Identifying and experiencing a problem that can then be fixed is crucial when it comes to developing a great product. So says Christian Johan Smith, President and Co-Founder of TrackR, a West Coast US start-up that over the past eight years has developed a range of coin sized tracking devices that can be attached to things like wallets and passports to help users keep track of where they are through an app.

“With a simple tap, you can locate lost items or if you’ve lost your phone you can press a button on the device which will cause your phone to ring, even if it’s on silent,” Smith explains.

The company has come a long way in a relatively short space of time. Based in Santa Barbara, California, it has recently closed a $50million Series B funding round intended to fund the company’s expanding product portfolio, which now incorporates sound and light into its personal item tracking products.

TrackR is ramping up its efforts to integrate with Amazon’s Alexa and Echo speaker products to use voice commands to find lost items and is providing a platform for a growing list of OEMs interested in using its tracking technology.

“Amazon have invested in TrackR and we are using Alexa to enable people to simply ask where their phone is and then get a location,” Smith explains.

Born in California Smith and his business partner Chris Herbert, the company’s CEO, were at university together when then came up with the concept after a trip to the beach.

“We were both attending UC Santa Barbara at the time and looking to become engineers (I’m a mechanical engineer and Chris is an electrical engineer),” Smith explains.

“We’d gone surfing on Pismo beach, but when we returned to our parked car we couldn’t find our keys. The car was parked below the high tide line and would have ended up submerged if we hadn’t been able to find someone with a metal detector who found our keys in the sand,” Smith says.

People lose things all the time.

“We depend on our memory to know where things are located,” Smith explains, “so we thought why not have the computers around us memorise where objects are located?

“How could we create a system where a computer reliably remembers where we had placed something and where we could find it?”

Trackr was their response and they set up the business in July 2009 and demonstrated their first product at CES in 2010.

Taking the idea and putting it into practice was no mean feat.

“We entered a business plan competition and won and used the winnings together with help from family and friends to launch a basic product, which we were then able to display at CES,” Smith says.

“We saw a lot of interest at CES 2010 and an article in the Wall Street Journal helped generate great feedback on what we were doing. That was a big inflection point for us,” he suggests.

After CES TrackR was formerly launched at the DEMO conference at which new products are unveiled and the company won an award for its efforts.

“The next critical step was to get the capital funding necessary to fund our prototypes,” Smith explains. “Without that, it would have been nigh impossible to carry out revisions on different boards. It’s not a cheap endeavour and we were having to do this before the advent of crowdfunding.”

The development of the product was not without its issues as at the time few phones had the capability to interact with an application. “The standards weren’t in place and most phones weren’t focused on apps.”

While it was a period of trial and error the company sort and was given help and advice.

“We got advice from, among others, a local entrepreneur, Tooey Courtemanche, who was CEO of Procore.

“Tooey saw our demo and listened as we explained our concept and then stopped us. ‘While you’re both great engineers’, he said, ‘remember that for a business your size sales will solve your problems.’ He made us realise that being good engineers wasn’t enough, we’d need to know how to be good salesmen too.”

Funding challenge

Initially funding was hard to come by but positive media coverage resulted in angel investors taking note and sales began to take off, generating revenues for the fledgling business.

“People were getting interested in tracking lost items using their smartphones,” Smiths explains.

Another major inflection point for the business was the development of Bluetooth low energy and its use in the iPhone 4.

“That changed the game for us,” Smith believes,” and beyond that the arrival of crowdfunding made it much easier to innovate.”

Crowdfunding provided a platform that enabled the business to invest and, crucially, experiment.

“It meant we could test our ideas out. We’ve now run multiple campaigns to fund various projects. Some have worked others, like TrackR glasses, haven’t.

“We were able to test our ideas and make rapid changes to our product roadmap. Trial and error was crucial, but so too were quick development cycles and learning from the market.”

To begin with TrackR turned to local manufacturers who were identified and recommended by mentors and friends which, according to Smith, “allowed us to very quickly establish a level of openness and trust.”

Both Smith and Herbert were ‘rationally optimistic’ that there was a device tracking market waiting to be served.

“That optimism wasn’t miss-placed. We’ve been able to create a market that didn’t’ exist 10 years ago and are now working with a host of major OEMs to embed our tracking technology into their products.

“What’s exciting is the size of the market. With over 1.2billion smartphones out there, the opportunities are huge.”

Smith concedes that there have been significant ups and downs getting to where they are today.

“We’ve been persistent and I think that’s been crucial. Any start-up needs to have the tenacity to bring their ideas to life. We were obsessed with solving a real problem. People too often talk of having a passion for this or that, but to succeed you need to be obsessed. Passion can fade in the face of challenges and problems.

“And you will be confronted by problems, every single day. What’s crucial is how you respond to them. My advice? Be creative when it comes to problem solving because, more often than not, a simple elegant solution exists.”

Having raised over $60million to date and continuing to expand with new products, strategic partnerships, and innovative software such as the TrackR Crowd Locate network, TrackR is well placed in the fast growing intelligent tracking space.

“We have and continue to redefine personal organisation to ensure nothing ever need be lost for millions of consumers ever again,” Smith concludes.