Once upon a time, there was a Kickstarter project called Brydge to build an awesome clamshell, aluminum keyboard for the iPads. It was funded well beyond expectations and got off to a good start. But the company went astray and there were many unhappy customers. In this interview, Nicholas Smith tells the story about how Brydge was brought under new management that has tried to make everything right again.
Back in 2012, it was very exciting to hear about the Brydge Kickstarter project. The goal was to make a beautiful aluminum keyboard, connected via Bluetooth, that would make an iPad 2,3,4 look almost identical to a MacBook.TMO was sent a unit and reviewed with the verdict: "The Brydge: a First-rate Case & Keyboard for Your iPad." The rating for the device itself was 4.5/5 "Great!"
Regrettably, the team that launched Brydge didn't do as good a job with the order fulfillment system. Units didn't get shipped on time or at all to some people who paid in advance, and the Brydge group quickly earned a reputation for poor customer service. Many customers appealed to The Mac Observer, seeking assistance, and the comments following the above review documents a litany of customer complaints. And that was just what came around our way.
Nicholas J. Smith
Early this spring, this editor was contacted by Nicholas J. Smith in Singapore who told us that he had formed a new company, Brydge Keyboards, which had assumed ownership of Brydge. He was in the process of relaunching the brand and offered us a chance to interview him about the new company.
Mr. Smith was asked some rather probing questions, and he answered them all cheerfully and completely. Hopefully, the interview below, conducted via email, will provide a good understanding of the new company, its approach to customer service and what the future holds for Brydge Keyboards.
TMO: Briefly introduce us to how you took over from thebrydge.com. Did you buy the old company and its assets outright? How does that work with a foreign company?
NJS: We’ve taken over the Brydge business via an exclusive global licence and are now the exclusive manufacturers and distributors of the Brydge iPad Keyboard. Our company is new and completely separate. Brydge LLC is still owned by Brad, Sam and Eddy however Brydge LLC no longer operates the Brydge business.
TMO: How did you come to personally know the Brydge team? You mentioned you have a very close relationship with them. Was that before you took over or after?
NJS: It's a great story. I travel all over Asia and while in Korea on a trip I came across the Brydge. After realising I couldn’t get one I reached out to the Brydge Team to enquire about Distribution in Asia. After some negotiations my partner (Toby Mander-Jones) and I began distributing the Brydge across South East Asia. After moderate success, it was becoming evident that the founders (Sam, Eddy and Brad) were starting to focus on other ventures. There was no roadmap for a future model and more so, the willingness to support us was wavering. However we saw huge opportunity in the Brydge.
From there we had a very open conversation about their direction and how we could help and what resulted was an offer from Brydge LLC for us to take over the business. With our backgrounds, it was clear that Brydge had built a very strong brand and ultimately a great product but it had been hampered by incredibly poor customer service, next to no vision on how to scale the business through an enterprise sales strategy and more so had not invested properly in building out an enterprise online distribution platform. All of these points combined pointed towards a business that had great potential but was being driven into the ground.
Our relationship with the team now is quite different. We have regular communications with Sam and daily or weekly communications with Eddy. Given Eddy’s focus on the original production of the Brydge, we’ve now engaged with him as our head of product innovation and manufacturing. Having him onboard as our manufacturer is critical in maintaining the high quality of the Brydge as we develop new models.
Next: Backgound on the founder and company.
Backgound on the Founder and Company
TMO: Tell us more about yourself, your background and your company.
NJS: Brydge Global Pte Ltd is a private limited company based in Singapore. Our shareholders are myself, Toby Mander-Jones and an investor.
Toby and I have been friends for over 15 years and have commercial backgrounds that complement each other very well.
I have a relatively entrepreneurial background. After leaving school I worked for Accenture and KPMG but soon realised that corporate life wasn’t immediately for me. At 24, I raised ADU$250K in seed funding to build a pilot for an online education concept I had. After building out the pilot I successfully raised AUD$4.8M in total funding to take the product to market (www.skwirk.com.au).
Toby is an entrepreneur at heart. He is a corporate lawyer by training, having studied both commerce and law at university in Sydney. Throughout almost a decade he has gained significant experience across the Asia Pacific region in mergers and acquisitions, distribution arrangements, IPOs and private equity — including in the tech space.
TMO: Given the snafus with the customer order database, what measures have you invested in to put that ship right and fulfill all the outstanding orders? Product details on the order system and customer management system would be nice.
NJS: Customer service had been horrible. We are hearing of stories that would break records in terms of how not to treat a customer. From a Brydge being thrown in the air and shot with a 12 gauge shotgun to being thrown in a river out of pure rage — we’ve seen them all. All of this is stemming not from a poor device, but incredibly poor communication and management. Period. We’ve had people who had ordered who never received a keyboard, people who had a faulty unit and sent it back for repair but never received their keyboard. People who’ve been sending an email a month for the last 12 and never to get a response.
So firstly let me just say that the Brydge Keyboards will not succeed unless we build a stable base of customers who are huge advocates for the product and brand and not detractors. How have we fixed it, we’ve addressed the ailments of the former very directly and honestly.
We haven’t stepped away and said we’re a new company, [that] we’ve got nothing to do with the old. We’ve been very open about the poor customer service to date and that we want to hear from you so we can help. Over the last eight weeks, we’ve run a number of campaigns across our existing customer base with the view to finding all those who have had a terrible experience. This has ultimately cost us a lot as we’ve replaced a huge amount of keyboards however it is well worth it as we’re now seeing pretty much all positive praise vs negative criticism.
To help manage the entire customer process, we’ve implemented an entire ecosystem of cloud based solutions that help us run the online world.
- Shopify – It runs our end to end website and ordering process
- Shipwire – We warehouse our stock in the UK, Hong Kong and US. Shipwire is tightly integrated into Shopify so we have complete automation from order placement through to order fulfilment. Customers receive realtime shipping quotes that route automatically to the closest warehouse guaranteeing the cheapest shipping rates. From there an order is placed and will ship within 24 hours.
- Shopify Apps – we use approximately four key apps that manage everything from cart abandonment, product reviews, product upsell and selling tools
- Support Fu – This app is amazing, this manages our customer support. Support Fu is tightly integrated with Shopify so any query that comes in immediately gets aligned to our customer database so we can see the products they’ve purchased, their location and date. Most importantly though it allows us to mange the communication string as a support ticket through until close.
- Mailchimp – enough said.
- TradeGecko – Order management system for enterprise deals (integrated with shopify & xero)
- Xero – the king of online accounting solutions.
You can safely say that without the services of the solutions above we could not run and would not have taken on this business. We now have a scalable platform that can grow with our business and deliver a great experience to any customer, any time any where.
Next: The handoff and the future.
The Handoff and the Future
TMO: What kinds of things happened during the handoff period last winter?
NJS: Quite a lot. The handoff process was broken down into a number of areas. They were:
- Contract – Given Toby’s profession, he drove this process which was long and time consuming.
- Wesbite – We obviously rebranded and relaunched our web presence
- Stock – This well orchestrated process that saw thousands of keyboards shipped from various independent locations into our Shipwire warehouses located in the UK, HK & Los Angeles.
- CRM – Customer database. Ingestion of customer information into the new systems.
TMO: Are there more customers who haven’t received what they paid for — that you know of? Were any customers who were fed up refunded their money?
NJS: There would be a few out there, however, in most part we’ve probably reached out to 90 percent of them and addressed their issues.
The office (in blue, near middle) in Singapore
TMO: How much longer will you sell the Brydge for iPad 2,3 and 4?
NJS: This is a great question. We currently have a considerable amount still in stock. As we begin to run this inventory low we’ll look at the business case to develop more. If we feel the sales run rate is going to get to a consistent monthly volume for at least a 12 month period we’ll then more than likely launch a version 2 for the iPad 2, 3 and 4.
TMO: You mentioned earlier that you expect to ship for the iPad Air in second half of 2014. Can you be any more specific?
NJS: Absolutely. We are only weeks away from production and pre-sales have
already launched. At this stage the first units will be shipping towards
the end of September to early October with the bulk hitting retail stores late October to early November. The plan is to have it in store before (U.S.) Thanksgiving.
The keyboard its self is hugely improved on the current Brydge+. Based on the feedback from our customers, its been completely redesigned from the ground up. We¹ve shaved off 35 percent of the weight, added a backlit keyboard
and have included a completely new speaker system that has resulted in huge improvements on the sound quality.
Brydge for iPad Air.
TMO: How concerned are you that Apple may change the size of the next iPad Air, Pro, or whatever?
NJS: Reasonably. As you can imagine there is a huge amount of investment required to develop a new model and obviously we are at the mercy of Apple. Based on history, the likelihood of them doing a complete revamp is low, however not impossible. I can’t go into detail however over the next month we’ll be in a much better position to press the button on production with more confidence.
TMO: Is aluminum the only way forward or will you stay with both aluminum and polycarbonate models?
NJS: Another great question. At this stage we’re thinking that we’ll be sticking with the aluminium. The new model is exceptional and significantly raises the bar again. What we will do however is look at ways to release a full feature and no feature aluminium model. All that said though, if the customers want a polycarbonate model, then we wouldn’t rule it out.
TMO: How many Brydge units shipped before you took over? And now, after you’ve taken over?
NJS: Close 20,000 have shipped. Over the last six months sales have slowed as Brydge LLC pretty much stopped all PR and advertising. So since taking over, we’re having to start from a small base, however in the short eight weeks since we re-launched, sales have been growing consistently. They’re still not where we want them to be however they’re well and truly moving in the right direction.
TMO: You talked about a scalable order system. Does that mean you think the product was bottlenecked, and now can grow as envisioned?
NJS: Essentially yes. We’re now in a position to push as many sales through our online system as we can get. We’re also setup in a way that we can process enterprise deals easily and efficiently from order placement to a bulk shipment leaving the warehouse. We really don’t have any excuses if something from a logistics point of view breaks down.
TMO: Do you see the product line expanding to anything beyond Apple tablets?
NJS: We do. We need to be realistic though. Unlike the former, we’re not in this for the short term and building out a broad range of products is critical so taking money off the table isn’t an option. We do however need to grow a successful business of our existing stock and have a successful launch of the iPad Air model for us to scale into new devices.
TMO: Is there a money back guarantee if not satisfied? How many days is that good for?
NJS: On the current stock, there is only a six month warranty, and there is a no refund policy. What we will do though is if there is a faulty unit on arrival, we’ll replace it immediately — the customer doesn't even need to ship the faulty unit back to us.
[Editor's note. Here is the warranty page.]
TMO: Finally, where do you see the business in 12-24 months time?
NJS: We are really excited launching the new model (and possibly two new models) — if we can leverage the enthusiasm that the initial Kickstarter campaign generated and listen to our customers in terms of support, we think this can be even more of a success story than it already is.
As you can see from the rather probing questions, Mr. Smith has answered well and has set up what looks to be a company that can do the job when it comes to delivering products and excellent customer service. TMO is looking forward to a follow up review of the version for the iPad Air later this year, and we're told it'll be terrific.