Earlier this month, London-based smartphone company Kazam announced seven new Android handsets. That’s pretty impressive… and is an even more noteworthy feat when you consider the company didn’t even exist at the beginning of the year.
Kazam was founded by Michael Coombes and James Atkins, who’d previously both held senior roles at HTC UK and Ireland. Michael is now Kazam’s CEO, while James is Chief Marketing Officer.
To learn more about Kazam and its plans for the future, I met up with James Atkins last week. Before we started talking, he handed me his own phone — one of the mid-range Kazam devices — and I admitted to being pleasantly surprised. A soft-touch back cover and decent screen resolution gave the impression of a premium handset. Okay, so that’s hardly a long-term test but this first glance certainly implied higher quality than the price tag might suggest. Even the top-spec handset is expected to sell for under £200 SIM-free.
So how did James end up co-founding a mobile phone business?
“It starts when you’ve had a beer or two and you’re putting the world to rights. You know, ‘we could do this better’, ‘if we did it our way…’. It became frustrating seeing opportunities and, as a brand, not being able to take advantage of them. We’re beating someone else’s drum, essentially. And so after having that conversation a number of times, we thought ‘well, we can sit around and say this for the rest of our lives — or we could actually do it’. So we decided to do it.”
And how did they manage to set it up?
“A lot of it’s down to strategy. It’s recognising what your strengths are but also recognising what your limitations are. For us, we knew we had to get exceptional people on board. I don’t know how to sell product in Poland, for example. We need to play to our strengths — we’re good at developing product, we’re good at producing product — but not trying to own everything ourselves. We outsource where we can.”
Around fifty people now work directly for Kazam, with another 300-400 employed by outsourced partners. Manufacturing is one of those areas that’s been outsourced.
“That’s something we shouldn’t be shy about saying. For Kazam, it’s about identifying the right product for the right consumer. We don’t believe one size fits all. If we were to produce in-house or set up our own factories, we’re then constrained by our own capabilities. As it stands, we have the flexibility of the market. What’s important is that you have really robust product testing and quality assurance processes in place. And that’s something we wouldn’t outsource. If we launch a load of devices and they don’t work, we’re not going to be around for very long.”
Although James didn’t want to reveal the names of the manufacturers he’s working with — or details of the private equity partners who provided Kazam’s start-up funding — he insisted that the smartphones weren’t merely rebranded white-label products.
“I would say it’s a hybrid. We have internal R&D: we can develop hardware and we can develop software. But if it’s right for the market and there’s an off-the-shelf product, why would we change it? If it’s nearly right, what we typically do is say ‘we need to change this’. So it’s a combination of lots of things.”
Asking whether the phones run stock Android — they do — prompted a glimpse into the ethos of Kazam.
“We talk about ‘ruthless logic is revolutionary’. It’s sort-of an internal mantra. There’s a lot to be said for commonsense and not over-complicating things. ‘Simple’ is the ultimate refinement. A few years ago maybe it was necessary to refine the Android operating system. I think Android has become so good now, a lot of the skins are not necessarily enhancing it. If you read the forums, I think some people would suggest the opposite is happening.”
HTC, of course, has its own high-profile ‘HTC Sense’ user interface for Android devices. I bit my tongue at this point and asked James whether Kazam’s focus on the consumer — a simple UI, a promise to replace broken screens, a support service that can ‘take over’ a customer’s phone to solve problems — was filling a gap in the mobile industry.
“I think it’s lacking at the moment. At the moment we’re innovating in a customer support environment but we’re not trying to carve that niche out of the market. What we are doing as a brand is looking at the end-to-end value chain and saying ‘where are the opportunities to innovate in an area that is not just pixels and processors?’ What’s important is that we’re trying to innovate the complete proposition and not just the device.”
First published on The Fonecast November 2013.