Will this jetpack trend stick?

Dogs and Demons in Hardware

A few days ago I wrote a post titled “Dividing the World of Hardware Startups”. I had the following divisions:

  • PROBLEM vs. SOLUTION

Just read the post to know more. I realized I forgot one more important division: those who make a DEMON, and those who make a DOG.

I had forgotten about this one until our good friends from Voltera, the PCB printer guys reached out to me.

For reference, Voltera scored $500k on Kickstarter, won the Techcrunch Hardware Battlefield at CES, and were picked among the Top 10 inventions of the year by Popular Mechanics. So it’s not your average hardware piece of electronics.

But they did not reach out to tell me this: they were unhappy I had labeled their machine “inconspicuous” in this post on hardware investment. Among the synonyms are “Unremarkable. Unspectacular.”

But it was meant as a compliment.

Let me tell you a story:

A long time ago at the court of a Chinese emperor…

One day the Emperor calls his favorite painter to ask a question. “I want you to tell me what is the easiest thing to paint, and what is the most difficult”. The painter takes some time then replies “The easiest thing is a demon; the hardest is a dog.”. The Emperor is surprised: “How could that be? A demon requires lots of imagination, while there are dogs everywhere! You must be making fun of me. How about you die for this offense?”. “Precisely”, replies the painter, ignoring the threats, “Anyone can paint a demon. While some will be better than others, nobody can tell you it is wrong because nobody has ever seen a real one! On the contrary, everybody can tell you if your dog is wrong, which makes it very hard to paint.” The Emperor is pleased and lets the painter live another day.

What’s Dog, What’s Demon

Many devices try to grab attention (with novelty, PR, LEDs, marketing…), but end up useless after a few times. Those are DEMONS. There are devices that might look mundane but end up useful daily, deliver long-term value, and grow a real market. It applies to many other things than devices, of course (I’ll let you think about this).

So when I was referring to Voltera’s printer, I was focused on the fact that it’s bringing real value, every day. It’s not a novelty gadget. But I have to acknowledge the good looks of the machine itself (and its founders) so I eventually edited my post to:

“Even the conspicuously inconspicuous Voltera PCB printer”

That should cover it :)

It means Voltera is in this great category of “DEMON DOGS”. Looking amazing AND delivering daily value.

How about those: dogs or demons?

  • Fitbit

Other examples are welcome!

Typically, DEMONS get people excited but are either too expensive or simply get abandoned after a few uses. DOGS are not so exciting but affordable and get used much longer.

Personally, I find that “old visions of the future” tend to fall into the DEMON category. They are striking because we recognize them, not because they are inherently useful daily (or affordable).

PS: the first time I read this story was in this book talking Japan and infrastructure investment. Since then I used it many times to talk about innovation in telecom, mobile, gaming and now hardware! It applies to many other things too.

Partner @ SOSV — $700m VC fund for Deep Tech (biology, robotics, etc.) | Digital Naturalist | Keynote Speaker | Angel Investor

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