What do you tell people when you are asked what you do?
Emily Brooke: I say I have a crazy little startup called Blaze and we make innovative products for urban cyclists. I usually get a raised eyebrow and a confused look. [laughs]
Can you give us an example of your work?
Emily Brooke: Our flagship product is called the Laserlight. It tackles the biggest cause in cyclist fatality, which is being caught in the blind spot. It’s a front facing light that you have to have by law, but it also has our laser – it projects the symbol of a bike just in front of you onto the road.
You have a physics and math background. What got you into entrepreneurship?
Emily Brooke: I was a girl at school that could do Science and Math. That led me to Oxford to read Physics. But I left after my first year to do Product Design in Brighton, which I absolutely loved. Wanting to identify and tackle the biggest challenge facing city cyclists. For my final year project I had to design a product from start to finish. I gave myself the theme ‘urban cycling’ with a very clear objective of wanting to identify and tackle the biggest challenge facing city cyclists.
How did you go about identifying the “biggest problem”?
Emily Brooke: I spent 6 months working with traffic psychologists, statisticians, cyclists, and the bus company. Straight away personal safety was flagged as the biggest problem. Looking at statistics, we quickly found out that it’s the side-sweeping blind-spot incident, which is the killer. That is what I wanted to tackle.
What were the next steps?
Emily Brooke: I would cycle around town and try to figure out what is needed to solve this problem. One day I was thinking, "that truck ahead of me can’t see me, but if I was just 5 yards ahead he could see me!" I know what I am going to do: I’ll project myself there.
At that point did you already think this idea could become a company?
Emily Brooke: I had patented the product while I was studying in order to license it to an existing manufacturer. I always knew that it was a really good idea and that somebody needed to make it a reality, I didn’t at that point think it was going to be me.
What happened that changed your mind into building a company out of Blaze?
Emily Brooke: At the end of the summer two things happened on one night. I was leaving coding late at night and my bike had been stolen, which completely broke my heart. After I got home from the police station pretty late, I saw a guy had just been killed by an Olympic bus turning across him during the Olympics. That was the exact problem that my product tackles.That was the exact problem that my product tackles and I realized, it is ridiculous how much I care about this. Why aren’t I doing this? So by September 2012 I dedicated myself full time to make this a reality.
Tell us about your investors. You got a rather famous investor on board…
Emily Brooke: We got two main investors on board: Index Ventures and Branson family, which is pretty cool.
How does a young founder convince Sir Richard Branson to invest in their startup?
Emily Brooke: You tell them that you don’t want money. [laughs] I was in the right place at the right time. Our product caught their eyes and they thought it was cool. I think the Branson’s realized this isn’t just another small startup, but this is a small startup that is actually trying to make a difference and solve a problem. I think the Branson’s realized this is a startup that is actually trying to make a difference. Also the fact that it’s tangible; it’s not an online business with intangible users and a platform that is hard to get your head around… that helped a lot.
What is the biggest challenge that you have faced so far with your startup?
Emily Brooke: Manufacturing in China, for sure. Nobody in China wants to work with a small company, ultimately we are a high complexity and small volume products company. Manufacturers in China want low complexity and large volume, so we are an absolute nightmare.
Are Chinese manufacturers not ready to work with small startups?
Emily Brooke: Manufacturers in China are used to very heavy process. They work with companies like Apple, where they have an entire quality assessment team of a 100 responsible for the screws on the inside of a component. Whereas with us, we are very flexible as a small team. We just get shit done quickly. The large companies out there are resistant to that. It’s a big learning curve, for both sides.
Where do you see Blaze in 5-10 years?
Emily Brooke: Being the global urban cycling brand.
There are quite a few “smart-bike” startups out there: Helios, Lock8, etc. How will Blaze be different?
Emily Brooke: Our first priority is making really good products. All these guys are facing problems, which I’m sure they will ultimately solve. For example the GPS tracking device of the security device can be wrapped in tin-foil, making it untraceable. The tech scares me a little bit – it changes really quickly. Yet the “smart tech” we can definitely add to our products in the future and we are looking to do that already, but first we want to start with really good hardware.
Is there anything in particular that you would like to pass on to other female founders?
Emily Brooke: Just get on with it! The biggest thing I learnt: there is many ways to skin a cat. I spent my first year being absolutely paranoid, am I doing things right? There is many ways to skin a cat. I spent my first year being absolutely paranoid. Is there a better way to do it? But actually there is many ways to do many things – just choose one and get on with it. No one actually knows what they are doing the first time they are starting a company. Find people who do. Go and find as many people as you can, ask as many questions as you can. It’s all paid forward – everybody got help at the beginning and most are willing to give help back later. I try to learn as much as I can, because I have no bloody clue what I am doing.