Kerv founder, Phil Campbell, talks about his company’s contactless ring, Apple Watch and Kickstarter

My interview with Phil Campbell, the founder of Kerv, the contactless payment ring that made waves on Kickstarter at the end of last year, was interrupted almost straight away because in demonstrating how the ring works, he attracted the attention of several people who all wanted to see how a man could pay for a couple of black coffees by gently tapping his fist on a contactless terminal.

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When they saw Phil was paying with a ring, they were very interested in the concept. In fact, the reaction was so positive I couldn’t help but notice that it was wholly different to the reaction the big wearables of 2015 received.

Why was the reaction so lukewarm towards the big brands’ devices that offered everything from heart rate analysis to contactless payments, but more positive to a simple ring that, according to Phil, probably wouldn’t have ever gone ahead if they didn’t reach their goal on Kickstarter?

One potential explanation is perhaps just that: simple ring. I compared the ring to behaving like a credit card in the sense that it made payments and didn’t need charging and Phil said, “That’s exactly the point. The card actually works very well”, whilst going on to say the Apple Watch may have been suffering from a case of being over-engineered. Kerv adopts the approach of “actually sometimes simpler is better. No charging, waterproof, it’s more like the evolution of the card.”

Phil insisted that he didn’t want to create “just another plastic programme” and he thought the other wearables that were coming out simply didn’t offer enough for the user.

“Our goal with Kerv is to be more than just a ring. The purpose of launching it was to show what we were capable of doing. If we just came out with another wristband, everybody would say ‘so what?’”

Interestingly, Phil said the focus wasn’t on payments per se, but rather how and where we make them. He said there were several challenges, one being the size. Payments capability by itself was not enough.

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“None of us are short on ways of making a payment. There’s got to be more to it. Transit was a big factor. Oyster was huge for TfL in making that process a lot simpler. We had to think about what the user would want, make it desirable, make something unobtrusive, we didn’t want people to notice that you’re wearing it.”

The fact that the ring will be able to work on TfL’s network will undoubtedly be a massive incentive for people to use the ring. After all, over 180 million journeys have been made using contactless payments on London’s transport network in the first year since its launch, which roughly breaks down to 625,000 a day. The market is clearly ripe for a technology that allows commuters to keep their wallets in their pockets.

He also emphasised the importance of location. There is a reason the ring works in 38 million locations:  “there are a lot of FinTech applications like wallets where, if you have got to integrate them, at every restaurant, every bar, it’s a nightmare and they won’t do it.”

In terms of actually setting up the ring, Phil says that all in all it will take thirty seconds. All you do is attach the funding source to it via an app and that’s it.

In cases of the ring being lost or stolen, Phil mentions this is where the form factor comes into play. “It’s on your finger so you’re less likely to lose it, and if you do you’re going to notice it very quickly, unlike a wallet or a handbag.  As with any card we will have a 24/7 lost or stolen, but the big difference is that you will be able to turn it on or off via the app. You can do that instantly. Again, it’s about the consumer. Not everyone wants to call up a hotline – they feel it’s just a bit of a slow process. Also you may not always be sure you’ve lost it. Did I leave it at the gym? Is it at the bottom of my sports bag? Is it at home? So you want to turn it off and then reactivate it when you find it.”

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Naturally the conversation drifted to the general landscape of contactless and wearable tech. Despite being very different from the Apple Watch, Phil emphasises the importance of the big companies such as Apple cannot be underestimated.

“Apple has done a huge amount to promote contactless, the idea of paying with a wearable device.” He also points out the work that MasterCard and Visa are doing. They are “ensuring that the security is there”. He is referring to both companies pledging to grow the number of contactless terminals so that by 2020 every terminal will be contactless enabled.

“The work that Barclaycard, Visa, MasterCard and Apple Pay have been doing around promoting contactless is really encouraging.”

Just as the big companies are popularising the devices, a different type of company helps the startups make the most of the fresh mainstream popularisation – crowdfunding. Kerv set a goal of £77,000 on Kickstarter, one that was easily surpassed fairly quickly and ultimately reached six figures. However, Phil quickly pointed out that it wasn’t just about the money.

“Kickstarter was overall a good vehicle. You get the exposure, and get to test the product”

He stressed that it was as much ‘market research’ as it was a source of funding.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect. Overall I was really pleased with the result – 95 per cent of the reaction has been positive.”

Even the comments that appeared to be negative were actually helpful.

“They are actually only asking valid questions and if you get back to them and respond, most of them are fine. A lot of the time it raised a few things we hadn’t thought about.”

As the interview drew to an end, I asked Phil what his hopes and expectations were for the company in 2016. The ring goes on sale in April and by the end of 2016 he hopes to be in four or five countries. He mentioned seeing the ring working really well in the Australian market.

“The ring suits the lifestyle of sports and outdoors, and they were really adoptive of contactless. Greater London, to see using it here, would be pretty cool.”

Ultimately, he hopes that by December 2016, he can sit in a bar and look over to see someone using and demonstrating to their friends how the ring works.

Judging by the excited reaction the ring received when Phil used it in a café, that shouldn’t be a problem.

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