Fashion Tech Alchemy: What's the Winning Startup Formula?
What makes a successful fashion tech startup? We explore here.
So, you’ve come up with an idea for a great fashion tech product and you’re keen to start making and selling it. What happens now? As with any new business idea, you will know that a lot of work lies ahead. But in order to channel it in the right direction, let’s look at your background and impetus.
Many people come to fashion tech from a fashion design background. They have a desire to enhance their designs by adding tech, such as integrated lighting or remote control moving parts. This means that they are trained to design a beautiful garment, and solve the technical challenges that come with producing that garment. They can predict trends and may also have knowledge of marketing and business. On other occasions, tech or business entrepreneurs spot a gap within the fashion market or want to get involved with fashion tech, rightly seeing it as a significant growth area for the future.
Others want to invent a product that solves a problem – such as to overcome the crisis in sustainability or to serve a social need, such as assisting an aging or disabled population. Other applications include medical, or protecting the body from the weather or other dangers. In these cases, applying the product to a fashion framework makes most sense.
This wide variety of fashion applications comes with challenges. A new fashion tech product needs to look good. It needs to work well, and people have to understand what it is for and be persuaded that they need or want it. In addition, there is the question – how can a fashion designer understand in-depth technical briefs? Can a non-fashion entrepreneur correctly predict the fashion trends? Can someone who is passionate about ecology bring a fashion tech product to market?
So what’s the best equation for the optimum winning formula for a fashion tech startup?
According to CB Insights, one of the top three reasons for a business’s failure is not having the right team. In fashion tech, this is perhaps more crucial than in any other business area. Since there are not many polymaths on the scene who can understand all the areas of fashion design, marketing and technology, it makes sense to work in a team of specialists in each area. However, it is crucial that each team member, while they have their specialisms, also have at least a passing knowledge and interest in the other subjects they are working with. Your fashion guy must understand the basics of the tech they will be incorporating, and your tech girl needs to have some feelings about the philosophy of beauty. The marketing person, meanwhile, needs to understand just what makes this product so technologically brilliant and aesthetically pleasing. Putting the right team together like this is vital.
How do you know when you have the right team? Dave Snider, former co-founder of Boompa, the social media site for cars (now defunct), had this very dynamic suggestion.
“Ethan and I came up with the “Zombie Team” test for figuring out whether or not someone is ready to work on an intense project, be it a start-up or otherwise. The test is this: If zombies suddenly sprung from the earth, could you trust the perspective team member to cover your back? Would they tell you if they got bit? Most importantly would you give them the team’s only gun if you knew they were the better shot? If the answer is no to any of those questions you need to let them get eaten by the cubicle wasteland of corporate culture, because they aren’t ready for this kind of work.”
(Thank God we don’t actually live in world filled with zombies, otherwise the startup scene would look very different.)
When this team is not properly put together, a fashion tech business can easily fail, as happened with Shoes.com Technologies, a Canadian online shoe merchant. They folded after three years. Despite bringing in an estimated $2 million in revenue, they had failed to find a viable team. Doug Stephens from Retail Prophet commented that the company “Suffered from having too few managers from the fashion industry and too many from the technology sector” as noted on Globe and Mail. This imbalance was their downfall. Many startups have gone down in similar vein as explored in our previous article.
It can be hard to know how to form a team with all the attributes you need. If you have an idea in mind, it can be a good idea to join workshops specialising in your area of passion, which is where The Future of Walking team met up, spontaneously sitting next to each other at an environmental hackathon at Makerversity in London. Other startups meet their teammates at University, forming a working bond whilst working on academic projects. Over time, the more seasoned entrepreneurs can sniff out who will make a match for their next partners in crime – easier said than done.
Another idea could be to attend a fashion incubator. If you’re a techy person with an idea, or a fashion person inspired to get involved with tech but don’t know how, you will be likely to meet your perfect match, either directly or through connections and contacts made there. Many programs such as Entrepreneurs First and Founders Factory focus on team building first. Foundry Powered by IFA Paris, and our founder’s newly launched Startup Program (the team above), aims to match people with the same mindsets but different skillsets. By also spotting gaps in the entrepreneur’s knowledge, connections are made that will benefit them through the form of meaningful conversations with mentors, potential investors and ecosystem partners.
However, even the perfect team can’t guarantee that a nascent company will be an absolute success. But it is a really solid basis to start off with and will at least mean that you face the ups and downs of the fashion tech world with people you can trust at your side, ready to fight the same fight!