What follows is the original interview, published back in March, 2013:
ZPM‘s Gleb Polyakov and Igor Zamlinsky introduced me to Kickstarter through their Nocturn espresso machine. I’m geeky enough to know what a PID controller is, and why that’s something £5k+ professional machines tend to have under their shiny bonnets. When a friend sent me a link to their Kickstarter project, I quickly joined the—now immense—throng of backers. Following their webby approach to design and engagement, their startup-mentality, and the ultimate goal of bring professional-grade espresso home, the Nocturn sits soundly on the girders of my writing interests.
The ZPM team were happy to answer some questions I had for them, and ended up telling me a very compelling story, which I’d like to share with you.
1. I understand the Nocturn to be distinctly different from most other home espresso machines. Where do these differences lie, and what makes these important?
It’s first important to know that there’s been very little advancement in the way of manual and semi-automatic espresso machines—especially in home machines—since the first pump-driven E61 machine was introduced in 1961. Huge commercial machines have been refined to provide more temperature stability and pressure consistency, but home machines never really caught up despite a growing community of at-home espresso lovers and increases in our knowledge of what you need to make good espresso.
Even without major modifications in design, home machines that make solid espresso are really expensive. And that’s what really got us thinking about the problem. We were college students; we loved espresso; but we couldn’t afford a $1000+ home machine that would make truly good, reliable espresso. We could, however, buy a bunch of (very) used espresso machines off of Craigslist, tear them apart, see what made them tick, then Frankenstein them back together to try to make one that worked better. It started to look like we could do a better job for less.
We approached it as an engineering problem, not a coffee problem. What do you need to make great espresso? Tightly regulated temperature and pressure. Well, gee, we could do that.
The major innovations were replacing the mechanical controls typically used with digital controls, and controlling everything digitally with a native PID control loop. Once you had that in place, you didn’t need to rely on a huge hunk of expensive metal for your thermal stability, you could use a much less expensive aluminum thermoblock, and it would actually perform better because you could implement controlled temperature changes over the course of a shot, and your brew water volume wasn’t limited to the preheated boiler water.
In the past, thermoblocks have been the mark of a cheap machine, but by redesigning the block to improve its thermal properties, and improving the control mechanism, we’ve been able to make our block outperform home boiler machines. We’ve also implemented a pump control mechanism that provides the first-ever pressure control system in a home machine, which contributes to the shot repeatability.
Espresso is a game of controlling and manipulating variables, and we’ve just done that better than anyone else in our price range.
2. With all of these differences, for what kinds of home brewers is the Nocturn designed?
We’d like to think it’s designed for everyone. Our goal was to make a machine that produces truly exceptional espresso—the kind you get with thousands of dollars of investment in a home brew setup—and make it at a price point that is as attractive as possible.
We also know that espresso can be kind of intimidating to a lot of people. We hated the idea that people might be put off getting into the whole culture of making and exploring espresso because they were scared of messing up or didn’t want to invest in an expensive setup only to find that it wasn’t for them.
One of the core guiding requirements of the design has been that you have to be able to unpack it from the box, turn it on, press one button and make some decent coffee.
The addition of a full-color LCD and intuitive GUI also enables users to easily adjust temperature and pressure settings which, historically could require breaking open the machine and manipulating a mechanical check valve to change pressure! The screen was a response to the fact that we had a ton of backers who were choosing the Nocturn to be their very first home machine. We wanted to do our best to combine ease-of-use with complex features—after all, we didn’t make all of this variable control so people could just pull shots at 95˚C and 9 Bar for the rest of their lives!
Ideally, our machine is straightforward enough for the beginner, but offers the complex features that will allow an expert home barista to play around with. So many other machines in this price point are meant to be ‘starter’ machines, with the expectation that you’ll eventually want to upgrade to something more expensive. We think this machine has everything you need to fully explore your coffee. At the same time, it’s a great learning tool because of the consistency—it’s very hard to improve your technique when you have no idea whether the problem is you or the machine.
3. So, tell me about Kickstarter: what lead you to decide on funding the Nocturn’s development through online startup backing?
It was mostly serendipity. We were getting to a point where we thought we had a design that could really change the market, but it was starting to cost too much for us to keep pursuing on our own without knowing whether anyone else shared our interest.
Kickstarter was kind of ideal for us in that the all-or-nothing funding model provided the proving ground we needed. We knew how much capital we needed to do a very small beta run of hand-built machines based on our core design. Either we’d make that amount and move forward, or we wouldn’t and we could stop wasting our time.
We weren’t originally expecting to raise anywhere near what our funding total ended up being. The original expectations was just that we’d be able to fund a lease on the necessary equipment.
4. How have you found the process of funding and developing in full view of your potential market?
I think the most interesting thing has been the way that crowdfunding throws the typical product development process on its head. Normally you have to do rounds of funding, build a company, do tons of marketing, and build an ad campaign before you introduce yourself to your market. That process has a certain structure and familiarity to it, but it also has a pretty high entry barrier for teams like ours—and others who turn to crowdfunding.
That said, the price you pay is this: rather than experiencing all the growing pains of a project like this behind closed doors, you’re all of a sudden accountable to a big group of people who’ve backed you and are now expecting delivery. Recently there have been a bunch of stories relating to how this stress is starting to get to a handful of project creators who had wildly successful projects, but found themselves struggling with different aspects of their projects—not just with completion, but with the emotional stress that a big group of angry backers can apply. Normally you have a customer service buffer between the engineer or artist who created something and the customers that might complain about it. With Kickstarter, because the teams are usually just a few people, all of that internet trollery can really start to wear on you, especially when you’re already losing sleep over a project that you’ve put your heart and soul into.
I think that, a year ago when we started the project, Kickstarter was blowing up and everyone was having the problem of ensuring that people understood the “Kickstarter is not a store” idea, which created a lot of anger on the part of confused backers, and stress for the creators of really popular projects.
We’ve been really lucky to have a group of backers who have been exceptionally supportive and patient throughout the whole process. We’ve done our very best to be completely transparent whenever we experience setbacks, both in our updates and in individual correspondence (as anyone who has dared to send us an email probably knows, I can be obnoxiously verbose). We’ve tried to get backers in on the incredibly complex process of manufacturing a consumer product, and we think that’s part of the fun of backing projects – what challenges will you face, and how will you overcome them?
Hopefully the result is that people feel an emotional connection to the product they helped create, and walk away with a better understanding of how this type of thing gets made.
5. Have you any advice for other startups?
Ha! Celebrate the little victories. Our problem (and I think a common one) has been that we’ve had a lot of setbacks, and they can start to make you feel so down that you forget why you set out on this crazy adventure in the first place.
We have a working machine now. It still has some kinks to be worked out, but we made cappuccinos this morning. That’s exciting!
Some advice we got after we’d already been funded: “Take the timeline that your engineer gives you and triple it.” We thought, “Not us, not our engineer…” We all know how that turned out.
No matter the project, take your timeline and triple it.
6. Back to coffee, what was the last coffee you brewed at home?
Since we just took a trip to Batdorf & Bronson to do a machine demo, we’re loaded up on their beans right now. I think this morning we brewed the B&B Dancing Goats.
7. OK, tell me: how good is the coffee from the Nocturn? Be honest…
When we demoed the machine at Batdorf the other day, the response we were getting was that the shots we were getting where on par with their PID’d La Marzocco Linea (a $12,000 commercial machine), and that it was hands-down the best home machine they’d ever used. And this coming from people who know their stuff when it comes to coffee.
8. Finally, have you any new projects on the horizon for ZPM?
We’ve got a few ideas in mind. Our machine offers significantly more value than anything on the market with the same quality and features, but we’d like to work on another model that’s even more affordable – by making some key design modifications (like replacing the steel shell with plastic and eliminating the screen) – basically taking away anything that’s not directly involved in making great espresso. The accessibility of great espresso is a really important part of this project to us, and we think we can still push further on that front.
We’re also working on a model that can do simultaneous steam and brew—as that’s probably the most common request we’ve gotten since the campaign.
We’ve also got a dozen ideas for little coffee-related gadgets that need to be worked through.
If you would like to follow-up on this interview, you can comment below, or drop ZPM a line on: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images used with kind permission of ZPM Espresso who retain all rights to the images which are not licensed for redistribution.