Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
In now more than 10 years into her technology and media career, Lisa Lang has gained a strong reputation for being a game-changer in digital product and media innovation. She has founded ElektroCouture in 2014, a collaborative house for bespoke technologies. Lisa is a mentor to several European hardware Startups, and has been named one of the top 100 most influential people in wearable tech worldwide.
Lisa, how did you get into FashionTech?
Everything started with frustration. Back then I worked in a technical setting. I ran big international technology projects. So it was always “me and the boys”. Don’t get me wrong: I really liked it, it was fun – In the end of the day I’m a nerd. But I always refused to wear their uniform, which is jeans and t-shirt.
I always did my fingernails, wore lipstick. So fashion for me was like a protection, like an armour. When you work in a high pressure job, fashion can protect you. Clothe are there to make you feel better or prettier. But especially stronger when you are in a position of power. So I had something fashionable, I had style. But: It wasn’t smart. And everything that was “smart” looked like sh**. In my twenties it wasn’t that much of a problem, but in my thirties my frustration grew and grew. I looked for something, but there was nothing on the market. Then I did a lot of research. It was around the time in 2012/13 when the whole wearable tech thing slowly started. Then I found out about the FabLab in Berlin.
The FabLab is an open maker’s space, where you can use the 3D-printer, laser-cutter, soldering iron and all sorts of amazing machines. I went there and started to build things and it wasn’t necessarily to start a business, but more to solve my personal frustration. I always loved light and to wear pretty, neat things. Not “Barbie-pretty” but it had to be smart two. It was really all about having the machines to do something. FabLab is cool, because no one there will ever tell you “that’s just crazy/stupid what you’re doing”. They always encourage you and help you with your ideas and ask the right questions. The first thing I did was the “ Frozen Necklace ”. The idea came to me while watching a documentary about Cartier . They were always very innovative, also from an engineering perspective. The way how they made their necklaces and the whole construction process. But back then in the 1920ties it was really avant-garde. It was inspired by Egyptian history and so on. So when I saw those pictures of their work, I was like “I love that, I want to do that as well, I want to have that” but it was too expensive. So I thought to myself “I have a laser-cutter and I have LEDs, so I’ll just work with that.” So I cut shiny acrylics and thought about the question, why we love diamonds: Because they sparkle and glow! And guess what: LEDs can do that two. I just had to make the LEDs pretty. The result was the Frozen Necklace.
In a very early version, there was a cell battery hand soldered on the back of it. Sometimes you got a little electric shock – but only a super, super tiny one! (Laughs)
I started wearing it and was going to all those events, which I attended for the software company, I was working for in the US. I was launching their German market back then. I got to the events glowing! And it became a thing for me. And then I was really surprised, because I thought I was the only nerd out there who would wear something like this. But all the girls came to me and were so excited about my jewellery, that they almost started to rip the necklace of me. It was really funny.
I remember my first customer. Back then she was the head of ecosystems at IBM, Sandy Carter . She was in Berlin at that time and we met at a networking event. She then saw my glowing necklace, which has blue lights. It fitted IBM perfectly. When she asked me about it and tried to wear it, it broke. I was embarrassed and thought that I blew it. But she told me not to worry. She still loved it. She gave me her card and told me to send her a necklace as soon as I had finished it. That really motivated me and only three month later I had a result I was happy with and send it to her. She started tweeting about it all the time. Still, it was more about a game and fun to me and I played around but never thought about a business at this time. Then I realized more and more, that there was something more about it.
That was the time around 2014 where I started to have the feeling: “Everybody seems to be sleeping and I’m the only one awake!” It was a weird feeling. I had a lot of fun and I was glowing and laser-cutting away. But then I started with my business and market research. I started to look at it all as a bigger picture. In the time of the IoT and industry 4.0 , clothe can and should also be connected. At around this time I also designed my “ Rainbow Sparkles ” – an interactive jacket.
There was a workshop at FabLab which I attended. They had a lot of stuff, like bicycle jackets. But to me they were far to masculine and I just didn’t look good in them. So I brought my own fashion jacket to the workshop. I punched 36 holes and put 36 LEDs in it. So it was nice and glowing. But then I also started to think about that aspect of interactivity. Back then I was working for Twillio, an API provider for text messages, and my boss back then, I was working as a freelancer for them, asked me to try to explain text messaging through an integration that is fun, so a nontechnical person could understand it two. It was the exact time, when I was building that jacket and I thought to myself: “Wouldn’t it be cool, if the jacket has its own phone number? So you can send a text message to it? So you can tell it, to change its lights?” Because if you understand the basic principle, meaning that there’s always a trigger and there’s a response – that’s like the “secret source” to it. With that concept, you can do many things. So I did it. I was wearing my jacket all the time and people were playing with my jacket. Then I knew: There’s something out there!
There was a market. In its early stages, but there was definitely a potential. It’s an emotional product – light just triggers positive feelings. Then I had to find out about probably the hardest question: How do you make money out of that idea?
So it was all nice and pretty, you could make things glow and build some necklaces and maybe someone is even wearing it. Then I also had the jacket, but you couldn’t wash it. So I tried to scale all that and just went out there and looked into the market and did my research: How can I make money? Where is the money? Usually you have to start looking for problems – that’s where the money is. One of the obvious problems, was the service layers. We had all the components, the FashionTech designers, the fashion industry, the technology industry: But how do we work together? Of course an apparel company is not an electronics company, and an electronics company is not a design company. So the beginning was just, to make them talk to each other. Then I realized, they can’t or they simply don’t have the time. So I thought to myself: I can do that. I’ve already spent years researching the field and there was the service layer.
Then we began manufacturing. Made the first badge of glowing scarves. That was so cool. We also started to hack knitting machines. Well, to be honest, we don’t hack them, we’re just listening to the machines. The machines tell you, how they want to be treated. You have to understand their language. Once you understand, that a knitting machine thinks in loops, you tell them to just take a pixel of a photo as a loop. The machine will understand that. So the machine will do basically everything that you tell it. You don’t have to build a new machine. It’s just a very pragmatic approach.
When and how did you start ElektroCouture?
(Founded September 2014 on paper. May 2015: Lisa starts to work full time for ElektroCouture and quits her job as a freelancer. Wanted to give it a try for a year, if it’s going somewhere. 2016: She tattoos the EC logo on her arm.)
I’m very proud to say that I’m coming from a Franconian craftsmen family. Probably I would have become a carpenter at some stage. I grew up in my dad’s workshop and the workshop of my uncle, who is a carpenter. So I was used to do things with my hands, and I was used to work with machines. If you ask me, they could look a little prettier, though. But we can change that.
So we started producing more things. It started with the glowing necklaces (“Frozen Necklace”) and we had the first customer. First the customer has to understand, there is something we can do. That’s basically what we do: we inspire the market. And then the market can ask for, what we do, because they know it’s possible. So I did just simple things to inspire them. When I was walking around with a glowing scarf all the time, for example. Then I gave those scarves to other people and then they were glowing in the dark too. Especially for people who drive around on a bicycle through Berlin it’s very useful to be seen in the dark and it’s also pretty. So we took it step by step. And here we are now.
What was the biggest obstacle?
Several things actually. First one was my first customer. He wanted to order a lot of my products. I couldn’t produce enough, to match the demand. Because I didn’t have 10 seamstresses on my hand. And even if I had, I would’ve to teach them how to use electronic cables, explain them the manufacturing program. So I lost the customer. It still annoys me to this day. But it was a good experience, because it showed me that there is in a fact a missing link. We’ve solved that problem now: We now have manufacturing capacities, we now have a company here in Berlin that has people, who are trained to sew electronic cables into materials.
Secondly, the strategy was an obstacle. I was always aware, that everything goes up or down with strategy. So you have to think a lot about stuff. Sounds easy, but is so important. Strategies, partnerships, making sure you are in the right place, find a balance between networking at parties and writing emails. Also to make sure that I was able to communicate to the outside world, what was in my head: that the world could be prettier place, that everything could glow.
The third thing was an obstacle on a personal level. It was about being OK with the fact, that you’re different. Many people belittled me, especially in the beginning. But I don’t care: I really like to be underestimated.
Also: The world is just too slow for me. I’m always like: “Faster, faster, and faster!” But I got used to that. Used to manage that ping-pong game inside my head. There are just things, I can’t change, but I also think, that is one of the things that keeps us on track.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
Different from what others might think, I’d say, being a woman never was an obstacle. In the beginning I had a male CTO. He helped me out with technical questions. And he was taking care of customers from technical companies. There you still can notice, that it’s a man’s world. They tend to belittle your know-how as a woman. They see, that you know how to use a lipstick and they think you have no idea. But in the end of the day everyone has to convince people with their work.
I can really nerd out during a conversation about smart energy systems, LED systems or smart textiles. Also, working in technology I’ve noticed, it’s always better to have people thinking, something was their idea. For me the bigger picture was always more important: getting things done. So it doesn’t matter to me, who is responsible for an idea or who goes on stage to present it. Of course, I’ll always go on stage if somebody asks me to. But for my ego, that doesn’t matter. What matters is, to get things done. So of course there is a difference, to be a female founder in a technical environment. I remember in the early stages, there was this one journalist who was really condescending, because he saw me as just another girl. And he was like: “Who wants your products anyway?” So I thought: “I’ll show you and you’ll never get an interview with me again.”
But with FashionTech, which is becoming more and more its own industry, there are more and more companies, start-ups and products coming in. And most of it comes from women. It’s because we combine the emotional component with the technology. I see it as a trend and a real opportunity for girls and women to get more into technology. Because it’s all about user interfaces and many women can relate to that much better. Which doesn’t mean, that men can’t do it. In the end it’s all about mindset.
But is it only more difficult for women? Being an entrepreneur is really difficult - Period. And I just turn it into a positive, being a female entrepreneur in technology. It’s positive for me, that they underestimate me. They tell me more than they would tell any man. I can use that to win them over. Sometimes they behave better towards me. Sometimes when I wear my wedding ring and talk about my husband that sets different rules of conversation somehow.
And another positive about being a woman in tech is, that you get invited more to speak at panels and events. That’s obviously an advantage. In the end of the day what matters is, that we work on awesome projects – gender just doesn’t matter.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
From a business perspective: We achieved everything by ourselves. We went cash positive within the first two years. With our own little budget and a few customers we became a healthy company, break-even and cash-positive.
For me personally: My team is my biggest achievement. We have a very diverse team, we all come from different backgrounds. And we work so well together, are happy and have just such a positive work environment here. That’s really something special! Because let me tell you: If you go into the fashion industry – Holy f***ing sh**! It’s like a bitch-fest there. It’s really not nice. It’s the same with technology and can be in every other sector. But when you come to us, you can feel the love. We give people freedom. But also a construct to grow on. For me as a founder, this is the biggest achievement. And we’re not just a bunch of creatives with our heads in the clouds. The fact that we have a company that is highly innovative. It’s creativity combined with a working business model.
What will be the key trends in the fashion tech and wearable tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
The whole process of manufacturing is going to be very interesting. How can we put this electronics into clothe? And to be able to manufacture, first we have to set the standards. Also we have to talk about security and privacy laws. What happens if the first smart jackets get hacked? What are the security standards for that? How do we handle that in Germany, Europe, the US or Asia? Those are the things we really have to think about now. Because the technology at this point will start to develop faster and we have to deal with those questions just as fast.
What I recommend to companies is, that they have to become more than just a one product company. They have to have a diverse portfolio. We still are in the process of finding the golden bullet. Never underestimate the coolness of a service layer . See the resources that are already there and find out how to create something new with them.
That is especially true for IoT companies and the industry 4.0 . We’ll digitalise machines. That is going to be really, really interesting. The moment where we connect things, clothe or a microwave to a washing machine, that’s where everything will be possible. There are so many creative people and there is so much space for innovation and products and ideas to come. The failure and the success will be those people who keep the balance between fashion and tech right but also between product and service. That’s an ongoing battle.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all (female) founders and (female) entrepreneurs out there?
To be totally honest, I know people expect from me, to say something totally profound but it’s the normal, ‘boring’ stuff that is important. Make sure you have an ongoing cash-flow. Make sure the bookkeeping is right. Make sure your team is fine. Make sure there’s enough toilet paper. Have enough beer in the fridge. Basic things. Love. Money is of course important. Be reliable, be professional. Love what you do. But to that extent, where love can do the business. Sometimes you have to make decisions. You might love some things, but you’ll have to let them go, because business wise they make no sense. Is something more like a hobby or is it a proper business? That’s where people sometimes get it wrong. So my very boring answer is: Get the basics straight. Make sure you have a great foundation, because I can tell you, once youo start to scale, you just can’t build it on sand. Get them straight so you don’t get bound by them at some point, where you really have to put up the rocket.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in fashion tech and/or wearable tech?
It’s not about inspirational women, it is about inspirational people. My inspirations are changing all the time. But right now I’d say Vivienne Westwood. I read her biography, she’s awesome. She didn’t design for fashion, she designed for a movement. There is a complete different power and love to that. She failed many times, got copied and she’s still one of the few independent women in this business and just do their sh**.
RuPaul, the drag queen. She started from nothing, was totally crazy and now started a movement. He just gives love all the time.
Fritz Lang. There’s still this family myth, that my family is related to his. My family came out of Hungary, his family came out of Hungary. My grandfather is totally convinced, that they have the same ears. Anyway: For me Lang is so important, because back then when he started making movies, there was no film school. Nobody know how a film actor should behave. Nobody knew how do things. And he did it anyway. He was the master of light. Same with Marlene Dietrich.
That’s the thing: Do something, start something, create your own playbook.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.