Smartphone pioneer BlackBerry may be just a shadow of its former self now, but its massive success a decade ago established its home region of Waterloo, Ont. as Canada’s pre-eminent technology hub. Now, dozens of startups—hardware, software, business-to-business, consumer-facing—dot the area.
Some are poised to become the country’s next technology darlings; others will inevitably fade away without making a mark.
Today, we kick off a week-long series looking at some of Waterloo’s hottest startups—it’s the aftermath of BlackBerry, and the potential next wave of Canadian innovation.
One young company making waves is Palette, a hardware-and-software operation that designs controller interfaces for computers.
Started by University of Waterloo engineering graduate Calvin Chu, Palette has just shipped its first batch of products—connectable slides, knobs and buttons—to early backers.
Shadab Rashid, head of software product and partnerships—and a veteran of BlackBerry—and Ryan Van Stralen, director of community and marketing, sat down to discuss the company’s challenges and future.
What’s your elevator pitch?
Shadab: Palette started in 2013. We did a Kickstarter campaign and it was quite successful. We aimed for $100,000 and we raised $150,000 and we’ve already shipped to our first set of customers. Palette is basically a hardware interface made for your own software needs. You connect them in any layout you want. These buttons, dials and sliders you can map to different functions within the software.
We’re primarily targeting Adobe customers and creative types who need the precision control. The one-size-fits-all keyboard-and-mouse just doesn’t cut it. A lot of the functions aren’t even exposed to keyboard shortcuts, and keyboard shortcuts are hard to remember.
Van Stralen: We’ve been successful in partnering with [Adobe] early on some of our deeper integrations. We’ve got a really deep integration with Photoshop and Lightroom. Photographers are the ones who seem to have this resonate most.
Shadab: We support many different types of applications and we get new feature requests almost every day. Some people want to use it to control lights at an event, which we already can. Some people want to use it for home automation. It supports MIDI so it acts as a MIDI controller, and joysticks, so with PC gaming you can assign it to control games. You could control throttle in a flight simulation game.
How did you come to this idea?
Shadab: Calvin started it as part of his fourth-year design project [at the University of Waterloo] and I joined him shortly afterward. He started getting some feedback from photographers, DJs, musicians and graphic designers and we just wanted to make a solution that would actually help, to give the granularity [of control].
If you go out there and buy any existing solutions, it’s one-size-fits-all. If you buy a MIDI controller you’re stuck with a certain number of buttons and dials. Some people just want two buttons but will be forced to buy a much bigger layout. Also, [not many] people are selling hardware with tight integration with the software. We’re kind of in a good spot because we don’t really have any proper competition.
The Kickstarter campaign ended at the end of 2013 and the team got accepted to the Hax accelerator program in Shenzhen, China. That’s where we figured out a lot of manufacturing processes, we actually have an office there. Some of our teammates were based in China for most of last year.
The team then moved back to Kitchener-Waterloo, because most of us are from here. We have a very helpful community here and we got accepted to Velocity [the university’s accelerator program], which gives us free office space and mentorship.
Most of last year was just making the product ready and we just crossed a big milestone. We made the product from scratch and we just shipped it, so it’s being used by a thousand customers. We’re getting ready for our next pre-order campaign.
Van Stralen: Unlike a lot of Kickstarter campaigns, our customers are reacting very positively. One of them said, “This seems like a second- or third-generation product” and “the quality is Apple-like.” We’re pretty pleased the hardware turned out as well as it did.
Shadab: We did get delayed for delivery but that was because we had to upgrade our hardware significantly. We didn’t have this magnetic connection [between the pieces]. We wanted to take the time to create as good an experience as possible. We’re continually adding software features but the hardware is pretty solid.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Shadab: So far it’s being able to work with many types of applications. It’s a gift but it’s also a curse because then we’re forced to focus. Like I was saying, some people want to be able to control the lights at their events – which they can – but that might require some special software features or settings that our Adobe users might not care about. So figuring out where to focus has been a big challenge.
None of the Adobe applications were designed to work with this so we had to reach out to them. We’ve been lucky so far, they like our product and we’re doing an official partnership with them on our next campaign, where they’ll give Palette customers a 20-per-cent discount to Adobe Cloud. It’ll also be true vice-versa.
The Lightroom team has been super helpful, they even made a [software development kit] for us. Supporting Windows, Mac and Linux has also been a big challenge.
What’s your plan to address these challenges?
Shadab: We decided that we’re going to focus on the photography crowd – people who are using Lightroom or Photoshop. That’s where our strength lies and we can help them significantly. Other applications, although they work, will gradually grow.
Van Stralen: Developer tools will also be the next step, so that we can exponentially grow what we support and build a community so that people can share amongst themselves.
Where are you getting funding?
Shadab: We did close a small seed round at the end of last year through Canadian Investors. We’re raising another round by the end of this year. We also have the Kickstarter funding and won some pitch competitions from Velocity, about $35,000.
What about your distribution? You’re available online but are you looking at physical distribution?
Shadab: We eventually want to do that but they take a huge chunk, so right now it doesn’t make sense for us. Once our scale is bigger, we will go retail. Our first step would be to get on Amazon. But right now, the margins don’t make sense for us.