‘Nick is still with me’: A year after loss of friend and co-founder, Pebblebee CEO pushes ahead at startup


Pebblebee co-founders Nick Pearson-Franks, left, and Daniel Daoura spent eight years building the company together. Pearson-Franks died in an accident in June 2020. (Pebblebee Photo)

Startup founders face plenty of challenges when it comes to building a company and achieving success. For more than a year, Daniel Daoura has been working to clear the most difficult hurdle — the loss of his close friend and co-founder.

Daoura started Pebblebee, a Seattle-area startup that develops wireless devices for tracking keys, pets and more, about eight years ago with Nick Pearson-Franks. He called the fellow engineer his “brother in crime.” Side-by-side, the two had been working to develop and release new products and attract new partnerships. They had big dreams together for their tiny company.

Pearson-Franks died June 24, 2020, in an all-terrain vehicle accident at the age of 40. The passing of the father of two young boys left a gaping hole in his family and at the startup where he served as chief technical officer.

As Daoura has tried to cope with the pain, he’s charged ahead at work with a feeling that the partnership and goals shared by the two friends lives on.

“I’m not alone. Nick is still with me,” Daoura said.

It hasn’t been easy.

Daoura called the loss “the worst thing that could ever happen” and something that he wouldn’t wish upon his worst enemies. He’s sought therapy to cope with the mental challenges. And he’s worked — non-stop — to make Pebblebee better.

“People invested in me emotionally, invested in me financially, people trusted me,” Daoura said. “And if there’s one thing true about me, it’s that I just don’t quit. And that may be a disadvantage in some cases, but I just don’t quit.”

Daoura said he didn’t take a moment of rest and instead poured his energy into what he realized was important at work.

“When you lose someone that close to you, they work with you every day, you start looking at things a little different,” he said. “It’s not a business anymore, it’s about people. It’s about our community, it’s about our employees, the family of Pebblebee. I started treating people differently.”

Nick Pearson-Franks, left, with Daniel Daoura, demonstrating one of their Pebblebee trackers working with Amazon’s Alexa for a 2017 GeekWire story. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Pebblebee has grown about 50% to 15 employees over the past year. The death of Pearson-Franks and the challenges of the pandemic drove some restructuring that has led to a fully distributed model. The startup has employees in Poland, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and the Philippines.

Daoura appreciates the flexibility and diversity that comes with hiring remotely, and how it allows him to compete for talent away from the Seattle region.

“We’re not a VC-backed company, so we can’t afford a lot,” he said. “You have Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Expedia — you have to deal with these big companies snatching these really good employees. Now you don’t have to deal with that when you have the world to work with.”

In their eight years working together, Daoura said he and Pearson-Franks got closer every year and every day. Though Daoura, an electrical engineer, and Pearson-Franks, a software engineer, both worked on Pebblebee’s technical needs, Daoura leaned on his co-founder a lot. And now he needed help.

“I have more responsibility. I have more work. I have more challenges,” Daoura said of life without Pearson-Franks. “As we grow the team, he’s always with us, but I can’t do it alone, obviously.”

Pebblebee has worked hard to improve its iOS app and says an Android version is coming. (Pebblebee Photo)

There were fits and starts along the way, trying to replace the expertise of Pearson-Franks. People cycled in and out of helping; a third-party company in Oregon was hired but ultimately didn’t work out. It took almost a year to find the person Daoura was looking for in Poland-based Pawel Kazimierowicz, who has been serving as technical director since May.

Remote hiring also paid off with the addition of Jan Thomas Rantaniitty, Pebblebee’s new chief marketing officer, who called GeekWire last week from his wife’s grandmother’s cabin on a fjord “in the outback of Norway.”

Rantaniitty is poised to help the startup continue its growth.

“Pebblebee has kind of reached that maturity level where it needs to really scale out,” he said. “It’s ready on a global scale and we’re setting up all the pieces to get there. There’s a lot of exciting stuff that’s in the pipeline.”

Daoura said he’s even open to leadership help, which could involve bringing on a CEO with experience in scaling a company into a much larger operation.

The Pebblebee Found LTE tracker as seen on a dog collar. (Pebblebee photo)

But in addition to getting more people pieces in place, Daoura has been focused on improving the product.

“We were scattered everywhere,” he said, noting that they paid special attention to improving Pebblebee’s App Store ratings and reviews and have seen nice success over the past few months.

Pebblebee, which competes against Tile and others in personal device tracking, has released such devices as the Finder and the BlackCard over the years. Lately it’s been pushing its Found LTE tracker for pets. Last month, the company introduced the device and a collaboration with Polte, a Dallas-based company specializing in cellular location technology.

Each iteration of product, each new partnership still brings Daoura back to where things started, and back to crediting his friend and co-founder.

“I don’t think any of the stuff that we’ve done over the last year was me or anything like that. It was really Nick,” Daoura said. “Pretty much everything that we’ve done today was already established.

“Because of him, because I believed so much in him, the legacy goes on.”

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