Thalmic Labs CEO Stephen Lake on bringing wearable tech to the mainstream

The cofounder of a made-in-Canada hardware startup on the long and winding road from beta test to Best Buy

Thalmic Labs CEO Stephen Lake, wearing a Myo armband

Thalmic Labs CEO Stephen Lake, wearing a Myo armband. (Hannah Yoon/CP)

Stephen Lake, co-founder and CEO of Thalmic Labs, talks about developing a hands-free way to control technology, how to market a whole new category of product and partnering with Best Buy:

Thalmic Labs started selling its Myo arm band, which allows users to control a computer via hand gestures, at the end of 2014. You’ve sold more than 50,000 over the Internet but have recently made them available at Best Buy. Why do you think it’s important to sell through a traditional bricks-and-mortar retailer?

With a new product like Myo, it’s very valuable to give people the opportunity to see and touch it in a retail environment. It helps more people discover the product. There are certain types of people that would have discovered it online. They tend to be early adopters who read news articles or tech blogs to find new products. It’s a different audience that might discover the product in actual retail stores. It’s important to reach customers who might not have seen the product yet online or might not have been willing to order online without seeing it in the real world.

You say it’s important for consumers to actually see the arm band. What kind of in-store experience can they have with a Myo?

With these products, if you were to just put it on a shelf by itself, no one would understand what it is or what you can use it for. So we put a lot of effort into building a display for the store. There’s a video component that shows it being used and information about its three most popular applications.

What are those applications? What do people use it for?

The first one is that Myo offers a hands-free way to interact with and control your presentations in meetings. It’s able to let you do things like digital zoom by just making a gesture. Secondly, Myo acts just like a mouse and a keyboard. The idea is not to replace a mouse and a keyboard when you’re sitting at your computer, but when you’re sitting on a couch or 10 feet away from your computer and you want to browse the web. You can enter text as well based on motion gesture. And finally, you can connect Myo to drones or other toys. It’s compatible with the Parrot AR Drone that Best Buy sells.

You manufacture the Myo in Canada. Why?

We’ve developed a very high-tech manufacturing process that’s enabled us to build it at our facility in Waterloo, Ont., at a cost that’s not too much higher than doing it in Asia or someplace else offshore, like most companies would. We’ve been able to simplify the process and automate many steps. Ultimately, we end up with better quality for the products built here in Waterloo. At each step of the manufacturing process, we’re actually testing each arm band. We’ve built a database that can tell us what our test results were for every single arm band.

What’s it like partnering with Best Buy? Did they have any criteria before they’d sell the Myo?

It’s really the same for most major retailers. There are more than 20 different certifications we needed to pass, right down to demonstrating the quality of our manufacturing facility and [showing] we’ve got the right approvals from officials in the United States and Canada for our Bluetooth components. But, fortunately, many of our team members came from other companies like BlackBerry. That experience is just so valuable for us. Instead of taking some wrong turns and learning by trial and error, we already had that experience on our team. It really helped us make the process very smooth.

You were also selling through Amazon before Best Buy. Did you learn anything from that experience?

Although Amazon’s only online, we still had to build a lot of the systems, like our fulfillment and inventory systems that help us track products and ship orders to distributors and retail stores. We used this opportunity to make sure any bugs were ironed out, and the whole process was very smooth when we were finally ready to launch with Best Buy because we already understood the processes. The step-by-step approach really helped us learn any potential pitfalls along the way.

What’s the most important lesson you received during this process?

Nobody else is going to care as much about your product as you do, so it’s really important to make sure you’re the one taking charge and ensuring all the little things go right. A lot of young companies might assume that as soon as you get a deal to sell your product through a physical or online retailer, things will start happening by themselves. But it’s much more complicated than that. It’s important that your team makes sure everything that needs to be done happens properly. You’ve got to provide the right marketing materials and messaging. You need to work with the buyers to make certain the product is being positioned properly in the right product category and at the right price.

We had an experience early on that taught us a lot, where we did a very small experiment with some pop-up in-store demos at a few retail stores in Canada, just to test the in-store sales model for a weekend. There were a bunch of little hiccups we ran into that we learned from for the big launch: little things, like the signs for the retail stores didn’t show up on time for the event. And in another case, the store manager somehow wasn’t aware that our team was coming to his location. These little hiccups you’d assume would take care of themselves, but you really have to double- and triple-check everything when you’re working with so many different locations and people.

What are some marketing lessons you have learned?

Myo is a whole new category of product. It’d be simpler if we were selling something similar to products consumers already know, but the idea of gesture control is brand new. From our earliest messaging to today, we learned that you have to really explicitly explain to consumers what it is and what it does. You can’t underestimate the challenge of educating consumers, because there are so many new things these days and there’s almost information overload. Teaching them about a new category of product is not an easy thing to do.

Watch the Myo armband in action: