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The Story of Dropcam, a Little Hardware Start-Up With Its Head in the Cloud (Video)

December 28, 2012 | Telepresence Options

122612ATDdropcam-380x214.jpgDropcam co-founders Aamir Virani and Greg Duffy


Before hardware start-ups, Kickstarter products and "The Internet of Things" were the new hotness, a little company called Dropcam entered a world unfriendly to all those concepts. It was 2009.

Today, Dropcam is the best-selling surveillance device on Amazon. The company is fairly certain that it processes more video than YouTube per day. It has millions of dollars in revenue per year, up an estimated 400 percent from last year (when they were "well over $1 million"). But it's still a little start-up -- just 23 employees based in San Francisco and Shenzhen.

Dropcam sells a hardware product in a box: A home monitoring video camera. It is much loved by techies and luddites alike. But at its heart, Dropcam is all about the cloud.

Founders Greg Duffy and Aamir Virani are software engineers -- they met at the email app start-up Xobni, where the two former Texans say they bonded over long talks about how they'd build a start-up company culture if they got a chance to do it themselves.

As for what the company would actually do, Duffy and Virani decided they wanted to provide a better solution for monitoring large quantities of video.

At least part of the inspiration for Dropcam came from Duffy's dad, who set up a bunch of IP cameras at home to find out which of his neighbors were letting their dogs poop in his backyard. But his system kept failing because his hard drive would fill up and cause the video to stop recording -- or Windows would update and reboot. "It was like a Tim Allen on 'Home Improvement' comedy of errors," Duffy recalled.

Meanwhile, Virani's dad may not have been obsessed with poop snoopery, but he ran a convenience store, so Virani grew up knowing about expensive proprietary video surveillance systems.

Duffy and Virani wanted to make these video systems simple and modern, but found that the existing camera options were too focused on motion sensors, couldn't do night vision, or were Web cams that relied on being connected to computers.

"We really think about the software as being the be-all end-all," said Duffy in a recent interview. "We were forced to get into hardware."

With painstaking research and trial and error on plastics, industrial design and reliable production (at one point earlier this year they had to replace a batch of faulty devices), Duffy and the Dropcam team developed a camera that has night vision, charges via USB, sends emails and mobile alerts when unusual activity is detected and compresses HD video efficiently. And perhaps the best part -- at least, for all my coworkers who use their Dropcams to monitor their dogs during the day -- is that you can talk through the camera remotely. It's fun to be the voice of God.

Unlike many hard-to-install alternatives, all new Dropcam users need to do is connect the device to their Wi-Fi network, give it power and set up an account.

A Dropcam sells for $149.99. After that, it's free to use, but buyers can upgrade for $9.95 per month for DVR capabilities -- something 40 percent of them do.

Perhaps one of the largest problems with Dropcam is explaining why people need a newfangled camera. If you see a highlight reel of guys in squirrel suits flying over mountain tops, you get why you need a GoPro. If you're a home security nut, you evaluate the options -- and there are quite a few. But watching a room in your house 24/7? Why would normal people want to do that?

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