James Kubik, 27, lost a friend to a sailing accident during his childhood. His friend, her younger sister, and her father were separated from their boat and didn't have a way to call for help and ultimately, she drowned. Their marine-grade SOS device and other safety equipment were stored below deck. So when Kubik was a product design and engineering student at Northwestern University, he wanted to build something that was accessible during an emergency and could have changed the outcome of that event.
After working at software company Intuit in Silicon Valley for a few years, Kubik and his friend at Tesla, Alan Besquin, quit their jobs in January 2017 to develop Somewear, a pocket-sized, wearable, lightweight satellite hotspot that allows users to send and receive texts, and transmit SOS messages.
Somewear launched with a Kickstarter pre-order campaign last April, and has since manufactured and launched its first batch. So we called Kubik, who's now the CEO, to bring us up to speed on new developments and his own hindsight from the startup experience.
Tell us about Somewear. How does it work?
We’ve built a small hotspot ($350) that looks kind of like a hockey puck. It turns any smart phone into a satellite communicator. When you’re out in the world and using your phone, you’re using a cellular network. Through our software, we allow you to directly connect to a satellite network without paying exorbitant fees for using applications. Our software optimizes the experience for low-data usage.
We wanted to keep the hardware as simple as possible. There’s essentially just an on/off button and an SOS button. Those are the only features we build in the hardware because we focus more on the software. We think that in this world we live in today, the phone is our hub to a lot of what we do. We wanted to enable that for people even when they’re off the grid. Once you pair your phone to the hotspot, you access our applications, which we're still growing. We are thinking about what else we can offer to people by partnering with other applications that people want access to when they’re in the wild, like weather or maps. Those are conversations we’re actively having right now.
What was life like after you quit your job to pursue Somewear?
Life completely changed overnight. We went from being well-compensated tech workers to making zero dollars. Fortunately, because we had been working nights and weekends, we knew we wanted to do this, so we started saving fairly significantly throughout that year beforehand. We just changed our lifestyle, stopped doing a lot of the things we previously had done, and lived very frugally. We were in San Francisco and it’s an interesting city where rent is really high, even just going out to dinner is extremely expensive. There’s a lot of on-demand services that are heavily used. But everything we had just went into the business. We were accepted into a business accelerator called Highway1 which gave us a little bit of capital as well. It was definitely a tough year, but worthwhile.
How did Highway1 help you hone your vision? Did you pivot?
It was a four-month process. We went through some programming, but it really gave us time and space for us to develop our business. We spent a lot of time with potential customers and learn more about what was missing and how we could make an impact. One of the things we realized was we needed to change the framing of what we were building. Early on, it was all about safety and having an SOS button. But after meeting with so many people, from really extreme mountaineers to really casual hikers and everyone in between, we realized that no one really wants to think about emergencies. People don’t wear helmets when they ride bikes. People don’t wear life vests when they're on boats simply because they don’t want to think about the worst case scenario.
We realized that we had the ability to not only to provide that safety net, but also to allow people to connect even when they're off-grid. Digital elements have becomes such a big part of our daily lives and when you go into the outdoors, that’s stripped away from you. We had the opportunity to provide digital essentials on every one of these adventures and provide digital support in a way that hasn’t previously been possible.
Now that it's out in the wild, can you share some stories of people using it?
This product is used in more ways than you might anticipate. We had someone out on the [Pacific Crest Trail] and they were getting toward the end of the trail and they didn't have a way to get home. So they started using Somewear to communicate logistics for their train ride home. They were literally booking tickets using the device. The person said, "I wouldn’t have been able to get out of there without Somewear." Another story we heard was from a user who was out in the Northwoods hunting. They were out in the middle of nowhere for a week. They were using it for normal communication and tracking purposes, and then half the group left for home and left some of their gear behind. This is a really remote cabin and they go once a year deep into the woods. They started messaging the people that were still there saying, "Hey, can you bring that back because I actually need that." They told us they wouldn't have had their rain jacket and other gear for a year had it not been for this product. When there’s no communication and there’s no connectivity, really simple things just aren’t possible.
How are you different from competitors, like Garmin's InReach or the SPOT device?
There are a few products out there that have similar functionalities and as we did research, we found people saying, "I’m not technical so it’s not for me." Or, "I tried it out and couldn’t quite get this right or that right." We heard a lot of excuses from customers about why they thought about bringing something, but didn’t. We wanted to change that script by making something so simple, so user-friendly, so accessible to anyone, whether you’re, a casual hiker or a super experienced mountaineer, that there’s no excuse to not bring it with you. That’s our ethos. That's what's going to create a safer environment.
Looking back, did you ever think you’d be a CEO at 27 years old?
I think that no matter how old you are, you always have more to learn and you’re never fully prepared for what’s ahead of you because life is always going to throw you something new. The way I try to approach this opportunity is to always continue learning from people around me, so fortunately we’ve had a really strong network of people that we can go to and get advice from. I heavily rely on mentors and advisors who know more than me as well as a team that I can really trust and lean on for support and growth. It’s no small feat to develop Somewear and we’re just four people right now. We've gone all the way through manufacturing and production. A lot of companies die in that process. Our team is the only reason we’ve been able to accomplish what we have.
What’s something key you've learned that has kept you going?
It’s never about the business; it’s about who you’re serving. When starting a new business, there’s always so many hurdles that it’s really easy to say "I don’t know if we can get through this." But when you can get your product in people’s hands and make a difference and you hear that from them, that’s what’s hugely impactful for us. We got an email once that said, "I just had a kid and for the last three years, I haven’t been able to get into the outdoors and being in nature is really important to me. I bought your product, my wife knows how to use it, and now I’m able to go on a weekend trip and stay in touch with them." That’s why we do this.