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The Challenges of Taking a Bright Idea and Making it Reality
By Pamela M. Olson
January 11, 2016
Like every mother, Kurt Workman’s aunt fretted over her children, in this case premature, newborn twins, especially at night when they were out of sight. “I saw her worry and stress over them and their care and I thought, ‘Why isn’t there anything better? How is there not anything out there to give her peace of mind?’”
Workman is a co-founder of Owlet, the only baby monitor on the market to use hospital technology called pulse oximetry to track a baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels and alert parents with a bedside device. The technology is built into a tiny sock that fits snugly on a baby’s foot. The product has received some of the highest accolades, including two of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) innovation awards for parent’s choice and safety.
After Workman’s original self-inquiry, he asked a friend who was working at a hospital how pulse oximetry worked and after that, the proverbial lightbulb turned on. “When I realized the kind of impact this product could have on the world, I could not stop thinking about it. Within a few weeks I got a team that was as passionate as I was to rally around this battle cry to change the world.”
But, like most business stories, that is not the glorious end. Workman and his co-founders Zack Bomsta, Jordan Monroe and Jake Colvin have faced and overcome challenges along the way. Workman shared some of the obstacles as well as solutions.
Did your team expect the testing process to take the time it did once you had your original concept?
Workman: We started in early 2013 taking pre-orders and hoped to start shipping product later that year, with development and testing taking place in between pre-orders and shipping. …
While the total development time to bring the product to market was 1.5 years, we had no idea it would take that long. Being first-time entrepreneurs, we were optimistic about both cost and timeline and learned the hard way that it takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think it will to bring any product to market. That rule was especially true for Owlet.
What hiccups did you encounter along the way and how were they overcome?
Workman: We started out with plans to develop and ship our product within a few months of our launch, which was done initially via crowdfunding of sorts where customers could “pre-order” an Owlet Monitor on our website. We were optimistic that we could tackle that aggressive schedule, and it was a really good learning experience. As we got into the development side of things, we realized the quality needed on a product like this, to bring it to market, especially for something that parents will be putting on their babies. In mid-2014 we had manufactured about 500 units for our pre-orders and at that point we made the decision to go back to the drawing board and start fresh with an even better product that is of the highest quality. It was the best decision we could have made.
What would you do differently if you could start over again?
Workman: I would have taken a more realistic approach to timelines, I would have brought incredible mentors on earlier and I would have focused on our mission more in the beginning. We ultimately got distracted for a while trying to build too many feature sets that didn’t play a role in improving safety in the home.
We did an incredible job at venture funding the business. Very few student startups in Utah ever raise over $10 million in venture financing and join one of the best startup accelerators in the world (Techstars) and even fewer have been able to bring a product like Owlet to market. Our team is passionate and we don’t give up, that’s why we were able to get to such a successful launch while our Silicon Valley competitors struggled to ever bring their vision to fruition.
What advice do you have for other would-be inventors?
Workman: First of all, you’re not an “inventor;” it’s so much more than just having a good idea. It’s about motivating and inspiring people across the whole spectrum (engineers, designers, mentors, investors and customers) to see the vision you see and lead them to that vision.
The only two pieces of advice that I have are one, if you believe in your vision then just keep at it, don’t give up and you’ll eventually get there; and two, listen to experts, mentors and co-founders and ask them the question, “What don’t I know?”
What accomplishments will you take forward into the next stage?
Workman: Our biggest challenge from here forward is helping all parents recognize the real need for in-home monitoring like Owlet. We’ll be working with the top children’s hospitals and most influential personas in the parenting world to support our mission and bring Owlet to the level of a car seat or a home thermometer.
What work did you do before and how did it help you in your current position?
Workman: I studied engineering in college and worked at a product development firm, but I’ve really had to learn everything from the ground up. My co-founders have been absolutely key in the success of Owlet. We’ve really banded together to make this happen. In some areas our lack of experience has been painful, but the one benefit was fiercely believing that we could make this happen given all of the challenges that we’ve faced.