Five Secrets to Innovation That We Wish We’d Known Three Years Ago

Three years ago, my teammates Sam, Mike, Matt, and I started EMBR Labs with a vision to make wearable cooling and heating a reality. We’d all taken entrepreneurship classes and read our fair share of books about startups, but we quickly realized that it’s a different ball game once you’ve started your own company.

Our team on a New Hampshire retreat in 2014

We’re still a small, early stage team, but now we have our product developed and we’re moving towards production. In the spirit of giving back to the entrepreneurship community, here are some lessons we’ve learned so far.

1. You can’t do it by yourself

Since 2013, when we first explored the idea of heating and cooling people directly rather than the air around them, we’ve leveraged the expertise and generosity of countless mentors.

As material scientists, our expertise lies in designing great tech — to ensure that our tech reaches the people who need it, we have to ask for help. It all started with the MADMEC prototyping competition at MIT, which provided the resources, frameworks, and motivation to take the idea of Wristify from concept to reality. Our simple MADMEC prototype was enough to demonstrate our vision (and even enough to win the contest!) but it was only the beginning of a long, iterative journey.

After the competition, we got to work on improving our prototype of Wristify. This process included reaching out to mentor networks, such as the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the Venture Mentoring Service at MIT. A year later, we participated in the Trust Center’s Global Founders Skills Accelerator and gained a network of peer startups for exchanging ideas. All this is to say that we continuously rely on a lot of people’s advice and resources.

Now that we are in the final stages of product development, we collaborate with mentors and partners more than ever.

In February, we began working with a product design firm in Providence called Loft. With their knowledge of design, form factor and manufacturability, the Loft team is guiding us through the most important step of iteration: transforming Wristify into an appealing consumer product. In order to produce the final version, we’re also collaborating with manufacturing partners and suppliers. Finally, to plan our public launch, we’re participating in the MassChallenge accelerator and leveraging the expertise of the program’s mentors.

When we started this project, we were under the impression that successful startups are the product of a single great mind (think Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates). But we’ve come to learn that this is really just a myth.

Good startups rely on help from experts in all sorts of fields, including the end users, like you, who are experts by way of their wants, needs, and criticisms of current solutions. The engineering, design, and even the intended use cases of Wristify have all evolved over the last three years thanks to the wealth of advice and constructive feedback we received.

2. Don’t make big announcements or talk to the media before you’re ready

When we won MADMEC in 2013, we had no way of anticipating the amount of attention we would receive for our idea and its potential impact. In the first month alone, 3,000 people joined our mailing list! We received hundreds of emails from people who suffered from temperature problems and thought that Wristify could improve their lives.

The exposure and incredible response to the idea was what solidified our belief in wearable heating and cooling’s potential to improve lives, but we were not prepared to engage such a large community of supporters, deal with media attention, or control our message.

One of our most embarrassing mistakes as a team was the first time we tried to send out a newsletter. We tried to save money by sending it through an MIT mailing list, rather than paying for an e-mail marketing service. But, we forgot to BCC the mailing list. Whenever someone used ‘Reply All,’ their message was sent to the entire 5,000 person mailing list. Over the course of a single hour, we accidentally sent 400,000 emails (!) through the MIT servers until the school’s IT department shut the mailing list down.

Later on, we announced to our followers that we planned to launch in the spring of 2015. Oops! We realized that we still had many important details to finalize in the product design and our fundraising plan. The truth is, it was tempting to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter or Indiegogo without many of these details figured out, but we really care about delivering a fantastic product.

At this stage, we’ve come a long way in terms of acknowledging the risks and the unknowns that we’re facing in the most transparent way possible. Too much attention too early can create pressure to release your product before you’re ready, and there’s always a risk of the media garbling your message. On the other hand, this early attention opened our eyes to all of the temperature problems people face.

Which leads us to our next secret…

3. Talk to users — early and often!

We were fortunate to have early exposure and enthusiastic feedback from followers because it motivated us to learn more about people’s temperature problems and understand our end-users. By January of 2014, our co-founder Matt had quit his post-doc at MIT to pursue Wristify full-time. He was fascinated by the unmet needs of the people e-mailing us, and explored the existing body of scientific research on temperature, comfort, and wearable heating and cooling.

We took our user research to the next level when we won the Cool Ideas Award from Protolabs, a leading rapid prototyping company. The award gave us components to assemble fifty prototypes, which we used to carry out week-long field trials. We received an overwhelming beta tester applicant pool of 1,800, and to date, we’ve completed 198 trials! We’re incorporating the constructive feedback from beta testers into the design of our first commercial product.

Having so many prototypes to work with was an incredible opportunity. Without beta testers, Wristify would just be a device that heats and cools. Because we have extensive feedback, we’re able to design a solution for thermal comfort problems that fits into users’ daily lives.

4. Embrace unconventional definitions of success

Bringing a hardware innovation to market is a long and challenging process. If you’re expecting a high-paying job with benefits and lots of instant gratification, and not to deplete your savings, then it’s going to be an uncomfortable journey. But, if you use the small victories as fuel to keep moving forward, you just might enjoy it.

What gets our co-founder David up in the morning is the incredible feedback that our team received from our early beta testers. We have thank you cards from beta testers around the office, and they are by far the thing he’s proudest of at EMBR Labs.

For Matt, it’s the feeling of making his inner 10-year-old proud. He grew up reading Popular Science and idolizing the mysterious “students from MIT” making cool stuff. So naturally, his favorite milestone was getting a positive write-up in Popular Science.

There are lots of daily highlights that keep Sam motivated. He loves getting to work alongside people he admires and learns from, and who make every day both fun and fulfilling. He enjoys facing new challenges and problems every day. Finally, he likes being his own boss (and having the combination of freedom and responsibility that comes with that title).

5. Stay true to your vision

As we mentioned earlier, launching a hardware startup requires asking for help, depending on others, and taking advice — but, you can’t implement every piece of advice you receive. As an entrepreneur you will inevitably hear conflicting opinions from various mentors, and opinions that just don’t jive with your core goals.

EMBR Labs, for example, is on a mission to give people access to thermal comfort. We care about Environment, Mind, Body Resonance, and we see temperature as an amazingly powerful tool for that. A while back, we began talking with a great product design firm that simply didn’t believe that thermal discomfort is a problem worth taking seriously. They suggested that we work on a completely different application. While we’re open to feedback and criticism, we ultimately decided that it was essential to work with people who also believe in our core purpose.

Perhaps the most valuable secret we’ve learned so far is the importance of analyzing advice through the lens of your underlying values, and choosing not to waver from your mission.

Wrapping Up

We hope it isn’t presumptuous of us to share these reflections before we’ve even manufactured or sold a single product. We still have a lot left to learn on this journey, but we’re excited to keep share with you what we learn along the way.

This post was written in collaboration with Kristen Manning.