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
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.
- The importance of understanding what the market or your target customer is missing.
- Recognizing that teams grow and develop ideas, not individuals.
- Why you don’t always have to agree with your co-founders but you should respect them.
- How to recognize when something might be bad in the short-term but good in the long run.
- Why it’s important for startups to have an extended family outside of their employees.
- The concept of co-founders constantly merging their perspectives together.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.