Phlock, My Hardware Startup That Disappeared

 

Phlock 1.0, The beginning of the journey

An early Phlock Prototype.
An early Phlock Prototype

Prior to starting Atila.ca, my previous startup was a company called Phlock. A device that let you unlock doors using your phone and share keys with friends in real time. Phlock didn’t actually fail, it did something much worse, it simply disappeared.

In the summer of 2017, I came up with the idea of Atila and without ever actually making a conscious decision, I gradually spent less time on Phlock and more time on Atila. By the time school started in the fall, Atila had a fully functional prototype and we were planning on launching soon. Meanwhile, the Phlock Github repo hadn’t been touched in over 2 months. I had been so busy with Atila and Phlock was still so obscure that few people actually knew or cared about it so it had quietly just slid into the abyss. Here are some things I’ve learnt from starting a company that disappeared.

  • Start with Software (It’s called Hardware for a Reason)
  • Web Apps over Mobile Apps
  • Quitting is Underrated
  • Share the Journey
  • Love the Process

Start with Software (It’s called Hardware for a Reason)

One of my biggest lessons is that if you are a first time entrepreneur I really think you should consider starting with a software as a service company. There are too many variables in a hardware startup that if it’s your first time starting a company some of the challenges in hardware will finish your company before you even start, or worse, after you’ve started.

The single biggest challenge is a lack of iteration speed and the long feedback cycles. When you are starting a company you need to be able to have a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, then iterate quickly on the response you get. Starting a company can be so counterintuitive that most of the time it’s better to just release something that doesn’t even fully work yet just so people can show you why it doesn’t work and you can quickly give them a better version.

However, with hardware you typically have a hypothesis on what the market wants, work on it for a long period of time, then get feedback on it. The problem is, by the time you get the feedback, your company may no longer have money, motivation or market interest to iterate on the feedback.

The other problem with hardware is that there are too many variables that are out of your control. We entrepreneurs like to be masters of our own destiny and captains of our ship, hardware can turn you into a wimpy leaf. When you start a company, it feels like there are so many little things that can simply breath on you and your company will fall.

Fortunately, with software companies, you have a lot of control over making a product that the market wants and that gives you leverage. With software if something doesn’t work it’s usually your fault, which is actually a liberating feeling.  In hardware there are too many external suppliers, vendors, investors, distributors etc. that have leverage over you and can impact the future of your company.

My friends often pitch me on business ideas they have and when it involves anything hardware related and they’ve never started a company before I often give them the same advice. Keep the same idea you have but think of the subset of that problem which could be solved as a purely software solution through a web or mobile app. Build that first, then once you know you have the ability to deliver a tangible product and more importantly, make something people want, you can start adding the hardware components to your idea.

Web Apps over Mobile Apps

If I was to redo Atila I would have made the mobile app into a web app or added a “phlock-lite” version that was a web app. This advice is not strictly relevant to Phlock because there was a hardware component so a native mobile app was necessary. But I think that the future (actually, back to the future, because the origins of internet and things like Netscape was in web apps) of software will be delivered through web apps over mobile apps.

There is a separate post I wrote on this (see the Progressive Web Apps section), the punchline is that web browsers, javascript and web apps are becoming more powerful at the same time that people are becoming increasingly reluctant to download new apps from app stores. As a startup, many companies take themselves out of the game because people won’t download the app before they can even find out if its bad or good.

Quitting is Underrated

One of the things I learnt from Phlock was a new way of thinking about quitting. There were a couple weeks I kept working on Phlock in the name of “finish what you started” and “never give up” but this may have been a mistake. People either quit because something is too hard or what they’re doing is taking them down the wrong path. Of course the great jedi mind trick is that many people quit the right path because it’s too hard and then they convince themselves that they quit because they were going down the wrong path. I myself have this issue sometimes but something that helps me is asking myself “If this was easier, would I still want to do it?”. I don’t think I consciously knew I was doing it at the time but in retrospect, that question helped me realize my time was better spent on Atila.

Share the Journey

One thing I wish I did more during my work with Phlock was documenting and sharing more of the thoughts I had and the things I made. First, the serendipity of the internet has allowed cool opportunities to come out of people finding the things I have shared. Second, I think documenting my ideas for future generations to see could be pretty cool, I could also use it as a public archive of a snapshot of where my head was at and how my thinking has changed. Finally, I spend a lot of time in open source land and I’m always amazed by the stuff that people share on the internet for free and I think giving back to the open source community when I can is a good thing.

I have open sourced some of the code I used to build Phlock. Including the java source code for the android app that allowed users to share keys with each other in real time and the code that controlled the microcontroller which locked and unlocked the door deadbolt. There are a lot of files and parsing what can and can’t be shared will take a bit of time. So I’ll be sharing the code ad-hoc and based on community interest, so if anybody wants me to upload more stuff let me know (tomiwa@atila.ca).

Love the Process

Looking at my folder with all the Phlock code I have this weird mixed emotions of indifference and concern. I spent so much time and cognitive load on Phlock that leaving it to do something is else is kind of sad. But at the same time, I enjoyed building Phlock and I really feel like I left it for a good reason which is why I feel good about my choice.

I really enjoyed the day to day grind and process of building Phlock and the skills that I learnt are effectively an investment in whatever I do next. When I have talks with people about career advice, I often ask them to focus on the median emotion of their decision. In other words, ignoring the emotional high social validation of a prestigious job, think of what the regular, unspectacular day in that life would look like.

Imagine a rainy Monday morning waking up to for a full day of work or a quiet Wednesday afternoon in the office. With Phlock, and now with Atila, there are many days where nothing particularly special happened, except “work stuff”. Often those are some of the best days and finding happiness in normalcy is something that has helped me a lot, maybe it might help you.

This post was more divergent than most of my other essays, and most of my other essays are already very divergent. However, I think that by covering a wide range of thoughts, everyone can find a little bit of something that will be relevant to them. Thanks for reading, have a great day.