The toughest part of being an inventor or an entrepreneur is all of the unknowns. There are no guarantees and there is a lot of room for failure. One of my goals, in writing this column, is to talk about the nitty-gritty details, to help entrepreneurs avoid some of the pitfalls, and to be honest about what it takes. This year, I am launching Q&A sessions with start-up entrepreneurs and growth brands, so you can hear, right from the source, what they did right and what they did wrong, and how it all contributed to where they are in their entrepreneurship journey.
First in the Q&A hotseat is Jason Simmons, founder and CEO of DeadSoxy, a sock brand that came out of personal frustration that the more bold flashy socks didn't have the quality needed to be dress socks.
How did you decide that your idea was worth pursuing?
"Initially, our team talked to as many people as possible about socks and their experience with socks. Whether it was someone in line at a coffee shop or in a discussion forum like Reddit or Quora, we wanted to learn as much as possible about what people wanted, and what their frustrations were. Almost everyone had the same frustrations: 1) Their dress socks never stayed up on the leg. 2) Their dress socks always shrunk up way too much after only one or two laundry cycles. In some cases, these people were paying $20+ for dress socks that flat-out didn't meet their expectations. The frustration was real and compounded by years of socks sliding down, slipping off, and just wearing out. It was painfully obvious that this was a huge opportunity if we could get it right."
What were some of the first actions you took in building your product/brand/company?
"We spoke with enough people to understand the general frustrations with the options on the market. Based on what we learned from potential consumers, we knew there was a general frustration around how dress socks actually performed. Once we had a better understanding of what people wanted, I took the lead on product development and focused on learning the industry and building the right product. That's all I did for the first 2.5 years (other than my day job). There was no name, no social media, no plan, just learning and relentless focus on getting the product right.
Today, DeadSoxy's differentiator is and will always be the product. We are a product-centric brand and that permeates everything we do. Right from the start, I've wanted DeadSoxy's identity to be built around a strong product through pairing smart design with premium fabric. The company name, social media profiles, business plans, sock design, photo shoots, that's all the fun stuff. Everyone wants to do that stuff."
How or where did you find your first sales entry point?
"Our first big sale was a cold call to a subscription box company that I found on Instagram. Initially, I made a few calls to the customer service number on the site to gain more insight on the business. It didn't take long before I had the names, titles, roles, and some insight into the entire leadership team. After a few days of recon then a two day rest, I called back in and asked to be transferred to the president by name and it worked. That cold call resulted in a $25K order. I'm happy to say they are still a client today, and that one call has generated over $250K in revenue. Even as the Founder and CEO, I'll never graduate from making cold calls."
Details + Time = The Perfect Pair
The devil is in the details. That's to say, the details of a product are its most problematic aspect, and also where there is the most room for innovation and high-risk. In a follow-up call with Jason, we spoke about the landmines that might explode at anytime when you are learning a product category and re-inventing it at the same time. Keys are to be an open-minded continual learner and never get too comfortable with your product, even when they are as soft as DeadSoxy's, and get a great group of been-there, done-that advisors.
Also, I must add, if you are in a rush to make bank and exit, beware. Business takes time, research takes time, and sustainable success takes time.
When the power cut out at the Consumer Electronics Show--the world's biggest annual tech show in Las Vegas--for nearly two hours on Wednesday, most demonstrators were out of luck.
But not Zero Mass Water. The startup, which relies on solar energy, was set up outside under the bright Nevada sun. So while hordes of attendees tried to figure out what to do next, many of them found their way over to the company's demonstration.
Zero Mass Water's premise is both incredibly simple and incredibly ambitious: It pulls clean drinking water straight out of thin air. Founded by Cody Friesen, a materials scientist, the startup's Source system relies on an ultra-absorbent material that collects water at 20,000 times the concentration of the air around it. The setup is powered by solar panels, so it has no carbon footprint.
"We want to fundamentally change the way people receive their drinking water," says Friesen, who also teaches at Arizona State University. He founded the company in 2014, and the product went to market late last year.
The startup's standard two-panel system produces about 10 liters of water per day, which amounts to about 20 bottles--usually enough for a family of four. Friesen notes that the water is meant specifically for drinking, since bathing or watering your lawn would blow through the supply in a matter of minutes. The setup costs $4,500, which he says should pay for itself in one to four years when compared to the cost of bottled water.
But the more world-changing use case is in areas without access to clean water. Zero Mass Water works in both humid climates and arid ones. The startup has installed systems in areas of Ecuador, Jordan, Mexico, and the Philippines that lack the infrastructure for drinking water. Following Hurricane Maria, several charities funded installations at a firehouse in Puerto Rico, where local citizens can now come by to refill their containers.
At CES, the demonstration's six large solar panels and mock kitchen counter continually drew curiosity from passersby. The company also provided interested spectators with samples of Source's water, which is enhanced with minerals before being pumped into your sink's plumbing. This reporter tried some, and it was cold and refreshing--certainly better than the tap water at the motel down the road.
As good as the water might be, the cost is likely to be a sticking point before this technology enjoys widespread adoption. Friesen is quick to point out the positive effects that switching from bottled to Source-produced water would have on the environment. He sees the market as enormous, noting that company has performed installations at locations ranging from community centers in impoverished regions across the globe to a Northern California school attended by the children of Silicon Valley elites.
"The point of this is to perfect water for every person in every place," he says. "Everybody needs water to survive."
Away was among the first startups to shake up the luggage industry in recent years, thanks to the mass appeal of its smartly and attractively designed rolling suitcases. As often happens with a breakout product, Away now has a crop of competitors--each with its own take on smart suitcases. They showed up in droves to try to steal the spotlight at the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual gadget fest in Las Vegas this week.
Here are four of these startups that promise to make traveling with your standard rolling suitcase seem obsolete.
1. Travelmate Robotics
Think dragging your luggage is way too much effort? Travelmate's suitcase traverses the airport on its own. The suitcase autonomously follows you, trailing you like a needy puppy while you strut down the street or through the terminal. It syncs with an app in your phone so it knows who to follow, then combines cameras with ultrasound and infrared to avoid obstacles along the way. And, like any good dog, it responds to your voice and hand signals as well. The suitcase, which starts at $1,100 for the smallest version, has two USB ports to charge your devices, plus a built-in scale to make sure you don't go over the airline's weight limit.
Your gate closes in 10 minutes and you're all the way on the other side of the terminal. Or maybe you're just lazy. Either way, Modobag proposes a solution for you: a $1,500 motorized suitcase. Pop out the foot rests, pull out the handlebar equipped with throttle and a break, climb on board, and leave other travelers in your dust. The suitcase supports passengers up to 260 pounds, zooms along at up to 8 mph, and is small enough to fit in an overhead bin. Thanks to the motor, though, the storage space inside is fairly limited--more akin to a medium duffel bag than one of your larger carry-on suitcases. Inc. took this thing for a spin on the CES floor and, admittedly, it was a lot of fun--especially after a company rep advised me to cut corners faster by leaning into my turns. Wide adoption, though, will mean your already anxiety-inducing airport terminal will suddenly look more like a course from Mario Kart.
Lumzag aims to be the smartest backpack on the market. The bag has a built-in WiFi hotspot and a charging bank for your devices, plus a solar bank to pull extra power from the sun. It's also promises to be incredibly secure: There's built-in global GPS and an alarm you can activate if it goes missing, and you have the option to receive alerts to your phone when someone unzips it. The backpack has a number of convenient design features built in, like a sturdy frame that stays upright when the bag is set down, and a light inside so you're not rummaging through blindly. Lumzag debuted at this year's CES; the company has yet to set a price, and it plans on launching a crowdfunding campaign in the near future, so it's likely a ways away from getting to market.
4. Luggage Teleport
Yes, waiting for your bag at the carousel is annoying. But is it so annoying that you're willing to outsource the task? Luggage Teleport is betting so. Input your flight information and the address where you'll be staying and the startup sends someone to wait at your designated baggage claim for you, then deliver your goods. It'll run you $35 for two bags, plus $10 for each additional piece of luggage. You can track the status of your bags in real time via an app. Perhaps the more useful application: The company will take your bags from your hotel to the airport, so if you explore the city after checkout, you won't need to return to the hotel concierge before heading off to the airport. Luggage Teleport launched in Las Vegas this week.