As highlighted previously, I believe hardware startups are harder because of the diversity of talent needed to ship first product. A hardware startup requires every skill set a software startup requires plus the hugely diverse skills required to make physical product.
When evaluating wearables startups, I’m looking for three additional skill sets to be explicitly represented in individual founders or implicitly through talents nurtured by the founding team. These skills, psychology, material science, and fashion design, are critical assets for wearable computing, and I believe they are also incredibly important for billions-scale embedded sensor networks, next-generation health, and other emerging market segments. I believe these skills are “superhero” assets that separate success and failure for founders and startups entering the market.
The first generation of wearables and health related devices was about measurement and instrumentiation. And that was good. Then we all reached that state of “great, I know I walk on average 4356 steps a day. Now what?”
As an industry, we’ll continue to refine and invent new sensors. But the shock and awe of generating data is over. The shock and awe of hardware sensing is over. We have to turn hardware into fashion to show it off or blend it invisibly into the fabric of our lives. We have to turn data into actionable information as the first step in the voyage to modifying behavior. Information can change positively change people’s lives, but only if guided by the profession whose job it is to understand and modify human behavior. We as engineers are not trained to do this. Designers often implicitly do it, but psychologists have the experience and expertise in using information to change human behavior.
We stand at the edge of a great material chasm. Our mastery of existing materials like plastic, aluminum, and wood is strong. But more exciting is the wave of new materials and new techniques to use existing and newly invented materials. We’re creating new materials at the atomic level, at the biological level. Materials with dynamic characteristics that we can control to our advantage. And with advances in additive manufacturing, we’re also learning how to use existing (carbon fiber, etc.) and new materials to create structures that only computers can imagine through generative design.
The challenge is most engineers don’t have time to simultaneously stay at the leading edge of their skill set and material sciences. Startups that have an intimate understanding of material science, of what is feasible, market ready, and manufacturable, create a huge “hardware” competitive advantage. Material scientists are few in number but unlock designs and functionality that inspire customer passion as we weave materials into the fabric of our clothes and our lives.
You might hear of reality distortion fields surrounding companies, often to their detriment. Companies start to believe their own bullshit, never noticing that the rest of the world has moved past the goods or services they are offering.
Silicon Valley has a reality distortion field as well (gasp!). I strongly believe the worlds of fashion and technology are racing towards an inevitable collision at high speed. As we embed hardware into everything, we intersect technology with how objects behave and more importantly, how they look and associated aesthetic valuation. Viewing this intersection of fashion and technology, the Silicon Valley reality distortion field kicks in and we inside the bubble believe that since we uniquely mastered technology at a global scale (lol!), we automatically have what it takes to master design and fashion?!
People have been designing clothing, furniture, buildings, cars, etc. for far longer than the Silicon Valley has existed. Industries have been formed with market caps much larger than pure technology plays to support these design driven industries. Cities and regions have formed around that expertise and industry. But those aren’t the Silicon Valley. When you think of fashion, you think of New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Shanghai. When you think of automobiles, you think of Detroit, England, Stuttgart, Maranello, and Tokyo. We must look to these centers for the experience and expertise to approach watches, wearables, automobiles, and in the design of things we wear, drive, work in, and live around.
It’s hard enough for (fashion, car, furniture) designers to stay on top of their respective markets; to define the fashion and style global customers want. Now imagine doing this and staying on top of the hardware and software stack that will power the intersection of fashionable/invisible objects and technology. Rather than living in the reality distortion field of seamlessly mastering fashion and technology, smart hardware startups partner with talented individuals and companies that already know what fashion is for a market, partnering with that expertise as an equal citizen to engineering and marketing at the earliest days of their startup. Look to recent high visibility hires at Apple and other forward thinking companies around fashion and retail as an obvious clue about the importance of having this asset inside your startup. They have it, will you?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these “superhero” skills for wearables startups and if there are other critical skills under-represented in hardware startups!