GadgeTell Interview: Piet Morgan, Founder of Hammerhead

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Hammerhead Piet MorganBiking is a form of exercise to some, but for many more it’s a lifestyle. From city streets to county roads to open wilderness, you can find cyclists just about anywhere. There are some, though not quite enough cycling products that are tech-related.

One, however, has recently gained a lot of attention and support.

I had the chance to speak over the phone with Piet (pronounced Peet) Morgan, founder of Hammerhead bike navigation, which is being funded on Dragoninnovation.

Stan: So I read your story, Piet, and I understand that the inspiration for Hammerhead has some deep roots and significant meaning. I don’t think people may really know that it’s more than just a navigation device. Do you think you can tell us how and why Hammerhead became important to you?

Piet: Yeah, sure. So the significance of the problem of bike navigation really dawned on me when I was doing the cross-country bike trip in 2006. This particular trip was associated with a couple of rather tragic accidents. And it was really these accidents that brought to light in my mind how serious of a problem it can be when one doesn’t have access to a safe bike route; Or at least when one is unable to find a safe bike route that might exist, but is just too hard to find let alone follow. That experience  really made me want to solve the problem. Then kind of bothered me for a couple of years, because I couldn’t see a way to do so. But it was last year, when some of the new technologies had been coming out, that I realized there is a pretty inexpensive and elegant way to do it now. So for that reason, I dropped what I was doing then and dedicated my full efforts to this.

Stan: What kind of experience or education do you have with designing or creating this, or even any type of electronics?

Piet: To be honest I hadn’t had any previously. I am very much of the school of thought that one can learn. So the very first thing I did was drew a design, roughly, for what my product would be. I actually made it out of clay at one point as well. But I started watching a series of lectures online. There’s so much open-source educational material put online today, so I was able to watch some great lectures on industrial design and the various electronic design series. I just kinda put that into practice and started down this road and I haven’t looked back since.

Stan: So it kind of jumped you into tech a little bit. How long do you think you spent doing all this studying and research before you decided to get started?

Piet: Well I actually decided to get started right away. I think that afternoon when I got back home, after really realizing this could be done, now. I did some preliminary research into what technologies exist. But the key was the new Bluetooth protocols, which are far more energy effective. Smartphones are now becoming more common than the old-school feature-phone. And it really just dawned on me that those two things make it possible now for anyone to have the solution. Then it was just a question of how to do it, and I’ve been working on it full time ever since. I spent my mornings doing various online classes, learning how to do these things. Then in the afternoons, I was trying to do them. That’s how it started. I eventually was able to recruit Laurence, my co-founder, who is an engineer and has good experience in this field. Then I recruited Raveen, who has a lot of software experience. So I was able to  round out the team and bring aboard guys that really knew what was going on. [laughs]

Stan: Yeah. You did, to me, what seems like an intense amount of legwork with that first prototype you created, in order to get the information and feedback to actually move forward. Then you recruited team-members, but I kind of sensed a sense of urgency. So why the rush?

Piet: Yes. I think the rush for me is twofold. I think on the one hand, it is a significant problem that needs solving. And on the other hand, I think that when the solution kind of dawned on me, I thought to myself how it’s really amazing that no one has done this yet. Biking navigation is really one field that just isn’t packed. I mean, there’s an explosion right now in different apps and that sort of thing. But this bike navigation just hasn’t been done. We were eager to bring the solution, which hasn’t existed, but also eager to be the first ones to do it.

Stan: Right. So with your story, you, Raveen, and Laurence experienced quite the gauntlet of obstacles and adverse situations.

Piet: Yeah.

Stan: It’s kind of incredible. So what would you say was the most difficult thing to overcome during that entire time?

Piet: Um, I would say there are several. But probably the most difficult was when we ultimately launched our campaign. We launched on the new Dragon platform. In many ways, I think we had expected to just have the product go viral within minutes. I guess that was naive, but we had thought it was a great product and that people would see it and suddenly just start buying it. There were many hiccups with that process. Mechanical hiccups and things on the Dragon platform itself, payment gateway issues, and all sorts of technical difficulties. It really meant the beginning of our crowd-funding campaign was a much slower start than we had hoped, but that was the case with all of the other projects on the Dragon platform. That was probably the hardest, because we really poured our souls into this for such a long time. I think we had in our minds that the day of validation would come, and that it would just kind of happen and we would be able to sit back and start actually bringing this to market on a large scale. we woke up where we live, here in Jersey city, and kind of looked around and thought “hell, this really isn’t taking off yet.” At that point in time, we hadn’t slept for several days, because there was a rush to get everything done in time. So there was a lot of effort, and I think the combination of sleep deprivation and initial disappointment was just the hardest. The nice thing was that after a few days we were able to regroup and figure out what we needed to do to get the message out. Once we were able to get the message in front of people, it’s been very validating and quite exciting. But it was definitely a depressing couple of days in the beginning.

Stan: I bet. So what made you decide to go with that platform as opposed to the more well-known ones like Kickstarter and Indiegogo?

Piet: In our minds, we always thought we’d launch on Kickstarter. We actually were not aware of the Dragon platform for a long time. But we had been speaking to Dragon with regards to their expertise in Chinese manufacturing, because their main background is manufacturing in China. So we reached out to them to get advice in the numbers we would need to run and somehow execute. It was through those conversations that they actually told us they were launching their own crowd-funding platform specifically for hardware. They encouraged us strongly to go on that platform, which sounded like a great idea since we had been very impressed with the Dragon team. We decided it would be great, and that was the initial thought behind it. We wanted to be part of something new, and we definitely supported the Dragon mission to make crowd-funding more reliable. What they’re trying to do is improve upon Kickstarter, which is often just people producing something with a video but failing to make the product a reality. Dragon is trying to close that gap by actually vetting the projects that are launched on their platform. So that I think it was something we believed in, and we went for it. I think both us and Dragon have learned a lot in the process, and I think it’s very exciting now at this point in the campaign, because we’ve been moving really quickly.

Stan: Very cool. I think it would be a good thing to see more successful rival platforms to Kickstarter and Indiegogos. So how did the three of you feel when you completed your first Hammerhead prototype together?

Piet: Sure. So the one [Hammerhead] you see in the video is actually the 9th generation prototype. The first one we completed, that actually worked, was a square, boxier version of it. It didn’t look nearly as cool, but it validated the electronics. We built the chipsets and the battery and the Bluetooth and all the rest into a much less elegant form. When that started to work, we were very excited. We immediately started walking around Jersey City around 3am, testing it on the street. Then the process from that prototype to the one you see in the video was much more incremental. There wasn’t exactly a ‘wow moment’ with the prototype in the video. I think the real wow moment was the square prototype that fired up initially. That was very exciting, even though it didn’t look all that hot to an objective observer. To us, it really meant that it worked, so that was a very validating moment.

Hammerhead 002 Hammerhead 001

Stan: Did you always have the shape of the final design in mind from the beginning, or was it something that simply came about as you evolved from each individual model?

Piet: I did a series of paper sketches originally, and had modeled it in clay. The design you see now resembles what was on paper well before we actually started building hardware. So I think we have had a very clear vision of what we wanted to produce throughout the time frame. One thing that’s been very exciting to me personally is seeing how we’ve been able to ultimately achieve that vision. A lot of products evolve and change drastically from what was initially conceived. Hammerhead really does resemble very strongly what we had initially sketched, after I did that bike ride awhile ago.

Stan: Piet, you have a pretty good eye for design. I know that when I first saw the Hammerhead design, it pulled me in. It was very intriguing, and once I started reading about the capabilities and how it works I wanted to get one. And I don’t even ride a bike! [laughs] it’s just one of those things where you think “wow, this is pretty incredible, and I want one even though maybe I don’t need one.” So with that in mind, how is using Hammerhead better than, say, riding a bike while getting GPS directions from a smartphone and a Bluetooth earpiece? Wouldn’t that work just as well?

Piet: In the case of using a headset, or earpiece, or even a set of headphones – those things I found problematic, which led me to build Hammerhead in the first place. The fact is that voice directions are exceedingly annoying. What will happen is that one will find themselves going down a street in a place that’s already known. On any given bike ride, one probably only needs guidance some percentage of the time. You don’t need to be told every single turn, and you certainly don’t need to be told every single turn several times like the audible voice GPS commands do. When I started building this, Google Maps had released their bicycling turn-by-turn directions, and I remember doing just that – plugging in a set of headphones and going for a ride, thinking it had actually solved the problem. Two things stuck me. One was the annoying nature of having this person, this voice coming into my headset the whole entire time. Secondly, is the fact that your ears are plugged, so then it becomes difficult to actually hear the surrounding environment, which is very important while biking. So I think that Hammerhead is an elegant solution. The nice thing with lights is that one is able to look at them when you need to or when you’re interested in seeing them. Yet at the same time, they aren’t obtrusive in any way. It fades into the background to the extent that you want it to, and it’s clear and concise when that is what you need. I think that users can enjoy their experience with this system better than compared to headphones.

Hammerhead Navigation night

Stan: Cool. The other big thing that caught my attention with Hammerhead is that it actually more than just hardware. You can get connected with an entire community of people who can share trails or routes. So what can people expect to gain or experience through this community with Hammerhead?

Piet: Certainly. Yes, that’s the thing that really excites us, and I’m glad that it stood out to you, because at face value I think you can see it as maybe just a set of lights that guide you. But when you actually look at what it’s capable of, that’s the exciting part. The community. We envision being able to do what really hasn’t been done before, which is to allow the communal experience. For instance, I can go out for a ride, discover a really cool ride, and immediately and effectively text it to my friends who have our device. And in doing that you allow a sharing of routes that previously couldn’t be done. I think the other use that is really cool is meeting up with people in real time. So you could intercept a riding group or coordinate a meeting with a riding group, since cycling is intrinsically a social activity. People often want to ride together. This will make that possible in a way that hasn’t been possible before. Previously, one had to use a set of points and then somehow try to find it and hope the other guy shows up. Whereas with Hammerhead, one would actually be able to see in real time who is out on the roads, who is out riding with your friends, and then go and intercept them to join up with the rides. One of the other uses that’s really exciting is the functionality of being able to tag danger areas and problem areas on roads. It’s useful for the cyclists themselves, because they will get a warning before they reach that point. Right around here there is a massive hole in the road that I know exists, but I’m certain there’s some guy just rolling along that hasn’t been there before. He has a chance to fall into it, which would be quite a serious accident. So it’s very cool if there’s a way to tag that and notify him before he gets there. It’s really about creating a community that you can access in real-time on the bike.

Stan: Wow. All this really makes me feel like I’m completely missing out on some really awesome biking adventures. [laughs]

Piet: [laughs]

Stan: So last question I ask everybody, and you can answer it anyway you choose. It can be personally or from the perspective of this interview. So the question goes, if you could choose any one person, past or present, they can be real or fictional, and this person would be your closest sibling or your best friend, who would it be and why?

Piet: Huh. That’s an interesting question. Well I think one person that stands out to me, a historic figure, is Theodore Roosevelt. I’m actually a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt, and in reading in his biography the one thing that has always stood out to me was his willingness to just do things and make things happen. He was a guy who really didn’t let perceived barriers stop him. I mean, when he was a kid he was told that he was a weak child and would die from asthma unless he strengthened himself. And he did just that. He got himself a set of weights in those days and started exercising and whatnot. And that stood out about him to me – his willingness to just get things done irrespective of what other people said around him. And I had thought of that when I’ve been sitting alone, trying to make this happen, before I had Laurence and Raveen working with me. There were times when I often thought “actually, you know this could be a complete fool’s errand, and who’s to say that what I’m doing is actually worthwhile?” At that point I was reading this particular book [easyazon-link asin=”0375756787″ locale=”us”]The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt[/easyazon-link] by Edmund Morris. I thought, at that time, what would he do in such a situation, and it was clear that he would just give it a try. So I would have to say as a friend, I would benefit greatly from having him alive and around. But the nice thing is that there are some great books about him, so I’m able to turn to those. So that would be my answer.

Stan: Great answer! So is there anything else you would like to add?

Piet: Not particularly. In terms of people, we’ve begun to get a good sense of feedback in our community from those who have read various things about Hammerhead. The one thing that has really stood out to people, that people have found engaging, is our video summary of the product. The video really does explain the product in a very concise way. If anyone has any questions, they can always let me know.

Stan: Alright. Sounds good. Well Piet, thank you so much for your time. It’s been great speaking to you.

Piet: Absolutely.


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