Why Doppler Labs shut down

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Doppler Labs executives Brian Hall, Noah Kraft, Velastegui, Richard Heye
Doppler Labs CEO Brian
Hall (left) and founder Noah Kraft (right)

Doppler

  • Doppler Labs, a startup with $50 million in funding, is
    shutting down.
  • Doppler’s flagship product was the Here One, a pair of
    super-smart earbuds that competed with the Apple AirPods.
    However, they were a sales flop, with some design defects
    leading to negative reviews and poor word-of-mouth.
  • Company execs say that the spirit of Doppler lives on
    in products like Google’s Pixel Buds, and the era of “hearable”
    computing is still on its way. 
  • The execs believe that it’s still possible for startups
    to compete with the tech giants, it’s just hard work and takes
    a lot of cash.

Doppler Labs — the startup behind the
Here One earbuds
, a super-smart alternative to Apple’s
AirPods — is no more. It informed customers on Wednesday
that it’s in the process of shutting down.

When
Business Insider reviewed the Here One
, we wrote that they
were “the wildest pair of headphones I’ve used.” The Here
One came with a companion app that let you tune the earbuds so
they could do things like drown out airplane noise while
allowing you to still hear the person next to you, or
amplify the bbad at a concert, as well various other neat
tricks. 

Despite this nifty technology, and $50 million in venture
funding, the Here One was a sales flop. In a candid profile,

Doppler told Wired
that Here One only sold 25,000 units, well
below the hundred thousand-plus it expected. As a result,
investors were unwilling to put more money into the company, and
couldn’t find a reasonable buyer. 


doppler labs here one
The Doppler Labs Here One
are smart headphones that can cancel out some noises, but not
others.

Business Insider/Jeff
Dunn


And so, the company decided to use the last of its cash to
pay employees what they were owed, and gracefully shut down. As a
farewell gift, Doppler  released a long-promised app
that lets the Here One act as an app-badisted hearing aid,
fulfilling one of the company’s big ambitions for its
products.

I spoke to Doppler Labs founder Noah Kraft, CEO Brian Hall,
and VP of Advocacy & Accessibility KR Liu about what went
wrong, the legacy the company hopes it leaves behind, and whether
or not it’s possible for a startup to compete with the Apples and
Amazons of the world.

‘Bittersweet irony’

“There’s some bittersweet irony” in seeing Google promote
the
Pixel Buds
, its new wireless headphones, says
Kraft. 

The headlining feature of the Pixel Buds is
real-time translation
, like something out of “Star Trek.”
Doppler Labs had made great strides building a similar
feature for its own headphones. Indeed, when Google first
revealed the Pixel Buds back in September, it used a very similar
image as Doppler’s own Here One marketing.

“It’s almost theater of the absurd,” says
Kraft. 

And yet, it also means that the market that Doppler Labs
was trying to create will live on. In a
farewell LinkedIn post
, Liu wrote: “I know our legacy will
live on through the products that will follow from other
companies and the movement we helped spur.” 

Liu says that the market for hearable computers will
eventually come to fruition, as Google, Apple, and others invest
in smarter headphones. Still, she says, Doppler should be
remembered by history as an innovator, and one of the original
inventors in the space.

“My hope is that what Doppler has created doesn’t die,”
says Liu.

What went wrong

In that Wired profile, Kraft places the blame squarely on
the fact that Doppler was in the hardware business — a cutthroat
market that requires mbadive amounts of capital to get started,
and pits you against the likes of Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon.
Companies like
Jawbone
,
Pebble
, and now, Doppler Labs, have all folded under that
pressure.

“I wouldn’t advise anyone at this stage to start a hardware
business,” Kraft tells Business Insider.

And yet, Doppler Labs CEO Brian Hall says that it’s not as
impossible as it may sound to build a stable hardware business. A
big reason the Here One didn’t sell is because a design flaw gave
it lower-than-expected battery life, plus an issue where the
charging case didn’t work quite right. It meant early
word-of-mouth was worse than hoped for.


pixel buds
The Google Pixel buds can
translate languages in your ear, fulfilling one of Doppler Labs’
big hopes for its product line.

Matt
Weinberger/Business Insider


But Hall, formerly an executive on the Microsoft Surface
hardware team, says that even hardware from the big guys has
flaws — the first
Microsoft Surface RT tablet was a famous flop
, after all. The
difference is that Microsoft could afford to pick itself up off
the floor and find a fix, while Doppler had an extremely limited
cash supply.

If Doppler’s Here One had hit that hundred-thousand sales
mark, says Hall, the company could have gotten more cash. The
cash would have gone into making the follow-up Here Two more
usable as a hearing aid and translator, which Hall believes would
have differentiated the product even further from Apple’s AirPods
or Google Pixel Buds.

“I’m a firm believer that we would have made a business,”
says Hall. “I will go into my grave believing we could have done
it.” 

Kraft agrees, with a caveat: “It would have put me in an
earlier grave,” he says.

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