Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Patsy was born in the 60's into a small farming community in Albany, Missouri. She Attended the University of Missouri; Business and Marketing major. She worked for years in property management/real-estate development, later in logistics management for Sprint, then moved on to co-found of a design and branding business with my husband. She founded Piearcings in 2012, incorporated it in 2015, launching to consumers in 2018. Mother of three brilliant children, proudly watching as each of them grows into a mature and productive young adult. She is delighted every day to work with her fantastic team and make their own little 'dent' in the universe.
What is the idea behind Piearcings and how did you come up with it?
Back when my daughter Alex (now a sophomore at UC Berkeley) was just 12 years old, I had an epiphany. . . I'd been noticing that she and her siblings were interfacing with their phones entirely differently than Gen X'ers like me. As members of what's been called the 'digital natives' generation; my kids had literally grown up with a phone or tablet as a full-time companion. Alex and others her age were consuming media through their various screens all day long, and typically did so 'jacked in' with headphones or earphones. Everywhere our family went, it was 3 kids, 3 iPhones, and 3 sets of headphones and tangled cords. The kids headphones sort of reflected their individual personalities. The two boys had each selected 'beats by Dre' headphones in black and lime green. Alex's favorites were white SkullCandy with oversized pink-fur-covered ear cups. The kids' headphones were a part of their look, a way of expressing themselves that was just as important as any other accessory in their outfits—but even more indispensable. I thought to myself, "Their headphones are like my jewelry." That was the epiphany.
When did all start and do you have other members in your team?
My husband had been in consumer product design/development for many years. He and I sat down together to think and sketch. It occurred to us that if we could find a way to miniaturize all of the electronics components sufficiently, it might be possible to develop wireless earphones that could be decoratively concealed within earrings, bracelets, watch straps, necklaces, and other jewelry. Something that could be worn on your body all day long, conveniently ready for action at a moment's notice.
Ideas in hand, we arranged meetings with our patent attorneys and began drafting what has grown to become an IP portfolio consisting of seven utility patents, with three more on the way. In 2015, after our first patent granted—I decided to get serious about making a go of the idea. I incorporated the business, started developing the branding and styling, and began identifying technical and engineering partners around the world that could help us accomplish our objectives. Soon, we'd garnered the participation of some heavy-hitting and truly innovative engineering teams, including partners at Swatch Group, Qualcomm, Flex, and Deringer Ney. We added 4 full-time engineers to our team in Kansas City, and we attracted a top notch advisory board. Today there are 10 of us on the team, and we expect to grow to about 30 people by the end of 2018.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
Well in total, I guess you'd have to start the clock in April of 2012 when I filed the first patent. Between then and 2015, we focused primarily on working with our IP counsel. We felt like there was soooooo much competition in wearables that we really wanted to make sure our key patents (both in the USA and internationally) were in place before raising a bunch of money and committing ourselves completely to this journey. Once the patents began issuing we went ahead and raised our Angel round of financing (late 2015), and did our Seed round in 2017. We're raising our 3rd round now, and planning to begin launching our products to consumers this summer, 2018. So all told, 6 years from start to launch, with 3 1/2 years actively spent in design, development, and prototyping phases.
What was the biggest obstacle?
Oh my. Where do I start! I think the biggest obstacle has certainly been the actual engineering. I was really, really adamant that unlike so many other wearable products that have come to market grossly too big and ugly, or which have offered only very marginal utility to consumers, I wanted Piearcings to take the "Apple" approach. Apple tends to be far less concerned about being the "first" into a market, instead taking their time to get the details right and produce products that consumers go bonkers over. Because we'd locked up such strong and broad IP protection, being super early to the market had no particular advantage. I determined we wouldn't allow our focus to be on how 'fast' we could move. Instead, we've focused on building something truly groundbreaking. In fact, we believe we've developed the very smallest wearable computing platform in the world. Our products are less than 1/3rd the size of Apple's AirPods or Google's PixelBuds (other smart hearable products), yet our hearables have 10x the functionality and are clearly 1000x more fashionable. Developing sophisticated hearables that are this much smaller than products put out by two of the largest tech giants in the world was no easy feat—but we've done exactly that. And we accomplished it all from our simple offices in "flyover country." Eat your heart out, Silicon Valley!
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Since she was a little girl, my daughter Alex's favorite musical artist has been Katy Perry. We reached out to Katy very early and she and her family were receptive and encouraged our journey at every step along the way. Recently, we presented Katy and her father Keith with two of our very first fully functional production samples. It was really an amazing moment; a key milestone we worked years to make happen.
Similarly, we've been enjoying our first meetings with top fashion and jewelry brands to partner on collaborative products that integrate our technology into various wearable form-factors (earrings, watch straps, bracelets, necklaces, etc.). Everyone we've met with has been super receptive and also completely blown away by the tiny size, style, sound, and programmable functionality of our product. Over the coming months, we'll begin announcing a number of joint-venture products that will appeal to consumers up and down the price point spectrum, representing every imaginable aesthetic. The amazing thing about jewelry is that there really is no limit to what you can do—especially when the tech we embed in the jewelry is only the size of a single pearl!
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurs in every niche struggle. And the more "niche your niche is", the more struggles you'll probably face. Here, we struggled on the technical front because literally none of the tech we needed to make our product so small existed back when we started! No battery small enough. No circuit small enough. No connectors small enough. No traditional contract manufacturing partners with experience making anything quite this small and densely packed with tiny parts (many of which are significantly smaller than a grain of sand or a human eyelash). I remember when the team at Qualcomm saw our initial mock-ups back in 2016 and said "That's crazy-small! We've never seen anyone pull off something that small—it probably won't work." But then they added, "If you ever do get it to work, we'll be really interested to see how you did it." Thanks for the encouragement, right?!? But it motivated us to push ahead.
And of course, we struggled on the financing front. In the early days, people didn't even know what a 'hearable' was. Financing became a little easier once we had our early prototypes working and people could see that we weren't crazy, just brazen and absolutely hardened with perseverance. Recently, the biggest shot in the arm has actually come as a result of Apple's work in the space—once Apple launched their simple little AirPods and went on to sell millions and millions in the first full year post launch, financiers are suddenly like, "Oh! Now we see. Hearables will be a huge market!" Uh, yeah... In fact, many industry pundits now predict that hearables will be the fastest growing segment of wearable tech.
So now that the world is waking up to ear-computing and audible computing in general, we know consumers are going to be really excited about the ability of next-gen platforms like Piearcings to enable you to just walk down the street and chat with Siri/Alexa/Google, or post the song you're listening to straight to Twitter or Facebook from your own ears, or summon the police discreetly in an emergency, or even just to Shazam the song you notice playing over the speakers at Starbucks and have it automatically added to your playlist—all without ever pulling your phone out from your purse or pocket. We often joke that we're on the cusp of achieving exactly what was depicted in the movie "Her" in 2014; and to think—we actually wrote our first patents two full years before that movie ever came out! It's pretty rare that you can beat Hollywood to the table on envisioning the future of technology, but we did.
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
Women in tech, women as entrepreneurs, women charting their own destinies, women taking responsibility for changing the world around us—to me it's all equally imperative. Women tend to have a bit different leadership style than men. We think more collaboratively. We are team builders—not wrecking balls. As a mother, I frequently thought about how important it is to teach young women like my daughter Alex to develop the confidence to assert herself, develop her own ideas for products and services, and take even bigger steps than my generation felt comfortable taking to become true leaders as early as she can in her life.
I recently ran an interesting experiment. My daughter sought my opinion when the SEP fraternity (an entrepreneur-focused student group at Berkeley) was engaging in a number of traditionally-male 'hazing' type activities that Alex was somewhat put-off by. Certainly one thing she could have done was to choose not to participate, and risk ostracism. Or she might have chosen to raise her hand publicly, seeking specific intervention from the University to put a stop to such shenanigans. I encouraged, instead, that she participate in her fullest capacity—as long as nothing requested of her would compromise her ethics, or put her in an unsafe position. I further encouraged that once she was accepted into the group, she work from within it to change recruiting and membership activities in order to de-emphasize or eliminate hazing moving forward. And that was precisely what she did. I'm proud of what she accomplished through 'infiltrating' and then, after earning the trust/respect/confidence of other group leaders, convincing them to go about things differently.
This all said, and as "pro-women-leadership" as I am, I'm at least a 'little' conflicted in some regards—in that while I've never specifically felt like I was 'held back' as a women operating in what has largely been a man's world, I've recognized that by their very nature (*and by dominance of their number in the workplace), men have often been rewarded for taking a more aggressive lead. I don't know if we can fault them for that? To me, it's a little bit of the cart and the horse argument. I'm torn between wondering if the "good-ol'-boys club" was ever as much about keeping women out, as it was about men just working hard to support and encourage one another in their naturally gruff and oafish manner. Women can and should create their own clubs, and play by their own rules of engagement. When we do, I fully believe the men have nothing on us!
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
Hmm. I have to think carefully about this (insert long pause of retrospective consideration). I suppose I'd simply encourage that our gender is a powerful tool. No more powerful, nor less powerful, than the advantages men inherently enjoy by dint of their own gender. A sledge hammer swung with brute force is clearly the right tool for some number of jobs. But other jobs… not so much. I don't find I ever need to yell, or scream, or stomp my feet, or unfairly leverage people or situations to get things accomplished. I've certainly known female founders and leaders who choose to pick up a sledge hammer and can wield it just as effectively as any man... but that's just not my style. Likewise, I've defeated any number of burly sledge-hammer swingers by simply and quietly tossing a few ball bearings before their feet and watching a fantastic slip and fall! I encourage that women choose whatever style best represents their core value system, and also allows them to keep their blood pressure and mental anxieties in check.
What will be the key trends in the wearable tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
To me there's just no question where the trends point. People want to enjoy the benefits of being 'connected' all the time. And anything wearables companies can do that results in reducing friction will drive adoption rates to new heights. Clearly, there are lots of ways to do that: take out size, utilize voice and other non-touch user-interface technology, fully and completely integrate the tech and fashion so that people do NOT see the tech, focus on increased battery life/freedom from wired charging, etc. Above all else, stay 100 miles away from geek-wear! At the end of the day, if anything about the look of a product gives away the secret that it is 'tech enabled', it will probably be judged very harshly by consumers. And if anything about using the product creates a new pain point, it will wind up in people's dresser drawers within days —never to see the light of day again.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech?
So many! Of course I love the work that Urska Srsen has accomplished at Bellabeat. Clearly Christina d'Avignon has impressed with Ringly. Let's not forget wearables champion Lee Chan at Flex. That said, I'd also like to offer a strong shout-out to Motiv—who've created a truly amazing fashion wearable despite the fact that the company is led by a male! Like Piearcings, Motiv's team was clearly unwavering in their dedication to micro-miniaturization. Motiv looks no different or bigger than any other ring, yet packs incredibly powerful features. It's truly invisible and nearly friction/free from a usability standpoint. Surely fitbit will try to acquire them!
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of 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.