#6 The cave

It took a great deal of restraint to keep our pencils up for so long, but it was worth it, we needed to properly understand the usual trifecta: user, market, and economics. In other words: what does our user need, what is the market missing and how do we make the numbers work. Quick note: you need all three to pull it off.

The Design, Marketing & Engineering Teams all had the same brief on the table: an urban helmet with integrated lights that is stylish & clean (but well ventilated) and packed with functionality (yet still light, comfortable AND affordable). Sure, it all sounds peachy… until you try to juggle concept sketches, user interviews, feasibility & margins (which is exactly what we did).

It was every bit as crazy as it sounds, a beautiful mess with all fronts moving forward at full speed (and all at once). With the added bonus of lockdown in a global pandemic, we locked ourselves in the proverbial Cave to create a game-changing product.

To aid our own research and widen our gaze, we decided to create a Beta Program: a small group of hand-picked individuals – representative of our target markets – to give feedback & share insights along the way. Their input has been – and still is – priceless: these are real commuters across the globe with unique commuting experiences, stories, pain points, and concerns. What better fuel than that?

Meanwhile, the Design Team started playing around with concept sketches. With a product like this, it all revolves around the shape: 3-4 lines that can either make it or brake it. We had dozens upon dozens of sketches, models, 3D-prints, zoom-based debates and even a nameless sketch battle against market-established helmets (a fun little exercise we used to get honest feedback on our design direction) – can you spot ours?

“I agree with the sentiment that we can’t just ask for what customers want; they don’t always know how to articulate it. But I am a firm believer in the power of understanding our community. I’m a firm believer in the power of user research and qualitative insight gathering”.

Katie Dill, VP & Head of Design at Lyft

Almost simultaneously, the Engineering Team was designing the electronics, building the Supply Chain, and fitting a ton of tech inside a helmet without compromising performance nor looks. The BOM (Bill of Materials) started taking shape and was heavily monitored to make sure we ended up with something scalable & profitable (after all we run a business, not a charity).

Before we knew it we were building the damn thing and lines on paper became a very real product. We dubbed it FARO – the spanish word for ‘lighthouse’.

In fact, we’re ready to come out of the cave and tell you all about it.

Stay tuned, this is about to get lit up.

The UNIT 1 Team


#5 Light it up

At this point, we knew urban commuters’ go-to excuse for not wearing a helmet is usually style: ‘it doesn’t look good on me’, ‘I look dorky wearing it’. So the first fundamental point to create this helmet was quite clear from the get-go: style.

And by style, we don’t mean just building something attractive… we mean making a life-saving product attractive enough so that style – or lackthereof – is no excuse not to wear it.

Making a stylish helmet is certainly a step in the right direction but hardly a full plate.  We wanted something more… an extra layer. So we zoomed in at these commuter experiences to see what else could be done to improve them.

Urban commuting is certainly not free of issues and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that. Riders moving through the city and sharing an outdated infrastructure with other bikes, cars & buses exposes them to many dangers. If you look at hard data – which you must-do if you want an objective look on things – you’ll see 55,000 cyclists get injured per year in the US (and estimations state only 10% of incidents are reported). Even though bike-friendly infrastructure and overall awareness have grown in the past years, about a thousand people day every year in bike-related accidents.

‘It seems riders worry less about crashing than they do about getting hit by a car’

70% of these fatal accidents occur in the cities with heavier traffic, meaning the link between bike accidents and cars on the road is quite strong, but that is no surprise. The real surprise is this: even though helmet use is quite low (40% in the US, 20% in Europe), cycling lights are widely used (over 90%). Why?

It seems riders worry less about crashing than they do about getting hit by a car… and making themselves visible matters more than protecting their head if & when they crash. Ok, we are onto something here.

To back this up we talked to more than 300 urban cyclists to corroborate all this and a pattern quickly emerged: blind spots, low light, intersections, recurring problems with drivers always coming down to visibility & communication. In other words, ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you there’ and ‘How could I’ve known you were going to do that’.

If you were paying attention you’d say ‘wait, isn’t that what cycling lights are for?’, and you’d be right. Cycling lights are usually cheap, convenient, and make one visible on the road. But they’re not perfect: they are easily lost, forgotten and even stolen. And let’s face it, who hasn’t forgotten the overnight charge before a morning commute? Sure, it’s better to use them than not… but do they really get the job done? They sit quite low (usually under the seat) and most of them are super small. In terms of visibility, a bit underwhelming.

When the smoke cleared, we had almost 300 people tell us they used cycling lights and yet were still afraid of getting hit by a car. Well, it doesn’t get clearer than that, we’re looking at that extra layer: we’re putting lights on our helmet!

It’s go time.

The UNIT 1 Team


#4 Napkin doodles

It all starts with a very basic drawing – we’re talking napkin level – that outlines a user’s experience… any experience. You put it all in there and lay bare all its problems.

As we set out to create our next product, we wanted it to be agnostic in the sense that our first product wouldn’t be a factor. We had to go in blind and only then see what needed to be done. After all, despite what people may think, we are not a ski company, nor a safety company and definitely not an audio company. So what the hell kind of company are we? We like to think of our brand as a platform for innovation, a launchpad for products that improve experiences. Sure, it almost sounds like BS… so this is the perfect moment to prove it.

So how do you create a great product? You don’t… you create the experience it delivers. Cliché as that may sound, if you think about the experience you want to have, be it faster, cheaper, nicer, smarter or just plain better than the current one, the product will follow soon after.

So how do you create a great product? You don’t… you create the experience it delivers.

If you’re trying to improve upon something you need to know all there is to know about it and shine light on every nook & cranny. Think of putting an experience through an MRI, you get to see it from the inside and from every angle. That’s why it’s so much easier if you are a user in the first place.

As the sun came down on a long day hitting sports fairs in Munich, our team sat on a pub a few blocks away from Marienplatz to figure out – amidst pretzels & beers – what experience we would be tackling next. Moments after, the urban commute was all we could talk about.

And it made sense, too: if there’s something we’ve done a lot of during these past years, is moving around. We chased investors, suppliers, partners & events across Hong Kong, Madrid, LA, Berlin, Guangzhou, Denver, Frankfurt, Buenos Aires, Munich & Barcelona – and experienced every possible commute, be it walking, biking, e-biking, scooting, ubering, you name it. Little did we know we were researching our next product.

The paper you see on the photo represents what we discussed that night. What does a commuter go through? What problems does he have? What makes his day and what ruins it? What does he need that he doesn’t have? You’ll see words like traffic, weather, ride sharing, wellness, lifestyle, electric vehicles, environment, visibility, accidents, navigation, portability, safety.

So there they are: problems to be solved, small issues to be tweaked and huge emerging trends to watch out for.

After that paper came tons of research that painted a clear picture:

– As traffic & pollution get worse every year, bike commuting grows at an insane pace

– Even though biking-related accidents go up, 8 out of 10 riders still don’t wear a helmet

Why?

It turns out lots of people don’t think they need them. And those who do, well their collective opinion is that helmets are just ugly. Who wants to wear something that doesn’t look good on you or makes you look dorky? Can’t blame them.

So we have a life-saving product not being used due to ignorance or style. Enter, UNIT 1.

Fate had its way and we landed on a helmet. Maybe it was a chicken & egg thing cause we did have the skillset to design a helmet, the supply chain to build it and a brand to put it out there.

In any case, this won’t be just another commuter helmet…it will be something that enbodies our DNA of innovation & shacking things up.

Back to work, then.

The UNIT 1 Team


#3 White Blank Page

Creating a new product for a new market to solve new problems – it doesn’t get better than that.

We always envisioned UNIT 1 as a platform for innovation and snowsports was – for us –  the perfect place to start: we were skiers long before becoming designers & entrepreneurs.

We were lucky enough to build a product for a sport we love and make a small mark on it. Before we knew it, there were thousands of skiers & riders in the US, Europe & Latin America using our helmet. We started seeing it on random people’s head all around our home mountain – many even approached us saying how our helmet had improved their experience on the slopes. That was a legitimate ‘pinch me’ moment: it’s not everyday you come across someone sporting a helmet that not long before was just an idea floating in your head.

“When the world changes around you and when it changes against you – what used to be a tail wind is now a head wind – you have to lean into that and figure out what to do because complaining isn’t a strategy.”

Jeff Bezos

From a business standpoint, the snowsports industry is quite challenging: there’s a little over 60 million skiers & riders out there, heavily concentrated in the US and the Alps. With high levels of seasonality, the entire year is defined in a 3 month period and once the snow is gone, no one is thinking about buying ski gear. For a startup, that last part is especially tough, it forces you to accurately estimate demand way ahead of time and engage in the deadly game of either falling short or overdoing it.

This niche market was our first step, our trial by fire. Challenging as it was, we loved every minute of it – and still do. We learnt how to manufacture a product, how to sell it and how to build a business & brand around it. Granted, we’re still learning and probably always will be, but the thrill of this process has us hooked and we are not looking back – only forward.

But where is forward? The game is still on, sure… but the rules have changed on the fly. We know we want to keep on playing and keep on creating. But creating what?

We’ve been given an opportunity here: a blank sheet of paper to pick a new market and get busy creating something awesome – our own special kind of adrenaline rush. This time around, however, we have a more mature team, a brand with a thriving community and all our learnings from the past years.

So, down to business then: knowing seasonality and size are the key challenges in snow sports, our second turf had to compliment that well with year-round activity and a larger user base.

Watersports? Still seasonal. Mountain-biking? Still niche.

What about the streets? Sure, they’re half-empty right now but boy will they be changing soon: people are running away from public transportation due to health reasons and grabbing their bikes, scooters, onewheels – you name it – to move around the city, be outdoors and be healthy.

That’s it, we have our bearing – to the streets it is.

The UNIT 1 Team


#2 The new rulebook

Planning ahead in any startup, on normal circumstances is… tricky. Nothing like a global pandemic to mix it up though – that’s been our 2020 so far.

After the usual Christmas/New Year’s  breather we had a pretty hectic season ahead of us with tradeshows – including ISPO, the biggest there is – and a fast paced fundraising roadshow across the US & Europe.

ISPO was wild: our first time at the big boy table, meters away from POC, Giro and other giants. We had sold out the season’s inventory by mid January and left ISPO with a handful of big deals across both continents. On that joyous note we continued the fundraising roadshow meeting VCs & other investors across Europe.

Little did we know 4 weeks after that we’d be literally escaping Madrid days before the airports were closed.

And just like that we went from meeting VCs to social distancing, reading exponential charts, contagion rates, adopting facemasks as a Tier 1 item in our wardrobe and applauding health workers at the designated time – the works.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

Charles Darwin

Very quickly airports and train stations became deserted – Fontana di Trevi was tourist-free, Yosemite had a record high bear population, Venice’s murky channels were no more and clear skies were seen above Shenzhen for the first time in years – all this while we were wondering how all this was going to affect us and our young company.

It also became apparent that some things were never coming back to ‘normal’. Much like airport security was never the same after 911, some of these new ways are here to stay.

Once you acknowledge that, a million questions rush in: will we go back into the exposure that is public transportation? Will dense population centers remain viable? Will facemasks be as common as sunglasses? Will ‘clean’ have the same meaning it did before?

This Pandemic made us see how vulnerable we are as a species and how important is the ability to adapt to fast changing rules.

Some are extra lucky and specially suited to thrive on this new rules: Zoom went from 10M users by year’s end 2019 to 200M users in March 2020, a 20x growth in 3 months. Netflix onboarded 16M new users in Q1 2020. Others, were not so lucky.

Nothing like a shake of the good ol’ tree to push people into change. And change comes in all kinds of flavors – that’s the beauty of mankind’s ingenuity. How else would you expect to see mom&pop shops mastering e-commerce or gyms doing 100% remote training sessions? It’s the ‘adapt to survive’ mechanism in action.

It’s scary sure, but it can also bring out the unexpected.

We were all given this new – halfwritten – rulebook. All there is left to do is pick it up and start playing.

The UNIT 1 Team


#1 When COVID came knocking

We are an American startup founded by Argentines with European, American & Latin-American investors – that designs in Patagonia, manufactures in Asia and operates in the US & Europe. Yep, a handful.

More importantly, we are a team of designers, engineers & business builders with a knack for creating stuff that makes an impact.

Our mission since day 1 hasn’t wavered: to build a global brand and improve people’s experiences through innovative products, making them better, safer and smarter. While simple enough at a first glance, it’s actually quite tricky to pull off.

The first thing you need is a problem, an experience that needs upgrading. We found ours in snow-sports while looking at protection, audio & communications. Sure, we all wore helmets with headphones or the occasional audio-kit and our phones to keep in touch with each other, but it was a patchwork of incomplete solutions. We then set out to rethink all that – and we did. Here’s a video with the result.

“These guys are doing a great helmet concept (and I never ever say that)”

Stefan Ytterborn – Ex Founder & CEO @ POC

We designed it, tested it, improved it and finally launched it into the market. It was a wild ride that ended on a happy note: we sold out in under 3 months and we can now say there are thousands of skiers & riders out there with our helmets. Even Stefan Ytterborn, founder of POC and helmet guru, had nice things to say about it. Not bad for a start.

So there we were, ready to take off and go big: another financing round – our biggest one yet – a bigger team and more inventory to play with.

We soon encountered a challenge outside our control. COVID-19 was – and still is – not to be trifled with. Fundraising amidst such a storm was going to be impossible, as would travel, manufacturing, etc – but what good can come out of a list of all the things we couldn’t do?

A startup is usually funding-dependent at first, more so if what you’re building is a large scale hardware-based operation. But hey, every startup has to overcome bad odds – this might very well be one more to throw into the cocktail!

So here we are now, each of us at home, Zooming away into our next move (pun intended) and trying to make the best of this hand we’ve all been dealt. 

This ‘new normal’ is coming fast and bringing change along with it. With change come new experiences, new problems, new needs – and that’s the stuff we’re always looking for!

So as we cook up our next move we are opening up our operation to you guys: this will be a portal to the real stuff, the nitty-gritty version of entrepreneurship.

We’re excited and happy to have you tag along for the ride. It’s going to be a wild one.

The UNIT 1 Team