Once you have your foot in the door and are set on a direction, there are some things you need to know for continued success towards a contractual agreement or finished product. Over at Switch Embassy, we've specialized in the integration of smart materials and UI design with the production process. What this means in working with brands is we spend a lot of time aligning expectations with focus on quality control of the final product, selecting the right components that fit cost and brand, and doing a lot of design and vocabulary translating between the two worlds. In Part II, we'll take a little deeper look at how to prepare and what to expect as you move forward.
Continued from Part I, click here to view!
6) Brands like privacy
Fashion companies don't typically have much coveted IP protection like technology companies. This is because design and style is very difficult to protect and their creative concepts only last a season, they keep them protected until their presentation to the world. I've had multiple meetings with multiple brands and never seen their new line of product (even after signing NDA) so don't be offended when they don't share it with you. They will, when they can and are ready.
7) Know the right person within the right department
Each person inside a fashion company (merchandisers, designers, procurement, manufacturing) requires a different language and data set to move the idea forward. Know whom you are speaking with and know their job description, that way you can tailor your presentation to be the most successful it can be . A good way to find out is to ask your contact what they expect to see during the meeting so you show up presenting the correct information. For example, be prepared to bring your finance and operations team to a talk about numbers and procurement or your ID and product producer to a meeting with product designers. In all cases, bring the start-up CEO. As CEO, I go to every meeting in the beginning stages so I can learn and be a part of the process. It also happens to be one of my favorite parts of the job.
8.) Have access to a brand translator
A translator can bridge communication about design, materials, brand, pricing, production schedules and more, for both sides. This person is often acting as the Proxy or Customer on the project. We bring in our product manager early on in the sales and marketing meetings. It's been the best thing for us as an early stage company. That person can make sure everyone is on the same page with language and expectations right from the start. The simplest example of this can be seen in the word "Button." In handbags, the button is a closure or physical feature, but for Switch Embassy, it is also the main interface for changing the colors and turning on and off the bag. Our simple tiny button requires engineering, industrial design, and UI/UX to be involved to make it work and act properly.
9) Start with first runs & low volume
Low costs and high-volume purchasing is a little tricky especially for a start-up. When making your customer acquisition and sales plan, consider small runs as the first option before jumping into the deep end. The good news is that most large fashion brands have programs for testing new designs and content. They do small runs and put them in flagship stores or do a marketing campaign. H&M is quite famous for this tactic and worth an investigation if this is a route you are interested in.
10.) Know how to integrate your product into the process
Hardware companies need someone at the clothing-manufacturing end who can be in charge of integrating the product from the supply chain to the production line. The reason for this is simple: fashion and clothing brands don't usually make anything with electronics and expecting them to know how to integrate it just isn't good business.
We find that having an operations team member with experience in producing products with technology incorporated saves money, time, and creates a great customer service experience. Interestingly, this role can be a joint position between someone in the fashion and tech brand. For example, in one of our cases, we had an assembly worker separate the power completely from the electronics and put them in different areas of the product. This meant the product could not be powered at all. We fixed this right away with proper QC guidelines. Had a person not been on-site, this could have been a costly disaster.
Fashion brands expect a lot of physical materials or samples for free. Do not be surprised if you are asked to giveaway your product for them to test with zero to minimal compensation. This is incredibly hard to swallow when the cost of 1 wearable prototype for us can start at $10k. This is an area where I've honestly fallen short in the past, but now allot for 10 samples into the startup sales and marketing budget right from the start.
Ultimately, I would like to see fashion brands dedicate a budget for incorporating new tech ideas and a clear plan for R&D. Hardware just isn't going to be free. I recommend that brands put something in place that provides them access to products and concepts no one else can have. There are many ways to deal structure this. Most common is a Letter of Intent or Memorandum of Understanding with the start-up so they can go to investors and get the funds to build the component the way you want. Even better, is to have a small budget to share the costs with the startup so things can move quickly in the direction the brand would like. If the marriage of fashion and tech is ever to bear fruit, the investment in innovation needs to be a two-way street.
Alison Lewis is a designer, author, speaker, and inventor. She is the founder of the fashion technology lab, Switch Embassy, where she does technology strategy and consulting for brands and builds innovative wearable experiences.