With each passing year it seems yet one more gadget previously confined to the imagination of sci-fi movies becomes a real product you can buy in a store. Vancouver-based Recon Instruments’ GPS-enabled ski goggles are the latest entrant. The darling of CES 2011 in Las Vegas, the technology displays real-time graphics and information (speed, temperature, etc.) in the wearer’s front and peripheral vision. Thirty-five-year-old CEO Dan Eisenhardt, who boasts a degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA, came up with the idea while taking an entrepreneurship course at the University of British Columbia. Several classmates joined him to form RI in 2006. RI makes its high-end ($499) Transcend goggles available directly from its web site and says it is designed to integrate via “snap-fit” into the goggles of partner brands’ like Uvex and Alpina. The privately-held company is currently working on developing its application (which will run on Android) for use in a variety of other sports and is in talks with potential U.S. military partners as well. But if you’re looking for a pair today, try again later — they’re currently sold out.
What is the greatest challenge currently facing Recon Instruments, and what are you doing about it?
We’ve got two challenges. One is as technical challenge — that we can continue to optimize our form factor, taking down the size so we can put it in, for example, sunglasses. And of course, the power consumption is a big technical constraint as well. On the business side, which is probably more important, [the challenge] is focus. Because we have such a scalable platform and we have so many people that are interested in what we can do we need to pick our battles and that’s quite the balance. … We’re expanding the management team. We’ve got a very strict project management protocol and we try and look out as far as possible and do our resource estimation and budgeting. And that of course means we have to ask a lot of questions up front to our potential leads. We say no more than we say yes, is one thing.
Who else — person or company — do you feel is doing innovative work, and in what way?
I’m very inspired by Apple and if you look at our business model — we didn’t steal Apple’s — we definitely have a lot of inspiration with our “HQ Online,” which is our software that you can download and [where you can upload] your stats, and that connects to our online portal. And we’re going to have a shop and an open API. A lot of that is really something that was inspired by what Apple has done. Their products just make sense from a user perspective. But we don’t believe in the whole proprietary track they’re going on and in that sense we believe in Android. So in that way you could say we’re sort of a hybrid.
How would you describe your leadership approach or style?
I don’t micromanage. If I have to micromanage I know I have the wrong guy. So I spend a lot of time in HR and I involve all of the managers in HR so it’s not just me looking at that hiring position. I could just go and hire whomever I wanted to but that doesn’t get you anywhere. … We spent six months just staffing our embedded software managers because that was such a key role. On the day-to-day operations if you have the right people it’s all about giving them the right tools to perform and empowering them to make decisions. The benefit of a small company in an office climate is you can sort of eavesdrop on conversations to see if there’s any conflicts and understand the culture that you’re in. We’re in a culture of various Phds and scientists and engineers, and to try and understand what makes them tick is very important.
You now have a product and some positive acknowledgment from your peers. The next step is marketing and sales. Do you have a consumer marketing and retail channel strategy and how do you plan to execute?
Our strategy is we’re continuing to go global. We’re going into a consumer model. The model we have now is a business-to-business model … but we can do both. … I come from a logistics background so it’s really important to me that we can get these products out super fast and that our reverse sales channels work just as well if not better. So that you can handle any warranty situation and turn it around so we can get the customer satisfaction we need.
I believe in what we call “glocalization,” so it’s global but local. If we sell parts in Italy or France or Spain, of course we need to be on top of the packaging and the language on the web site, but we also have to understand the local culture. So we liaison with local agents to be able to deliver that local package to them. On the logistics side, you need regional hubs of warehouses so that you can actually rework the returns that come back. And with our B-to-C model we can react within 24 hours of a customer request.
The debate over Net neutrality continues to rage. Do you think governments should act to make sure the Internet isn’t divided up into a tiered service?
I’m for total openness. I think it could be very dangerous if we go in that direction. So I’m all for open standards and open source because that’s how you create value for the consumer.
You’re a former competitive swimmer. Is there a sport you haven’t yet tried that you would most like to?
I would love to kite-surf. It’s an application we’re looking into later on and it looks like a lot of fun. It’s like wind-surfing, but instead of a board with sail on it, it’s a board you stand on like a snowboard and then you have a kite attached to you that looks like a small parachute. You just let the wind take you and you can go very fast. And snow-kiting as well — same principle, just on snow.