Whether it is a ring that helps us sleep better or a bracelet that looks after our safety, there is no denying it; there is something quite magical about how our everyday 'dumb' accessories are becoming smarter.
As exciting as it has been witnessing brilliant ideas being executed by various tech startups, it has also been quite sad to see prominent startups, like Ringly and Wisewear, rise and then unexpectedly fall.
A pair of startup post-mortems
We can all name at least one company that has successfully raised some serious cash, managed to bring the product to market, before unexpectedly shutting down. The reasons why venture-backed startups experimenting with innovation are expected to fail are diverse and they can range from bad timing to lousy cash flow.
So far, 2018 has brought about the demise of a couple of fashion tech startups, most notably Ringly and Wisewear. The closure of the smart jewellery companies has sent shockwaves of fear through the fashion tech space. Put on a pedestal by many; the two companies were great examples of what a successful merger of fashion with technology looks like.
In a time when people did not want to own such 'ugly' wearables, Ringly and Wisewear products undeniably had mainstream consumer appeal. Their products were proof that wearable tech could not only be fashionable but that it could also be desirable.
Gerald "Jerry" Wilmink founded WiseWear back in 2010. Driven to make the kind of waves in the fashion tech space that made a difference, Wilmink came up with an antenna system that can transmit Bluetooth signals through metal. Fast forward to 2015 and Wisewear introduced its Socialite collection (main image) - a high end connected jewellery collection that combined elegant design with innovative technology. A campaign with fashion icon Iris Apfel and stockists including Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's and Nordstrom soon followed.
In 2016, it was clear that Wisewear had fine-tuned "the art of gift wrapping technology in aesthetically pleasing jewellery". By 2017 Wisewear was teasing us with a new collection by Apfel. But cut to March 2018 and the San Antonio startup announced plans to liquidate its assets. On its downfall, Wilmink reportedly blamed a change in Apple's operating system on a failed round of financing.
Forced into bankruptcy, the smart jewellery brand's lawyer Ron Smeberg officially stated: "It came down to a lack of funding on a large-scale production that would have created economies of scale and lowered the price of its products". Although failure is considered an essential part of the startup ecosystem, Wisewear's unexpected fall from the pedestal we put it on gave many fashion tech startups a reality check that disruptive ideas are no longer enough.
Ringly was a brand that had more than just a disruptive idea; it had a team, investors, and partners on board. Looking back, Ringly was a great idea, that was created with women in mind. CEO Christina Mercando d'Avignon designed and developed a smart ring that was compact in size, robust in functionality and looked stylish. It introduced wearables to mainstream consumers in a non-scary manner. It was a product that took away the masculine edge usually associated with wearables and gave smart jewellery a softer and more approachable disposition.
Ringly's beautiful products fulfilled a market need. They seemed to have found the holy grail of wearable tech, consumers who want their products. So why did the company cease operations earlier this year? Well, the New York startup has been keeping somewhat schtum about their closure, except for a brief post on their blog dated 22 January 2018. It stated: "This decision was not an easy one to make, but one we spent a lot of time thinking through. We're incredibly thankful to everyone who has worked with or supported the company through our journey." (Both Wisewear and Ringly declined to comment for this story).
Although the product is still available, the once customer-centric company is no longer offering support which has left many customers in limbo. One customer complained on Ringly's Facebook page, "I went running this morning, and it didn't track again, so I am done! I will buy something reliable and not be fooled by somewhat pretty functional jewellery again".
Don't run from failure, learn from it
It is no secret that it takes a lot of money to bring hardware to market. On the flip side, those new to the game can attempt to avoid startup failure by appreciating the value of knowledge shared by the founders who have learned the hard way. Although not many startup CEO's are open to sharing their story, there are some who have come now view their failure as giving them intel that they can use in future business endeavours.
Take Hahna Alexander, the founder of SolePower. She set out to create a shoe that could charge a battery. The inventing part went smoothly, and Alexander successfully created a smart shoe that was capable of harnessing energy from each step which could then charge a battery. When she tested her prototype, she quickly discovered that people preferred to carry a backup battery rather than bother with a self-charging shoe. Pushing a product when there is no market need for it is like a slow death but crucially she was able to take her ego out of the equation. This is what allowed Alexander to pivot away from a 'bad product' and try something else.
When it comes to money, we can learn a lot from smart jewellery and wellness startup Vinaya. The London based operation closed its doors in early 2017 after realising that all their column inches did not translate into sales. In theory, Vinaya was a company that should not have suffered poor cash flow, especially since the startup managed to raise around $3 million in seed funding from backers. On their departure from the wearable tech space, Vinaya's CEO Kate Unsworth told Business Insider that the company was undergoing "restructuring", but sadly we have not heard from them since. The lesson here appears to be - don't run before you can walk.
Returning to Wisewear and Ringly, one of the leading criticisms of Wisewear in particular was its high price point. We all know that pricing is a dark art that makes finding that sweet spot quite difficult. It is a balancing act that means that if it is priced too high, it might not sell, and if it is priced too low, then the product won't turn a profit. Currently, most wearable tech is only accessible to those with the kind of disposable income that means they can afford a $300 smart bracelet though to be fair to Ringly it did debut a more affordable Ringly Go range. Although they are the kind of customers that never complain about the price, the problem is that they are a few and far between.
In the end, the post-mortem of Wisewear and Ringly comes down to the fact that 90% of startups fail. It is a hard truth that has led to many business experts believing that failing fast is a better option because it can provide you with the space to learn from your mistakes.
I somewhat agree, but I do not think that this was the case with Wisewear and Ringly, because they successfully made it past the 18-month mark. They also both were able to build a unique, intelligent device that became an integrated part of their customer's psychological and social behaviour. That said in 2018, unless you're selling Fitbit, Fossil or Apple Watch numbers, it seems any kind of wearable tech becomes difficult to sustain as a business. Fossil Group is said to be looking at different categories beyond smartwatches including eyewear, hearables and even handbags. With its designer brands and retail stores, perhaps it will succeed where these early companies have failed.
If I was to simplify it, the demise of these two fashion tech brands shows us that bringing a wearable tech product to market is no longer the hardest hurdle to jump - keeping it there is.