Our homes, offices, cars, vaults. What keeps these safe and secure are locks.
Photosynth is on a quest to start a revolution with these such locks.
A startup based in Tokyo, they tackle the research and development of IoT products and the creator of the smartlock, Akerun.
Akerun is a smartlock controlled via smartphone app allowing you to share keys and keep records of who uses the lock.
Making a traditional product like the lock into an IoT product is a revolutionary idea. The Akerun’s sleek design also earned it the 2015 Good Design Award.
Founded in September of 2014, it only took 7 months until April 2015 to produce and sell the Akerun, and the following November saw the launch of the smartphone app Akerun Touch.
Although we at BRAIN PORTAL have become acquainted with hardware startups from all over the world, we were blown away by Photosynth’s rapid growth and their devotion to providing the best user experience.
Until now, people have sacrificed their convenience for the safety that locks provide them with.
However, now with Akerun, you can have best of both worlds.
We sat down with Koudai Kawase, founder of Photosynth to hear all about his product.
Photosynth- A sprout from a small seed
—First off, can I ask the origin of your unique company name, Photosynth?
Koudai: I get asked that question all the time. Photosynth is short for photosynthesis. Our company logo is also a leaf, which symbolizes how we aim for the company to become an organic one that values its connection to its natural surroundings.
—Producing a security device requires the absolute trust of customers. I myself get a little scared when I ever have to change my locks. I’m sure some people have their doubts in making locks into an IoT product. What is your personal opinion on this?
Koudai: Although we are looking into it, we are currently not at the point where we can change the people’s perception of locks. We do, however, have people who tell us how excited they are to install Akerun after they try it out at events. People are also interested in it as part of their home decor. Since we are increasingly gaining traction, we hope to start tackling this issue of people’s perception of locks in the near future.
—What are some of the achievements you have experienced during this past year?
Kodai: What we loved the most was the customer feedback. People have very high expectations when purchasing Akerun. It is the messages like “Using my smartphone to open my door is so easy, I can’t believe I used to have to carry around keys” that we recieve on social media that motivate us to keep on going.
—I heard Akerun won the 2015 Good Design Award. Congratulations!!
Koudai: Thank you very much. But for us, it is hearing the voices of our customers that work as our drive rather than the award. Not only the good feedback, but also the requests for improvement and additional features are what build Akerun. At Photosynth, we directly go to speak with customers about their user experience and throw events at our office for customers to discuss tell us their feedback.
When they tell us about the excitement they felt when they first used Akerun and how happy they are in using the product that we work so hard on building, it definitely brings over us a sense of achievement.
Team strength= power of charm, involvement, and excitement
—Can you tell us how Photosynth first started?
Koudai: It originally started with a group of my drinking buddies. The 6 of us all worked at different companies, but we all got together and decided to start a company. At the of its founding, we didn’t go home and we didn’t sleep. But even then, seeing our ideas turn into moving products, we never failed to lose our initial feelings of excitement.
—Sounds like you have a great team! How has your team changed now that you have more members?
Koudai: We currently have about 20 members on our team, and of course with more people, we the expectation for the team is much higher.
However, what we all value is the people who share our belief in the company’s mission. There’s a lot of amiable people here who are really good at involving everyone around them. Since this is a startup, it’s important to have people who can influence and support each other. It’s not all about intelligence, but how well you can work with others.
—How did you find your new team members?
Kodai: 60% of them were people I knew personally. The rest are mostly friends of friends. The team is built up of 30% business development, 40% software engineers, and 30% hardware engineers.
All of us are devoted to acting on the needs of our customers. Our rule is that we prioritize customer feedback over everything else.
Brand management begins with fundraising.
—How did you raise initial capital?
Koudai:We did so in many different ways. First, we were able to receive 20 million yen from my previous workplace social media and sharing site Gaiax. Gaiax also have an incubation service, which was a huge help.
We then relied on subsidies until we were able to raise 69 million yen, and then we partnered up with a business to then raise another 40 million yen.
Since we were able to receive multiple tens of millions of yen only 2, 3 months from our establishment, we then shifted our efforts into mass production. After that, starting with JAFCO, we were able to receive another 570 million yen of investments from venture capitalists.
—Wow! Only a handful of startups can receive such large capital at that rate. Was crowdfunding ever an option, especially back when you just started?
Koudai: We never thought of using crowdfunding to raise capital. We believed fundraising is also a part of our brand management.
Crowdfunding gives off a casual impression of the company. As a maker of a security product, we didn’t think this was the appropriate way to approach customers as well.
Crowdfunding is a way to raise funds through exposing people to cutting edge technology via promotion videos. In the case of Akerun, the technology is something that was already proven to work. Plus, there’s the fact that crowdfunding success rates were pretty low 2, 3 years ago.
Since we are creating locks, we are very careful with branding. We don’t really want to come off as just another startup.
—Are you thinking about creating new products other than Akerun?
Kodai: During meetings, and even when we’re just out drinking, we’re always thinking up new ideas. Right now, we are continuing to expand the Akerun series, like the Akerun Touch we released in November and Akerun Entrance in December of 2015.
We aspire to become the company that “coordinates the infrastructure of locks” instead of just a “startup that makes gadgets”.
It will probably take another 3 years though, because the market is so wide.
—What exactly does the market for Akerun look like?
Kodai: The Akerun market is full of possibilities. There’s the general use: for household keys, for one, but it’s also used as a security app on the smartphone to keep a log of when elders and young children leave and come back home.
In addition, for corporate customers, they can be used for automatic check in at hotels, and we predict it can be used for house viewings in the real estate industry.
We also think they could be put to use in coworking spaces and other workplaces for security and to manage employee attendance.
— I never thought of it before, how the possibility of the lock market is endless.
Koudai: Exactly! Because it’s an indispensible part of our daily lives, it has so many possibilities. It really makes it worthwhile that we’re digitalizing a product which traditional form is very inconvenient.
Getting turned down as a customer. The challenging stage of mass production.
—So far, hearing about your fundraising, expanding market, and amazing team, you guys really don’t seem like a startup! In spite of this, were there any problems as a startup that you faced?
Koudai: We faced many obstacles in the process of bring the prototype to mass production.
First of all, there isn’t enough information about manufacturing out there. Nobody here had prior experience or knowledge of creating hardware devices, and although we read hardware books front to back, they provided only general information. That’s why we had to learn from trial and error.
—The “Death Valley” period between prototype and mass production is also one of BRAIN PORTAL’s biggest concerns. How did you overcome it?
Koudai: We had no problems with making the prototype itself. I feel very lucky to live in a time where we have easy access to things like 3D printers that make creating prototypes so easy.
However, when it comes to mass production, it was a whole different story. In fact, I believe we are the only hardware startup that has successfully come to this mass production stage. It really was quite the challenge.
—I see. So how did you find factories?
Koudai: In Akerun’s case, finding somewhere that would manufacture the small motor inside the device was the biggest hassle. We went around factories all over Japan. Although we should be the clients who are giving business to the gear makers, but we were the ones begging them.
I think it was our passion for Akerun that finally persuaded a gear maker to sign with us.
—Can you tell us about your future prospects?
Koudai:I want to build a world where people can open all kinds of doors with Akerun.
Although for now, it is a product installed onto existing locks, as an app, it could help open other things such as elevators, cars, and bicycles in the future. We want to change the way we use smartphones, a device originally used as a communication device.
I think would be amazing if we could help create a world where all you have to do is approach a door to open it.
With the installation of Akerun, you don’t need to keep a hide an extra key under your doormat anymore. All you need is a smartphone to open your door, check whether your child is safely home, and manage your employees’ attendance.
The sparkle in Kodai’s eyes as he talked about Akerun makes me excited as well for the future of Akerun!