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or how we almost spent a million dollars building a surf speaker that nobody wanted.

Jan 2014 - March 2014
NYC + Puerto Rico + Bali
Team:  Jeabyun Yeon, Ana Maria Moreno
My Role: Co-Founder, UX, CEO/CPO

Helleroy was to become “the GoPro of music speakers” - waterproof, ultraportable, high quality sound system that you could take with you anywhere. Originally we wanted to design it for surfing (to power our own sessions) but after speaking to 300+ surfers on both coasts of the US, Caribbean and Indonesia, we realized that market and technological risks were just too high. It's actually a pretty cool story about how we almost wasted a million dollars on getting a hardware product to market, but were smart enough not to.

In a nutshell:

- Idea: waterproof, high-quality sound system for watersports
- First prototype: 5 ziplock bags + iPhone + Jambox + neoprene band
- 300+ user interviews in the US, Puerto Rico and Bali
- Dozens of prototypes (sketches, cardboard models and 3D prints)
- Go-to-market would cost $1m; decided to conduct further research
- Uncovered hidden user reservations; revised market estimates
- Found the idea too risky; decided not to do it

Waterproof iPhone case with an built-in speaker and interchangeable system of mounts to enable surfing with music

It would be about an inch thick - quality sound requires physical space (for bass)

Made from sturdy lightweight materials

One single clickable dial button for easy volume and track controls

A single screw hole for all the various mounts

Exploded view

“Smart lid” with a charging port for Li-Ion speaker battery.
iPhone can be seen inside.

One more render. Later on we would add a wire to prevent losing the lid.

Interchangeable system of mounts would provide
versatility and protection for any sport


Surfing has been a big part of my life since I first tried it in the cold waters of the North Sea (in Scheveningen, Holland to be exact) while I was at college. This sport changed my entire lifestyle and probably made me a better, fitter and happier person. Through it I met some of my best friends and traveled to places that I would have otherwise never visited. I encountered sharks, dolphins, thugs and sharp coral reefs (with my face). Oh the stories I can tell you...

In January 2014, with a few friends we took a surf trip to Ecuador. Unfortunately, the Pacific was being quiet and for hours we would just bobble on our boards blankly staring at the horizon. It was a particularly slow day. Then somebody made a sad remark: "I wish we had some music with us right now...". It took me a second to understand the meaning of that sentence. It made perfect sense - we would usually listen to music non-stop when on the shore, amplifying our every activity; yet surfing has always been the quiet time. I was surprised that I never thought of this before. I think everybody else just ignored the comment, but I was intrigued and wanted to understand why it was like this.

1. Inspiration

I talked about this idea to my friends while we were still in Ecuador. No-one actually knew what surfing with music would feel like, but we were all curious. So, armed with 5 ziplock bags (containing a Jawbone speaker and my precious iPhone) and somebody’s neoprene knee-holder we tried it out the same day. It was amazing - the experience felt much more amplified, and the music felt extremely complimentary to the surrounding elements (the video is from later testing in Puerto Rico):

Quick market research revealed that although there were some low-quality solutions available, none of them seemed to produce sound of sufficient quality, while higher-end options didn't meet the waterproof criteria and were too bulky. Music source was another major point - all our music lived on the cloud (mainly in apps like Spotify or Soundcloud). Did it mean that we'd have to take our phones with us?

It felt like an interesting problem to investigate, so after we got back to NYC, I worked at nights and weekends talking to surfers, kayakers, SUPers and canoe enthusiasts about this idea. Some of them were friends; I found others through Meetup.com groups and sent them cold messages asking for a phone interview - many replied. I was trying to understand everything about their world - what they did for living, where they lived, what worried them, how often they did water sports, why, what other sports they did and of course - if they ever tried or thought about listening to music while doing water sports. 

2. Ideation

After almost a hundred interviews I was a little confused. Almost everybody that I spoke to was an avid music listener - yet like me, most never even thought about taking music with them on the water before. In terms of responses about whether they would want to listen to music on the water, I got as many "Hell Yes" as "Hell No” answers - no bell curve. Still, about 3/4 of all interviewees were enthusiastic to at least try it out. So after estimating our potential addressable market size at ca. 12m users just in the US (thanks, business school), I felt like we could at least start developing the prototype while continuing the user conversations.

For this part I partnered with Jeabyun Yeon, a young talented industrial designer working at Samsung in Korea. I found his work really fascinating (he knew a lot about various novel high-performance materials and had a good aesthetic taste). He was eager to partner up on this.

Over the course of the next 6-8 weeks we would draw, test, throw away and rebuild dozens of prototype ideas. Some of them never made it beyond a basic sketch, while we created some pretty detailed renders and even 3D printed others. After my initial phone interviews, we had a passionate group of about 15-20 people (some of them passionately skeptical) that we kept close during this stage. They were detrimental in providing us with feedback.

After many discussions, we eventually decided on a waterproof iPhone case with a built-in speaker and an interchangeable system of mounts to adapt the device to any activity. Some users felt nervous about taking their iPhones with them on the water (especially after having lost numerous GoPro's that way), and given various phone sizes, we knew we had to constraint our addressable market with this solution. The alternative involved MP3s and we felt even worse about that option.

Another way to do it was an RF-based solution, streaming music from a distance (e.g. from the beach to a remote speaker on the water). However, the RF engineers that we spoke to told us that it would have been a tough nut to crack given all the interferences.

A phone transmits music using Radio Frequency to a remote playback device

A render of the RF transmitter connected to the iPhone through the headphone jack

We estimated that it would cost about $1mm to finish the project and start production. By then we were working on this project full-time and needed to go somewhere cheap to keep the costs low, with many international surfers that we could keep interviewing to make sense of it. Know of a place?

We picked Bali, Indonesia. During our 3-month stay on this paradise island, (believe it or not) we actually worked every single day. Spread over 3-4 beaches, our team would speak to surfers, showing them our prototypes and asking for feedback. It was hot, sandy and we felt a bit out of place with our questions - but we actually made a lot of friends and surfed quite a bit as well (2 people can live in Bali for $1000 a month like kings).

It's hard to over-exaggerate the importance of those conversations. Here's a list of things we learned from doing that, that significantly expanded our understanding of the context:

  • Many had no jobs, no addresses, no credit cards, didn’t shop online
  • Many were anti-technologists: "All I need is my board and the wave”
  • Very few people used their phones. Even CDs were still popular...

But the main problem we confirmed/discovered was that line-ups (an area on the water where surfers wait for waves) were already emotionally charged with passive-aggressive attitude - not just in the US. Surfers around the world hated the idea of sharing their waves and their mental space with others around them. Somebody blasting music loud would probably detonate the situation.

The alternative was to go for headphones. But then the challenge was being able to still hear your surrounding elements (safety concern) as well as the input device. Producing something like that wouldn’t be easy.

Some headphone renders with interchangeable silicon padding to ensure they would stay in the ear. Even that solution would be risky due to high water pressure. The input device was another problem.

With feedback like this, we felt like building the original surf speaker had much higher market and technological risks than we thought. It might have had a potential in other sports (e.g. SUP) but we had not enough passion for that to start a company around it (you need hell of a lot passion for a startup). We didn’t feel comfortable with the $1mm investment that would be required.

We never got to the implementation stage. I'm very happy we were so aggressive on user interviews - without them we would have not learned about all the risks, and we’d pay considerably for our mistakes down the road. Fun times - we learned so much!

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