Why an Apple Developer Quit His Job To Invent The Tesla Of Toking Up February 15 2014
First, a caveat: The Firefly vaporizer is not intended to be used for marijuana.
Never mind that the herb is now legal for recreational use in two states, and can be obtained with a prescription in 20 more. Or that legislation now pending in 10 additional states would decriminalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
At present, marijuana is still a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law, and U.S. Criminal Code makes it illegal to sell drug paraphernalia, so no.
Instead, the inventors of this high-end vaping implement built the Firefly for legal substances, such as tobacco or, as the Vape World website delicately puts it, “aromatherapy blends.”
You know, this tool is supposed to appeal to that market of people who would be puffing away on pipes like John Cheever and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but have been clamoring for a beautifully designed high-tech gizmo that produces a lung-caressing vapor instead of a bronchi-blistering smoke.
“The tobacco is the business,” says Firefly co-founder Sasha Robinson. “To ignore that market or to think it’s a secondary market is just wrong.”
That said, if someone happened to want to load the Firefly’s chamber with another dried out herbaceous substance, who’s to stop them?
“We respect the consumer’s right to choose,” Robinson adds patriotically. “We have to be respectful of federal laws while understanding that the market in the United States is changing rapidly.”
It’s a different world now than it was back in 2007, when Robinson and Firefly co-founder Mark Williams met and bonded over their shared passion for Burning Man — a wholesome gathering in the desert where upstanding citizens come together to engage in perfectly innocent activities.
Since they quit their very lucrative Silicon Valley jobs several years ago to plunge headfirst into a sketchy and unproven new industry, the world of vaping has heated up. E-cigarettes, which utilise a similar technology, had their moment in the spotlight during the Golden Globes, when Julia Louis-Dreyfuss puffed away on camera. They’re ubiquitous at New York Fashion Week, and Big Tobacco is gobbling up vaporization startups, grabbing a piece of the new industry before analogue smokes wind up in the ashtray of history.
What all that means to Williams and Robinson is that some of the 42 million smokers in the U.S. (and — shhhh — perhaps a few cannabis users too) will soon be ready to ditch their cancer sticks for a space-age device that looks right at home sitting next to a glass of Barolo and a MacBook Air: a battery-powered, almost odorless, very possibly healthier way to ingest the chemicals contained various plants.
Instead of igniting the leaves — a technology that hasn’t been updated since Prometheus — vaporizers like the Firefly heat it to extremely high temperatures, slowly drying the vegetable matter and emitting a smooth vapor for the user to suck in.
The Birth of Vaping
Five years ago, if you encountered a vaporizer, you were probably sitting in a college dorm room surrounding a clumsy, vaguely sinister-looking contraption with a motley collection of hygienically challenged dudes — alternative types, hobbyists. The kinds of kids who order mysterious packages from websites that end in .net. You probably also saw a few computer parts scattered around and maybe some Grateful Dead posters on the walls. It was a very niche audience.
This was pre-Firefly. The vape of choice back then was a desktop contraption called the Volcano. Developed by German manufacturer Storz Bickel, it has a base that looks kind of like the bottom of a blender, and it comes with a plastic bag you fit over the top of it.
You load your herb of choice, plug in the machine, turn it on, and wait. The bag fills with vapor like a Snoopy balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and once it’s full, you take it off the base and inhale. It’s a little like huffing glue or getting anesthesia — neither one of which is especially appealing to a mass user base.
Adam Schoenfeld, one of the early distributors of The Volcano and now a prominent business consultant in the shadowy vaporizer industry, calls The Volcano “the Mercedes G Wagon of vaporizers.”
The Firefly, on the other hand, is more like a Tesla. It’s a high-end luxury product — one aimed at consumers making upward of $US75,000 a year. Retailing for $US269, it would take months of grocery bagging to afford one. Sorry, kids.
The Tesla comparison is also apt in that the Firefly — and similar handheld vaporizers on the market — depends on advances in lithium battery technology, just like the Tesla. The Firefly was not the first handheld vaporizer on the market. In 2008, the butane-heated IOLITE, by Oglesby and Butler debuted.
In terms of battery-powered vapes, another pioneer was the Magic Flight Launch Box. It hit the market around 2010, and is basically a tiny box of wood that comes with a rechargeable AA battery. Jamming the battery into a hole in the side activates the device. It’s not the sexiest or most powerful gadget, but it gets the job done.
In the high-end vape market, a device called the Ploom Pax beat the Firefly by a year or so. And while the Pax is smaller and lighter (and thus more discreet), the Firefly is far more
powerful, running on 50 watts rather than Pax’s 4.
The Firefly also works differently. Whereas the Magic Flight and the Pax use conductive technology, heating up the area on which the plant matter rests, the Firefly is convective, heating the air in the chamber to an astonishing 400 degrees. Some purists argue that this technique, known as convection, makes for a better tasting experience.
Either way, James Monsees, co-founder of Ploom, is certain that he’s making a Tesla as well. Today’s consumer will settle for nothing less.
“I would argue that the reason it’s happening now,” Monsees says of high-end vaporizer culture, “is that we’re getting precious about a lot of things. We have the luxury to be picky and be precious about a lot of things — to know what we want.”
Building the Firefly
Try this: Graduate from one of the best schools in the country, have a wildly successful career in Silicon Valley by your late 20s, get a prestigious job at a firm people would die to work for, get married, be sort of happy.
Then chuck it. Quit your job, ply your savings into a new venture all your own, and design a fetish-like new product for a vaguely shady industry that few people even know exists. Then take a look at your knuckles — they’re white.
When they met in 2007, Robinson and Williams were dancing to a mix by a party crew called The Space Cowboys at San Francisco’s Burning Man Decompression party.
It’s a party for people who wish they were at Burning Man.
Both were health-conscious smokers (a rare but growing species). They had experimented with vaporizers and found the results promising. But there was a problem: The older models looked like bulky science experiments — like model spaceships — and they weren’t always reliable.
“The early inventors were great pioneers,” says Williams. “We have a lot of respect for what they did. But neither of us wanted to buy any of the products that were around at that time.”
Normally that would be that, but Williams and Robinson were not your typical “burners” (as aficionados of Burning Man are called).
Williams spent years rising through the ranks at Apple designing Mac OS software, and Robinson had been working at prominent Silicon Valley companies for decades.
They’d both built things, and they had that hacker mindset where you look at a problem and assume you can solve it. Together, they resolved to invent a vaporizer of their own, one that would do for smoking what the iPod did for music. It would be the perfect meeting of form and function, a sleek, intuitive device that would make vaping “as quick as lighting up.”
It wasn’t exactly an easy decision.
“I walked away from a pretty sizable amount of money to work on this project,” Williams told Business Insider. “I could’ve ridden Apple into the sunset.”
Robinson had it pretty good, too, having bounced from Silicon Graphics Incorporated, to Juniper Networks, a networking equipment manufacturer, before bailing out before he was 30.
“I retired,” says Robinson. “I was basically like f— this tech stuff. I’m going to learn to weld.”
He cashed in some stock, bought a house in San Francisco, and traveled — to Thailand, Cambodia, Poland, Costa Rica. You name it, he wandered there for weeks.
Back home in San Francisco, he got pretty good at metalworking. He constructed jaw-dropping installations for Burning Man and danced a lot.
“I achieved every single career goal I had for myself by the age of 29,” says Robinson, now 41. “It’s a weird feeling to be both really proud and lost.”
Lost he remained, though, until he met a girl. She told him that unemployment was not sexy. Soon, he realised she was right and joined consulting firm Moto as director of software.
When Moto was bought by Cisco Systems, though, he got antsy.
“I put my toe in it and I thought ‘I’d love to make this work,’ and then I changed my mind,” he says. He was gone within a month.
Since becoming friends, Robinson and Williams were constantly meeting at house parties, or at late-night events in San Francisco’s vibrant electronic music scene. It was Williams who came up with the idea to build a vaporizer. They began spending their Tuesday nights tinkering with coils and testing different power supplies in Robinson’s basement, which was jammed with everything from power tools to Burning Man projects, including a colorfully painted bike with a fur-covered seat.
Because “if you’re wearing short-shorts and not much else in the desert, it’s nice to be sitting on fur,” Williams explains.
Things proceeded slowly. Robinson and Williams were trying to tackle problems they hadn’t deeply considered before, and it was tougher than they thought.
Like how to create a 400-degree oven that fits in someone’s hands but won’t explode in their face.
The guys started by drawing pictures of how the mechanism would work. After settling on butane, they enlisted the help of a mechanical engineering friend to build a model.
If Williams had learned one thing at Apple, where he worked on Mac OS collaboration software, it was the difference between a decent user experience and a great one: It was all about simplicity.
“That was always the measuring stick of what a good prototype was,” Williams says. “People had to get it by just looking at it.”
He also discovered that working at a big company, even one as widely admired as Apple, could be deadening. “I’ll get a construction job before I fill out another TPS report,” he jokes, referring to the “testing, procedure specification” reports software developers often produce.
Eventually, with his wife’s buy-in, he decided to part ways with Apple, joining Robinson to give the Firefly his full commitment.
“I had a lot of nights when I was awake at 3 am working out an issue because I knew my future income was dependent on this project,” Williams recalls.
NEXT: The Grandmother Test
The Grandmother Test
By January of 2011, Williams and Robinson had been tinkering for two years, and they still weren’t satisfied. The butane was the problem. It just wasn’t reliable enough. Sometimes it didn’t ignite. And it seemed a little risky even under the best circumstances.
“You couldn’t just hand it to your grandmother,” Robinson jokes.
The Grandmother Test was perhaps a high bar for what was, after all, a fancy piece of drug paraphernalia, but the partners didn’t want to settle for a workable device. Like seemingly every startup founder, they wanted to change the world.
Williams and Robinson knew they had to make something that users would fall in love with from their first puff. For that to happen, the vaporizer would have to be absolutely dependable and perfectly intuitive.
They ditched the first model and started over, pivoting to an electrical power source.
Now the issue was finding the right coil, one that would keep the air inside the chamber pure. Robinson and Williams started experimenting with different metals. Both of them developed an allergy to the standard industry coil, a nickel/chromium alloy, and decided to find a better option.
They did, but they prefer not to reveal what material they eventually settled on. Trade secret.
To make sure the device worked every time, they turned the basement into a lab, testing models around the clock. A mechanism would run the vaporizers in cycles — on for 10 seconds, off for 5, then on again — at least 50,000 times.
“I wouldn’t even look at my electric bill,” Robinson jokes.
The guys even went as have electron microscopy photos taken to see what was happening to the coil inside the Firefly’s chamber. They had to know it wasn’t deteriorating.
“You have to be a little nuts,” says Williams, “because you have to be able to say with certainty ‘my product does not degrade.’”
And once you can say that, you can take your show on the road.
To succeed in any business, it’s important to understand the landscape, and the world of vaporizers traditionally has been a world of message boards and e-commerce sites, trade shows and hobbyists. Market data doesn’t really exist.
“This industry is coming out of a really shady period,” said Robinson, “so finding people we could trust in it was really important.”
That’s where Aaron LoCascio came in. In 2005 he started selling vaporizers on an eBay site along with a few other appliances. After 2008, he ditched the appliances, which weren’t moving as fast. Now he runs VapeWorld.com, the preeminent online vape retailer, which has grown to a staff of 60.
Now, with the scent of opportunity in the air, people present him with new vaporizer designs on a daily basis. But he’s pickier these days than he once was.
“Eight years ago, you and I could have gotten together, gone to the garage, slammed a piece of wood and some coils together and been successful,” he says. “Now? Not going to happen. The barrier to entry has definitely been raised.”
When he saw the Firefly prototype in 2011, he was floored.
He became Robinson and Williams’ sensei, teaching them about the arcane import/export regulations, helping them find legal assistance, and schooling them on the ins and outs of supply-chain management and doing business in China, which is where Fireflies are made.
This last part is harder than it sounds.
To make a product in China, you must find someone to work with that wants to help you. This cannot be done over the phone. Instead, you must go to southern China, to towns where you’ll feel lonely. You will encounter factory owners and workers with a range of notions about quality control. You will likely need to take a weekend off in Thailand to blow off some steam.
After wasting a few months on a manufacturer who turned out to be a poor fit, Williams and Robinson finally found a factory that could produce the device to their specifications. The Firefly launched at the end of last year to much acclaim. Gadget site Gizmodo declared it “portable perfection.”
Customers seem to agree. Right now, the Firefly is back-ordered by about 5,000 units. Brick and mortar smoke shops that carry the device are subjected to a maximum limit. Robinson and Williams have had to hoard some Fireflies for themselves to sell directly from their website, since the margins are better.
In other words, after over three years, they can finally exhale.
But Williams and Robinson aren’t through innovating. They want to expand the Firefly line to vaporizers that accept cartridges of liquid or wax, and to make improvements to the core product, which could be lighter, sleeker, faster. And while the Firefly is definitely being marketed for tobacco users (in total compliance with the U.S. criminal code), the partners have no way to control what a consumer might do in the privacy of his or her own home, or dorm room, or the back of a van.
Or, for that matter, at massive music-and-art festival under the stars in the desert of northern Nevada.