – so, these common letters were spread out more widely on the typewriter.
Today, we are grateful not to deal with these physical deadlocks, but something else is creating a mess while we type digitally: our thumbs and fingers. David Eberle (INSEAD 17’J) is paving the way for a revolutionary overhaul of the digital keyboard with his co-founder Janis Berneker from Switzerland.
They call their keyboard WRIO (Write It Once) and the first thing you will notice is that the keys are shaped as hexagons, not squares, to create more forgiving spaces for our fingers to slip around.
Why do a survey? To get feedback, and find your first interested users
Just to make sure they were not exaggerating the gravity of the situation, the two founders surveyed over 150 people. The responses they received were one resounding sigh of despair: typing is a lot slower than most people would like, and we are constantly correcting our typos as we write.
Doing this survey turned out to be a clever move: not only to get a handle over specific pain points, but to cream a list of people who were interested in trying something (anything!) better than the current keyboard. From this list, they got in touch with people who were eager beta-testers and, ultimately, paying users.
Over time, this has amassed into an invaluable user community of 800 people who give concrete and useful feedback on their experiences. The WRIO team is highly responsive to this group of early-adopters, and this relationship has allowed them to improve the keyboard more quickly.
Hiring on a budget: tap on bright university students
Now it was time to get started and make it happen. Without money to hire a full-fledged professional, the founders turned to steady bastions of talent: universities. They hired an Italian graduate student to create the prototype, giving them the chance to physically tinker with different design possibilities.
Their permanent developer Sebastian Philipp joined during the beta phase of the product, also hailing from a university. Without significant work experience, he nonetheless had buckets of enthusiasm and talent.
“He was 19 years old doing his undergraduate degree in Switzerland, and he was very motivated about the chance to work on an actual product.” Sebastian is a core part of the team today.
Launching: wait till you are “ready” or get it out to the market first?
Entrepreneurs know that there is no end-point to their product: it can always get better, it can always be smoother.
“It was tricky deciding when to launch. In the end, we released the product before all the features were developed—because we wanted to get it out there. Otherwise you can spend money making it better and better— and still not know how it will do.”
This was a mistake in hindsight, David says. “You just have to make a decision. Do you want to work on it further, or do you want to launch it?” He explained that this is a tough call when you have already invested a lot of time on the product and you are short of resources.
This premature launch resulted in a few negative reviews that they learned from very quickly for their next release. David advises: “If you want to do successful marketing, you need to be brilliant at the product. If the product is half-baked, you can do all the marketing you want, but the marketing is not going to work. People will push out online reviews immediately!”
Nonetheless, the team took the reviews in stride to improve the keyboard phenomenally and, within a year of launching, they successfully attracted almost 30,000 paying users at USD $3 /download.
Kickstarter: crowdfunding and global exposure
Prior to launching, David and Janis decided to ramp up interest about WRIO using Kickstarter. “You need to identify who your strongest backers are— and where you are most likely to meet them. On Kickstarter, we could meet all the ‘power consumers’: they want the latest and greatest thing, and willing to pay a premium to support it.”
Kickstarter served as an attractive venue for validation, branding, and exposure, especially since journalists tend to browse the platform for newsy stories to cover. Within two weeks of the campaign, WRIO was featured in TechCrunch as well as 20min, a Swiss national daily commuter newspaper.
Despite the visibility offered by Kickstarter, David does not advice sitting back and waiting to be contacted. “We proactively reached out to the journalists!”
They raised over USD $15,000 in one month. Any tips for entrepreneurs considering Kickstarter? David says that visual presentation is paramount on the platform. “Spend a lot of time thinking about how to present your product in an appealing way.”
They spent a lot of time to create a professional introductory video – videos are mandatory on Kickstarter – along with other appealing visual collaterals. “Take a moment to browse the website,” David notes. “The campaigns on Kickstarter are all very beautiful!”
PR: shifting from Personal Relations to Public Relations
When we launch a product, our secret hope is that our entire network of friends and family will spread the word to their own diverse networks, creating a magnificent ripple effect of exposure.
The reality is that your friends might not readily share your posts and forward your emails, at least not in the Swiss culture where David is from. “Mass emails are seen as desperate! People may not even re-share posts on their Facebook timeline, so it’s not that effective.”
So, very early, the team decided to jump outside their personal networks and hit up the world through the big wide media. The founders personally reached out to many journalists before launching officially. “We found hundreds of media contacts through online research, but many journalists were from the same outfit. We didn’t want to bother the entire team of journalists, so we only emailed one. If they didn’t reply, then we would wait before approaching the next person.”
Why didn’t they go through a traditional PR company? David explains that they did this work by themselves for two reasons. First, PR companies can be too pricey for early-stage startups and, second, the press tends to enjoy speaking to the founders directly instead of being approached indirectly through a PR agency.
This incredible effort yielded over 100 articles and reviews about WRIO online and in newspapers, setting off a chain reaction when other media outfits picked up the news, and followed up on it.
How to stay in the limelight: get on a public stage
After making a splash in the media with their official launch, David and Janis learned that they had to work hard to stay in the limelight. “The PR marketing effect will wear out after a while. You can go to the media when you have big news, but after that we were only releasing smaller updates. Polishing the keyboard experience has kept us busy.”
Besides reaching out to the media, they participated in the EU Mobile Challenge organized by the IE Business School in Spain, ultimately winning the competition and gaining wide exposure on a global stage. Competitions also offer high-pressure channels to refine your presentation and get feedback.
David is doing his MBA at INSEAD, and finds no shortage of sharp, useful advice from faculty and peers on campus. “I have been speaking with entrepreneur-in-residents who are INSEAD alumni with seasoned experience running a startup. These conversations have been invaluable.”
Friendship: a cornerstone of success
The founders are neither strangers to business nor to each other. Prior to WRIO, they were already running an online agency together and creating hundreds of projects for their clients, ranging from websites to marketing campaigns.
They met as teenagers in high school, and David points out that this early friendship is a core source of their strength as business partners. “Making friends in high school is different than university. You are more frank, more difficult, and less polished than later on in life. If you make good friends in that phase—and stay friends—it’s probably easier to work together!”
Besides running a startup, David is an enthusiastic practitioner of muay thai where he draws practical business inspiration. “You have to take hits lightly! Sometimes you make a hit—and feel great!—such as getting a 5-star rating. Sometimes you get hit with a 1-star rating, and you have to take it seriously—but not too seriously. This is life. Never give up and feel bad. You have to stay positive, especially in a small team. If you are negative about these hits, everyone will feel it and it brings everyone down. Stay focused—and keep going!”
Collaborations, partnerships, and investments
Even though WRIO Keyboard sees consistent success in the app store, they are anticipating a much stronger tide in users. “A big group of potential users is the younger generation who have not even used the old QWERTY keyboard!”
David expects that WRIO Keyboard will soon be the default for mobile devices, and they are stopping at nothing to make it happen. For a start, they plan to partner with smartphone manufacturers and telecommunication companies to pre-install the keyboard to achieve widespread exposure and give users a chance to try it.
They are also fundraising to accelerate the product development. “We have gone a long way, but still have a long way to go. We have a long backlog of things we need to do, and looking forward to creating and launching Version 2.0.”
Noi mroe tyops
Tired of tpyos? You can explore how WRIO Keyboard works over here and send David a (typo-free?) email over here! – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Nazish Zafar is a PhD Sociologist who writes for INSEADERS VC. If you want to be featured in this interview series with entrepreneurs, simply drop a note to email@example.com or login and send a direct message!