How Two Guys and an Internet Forum Built a Kickass Computer


The China trip was only supposed to last 10 days. For Konstantinos Karatsevidis, the 23-year-old CEO of a new gadget maker called Eve, it was just a quick check-in to make sure production was rolling smoothly on his latest product. Karatsevidis and the rest of the nine-person Eve team have spent the last few years building the V, a laptop-tablet hybrid in the mold of the Microsoft Surface, working in remarkable concert with a teeming community of users and fans to create the exact product they wanted. All that was left to do was make it, perfectly, tens of thousands of times in a row. Which Karatsevidis learned is harder than it looks.

The 10-day trip stretched into a month and a half, during which Karatsevidis changed his flight home to Finland six different times. “I was living in the factory, basically, with the guys from my team,” Karatsevidis says. Day after grueling day, they’d sit with the workers on the assembly line, making sure every finish was applied with care and every part was connected just so. “We were just making sure everybody achieves the quality standard we want, because it’s very hard to communicate to the Chinese manufacturers that we want to make a nice device,” he says. Manufacturers see quality in measurables: how many times the kickstand opens before it breaks, how hot a temperature it can withstand. Karatsevidis knows users will measure quality by the texture of the fabric keyboard and the smoothness of the volume buttons.

Karatsevidis feels real pressure to get the V done, and get it right. Not just to appease the 4,208 people who backed Eve on Indiegogo more than a year ago, giving the company $1.4 million. Not for everyone else who pre-ordered, and has waited through months-long shipping delays. And not just for the 70,000 more who have signed up to be notified for Eve’s next flash sale.

Eve

Mostly Karatsevidis feels he owes it to the thousands of members of Eve’s online forum, who spent the last 18 months helping the team conceive of and build this thing. They decided the form factor. They picked most of the specs. They even chose the name. Eve’s product development doubled as a wild experiment in crowd-sourcing, in which Karatsevidis and his team let users design their ideal gadget and entrust Eve to build it. All those users, and some of the biggest players in the PC industry, are watching to see if Eve can turn a seemingly insane idea—asking a bunch of people on the internet for their opinions, and actually listening to them—into a killer product.

Ask the Audience

Back in 2012, when Karatsevidis was still a teenager, he met Mikko Malhonen at a poker table. Kindred spirits and fast friends, they talked late into the night about technology, the future, and their many business ideas. One held their attention: There were no good tablets other than the iPad, they thought, and maybe they could do it better. Or at least cheaper.

At first, Karatsevidis and Malhonen spent their time crawling Alibaba, looking for tablets they could tweak and sell. (Ever wondered why so many headphones look the same, or why every vape is just like every other vape? It’s because lots of companies find parts on Alibaba, slap their logo on them, and start selling.) But they wanted more control and flexibility, and since Karatsevidis knew a bit about manufacturing—his dad owned a company that made supplies for firefighters—the two dudes headed to China to figure out how to build a tablet.

Karatsevidis and Malhonen found a manufacturer at an electronics fair in Shenzhen that had a tablet design ready to go. They changed a couple of parts, named the device the T1, and started selling it on their website for $159 in late 2014. With a little press and some good reviews, Eve was off and running.

One thing about the T1 bugged Karatsevidis, though: Everyone had all these good ideas about how to make it even better. He’d find suggestions in comments, in forums, and in feedback from buyers. So Karatsevidis decided to steer into the feedback loop, and enlist all these ideas before they even started designing their next product. He and Malhonen knew they wanted to do something more ambitious, really make something rather than just tweak and re-brand. But that would require more resources, more suppliers, and a lot more work.

The Eve founders went to Microsoft’s Finland team and asked for help in figuring out how things work. Microsoft directed them to the Hong Kong Electronics Fair, the massive annual gathering of suppliers, distributors, and manufacturers. There, somehow—Karatsevidis still can’t quite explain it—the Eve founders wound up at a fancy dinner, mingling with top managers from some of the largest companies and factories in the world. Karatsevidis spotted an important-looking guy walking around with an entourage, and armed with the dumb courage of youth, walked up to him and said hello. The guy turned out to be an Intel bigwig, to whom Karatsevidis immediately pitched his idea. He was going to build a laptop-tablet thing, he said, but he was going to crowdsource everything about it. “That’s a bullshit idea,” the guy said, and walked away. A few steps later, he turned around and came back. “No,” he said, “this is the future.” The Intel exec (who Karatsevidis declines to identify) is now a key mentor to Eve, and helped introduce the company to everyone worth knowing in the manufacturing world.

Over and over, that crowdsourcing pitch got Eve noticed. Microsoft and Intel both wound up investing in the project; even the Finnish government gave Eve a grant. “What’s very interesting to them is that we can tap into commoditized markets and have very rapid growth there,” Karatsevidis says. “When we enter with community, we can stand out.” Plus, he reckons being young and not asking for much helps his case too.

At first, Eve’s community consisted of 15 early T1 customers into a WhatsApp group, brainstorming what kinds of products and features they might be interested. Pretty quickly, a remarkable thing happened: Everybody seemed to agree on stuff. They’d argue and debate, but by the end, this small group usually reached consensus. Encouraged by the experience, Karatsevidis opened it up, started a web forum anyone could join. He didn’t know who would join, where they’d come from, or how they’d act. “We had zero hope that it would become successful,” he says.

The eve.community website opened on January 6, 2016. Pretty quickly, users started to introduce themselves: a student from Kokkola, an IT worker in the Netherlands, a Polish game developer. The fledgling community pored over the latest tech announcements and celebrated Finland’s victory in the U20 ice hockey world championships, but mostly got to work. The Eve team began asking questions about how people used their tablets, and what they might want from their next one.

On January 18, Malhonen wrote a post called “The Project: ‘Pyramid Flipper’—a PC when you need it, a tablet when you like it.” This was what he and Karatsevidis had decided to build next. Why Pyramid Flipper? Because they wanted to invert the way things were normally done, putting users at the top and corporate bullshit at the bottom. (The original codename was Flagburner, Malhonen said, but they were trying to be politically correct now. The embedded photo of PC Principal from South Park made clear how Malhonen felt about that.) He then laid out, in broad strokes, what Pyramid Flipper would be: an “ultimate portable PC” that was “as slim and light as possible” but still powerful enough to be “a mobile creation station.” Malhonen laid out a long list of possible specs, wrote a possible user story about a freelancer student named Maukka, and bared the whole plan for the device. People hated it. “Not really a device I would be interested in,” one user wrote.

Others began suggesting tweaks and adding features, pushing Eve’s idea toward something they believed in more. The more they talked, the more Karatsevidis and Malhonen realized the folks in this community—there were maybe 50 in the earliest days—knew their stuff. And they were, against all internet tendencies, reasonable in their thoughts, discussions, and requests. So the Eve guys bought all the way in. They decided that from then on, everything would be up to the community. And so 40 people decided that the Pyramid Flipper would be a 2-in-1, tablet-first device, with 83 percent in favor, according to a poll in the forum. They chose which ports the device would have, and how many, after spirited debates in the forum. They picked processors, screen sizes, even wireless radios.

Eve

The community won arguments with the Eve founders, making clear that pen support mattered when Karatsevidis didn’t think so. The same forum members even occasionally clashed with the team at Propeller, a well-known design firm that worked with Eve. “The community was really our user-data pool,” says Jessica Lambert, who runs business development for Propeller and was a key member of the Eve project. “They were giving us their gut reactions on things, what they wanted in a tablet, what they would use this tablet for.” Propeller wanted a slim, clean design, no more than 8mm thick, with future-proof USB-C ports. But the feedback said overwhelmingly that users wanted standard USB, and would rather have more battery instead of the slimmest possible body. That fight in particular Karatsevidis is glad he lost. “Without [the big battery], we’d be out of the game,” he says.

In every discussion, a few familiar tropes emerged. Somebody always wanted something impossible, like months-long battery life. Somebody would try and make everything about their specific needs. Somebody always just wanted to tell everyone else they sucked. But in every case, sanity prevailed. And the community, growing all the time, dreamed up a shockingly reasonable device. The Pyramid Flipper they imagined shared a lot in common with the Microsoft Surface, only with better battery (and a slightly bulkier body), more ports, and a more efficient processor. When it came time to name the thing, the place almost ate itself alive. The first poll included 120 options: Panacea, Chimera, Zeus, Stratus, Progenesis, Style, and, of course, Taby McTabFace, because this is the internet. One of Eve’s community managers, suggested calling it “V.” It sounded good, could mean victory or peace, and even looked a bit like a flipped pyramid. Four polls later, 80 voters had cast overwhelmingly in favor of the name. And so it became the Eve V.

Now Make Some

Once they’d finalized the basic specs and design, Karatsevidis and Malhonen built the prototype of the V. Once that came back, and they were confident this thing was going to work, they launched the Indiegogo campaign in November of 2016. “The idea behind Indiegogo was that none of your money is used for development,” Karatsevidis says. They’d paid for that with help from their partners and the leftover T1 profit.

The campaign was a huge success—it hit its goal in four minutes—to a degree that worried the Eve founders. “We used to hide the link to the community,” Karatsevidis says, as a way to keep too many people from joining and ruining the discussion. “Our biggest challenge has been making sure that only people who really want to contribute, get in.”

By the end of the campaign, Eve had thousands of orders to fill, $1.4 million to spend, and nearly 3,000 people in its community. “But the good news is,” Karatsevidis says, “somehow it managed to still be the same it was before, only better.” He worried that even a few trolls or angry voices would kill the vibe, but the conversations kept on. Meanwhile, the Eve team had bigger things to worry about, like actually shipping their product.

In most product development systems, the step after your first working prototype is known as the Design Validation and Testing phase, or DVT. That’s when you make 15 or 20 prototypes, all at once, with near-final software and hardware, in order to test and certify everything before you start building in the thousands. Eve decided to ship a bunch of these prototypes to community members, who could test the products in their own lives and report back. They identified countless bugs and issues, like how the headphone jack emitted a slight staticky hum, which nobody noticed in the loud factory in China but a user heard in their quiet home. There were lots of issues and a one-month delay thanks to some last-minute tweaking, but nothing huge. In early spring of 2017, Karatsevidis told the community it was time. “We were like, ‘OK guys, that’s it. Indiegogo’s successful, we’ve finished development, we’re ready to ship! That’s it.'” He said that the devices would be shipped either the last week of March, or the very beginning of April.

A few weeks later, Karatsevidis recanted in a long post in the Eve forums. “This week has been a long one,” he began, before detailing the problem they were having with the V’s screen supplier. They’d pre-ordered 15,000 displays, paid in cash, and the screens that came in were straight-up terrible. They had yellow stains, dead pixels, light bleed everywhere. “Fortunately, our screen supplier has stock and they will send us new screens already next week,” he wrote. Except the next batch, which took a month to arrive, came back the same way. Ditto the next batch. Eve couldn’t switch suppliers, since this one already had their money, and nobody else made the screen they needed. For the entire spring and summer, they were stuck in this back-and-forth, trying to keep users updated as often as possible.

Ordinarily, you’d expect everyone to be furious at delays, angry at the incompetence of the people they’ve entrusted with their money, and probably demanding of refunds. And there was that. But overall, every issue seemed to only band the community closer together. Forum members began referring to themselves as “stakeholders,” and referring to the product as something “we’re making.”

Eve’s forums are a remarkable artifact of what it takes to actually build a product. Karatsevidis often posted videos from factory floors, photos of prototypes at various stages, and long-winded digressions about things as mundane as the difficulty in getting two different materials to be exactly the same color. “We had to make a choice,” Karatsevidis says. “From the moment the delay happened, we could only be transparent. Just to show that, look guys, we’re the same as you, we really want this to be successful.” Forum members were full of encouragement, even advice on how to move forward.

Eventually Eve found a new display supplier, they got everything swapped in, and by October had entered into full mass production. With Karatsevidis there, watching over the process, making sure nothing else goes wrong. In early November, devices started to ship to Eve’s earliest backers. Reviewers, including me, started to get theirs as well. On December 4, Eve will have a flash sale for other users, then go back and make some more to sell those.

After all the debates and polls, you’d think the Eve V would be the sort of too-many-cooks device that everyone built and nobody likes. A camel is just a horse designed by committee, after all. But somehow, against all odds, Eve made a terrific device. Sure, the final V has a couple of quirks, like a backspace key marked “Oops!” and a design that won’t exactly wow a Best Buy shopper, but it’s a shockingly impressive device. “Beyond the rebellious marketing and convoluted back story, the Eve V is just a really good computer,” The Verge wrote, giving the V an 8 out of 10. Reviewers fairly worried about how such a tiny company will handle customer service or returns, but were all impressed with what a couple of young kids and a bunch of forum users could do.

Already, those forums are hard at work on what Eve should do next. They’re already working on a dock for the V, with more ports and power. The crowdsourced codename: Donald Dock. And for the next big product, everybody has ideas. User vithren proposed a more standard laptop, which garnered 294 comments. Hifihedgehog wants a straightforward iPad competitor, which got 174 comments. What about a V with an E Ink screen, borax99 wondered? (That idea didn’t get much love.) In every forum, before Karatsevidis or Malhonen could even respond, community members were debating specs, drafting press releases, even scouring the internet for manufacturers and reference designs.

Karatsevidis says he’s not sure what they’ll do next. He wants it to be something different, but close enough that he can use the contacts and supply chain he’s already set up. But after the last couple of years, even through all the complications, Karatsevidis brims with confidence. Sure, they could do a car, he says. It’d take a while, but it’s possible.

But if you really want to know what Eve’s probably going to work on next, just look at the forums. User fanoftech4life started a thread all the way back in February of 2016 called “An amazing Eve Phone.” It’s the most popular thread in the history of Eve’s forums, and the conversation continues even now. Karatsevidis is surely listening.



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