Happy Birthday to ion

6 minute read

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

One year ago, on this day, we launched ion, the ipod charger. The launch was just one blog post. That's it. Within two hours, Atul Chitnis bought the first ion in our online store. We celebrated.

But hold on, let's rewind the story a bit.

As people might have heard in our recent running talk, it all started when Vikram, Niara and myself started training together for the 2006 Bangalore Marathon.

During one of our runs, Vikram told us that he had created his own charger circuit and came up with this wacky idea of manufacturing and selling them. I never took it seriously but Niara did. She convinced Vikram to take the idea forward. Nearly six months later, the idea had taken wings.

The prototype looked nothing like something we could sell.

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Later, I was planning to attend the first proto.in. Vikram and Niara joined in and we went together. I was totally floored by the energy of the people there and the fire in the eyes of these startup guys. I told those two that they should talk to this guy called Arif Vakil of "Vakil Housing" fame and how he was looking to fund interesting ideas. Immediately, Vikram swung into action, approached Vakil and started explaining the idea. Surprisingly, he showed interest!

Luckily, Vikram had brought his prototype and went to fetch it from his bag. Then Vikram started searching for his iPod when Arif said "Let's try with my iPod". Wow. That moment. Imagine if your VC is a would-be customer and the product solves a problem that he himself faces. Nothing like it.

We connected Arif's iPod to the charger and the charger to a power socket. The blue LED came on. The iPod was showing the charging symbol. We all had smiles on our faces. Arif was impressed and went on to even ask us where we live and so on. That means he really was interested.

After that incident, it was time to head back. Vikram was on an all-time high. That was when we were all convinced that we were on to something. And throughout the bus journey from Chennai to Bangalore, those two convinced me to join ion. I wasn't so sure. Yeah, it was a Saturdays-only part-time thing. Yeah, Vikram and me had discussed about such things endlessly. But still, I wasn't sure.

I thought about it the next day and thought "Why not?" I don't lose much if it bombs and it was a good excuse for us three to keep meeting up.

For various reasons, we didn't approach Vakil for funding and put in the initial investment ourselves. And we went from shopping for running shoes to shopping for resistors and capacitors and modifying Drupal code.

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Then there was the countless decision-making sessions like coming up with poster ideas and then the stories about how we decided the logo for ion, how we landed in trouble with the cops, and finally the launch of ion.

We sent an email to friends asking them to forward to their company internal groups and anybody who would be interested. We also gave posters to put up on their company notice boards. That was pretty much our 'marketing strategy'. The idea was that we marketed it as an iPod charger and our target audience was the techie crowd.

We marketed it as an iPod charger even though it will work with anything that can be charged with USB right from mobile phones to battery chargers. We use the term iPod charger because that's what people have most demand for. The second part about targeting techies was because they will be the ones who will look to finding a solution that is cheaper than the official charger which costs 2000 rupees but still is reliable. Ours was one-fifth that price.

The most humbling experience for me was trying to sell ion outside the Aerosmith concert. That was such a good example of a wrong person (me) in the right place doing the job not suited for him. But yet Niara and me did it for ion.

Then came the amazing customer feedback and our highest point - getting featured in a half-page article in Economic Times:

ion in economic times

And yes, Arif congratulated us.

But you want to know what's the craziest part? We made just 200 pieces of ion. Yes, that's it. 200 ions. Crazy. And see how far it went.

After that ET article happened, we ran out of stock. That was six months ago. Many people have asked me why we're not selling more ions. So I thought I'll tell the hidden part of the story today - We never intended ion to live longer than those 200 pieces. It was just a business experiment for us, nothing more. Why? To learn what it takes to convert an idea to a reliable quality product and take it to market.

We never called ourselves a startup back then. That has happened only in hindsight. In fact, I was in it because I thought I could help since I had some experience in maintaining my own websites and maybe I can learn a thing or two in running an ecommerce store.

After we managed to the finish selling the batch of 200 pieces and made decent profit, Vikram moved to USA, Niara moved on to other things in life and so did I.

But the response hasn't stopped. Even last Thursday (Apr 17), we got emails from four different people in a single day asking when we'll be back in stock. Crazy, I tell you.

I have had so many personal failures and failed projects in the past few years that it seemed stupid to kill a successful project of ours. So Vikram and myself have been working on reviving ion. We hope to be back with a batch of second generation ions in the next month.

The experiment continues.


Balu says:

Great stuff guys. Even I was in a startup (Riya.com) and I know how tough it is for even simpler ideas to click.

Just dropped by your site from a random google search.

Keep it going and keep running.


PS: Do you by any chance know "Naveen Bysani" from PESIT ? He was my colleague at Riya and is a very good friend too !

Swaroop says:

@Prateek Heh :-P

@Balu Thanks for the encouragement :-)

And unfortunately I don't know a Naveen Bysani, but I do know a Sudheer Bysani, not sure if they're related though.

Prateek says:

As Guy Kawasaki says "If someone offers you money, take the money!" :)

Best of luck .. I think its a great decision.

Prateek Dayal

Sunil Jagadish says:

All the best to you and the ion team! :-)

Rohan Kini says:

:) Nice writeup dude.

These 'experiments' are lot of fun. We are going ahead a little more than just 200 pieces ;)

Swaroop says:

@Rohan : Heh, yes, a little more than 200 this time. Let's see how it goes!

@Sunil : Thanks :)

Bhasker V Kode says:

Good stuff. They say that startups tend to go well with inspiring stories behind them. Seems like you guys have plenty of that 8 )

Hope you have an even more memorable year ahead!

Keep Clicking,
~B )