As the clock ticked down on the final 23 hours of their Jewelbots Kickstarter, we sat down with the dynamic women of Jewelbots to talk tweens, friendship bracelets, Kickstarter campaigns, and hear about how they have become Women to Watch in the wearables space. We are dedicating this new feature on Circuits and Cable Knit to cast a spotlight on women who are paving the way as well as paying it forward.
Already successes in their own rights, co-founders Sarah Chipps and Brooke Moreland came together in 2014 to found Jewelbots. The two were alarmed by the fact that female interest in STEM (the academic disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) had been dropping. They set out to create a product designed to resonate with young girls and engage them to learn to code. The idea was to help move the needle by encouraging girls to use technology to be creators instead of using it to text all day.
According to Moreland,”The numbers are showing that girls who are doing tech and computer science are dropping; they are even lower than they were 30 years ago. Every other field women are making gains – in that one, it’s not even staying the same, it’s getting worse. That’s disturbing. This field is very important moving forward; we are literally writing the future and creating how people are communicating with each other and how the world works. It’s hugely important to have women’s voices as part of that story.”
The Jewelbot behaves like a connected friendship bracelet. Using a mobile app, a girl can assign simple if/then statements to customize how and when the bracelet lights up and vibrates. The device can light a certain color when your friend is nearby, send messages via Morse code, or even control a drone. As the user becomes more proficient in coding, the band is able to grow with them all the way up to using the Arduino IDE to modify the bracelet’s open source software.
So far the Jewelbots team has surpassed its Kickstarter goal by over 5x and are close to reaching their final stretch goal of $200k. Up to this point, the marketing messages have mainly targeted parents and people in the Kickstarter community. As the Kickstarter campaign closes and the company works towards shipping the device, the focus of the marketing will become young girls. Besides leveraging relevant social media channels and utilizing targeted influencers, Jewelbots has found that the messaging is also vital. Chipps explained that the message directed to tween girls has to be just right. “When we talk to girls and we say ‘Do you want to code this thing?’, they kind of glaze over because it’s not something that they think of [sic] is for them. But when we say do you want to customize this, do you want to make it your own, that kind of thing, it really resonates with them.”
In the coming months, the company will complete phase three prototypes and begin beta testing the units in the hands of their target audience: tween girls. Chipps explained that there is an inherent challenge of designing a product where you yourself are not the targeted user. “We are making a lot of assumptions. We’ve done a lot of testing but I think continuing to test, once we get them in the hands of girls, [sic] like are they using them? What’s the on-boarding like? Are we loosing them after a couple of weeks? What’s going on? Those learnings are things we want to build into the product.”
After speaking to Moreland and Chipps, it is clear that as thrilled as they are to launch the Jewelbot, they are even more excited to see what will happen after girls get their hands on them. “Now it is all just stuff we are kind of imagining,” explains Moreland about the bracelet’s current abilities. “I think it will be really interesting to see, since they’re open source, a lot of the cool functionality and where the product is going to go. It’s going to come from the girls and they are totally creative and can come up with better ideas than we can I am sure.” Chipps describes a two-page email she recently received from a friend’s daughter which goes into detail about uses and ideas for the Jewelbot that the team had never thought of.
Looking towards the future, Moreland hopes that Jewelbots inspires a worldwide, engaged community of girls looking to support each other in expanding the bracelet’s functionality. “We want to see if a girl who is trying to make something gets stuck, she can go on our site and talk to other people who’ve been doing similar stuff and they can really get along and it is supportive and inclusive. I think this is really important to both of us.”
This is guidance that both Chipps and Moreland live by. Even though their namesake product is redefining a category, Moreland explained, “You are not reinventing the wheel. People have done similar things and gone through the processes. You don’t have to make all your own mistakes you can learn from other people’s too.” When they need help, the pair turn to fellow alumni of the Highway1 incubator and even other companies on their office’s floor. For fellow women tech entrepreneurs, or really anyone, they encourage them to find mentors and ask tons of questions.
Creating such a positive, change-promoting product, it was surprising to hear the women share that during some interviews they have been asked whether making tech jewelry for girls to encourage them to code was patronizing. “Something that people ask, ‘What will you say to people that say that it is patronizing to make jewelry for girls. That you are kind of dumbing down technology.'” Clearly impassioned by recalling being asked the question, Chipps is quick to say that there is nothing dumbed down about Jewelbots. “I would say the technology we are building is actually crazy advanced and its never been built before. No part of this is dumbing down. The girls will be writing in C. We have sat with 9 year old girls and watched them write C and they’re awesome at it. So at no point is this something that we are dumbing down.” Moreland jumps in and adds, “It doesn’t make sense to us. We don’t think of jewelry as dumb. It is part of our lives. It is an accessory – there is nothing wrong with it.” She concludes, “It is just something that is more intrinsically for girls and that is just a fact.”
With a background that includes founding the nonprofit Girl Develop It, Chipps applies learnings from that organization to shape and inspire the Jewelbot device. For Moreland, who is herself no stranger to start-ups, she agrees that past endeavors are helping pave the way. But for both women, this is their first hardware device they are bringing to market and with that comes unique and exciting challenges. “With hardware, the 6 to 8 weeks in software, is 9-12 months in hardware,” Chipps shares. Moreland continues, “There are just so many things to think about. I mean all the normal stuff in running a business, making a product, and testing, and actually getting the product built, and shipping. The other day Scott, our VP of Hardware, was like ‘What if this part of the bracelet is not going to be comfortable?’ And I am like ‘Oh yeah, comfort – shoot.’ There are just a million things to think of and go over.” Moreland adds, “Once things are in motion, you can’t be like ‘oh wait can we move this over?’
They are both interested to see how the wearable space will continue to evolve. “First it was fitness trackers that were big, now notifications are big, whether it is the Apple Watch or all kinds of different things. I am interested to see how that goes and what comes next,” Chipps says. She is wearing a Ringly and Moreland’s wrist is sporting an Apple Watch. Recognizing the inherent challenge of continued usership within wearables, Chipps continues, “You know, I think people are still wearing their Apple Watches. Apple may have nailed it. The previous statistics were that 25% of wearables were worn after 3 weeks which is really bad. It’s been a little while that everyone has been wearing their Apple Watch.”
With the Kickstarter’s conclusion starting to be counted down by minutes instead of days, Jewelbots hosted a party for excited backers last night in SoHo, with custom cupcakes for the party arriving during our interview. It is clear that the passion around Jewelbots extends well beyond the walls of the company’s office and we cannot wait to see the product launch next year! The final product is expected to ship in March 2016 and we expect to see it on many young girls’ gift lists (and most likely some adults’ too!).
If you are as thrilled as us about Jewelbots and its mission, hurry to their Kickstarter page and pledge your support! For $59 you can receive your own bracelet or donate a Jewelbot.