The concept of holograms might seem more at home in the annals of Star Trek and high-cost stage shows - but one former contestant of The Pitch is making it an affordable reality.
Kino Mo’s distinctive hologram technology promises to let companies buy and control advertising in a programmatic way similar to Google’s ad exchange: but, in this case, it could be a 3D model of a trainer hovering over a till or Mark Cuban’s head talking to consumers rather than a website banner advert.
The business started while the founders were working in universities. Scaling from five to 40 employees as they developed the technology represented a huge step change in the evolution of the startup. More so, the founder’s role has had to develop too. We spoke to founder Art Stavenka about their progress so far.
PhDs take on the advertising world
Kino Mo’s founders started developing a video bike product six years ago while working on their PhDs at Oxford and University College London. “We wanted to make all the people who travel by bike to work on the same route into a smart network. A technology that allows you to project high-quality videos out of bicycles’ wheels,” says Stavenka.
Three years into the process they hit upon the current iteration, a combination of hardware and software that allows you to create a 3D holographic image hanging in the air at any spot. The software allows you to manage large networks of these devices, upload holograms remotely, get sales reports etc.
This means that individual organisations could use them - from supermarkets and tube stations to casinos - and advertising networks can be created.
Vegas baby! Vegas!
The Kino Mo team decided to launch the product at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January. The cost of exhibiting was worth it, says Stavenka:
“At CES you can skip lots of things that you need to take care of at a normal launch. The crowds are already there. All you need is a video of stunning technology to launch it.
“We had crowds and a queue. You had to wait five-six minutes just to talk to someone at the stand. It’s certainly could be called a successful launch and it resulted in 7,000 enquiries.”
Indeed, it led one journalist from to write the gushing headline: Help Me, Kino-Mo, You’re My Only Hope for Affordable Holograms.
He adds the marketing strategy to date has benefitted from the videos people film and articles from various trade shows, which naturally draw interest, and the business continues to get 700-800 enquiries a week.
Entering competitions during startup phase
Before this Kino Mo entered a series of competitions to market the product. The aim was to ensure the founding team was on the right track, and get feedback on what features the product needs and what people like.
They took their bike wheel product into Dragons’ Den in 2012, although they later turned down investment. Kino Mo was a 2015 finalist of The Pitch, which is run by the team behind BusinessZone, and it won the Startup category of Pitch to Rich the same year.
Stavenka says entering competitions is less relevant to the current phase of the business, as most are aimed at startups. That said, he stresses the need for startups of all sizes to focus their efforts on getting feedback from customers and investors.
“The best thing to test what you’re doing and understand if it’s worth doing at all is to ask people that can put their money where the mouth is; investors or your end client.
“Other opinions like experts and mentors can be misleading. People who’ll be paying their own money will be able to get the most valuable feedback on whether the product should be in the market at all,” he advises.
From academia to multi-country operation
Stavenka is keenly aware of the way the company and his role is evolving as it grows: “We understand that a company of five people, as it used to be, a company of 50 people, as it is now more or less, and a company of 100 people are totally different. We have to be prepared for that.”
Kino Mo currently employs 40 people split between a research centre in Belarus and the headquarters in London.
“The research and development divisions are in different countries. Obviously, the founders are here in London. This is something we need to adjust to gradually. I wish we had a particular role and stuck to it, but it’s not that easy.
“This is a young company with a new technology that’s entering the market on a global level. Challenges arise every day. You need to be able to adjust to new responsibilities, you need to make everything happen and to set up a process to make sure things run smoothly,” says Stavenka.
For example, the team brought on a head of marketing, limiting the founders' role in this process to strategic touch points. The 12-person engineering team has also been operating for two years and is well experienced, reducing the role of the founders.
Stevie Spring, a former CEO of the world’s largest outdoor advertising company Clear Channel, is now a shareholder too, and this is helping the founding team navigate some of these challenges
Time to start manufacturing
Kino Mo secured a $750,000 (£580,000) seed round in 2015. They are looking to close a $10m (£7.7m) Series A round by the end of the month, which includes the aforementioned Mark Cuban.
The funds from the new round are allocated to hiring new staff, investing in patents and manufacturing (basically, investing in stock). The business has partnered with multinational electronic manufacturer Flextronics and will start production in the autumn.
“We are not planning to produce huge batches of thousands of units, this has to be a gradual process in case something needs to be adjusted in the first batch. We will be launching a relatively small batch and distribute it among partners and clients that have been with us for a long time. We have a long waiting list already,” Stavenka says confidently.
Kino Mo was a finalist of The Pitch 2015. The Pitch offers an inspiring programme of advice, ideas and events; we want to educate and empower entrepreneurs and early-stage startups to succeed in business. Find out more here.
About Christopher Goodfellow
Journalist and editor with nine years' experience covering small businesses and entrepreneurship (ChrisGoodfellow.net). Follow his personal twitter account @CPGoodfellow and his events business @Box2Media. He has written for a wide range of publications in the UK, Ireland and Canada, including The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent and Vice magazine.