One of the lessons I learned over years inside of and running small teams is that if I plan for the worst case scenario, reality will fall somewhere along its trajectory. When I co-founded Cipher Skin, this lesson drove the product strategy and delivery roadmap for our first device, the Cipher Shirt. Here’s a step-by-step overview of how we applied this approach—and how the results informed our strategic direction as a company.
Step 1: Commit Fully and Early
When my business partner Craig and I had the idea to design a shirt capable of tracking 3D body movement and vital biometrics, we never intended to take the product to market ourselves. Building a brand, marketing, productization, supply chain management and research and development were more than we could take on. At the same time, we were prepared to do what was necessary to bring our dream to life.
Step 2: Identify the Competition
In November of 2016, Craig and I were granted the patents that would make Cipher Skin extremely valuable. We were going to change the world, as soon as we figured out what to do next. I had dealt with patent denials before and I knew what the next steps were to refine and re-file…but I had never had a patent granted and therefore had no idea what to do with this win.
Reflecting on the winner’s dilemma with Craig, I remembered some advice about patents I received years ago: they are only really valuable after they have been protected and upheld in court. Whether I agree with this doesn’t matter—Craig and I had to see what others were working on outside of our creative bubble to make sure our patent would withstand legal challenge. We had to see a huge amount of competitive development in one place at one time. We had to go to CES, the world’s largest electronics expo.
Step 3: Plan Your Approach
At CES, Craig and I expected to see similar or better products than the ones we had patented and were in the process of developing. We were prepared to avoid the common startup problem of believing our product is exceptional or superior in spite of evidence to the contrary. We were willing to face the brutal reality of our utter lack of special-ness immediately.
We were sure we’d find a slew of lookalike—but probably better—products. Once we found them, we would be able to plan our way out of the problem they created by either emphasizing key critical differences in our product and filling a need or being the best in a particular area: durability, accuracy, affordability, etc. These competitors would help us define ourselves.
Step 4: Execute the Plan
By the time I landed in Las Vegas and was on the way to the hotel, I had convinced myself I was going to spend the next three days wading through a sea of products similar in design to the Cipher Shirt. I checked into the hotel and made my way to the Venetian, picking up a badge, buying a monorail ticket and navigating more than 100,000 other tech enthusiasts.
Walking the CES exhibition halls, I saw dog trackers and cat fitness monitors along with new wrist-top and jewelry-based wearables from companies like Fitbit and Garmin. Polar was showcasing a new shirt with an integrated heart rate monitor for its pro team.
What I didn’t see was any wearable tech that resembled the Cipher Shirt. Over three days, Craig and I scoured the entire conference and concluded that our design and implementation concepts were unique. Then we talked with several major brands about the Cipher Shirt. The response was unanimous: If it were a real thing, it would change the industry.
Step 5: Adjust and Refine
Although our conversations with big brands were promising, the feedback wasn’t all positive. We were told the industry was years away from any real step change. We were told the Cipher Shirt wasn’t possible. Our patents, renderings and expert engineer feedback were clearly not enough to show people our technology. We needed a working prototype.
We immediately changed course based on this new information, focusing on the research and development of the Cipher Shirt as opposed to its branding and story. Our work was no longer about putting a great package in front of brand partners and working with them to take it to market—we were going to have to build a physical product and put it in front of them before we could do anything else.
New hurdles emerged once we discovered our industry’s barriers to entry. R&D would be time-intensive and significantly more expensive than our previous approach of a presentation with custom mock-ups.
Nonetheless, we were optimistic—even bullish—about Cipher Skin’s future. Not only was it our baby, but we were expecting the worst possible outcome and reality turned out to be a marked improvement. Our conversations with brand leaders at CES clearly demonstrated that our product was relevant and unique. We also identified our next hurdles to surmount, which meant we could begin planning how to get over them. Flying out of Las Vegas, I was already sending emails to engineers and product specialists in Silicon Valley.
Turns Out, We Were Wrong
Craig and I had come to Las Vegas to prove that our patent was worthless and the Cipher Shirt was nothing more than sketches to hang on the wall. We wanted to find a reason not to build the shirt and pursue Cipher Skin as a company. We assumed the worst, so when the truth presented itself, we were prepared.
Miraculously, we learned that Cipher was valuable and unique. We learned we were positioned to be the future of wearables the same way Garmin was in 2003 when it introduced a wrist-top with integrated GPS and heart rate monitor. Based on what we learned at CES, we buckled down to begin raising money to build a prototype. We identified the hurdles we faced and were ready to overcome them, not because we were lucky but because we were prepared to face reality—which has a way of presenting itself regardless of how you feel about it.