Interview with WearWorks Cofounders Keith Kirkland and Kevin Yoo.
With so much innovation in the world right now, what is the new frontier for technology? According to WearWorks cofounders Keith Kirkland and Kevin Yoo, that new frontier is the sense of touch. WearWorks is a startup that’s focused on communicating using the sense of touch. The company’s first product Wayband is a navigation tool that uses only the sense of touch and is geared toward blind and vision-impaired individuals.
Keith and Kevin recently joined startup coach Roland Siebelink on the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast to discuss how they arrived at this new frontier and how they’ve managed to navigate it to this point.
Roland Siebelink: Hello, everyone, and Welcome to the Silicon Valley Momentum Podcast. My name is Roland Siebelink and I'm a coach and facilitator for fast-growing startups. Today's podcast has the cofounders of WearWorks, an amazing company I've been working with a little bit in New York. I've had good chats with both Kevin Yoo and Keith Kirkland, both of the cofounders who are here on this show. Welcome, guys. For those who haven't been exposed to WearWorks and the Wayband yet, tell us, in a nutshell, what do you do? What's the problem you're solving for?
Kevin Yoo: The Wayband is a navigation tool that's utilizing your sense of touch, meaning without audio or vision, and it's able to guide you very intuitively only using the sense of touch. The purpose of our product is really a tool for navigation, a more intuitive navigation system. And this for connection with blind or visually impaired individuals, they are able to now, for the first time, get to places without a guide, without a human guide, and without constant distraction through audio. We're literally showcasing to the world that inclusive design is not just a tailored experience for one, the visually impaired, which is how we started. It really is the best-case scenario potentially for everybody. In a nutshell, that is what it is. It's a wearable technology that communicates information through touch. And it's going to go much more beyond navigation. But it is the foundation of what we have.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Initially, it's focused on navigation and initially, you focused on blind and visually impaired people. And then on top of that, you can build more use cases and more target groups. Keith, how did you guys get into this line of work and this particular value proposition?
Keith Kirkland: Wayband is our first product, but our company WearWorks is really about exploring this idea of communicating information through touch. Wayband is really all about navigation. But we really see the sense of touch as the final frontier of design for the senses because there's been so little that's been done with touch. The way we started this was we were all at Pratt together, Kevin and I. When we initially met, we were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art together. We were both working on totally separate projects. Kevin was doing something around exploring the sense of taste in art. I was doing something around exploring movement perception through fashion and hanging of clothing. When we initially came together , we decided that we wanted to work on something in a space of haptics. My personal background was that I spent that entire year trying to build a premise for a suit that would allow a person to download Kung Fu, and the suit would teach it to them using vibrations.
Roland Siebelink: That's amazing.
Keith Kirkland: I was really interested in movement learning and how can you supply movement learning without a movement professional physically being in the room. I had insight when at that moment I was thinking that my friend walked over and put her thumb on my back and her index finger on my right shoulder and pushed and pulled to straighten my posture. And I was like, "Holy crap. If I had vibrating motors where she placed each of her fingers, motion capture data to know my current and optimal posture, I could simulate this whole experience so she doesn't need to be here anymore."
Roland Siebelink: Your idea would have been able to teach even the worst dancers how to dance?
Keith Kirkland: Well, we can give the worst dancers the instructions of how to properly dance. Of course, we're not controlling their physical bodies. It's up to them to do the movement themselves. Really, I was looking at: "Okay, there's a whole opportunity around movement conservation that doesn't exist right now. There's lots of traditional dances from lots of different cultures that aren't being practiced are disappearing. Imagine the world library for all the world's movements - if you have a suit, you have basically an iPod for movement. That was the very beginning for me . And then I was like, "Wow, why has no one ever done this before?" And then I found that MIT had actually done part of the project, proving all of the stuff that I thought was theory, which was learning rates increased and it took less time to learn. The thing was, if I want you to raise your risk two inches off of the table using vibration, how do I tell you to do that? There was no language to communicate that was touchless. When I graduated I was like, "Okay, I'm going to go and build this language." Kevin and I and our co-founder Yang, they were also interested in working on haptics and we came together. When we were looking at our first use case, we played slightly with the idea of trying to make the suit. But it was overly complicated for the technology that was available at the moment. We just need a simpler way of communicating a form of movement. I always tell people that Kevin and I walked in through different doors - and he'll talk about his door in a second. But for me, a huge part of it was navigation was the simpler form of movement in Kung Fu. The way I thought about it, if we can figure out how to do this intuitively with navigation without having to give any visual or audio instructions, we can take that and do something more complex.
Roland Siebelink: Very good. What's your door, Kevin?
Kevin Yoo: Oh my God, my door! Yang and I actually started a company before this - our third cofounder who is taking a back stance in an advisory role - he and I started a sustainable furniture company, and that's how we became very good friends. We inspired each other's design work. This is where I did a lot of 3D prints, particularly in fashion. And that's when we just get excited by each other's work. Through this, I was part of this community called DAHRC: Digital Arts and Human Research Center. It was a really fantastic group of people getting together from different majors and putting our skills together and doing awesome projects I joined early. I had a mentor there that really took care of me and I was able to join in on a lot of really cool ventures and projects. That's how I really started to learn about multidisciplinary work. Designers are not all that. We're cool and stuff, but we can't do a lot of coding. This is when I started to realize a team is actually responsible for growth of great ideas. It doesn't just come from individuals. This is how we started to develop a concept. Wearable technology and haptics I was doing two years ago before I met Keith and Yang - after I met young, actually - I was doing this thing with a company called General Vibration, designing a new type of haptic hardware. It was really, really amazing. When I first felt that, I was like, "Well, this is true haptics. This is true future technology." If I can hold a sphere and literally guide me, that's magic. As close to magic as technology can produce. I got really into haptics. But to compress it into a wearable was really difficult, and that's when the challenges really started to hit. And there's awesome technology out there. But there's a lot of that that can not be compressible to a mass population product. There was always a bunch of sacrifices that needed to be made in order to make it into this cheap, affordable, functioning object. That was the part that I was very interested in. I ended up leaving and started to consult with Yang. And that's when we started to collaborate on a project. And Keith, in parallel, was doing the Metropolitan thing with me and I was like, "Hey, this guy's really cool. He's doing stuff with fashion? Wearable technology is fashion. Technology has to be cool and needs to work, but at the same time, the fashion side needs to match. I was like, "Oh, Keith has done fashion and he knows design, so we can all work together." Yang is very engineering oriented. And then this is when I actually invited Marcus Engel, who is a blind author and a writer to teach people about inclusive design. Inclusive design, nobody even talked about this five years ago.
Roland Siebelink: What does inclusive design mean, in a nutshell?
Kevin Yoo: Inclusive design is a design that works for everybody. It's not just for a specific market. It's not for a specific type of people, age, whatever. And that was the goal. Marcus portrayed the need within the blind and visually impaired for innovation. The health care system, rehabilitation is all very, very weak. We have to up our game. Not being able to see, going outside of the city, hearing the traffic, the people, and the cars. It just drives a person to not feel safe.
Roland Siebelink: That's a very deep purpose when you can connect it so strongly to concrete people that you know and that you know you can really help in their lives. Since you were both talking about each other and how you decided to work together, could you present each other as co-founders in terms of what are their biggest strengths? The reason why I'm asking this is that I get a lot of entrepreneurs, founders, clients that want to know about managing co-founders. And that's all the way from "How do I find a cofounder" to "How do I split up roles between co-founders?" "How do we get along all the time?" And even at some point in time, "Should we still keep working together?" I'm always interested in just the dynamic between co-founders.
Keith Kirkland: I think Kevin's biggest strength is that he's very actionable. He's the kind of person that if he comes away from a meeting with some new information he's ready to implement that information immediately. And I think that from my point of view, I'm much slower to process. I like to think of myself as a systems thinker. I'm constantly looking at whole systems and "How does this whole system mesh with this whole system?" I can be really slow and a bit lethargic around making choices. But I feel like Kevin has the ability to quickly grasp something, figure out his values ,and to run with it - at my disapproval. But ultimately, he's always doing what he thinks is best for the company. It is really important to have a lot of respect for your co-founders. Don't think it's really important to necessarily agree. I think you get much better products when you don't agree, especially if you both have strong wills about your unwillingness to agree on a solution, unless it is up to the standard that you each want. The solutions that come out of it, I think, are pretty remarkable.
Roland Siebelink: It's exactly the confrontation of perspectives that creates the biggest value. Kevin. Can you still talk or are you overwhelmed with emotions of what Keith was telling you?
Kevin Yoo: Yeah. Tears rolling down my face. It's so funny because - this is actually really great - I love talking positive stuff. Most of the time, we're not saying positive things. We're mostly saying stuff like, “Why aren't you doing this?" And then some swear words after that. Honestly, the five years that we've been together - even plus five years since we started actually really, truly working together. Before that, everything was really, really wonderful. Butterflies and sunshines, just high-fiving all the time unnecessarily. But as soon as business comes into play, you're pretty much in a relationship. It gets really hard. The emotions play parts. We know someone's history. Everything comes into play. Definitely been a downside as much as the positive side. But the one thing that I really, truly love about Keith - this will never actually go away - the one major reason is Keith is genuinely a good human being. I'd say this to a lot of my true good friends. I have a lot of great friends and some of them have a motive. Some of them have a drive. Some of them have personal reasons that are greater than something else that they would sacrifice morals. I think with Keith, I've always known that he's never sacrificed morals for anything, even if it's bad for business. And this is why we fight.
Roland Siebelink: That perspective needs to be sometimes challenged, right?
Kevin Yoo: 100%. It was a learning curve for me because being kind of a rebel growing up to my parents and to all this stuff, to corporations, to bosses, and all this stuff, starting from this mutual respect together and to have 50-50 understanding about our decision making and to discuss this topic 100% bad for business. It's gonna cost more money. But in the long run, it may actually benefit us with social points or something else. And this is the part that it took me a while to start to really understand, long-term gain. I think I really appreciate that. What he was saying, he's is a mind mapper, sometimes I get really frustrated about it. But I do appreciate the perspective. Everything is perspective. I have a very strong perspective, so does Keith, and we just have to keep merging it together.
Roland Siebelink: What I get out of this conversation is that both of you seem to be really pointing to aspects you appreciate because they are complementary to your own.
Keith Kirkland: I agree with that. The first thing that you have to recognize as a founder is what you can't do.
Roland Siebelink: Maybe in general, how do you guys think, as founders and entrepreneurs, about going into a vertical that has existing players already? How do you compete against existing players?
Keith Kirkland: I think that the biggest thing when you're walking into a market that already has predominantly large players in it, is obviously the value proposition that you bring needs to be pretty, pretty solid. When we look at what was done after Facebook and the social media platforms that came out after that. A lot of them were direct responses to the challenges that people have with Facebook. You had the rise of things like Snapchat, for example. I think that being very in tune with who that customer is for that major competitor and their major challenges and setting yourself up to offer that as your value proposition. I think that's the best way to go into a vertical market that's already pretty saturated with major players.
Roland Siebelink: In a way, more focused on the customer understanding than the current players, is that what you're saying, Keith?
Keith Kirkland: Yeah. To be able to meet the demands of mass, you have to make sacrifices that inconvenience people in niche spaces. The way I see it is Facebook has to make certain choices because they have a billion users. But if you have 100,000 users or a million users, you can be much more nuanced to the vertical, to the part of the market that you're going after.
Roland Siebelink: More focus on a specific niche that the major player cannot properly serve to that degree?
Kevin Yoo: Yeah. I'm considering myself anti corporation, but it doesn't mean that we're always fighting corporations. We're not going to be going in there with our spears and trying to take down a giant monster. That's not the way to do it. And usually, I think a lot of companies that successfully dominate the market over competitors do it very strategically, of course. Onto Keith's point as well, you got to start off with a loyal customer base. And usually, there's a lot of sacrifices that happen amongst the giants. They acquire small companies to make up for those sacrifices. But it's really just a band aid if you think about it.
Roland Siebelink: To Keith's point, I think it's also then that specific niche that you're able to focus on and help produce a product that nobody else would develop because the niche may be too small. Is that right?
Keith Kirkland: Yeah, I would say that's quite correct.
Roland Siebelink: Tell me about your team. I just want to hear about the whole family.
Kevin Yoo: Starting in January, I took a couple of days off to go out to universities and just poach a bunch of talented young students. That one was a really, really positive experience to get new blood and new skin in the game of people. Our team in Germany, the two engineers, they're doing fantastic. They are always like good friends of ours and always ambitious. We were actually looking into a lot of new hires, PR, sales, so we're expanding.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Excellent. We'll make notes about that in the podcast notes as well. For those interested, this is a really exciting company that I have a lot of respect for. If you are looking for a new position and you like being in an earlier stage startup, I would definitely reach out. Where can they reach you?
Keith Kirkland: You can find us on www dot WEAR dot WORKS. We answer all the emails personally. If you shoot us an email, we'll get back to you.
Kevin Yoo: Roland, can I say one more thing?
Roland Siebelink: Of course.
Kevin Yoo: We have our team here that works with us directly, but we also have our extended family team, our advisors. There's a lot of people who aren't necessarily part of our everyday grind but a part of our everyday support systems. All the people that were there for us, that were there for phone calls, that walked us through how to start a company because we had no idea what we were doing when we began. Your extended family when you start a company is ridiculously important. And just because a person doesn't have the time and the energy to commit to you fully 40 hours on a startup grind does not mean that they have no value or no use.
Roland Siebelink: Yeah, the broader team, especially advisers in the early stages, can be such a big help to moving a company forward. Well, thank you for being on this podcast. You can reach them at www.Wear.Works.Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.