iGetIt! Music

Online music education courseware for non-musicians who want to learn how to write their own rock songs.

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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

This blog documents the development of JIMS iGetIt! Music System (JIMS). JIMS' goal is to help you Understand Music in 24 Hours™, if you are (a) a non-musician (b) who wants to learn how to write your own rock songs. Requiring no instrument other than your own computer, and without using traditional notation, JIMS is being designed to deliver a deep understanding of tonal structure...in just 24 hours.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Killed Thumtronics?

I killed Thumtronics, as its CEO, through my own inexperience.

Two major errors — both mine — killed Thumtronics, thus preventing the Thummer from reaching the market.

These errors were:
1) Starting Thumtronics is the wrong location.
2) Failing to observe the KISS Principle ("Keep It Simple, Stupid").

I started Thumtronics in a tiny hick town (Busselton, Western Australia). Great place to semi-retire, but a lousy place to start a high-tech company. I believed that the world had become flat. However, if you're trying to get a start-up off the ground, geography still matters. Your first step must be to relocate to an appropriate start-up hub.

For Thumtronics, not relocating was fatal. Most of my other mistakes, large and small, could have been avoided simply by starting up in (for example) Austin, and taking advantage of its excellent start-up infrastructure.

I was initialy attracted to the Thummer, as an investment of my own time and money, because it was "old wine in new bottles," in which the bottle provided all of the added value. All I needed to do was wrap off-the-shelf parts in a new instrument-shape, and voila! — I'd have an inexpensive, expressive new instrument that was easy to learn, fully compatible with all existing (USB-)MIDI-based hardware and software, and patentable. Everything in the Thummer would be off-the-shelf except for its user interface, which was the only remaining source of value in the musical instrument industry's value chain (everything else having been commoditized).

Even better, every performance of the Thummer — whether live or in a video — would implicitly "endorse" the Thummer's unique abilities. Further, because the Thummer would look so unmistakably different from everything else, every performance would also be an "advertisement" for the Thummer. Our marketing expenses could be very low, because our customers would advertise the Thummer for us, simply by using it. (This approach doesn't work for guitar makers because all guitars look alike to non-guitarists. The Thummer, however, looks totally unique, even to non-musicians.)

Indeed, the Thummer was a "purple cow" — a product so different that it would attract attention effortlessly (which was later borne out by the Thummer's ability to attract press from such non-musical publications as the Wall Street Journal).

With this in mind, I should have focused exclusively on "getting version 1.0 to market ASAP, while spending as little on R&D as possible," in order to (a) keep its price low and (b) jump-start the use/endorse/advertise cycle ASAP.

Why did I not maintain this obviously-correct focus?

Because I was also aware that the Internet dramatically increased the effect of word-of-mouth communications (hence "word of mouse"). If Thummer v1 sucked, then its use/endorse/advertise cycle would never start — or, worse, an anti-use/endorse/advertise cycle would begin, "poisoning the well" for version 1 and all future versions, too.

I came to belive that, in order to ensure positive word of mouse, the Thummer v1 had to be "the most expressive instrument on the planet." It had to exceed its customers' expectations by such a wide margin that it would attract evangelically-enthusiastic word of mouse. This led me to elevate expressive potential over KISS, and therefore to invest time and money in two features that required R&D: (a) motion sensing and (b) key velocity/aftertouch.

Motion Sensing
Today, motion sensing (using accelerometers and gyroscopes) is as cheap as dirt, because it's implemented in off-the-shelf chips. Such chips are in every modern console game controller, such as Nintendo's Wii Remote and Sony's SixAxis/DualShock 3 controller.

But back then, in 2003-2005 when we were developing the Thummer, there were no cheap off-the-shelf motion-sensing solutions. Because of this, we should have written off motion-sensing as "a great feature for a later version, once motion-sensing chips became available off-the-shelf." Pretty obvious, right?

The problem was that people LOVED the motion-sensing prototype Thummers. Even skeptics became enthusiasts after seeing them demonstrated. Motion sensing made musician's expressive actions visible to the audience, which was something a tiny thumb-operated joystick could never do. Motion sensing was clearly the Thummer's killer feature.

If we could just implement motion sensing in Thummer v1 (we thought), then we'd have a hit, Hit, HIT!

However, with the crude and expensive motion-sensing chips available back then, there was no way we were going to make a motion-sensing Thummer. It took us months, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, to realize just how hard it was going to be to pull together a "complete solution" from those crude chips. Had Thumtronics been in Austin, I would have had access to people who knew that "complete solution" chips were just a couple of years away. Integrating the new chips into a Thummer would have required one-tenth the R&D effort by Thumtronics. Making the decision to wait would have been much, much easier, had I known that such chips were coming soon. (Chip advances are sporadic, so it's not easy to predict what the next year or two will bring, even if you know that "chips are getting better all the time.")

In any case, I should have stuck to my initial vision of "old wine in new bottles," and ignored motion sensing until it became "old wine," in the form of off-the-shelf chips. Deciding to spend R&D resources on motion-sensing was a mistake.

Key velocity/aftertouch
The harder you strike a piano key, the harder its strings are struck. This one extra expressive variable — "key velocity" — was enough to cause the piano to out-compete the harpsichord, pipe organ, and all other previous keyboard instruments.

"Aftertouch" goes a step further, by allowing an instrument to sense the pressure with which you continue to press a key after the initial strike.

Although there was ample off-the-shelf technology available to measure key-velocity in an electronic instrument that used a piano-like keys, there was none available for concertina-like button-field instruments (and there still is none today). The movement of a button is quite different than that of a piano-like key, so we couldn't use piano-based technology.

We figured that, if the Thummer v1 didn't implement key velocity, then it would suck, and ruin our word of mouse. Therefore, we decided to reverse-engineer the pressure-sensitive buttons of the Sony PlayStation video game controllers, which would give us both key-velocity and aftertouch. However, reverse-engineering this button-system turned out to be beyond the capabilities of our back-of-beyond, hick town company. It soaked up much more of our resources than we could afford. By the time we realized that the end of this R&D task was not in sight, the end of our capital was.

Attempting to implement key velocity/aftertouch was a mistake for three reasons. First, it required R&D, and the "old wine in new bottles" game plan was specifically designed to minimize R&D. Second, it simply wasn't necessary. An alternative feature, called "channel pressure," would have been (a) good enough, and (b) brain-dead simple/cheap/fast to implement. We were focused on key velocity/aftertouch because we listened too hard to our piano-playing beta-testers, who said it was a "must have." Third, even if the Thummer needed more expressive power to succeed, the "killer" way to get that expressive power was through motion sensing, not key velocity/aftertouch.

Bad Decisions => Lack of Cash => Death
These bad decisions cost Thumtronics time, and time is money. If I had not made these bad decisions, Thumtronics would have been able to bring v1 of the Thummer to market by Christmas 2005, at which time it still had enough capital to live cheap and market hard while sales ramped up.

Having made these errors, however, I had to attempt to raise more money. This fund-raising effort failed. Presumably, potential investors decided that if I hadn't brough the Thummer to market after a $1.5 million dollar investment — which should have been ample — then perhaps it was simply a bad idea, or I was simply a bad entrepreneur. They were probably right, on the latter point, at least (although I'd say "inexperienced" rather than "bad").

Bad Location => Bad Decsions
Had I started the company in the right location, and thus been able to assemble a board of directors (and suppliers, partners, employees, etc.) with the right experience, then they are very likely to have been able to help me (a) resist the temptation to elevate "excellence" over KISS, and (b) stick to my "old wine in new bottles" game plan, thereby getting Thummer v1 onto the market by Christmas 2005.

Purple cows don't need to be excellent, in their first version. They just need to be very, very purple...and commercially available. The Thummer would have been very bright purple indeed, even without motion sensing or key velocity/aftertouch. All it needed was to get to market, so that it could find its niche. Each subsequent version could have"sucked less," growing the niche, and climbing the Long Tail into the mainstream.

I never should have elevated "expressive potential" over KISS. Darn it.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda...
Let's imagine for a moment that I had not made either of these two major errors. How would the Thummer have worked out? No one can know for sure, however, but here's one possible scenario.

Thummer version 1 would have been available for sale in time for Christmas 2005, without motion sensing or key velocity/aftertouch. Although sales would not have been explosive by any means, v1 would have sold enough over the next 12 months to make Thumtronics cash-flow positive by the end of the year, with a clear growth curve. (This is especially true because we would never have employed the staff that we hired to implement motion-sensing and key velocity/aftertouch, thereby keeping our costs lower.) Sales of the open-source Monome, and of Yamaha's Tenori-On, show that demand existed for alternative instruments such as the Thummer. A history of real, proveable, black-and-white sales growth would have allowed us to attract growth capital. Growth capital is much easier to get than start-up capital, and there was no shortage of growth capital in the USA back then.

With that growth capital, we could have accelerated sales in 2006. Also, motion sensing chips became widely available in 2007, so we could have added motion-sensing to version 2 for Christmas 2007.

Thummer v2 would have been a truly excellent product, not only due to motion sensing but also due to lots of little refinements that users would have suggested after using version 1. As you can see from Ken Rushton and others, the very idea of the Thummer creates "evangelically enthusiastic" supporters. Think how much stronger this enthusiasm would be, and how much more broadly-based, if Thummers actually existed, so that one's enthusiasm could be based on experience (which Ken's now is, more or less, using his excellent DIY jammer) rather than expectation.

With motion-sensing driving the sales of Thummer v2 in 2008, we would have had the cash-flow to add channel pressure to Thummer v3, probably in time for Christmas 2008.

At least as importantly, with Thummers actually being available, the development of open-source software synths that exploited Thummer-only effects (such as dynamic tonality) would have proceeded much faster than they have in today's real time-line. By mid-2009, it is quite possible that dynamic tonality would have started showing up in pop music. (Consider this use of a Monome, or this use of a Reactable. Creative artists LOVE new gadgets.)

The more the Thummer was used by pop musicians, the more rapidly it would have ascended the Long Tail into the mainstream. That's when we would have started seeing Thummer-players being invited to join mainstream bands, or bursting into the commercial music business with Thummer-based bands. That's also when Yamaha, Fender, Roland, etc. would start considering offering their own Thummers, which Thumtronics would probably have encouraged through a patent & trademark license and reference design package.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Sigh.

It was all there, in the palm of my hand, but I screwed it up. By starting Thumtronics in the back of beyond, and by placing "expressive power" above KISS, I wasted my own and my investors' capital, and quite literally the opportunity of a lifetime.

A skeptic might say that Thumtronics' experience proves that "new musical instruments always fail," no matter how much "better" the new instrument might be. This is absolutely the wrong interpretation of the facts, however. The Thummer has never had the chance to succeed or fail in the marketplace. Commercially speaking, it is completely untested.

What's really frustrating is that today, motion sensing could be incorporated into the Thummer for next to nothing. Version 1 of such a Thummer, with motion sensing and channel pressure (but not key velocity/aftertouch) could be a hit product from Day 1. I've still got the key patents. It's still doable. But now I'm broke, angel investors are broke, VCs are broke, and it's just not going to happen. Argh.

Ah, well. Thumtronics is dead. Long live iGetIt Music! :-)

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Blogger happy.me7 said...

How can I make one? Please. :) I live right near that old hick town of Bunbury (I live in Perth) You're a hundred percent right about everything here. It is a terrible place to start, I should know as I'm starting my own business as well as having many ideas for prototypes of things I want to build. But this is something I have been wanting to play for years. I didn't know it even existed.. but I have longed for a way to play the electronic music I like through a physical means.

Is it possible to buy a prototype. Hell, even for the charity I want to start which is based around giving youth the chance to have a place to express themselves musically.

Can be contacted on happy.me7@hotmail.com

February 13, 2010 at 8:39 AM  
Blogger JimPlamondon said...

The best way to make a Thummer for yourself, today, is probably to follow Ken Rushton's lead, as described here:

Alternatively, the Thummer's design docs can be downloaded from the web:

Happy hacking! :-)

February 27, 2010 at 12:23 PM  

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