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How This Award Winning Industrial Designer Is Reinventing Navigation, With Kevin Yoo Of WearWorks – Part II

How do you take an idea for a new hardware innovation and attract funding for it? You have to start with the prototype. In part two of our interview with Kevin Yoo we find out how the founder of WearWorks became so inspired to work on the R&D for his product for several years, getting accepted into BMW’s URBAN-X accelerator and attracting half a million dollars in grants and investment in the process.

We discuss the importance of branding, especially for a physical product where the experience of the consumer begins when they first interact with the brand, heavily influencing how they feel when they first handle the product. Kevin also tells us why he would be happy to work on this business for the rest of his life, and the vision he sees for the future of navigation and his company.

Show Notes

00:35 Today you’ll be hearing part two of our conversation with Kevin. He has developed this company and in part one he talked about how he went from a designer to an entrepreneur and how he actually developed the skills necessary to create a business.

01:03 In part two he’s going to talk about how he launched the company, how he ended up raising money for WearWorks. How he went through different iterations to actually bring this hardware products to life, something that’s really difficult to do with such an expensive product. And he talks about how he became passionate about the problem of solving the difficulties that blind and visually impaired people have in navigating day to day life.

02:26 It sounds like you choose what to work on based on what interests you or what pull you feel for a problem. Right? But talk about how you make the transition from thinking about this as an interesting problem to solve, to then saying, I’m going to start a business around this.

03:02 I think it really just all happened because Marcus have a talk about it at Pratt. I invited him to Pratt to talk and that was the first initial exposure I had to this problem. At the time I was really into automobile design as well and I was really into prosthetics design and in the midst of all this stuff. It was really just a practice for me just to keep it up.

04:47 And I think my father is a really big influence on this. When I first started this, you know, product, he knew that I was doing it for Marcus, but I kept talking to him about transitioning it into a bigger market strategy.

05:26 And my dad kept looking at me and saying, if you don’t do this for the blind and visually impaired, you are going to waste your life.

06:46 Talk about how you went from wanting to solve this problem, to then turning it into a business. How did you assemble the team?

06:59 This is I think the most challenging. Execution is everything. The good thing about a designer I think is or especially industrial designer is you are taught that the process of the iteration process is to begin it. And you can definitely start it on your own to a very far extent, but once it includes manufacturing, once it includes, software development, app creation, and all this stuff, that’s so much money.

09:36 But back then when we weren’t truly innovating on this technology. And today it is officially patented – in about one more month the paperwork is done.

10:06 But once after that prototype was ready, we were able to go places. We were able to go to BMW for example, and get into an accelerator, Urban X in Greenpoint.

10:21 So while producing these prototypes, we were establishing a business together.

10:50 So once after that was established once after we had a person – Marcus, who literally taught me everything I know about healthcare, about the blind and visually impaired organizations, politics within it, lobbying, everything, the corruption in it, everything. He just talks about it forever. And once I got that update and once I started to get understanding of the technology portion of it and then now as an industrial designer, you start kind of swerving around and making it happen.

11:40 So the initial team core was actually quite strong and I think that was because of our old friendship.

11:55 So when you guys were working on the prototype, going from Brooklyn to Jersey, whatever it is, being resourceful with that 10 grand, were you still a full-time employee or no?

12:09 That was after I quit my job. During the time when I was working, as soon as we got that 10 grand check or even before that, actually, about three months or four months before that check came, I quit my job and I literally just walked out on a Monday and I just grabbed my stuff and walked out. And then I called up Keith and Yung and I said, hey guys, let’s just do this full time.

12:32 So were they both not full time anywhere else at this point? And then also, I’m assuming this is before the BMW accelerator where you didn’t have that 100 grand, like are you guys all just compensating yourselves with equity and then whatever side projects you had?

12:49 At that moment we didn’t establish the company officially yet. It was still in the concept phase. Before the 10k came in, we were literally just all looking for jobs. We were like doing it multitasking because you can’t just pour your entire life on hold, you could actually be homeless.

14:37 The 10,000 was given to us. Then they flew us out to SXSW to get our first time exposure. And that was really awesome.

14:55 Originally you didn’t get into the program. How did you get it the second time? Why do you think you got in?

14:59 I don’t know. I mean, I think there’s a lot of components to it. I think the first time we literally didn’t have anything, and the second time around, I was like, we have to get this no matter what, like this is our future.

15:58 So during this time when I was living in Connecticut, it saved me money and I was just able to create the most, I think, coolest looking thing that I could represent as our company.

17:28 And here’s the main thing that I learned, when I went to all the blind organizations and I talked to the individuals, I was like, do you actually care about what color it is? And they’re like, we care about what color it is more than you care about what the color it is. Because I want to match things and I want to match things so much that I will go out of my way to do it because it’s the connotation.

18:15 Why do they care a lot about how they’re visually represented more than you and I?

18:24 The description that an artist – Emily, she’s now at MFA, at Yale, she also worked at the Metropolitan Museum and she’s the first one that saw what I was doing at the Met, which is like the three printed edible. And she found that interesting because it’s about how you understand art in a different way. So what she taught me was really how blind people portray themselves.

20:04 And so when you got into this accelerator, got the funding were you guys pitching it as a product that had a bunch of different potential market use cases, or was it more niche and then how did that evolve for you to guys to continue working on the business and getting more funding and the like?

20:22 At the end of the day, main thing is it’s gotta be something very innovative and very cool because everybody can stand behind that. But I’ve always known the reason why I started this product that led onto a business. But when I talk about it, it definitely hits the mark when we talk about haptic.

23:14 I want to ask, you raised about half a million dollars to date. You’ve been working on this for about four years and you’re prelaunch, you’re actually about to launch in September. Is it with a Kickstarter campaign? Is there a date set and a funding amount that you’re going for?

23:38 We’re saying September 20th but I’m going to say end of September. We’re trying to raise $200,000

23:48 And so as a prelaunch company for the last couple of years, how do you start to not only de-risk for investors that you’re going to have an ability to actually get customers but also for yourself?

24:16 This is the main thing that we get asked because we’re currently fundraising right now. We’re about to raise 1.5 [million] and you have to kind of do that before you launch in order to give yourself a cushion for every kind of mistake you’re going to make, especially in the hardware side and software side.

27:59 So you spent the last several years essentially building the prototype, refining the product. That’s sometimes how long it takes to build hardware and there’s actually a lot of cool stories that unfortunately we won’t have time to cover, but you were recently on a podcast called “Fixed That For You” where you talked about the story where you essentially partnered with the blind marathon runner named Simon and you yourself became a runner and I guess trained and ran the New York City Marathon right yesterday, which is a creative story. Checkout Kevin’s appearance on “Fixed That For You”, but you were doing the building for the last few years. Now you’re switching your hat right, and you’re becoming a salesperson. Are you okay with that?

28:38 It was a struggle in the beginning because I’m still thinking about the little minuscule things that need to be changed at the very last moment to be a good product.

And I’m actually very picky about the things I buy. You know, as you can imagine, I don’t like a lot of things and I also really respect and love a lot of things. But especially if it’s your own product like the Wayband, the judgment gets real and I’m not 100% happy about the product, but that’s okay. And that’s the thing that I’ve learned to adapt to and that’s why I can now finally take off the designer hat and say, alright, this is the extent to where I can potentially push it.

32:16 For people that are interested in the space and specifically for people that might be interested in your product. What are some other use cases then for navigation based on touch?

32:54 I think tourists is a huge one. I think we’re all tourists, honestly. It’s just kind of, you know, general living or urban dwellers, right? That’s also basic city life. I think the tourist sector is so exciting because when you go to another country, you really don’t know where you are and you don’t know any of the street names and you don’t know anything really based on the pronunciation and how it’s spelled and sounds. So navigation.

35:07 To wrap up this interview, one recurring theme to me from one of the early things you said in this interview is obsession. You at one point were obsessed about winning a competition. At another point you sort of followed your gut and interest and turned your interest in furniture into this obsession that helped you get this initial venture business off the ground. And I think that’s why you’re going to continue to be successful with this venture. Best of luck.

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