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Making the First Fitbit: How Truth Was Better Than Tech

If you’ve ever heard the story of how the ubiquitous activity tracker Fitbit came to be, then you know cofounders James Park and Eric Friedman’s story is no different than many celebrated startups. Replete with nerve-wracking conference demos, manufacturing challenges, and a dose of good fortune, Park and Friedman’s Fitbit journey peaked with a sale of their company to Google at the end of 2019.

While the multimillion-dollar transaction caught the attention of many, one of the lesser-known turning points during the co-founders’ tenacious build to success required more than technological foresight: It called for an act of transparency.

The events that led to this pivotal moment started when Park and Friedman assembled a single working prototype for an upcoming presentation at a TechCrunch conference. Afterward, the cofounders guessed they would capture about five pre-orders. To their amazement, they received more than 2,000 pre-orders and the count increased every day after the event. Quickly, they realized they’d never complete their first batch of orders by their original deadline.

Park and Friedman wondered how they were going to keep this snowballing number of new customers happy while they worked out the kinks in their prototype and scaled up with the manufacturer. The cofounders began thinking, “Why don’t we just blog about the whole process [of developing the Fitbit] and just be very open and transparent about it?”

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Park began sharing weekly with their pre-order customers about challenges and delays they faced as they developed the first batch of Fitbits. Park and Friedman were surprised to learn that readers genuinely responded to their behind-the-scenes effort to bring the Fitbit to market. The candid interaction kept their customers engaged in the process and bought in to waiting for the final product.

Park and Friedman’s decision to share the growing pains of perfecting and producing their prototype is a prime example of transformative influence or what I call “transfluence.” When leaders exercise transfluence, they’re communicating in a positive way. Transparency is at the heart of this idea because leaders openly communicate about the peaks as well as the valleys in a situation. A leader’s candor builds trust, engages others, and ultimately carries influence.  In Fitbit’s case, the trust that resulted from the founders’ transparency had a profound influence on the customers. Whether you’re a start-up and struggling to meet the demands of your first customers, an established company experiencing a valley, or something in between, consider the value of transfluence and the transparency that is at the heart of its practice. The reactions may surprise you and the fitness of your situation may signal a few beeps on your activity tracker.

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