While most of us don’t have everything figured out, there are others that seem to navigate life with the help of an invisible compass. This week we met with one such person, Kevin Yoo, the founder of WearWorks, which is creating the future of navigation using haptic feedback – ie, leveraging feel and touch, not sight. In college he already became an award winning industrial designer which quickly lead to opportunities to work on projects with large corporations like GE. It was during that time that he started to realize what his purpose was and what truly motivated him to act.
In part one of our interview with Kevin we learn about his origin story and what prepared him to build a product designed for the blind and vision impaired, ultimately landing his team into NYTimes,The Discovery Channel, TechCrunch, and a TED Talk earlier this year. We discuss how he recruited an all star team and why he realized early on that his goal in life would be to bring people together to build things that matter.
In part two Kevin talks about how he iterated on the original concept to turn it into a business, how his team was able to secure half a million dollars in funding, and the various applications of the technology they’re building today that makes his new product revolutionary. If you’re interested in supporting WearWorks consider contributing to their Kickstarter and get early access to their first product, Wayband.
00:08 Today on the show we have Kevin Yoo. He is the founder of a company called WearWorks.
02:16 Can you tell us a little bit about your first entrepreneurial experience that you can remember, whether it was in college or before that?
02:38 I became captain of my tennis team quite early. And so by doing that, I was forced into a position at a young stage to, you know, tell people what to do. And we had to win as a team, as a group against other teams. I started off very independent in the early years. I got into the RA position really early on and that was like, okay, I just want to have the perks.
06:16 So can you talk about a story where you saw an opportunity and you took a chance and it paid off and tell us how that played out.
06:25 The earliest one that really paid off, I think the most was when I was a sophomore at a Pratt Institute. And I’m a professor. They took liking to my style and design. We’re just making, you know, cardboard cutouts and carving stone and stuff like this.
07:02 How did you know how to do this? Or was this just a personal style?
07:05 Yeah, I just kinda felt like I wanted to just make things bigger because I like sculptures. But I don’t like sculptures that just stand there. I like things that have a purpose.
08:36 Maya Lin was a big influence on me. I had been trying to find her in New York. \
10:21 You’re becoming relatively known. How did this then lend itself to entrepreneurial opportunities or opportunities to make money?
10:42 The first thing you’ve really got to do is get yourself out there and not be afraid to really just say your name and introduce yourself and to the rest of it. I think the thing is I just kept looking at things. I was really, really bad and I found people that I could really just bond with that could just do that portion really well.
13:41 I know how to make people better, I know how to make people perform better and for myself too because I know how to do that for myself and to do that to other different types of people were definitely the most interesting challenge that I ever had to go through, how do I solve that?
14:07 How did you actually tactically go out there and meet those people and then actually beyond even meeting them, attract them to start working with you? How do you even start doing that?
14:09 I think that part was the moment when I felt like I didn’t want to start anything because I just thought to myself, if I just get really good at design, I get a design job, which I did for about a year or so.
15:16 So I think in that case there was one very lucky moment, which is this digital arts and human research center, which does not exist anymore, but that was where multidiscipline people got together. A lot of people from other companies will come in, they’ll piss their ideas and have prep students work on them.
16:59 you guys started as sustainable furniture company together. How did you guys start that? And how do you go from meeting somebody at an event, to then being cofounders with them?
17:25 Actually, Young and I were just straight up bros before, before the dark that digital humans research center. I actually brought them into that place in order for us to start working more on projects going forward. And then we ended up doing our company where much later down the line.
20:27 So I was making a lot of furniture for a while. In the beginning I was really into not even sustainable stuff and to resin. Then we got into, Rico, Brooklyn, I definitely want to give them a shout out because Rico has reclaimed woods back then they had these giant piles of reclaim with no furniture makers would ever use and they would just bring it somewhere and burn them.
23:33 So can I ask you something? It sounds like you were doing a lot of collaboration, a lot of experimentation and kind of just following your passion of doing interesting projects and creating interesting things that you want to see exist. How were you supporting yourself during this time? Like how do you work on those projects and create these cool pieces but then also afford to live in New York?
23:44 Well, luckily back then I was sponsored by my parents. I mean I was in college. I was in RA for about a year, was definitely like reduced my cost of living and stuff.
26:07 So this furniture that you created or this process of creating sustainable furniture, it sounds like you kind of stumbled into it, right? Was that through classwork and is that the right assumption that you stumbled into it?
26:12 I was taking a lot of furniture classes, like my main design classes for like two years in a row were furniture classes. But the thing is, and I’m not promoting this or anything, but I was like never there in the, in the class because I was working with my friend Young on the side doing actual furniture making and making like a process, you know, making a concept that eventually become a business.
29:18 One thing that I think is important to note to our listeners is, and I don’t know if you did this on purpose at the time or not, but the way that you went through your college experience was actually the right way to do it because a lot of people, they might question let’s say the value of a degree when you spend a ton of money on it and then what happens? Like what’s the value there? But it sounds like you used it as an opportunity to learn as much as possible so that you can then translate it into actual work that you get to do that you’re proud of. And in this case, it ended up being entrepreneurial, which you’ll talk about now based on Sergei’s second question.
30:02 If you can talk about now how did this then turn into an entrepreneurial endeavor?
30:24 The furniture company itself was started because I wanted to keep making furniture. It wasn’t because I wanted to keep selling furniture and I think the switch that happened to wearable technology also happened because I met a guy, Marcus and he was applied author and a writer, very intellectual and he was able to clearly articulate his problems to me in a really amazing emotional way. And as soon as he did that, I was hooked and I was like, I’m going to solve your problem man. Like, I’m going to just spend the rest of my life and solve your problem.
32:17 During that time I blindfolded myself and I walked outside with a blind with a white cane for two weeks.
33:58 So after the first week of tuning continuously, I started to get used to it and even my friend was driving me around Manhattan, driving me around to Brooklyn.
34:42 I was able to talk about later on to mark is, and to other blind consultants that I’ve been working with, also to my co-founders more in depth.
35:51 When you did that first piece of furniture Georgio. You sold it to the gentleman. How much did he buy it for?
35:51 Three thousand
36:54 I want to have a reputation where we can, we can make these things and be respected for these furniture pieces and give it to our friends. And so, what I’d like to do is I make these furniture pieces and we give them to our friends. We have them show cased somewhere. We promote sustainable making of products. So I think like that’s the main goal of this company, this furniture company business. But it’s really not to make revenue.
37:55 This conversation was so riveting, at least to me and Vadim, while we were sitting here, we were paying attention to every word that Kevin was saying that we didn’t want you to miss out on any of it. And so we decided to separate it into two parts, but next week you’ll hear more about how Kevin actually went from doing a lot of the different projects that he talked about in today’s episode to starting WearWorks and exactly how he got that company and brand off the ground.