LOS ANGELES — I.am+, the wearables manufacturer helmed by musician Will.i.am, brought on former Sony exec Phil Molyneux as president and COO.
Molyneux officially stepped into the role about a month ago, he told TWICE during a phone interview last week to discus what how he started his new venture and what’s planned going forward.
TWICE:So what have you been up to since Sony?
Molyneux: I took on some consulting roles with various companies, and I enjoyed that. There was a very diverse collection of companies I was working with, board roles, etc. I suddenly became extremely busy from that venture. But then, of course, this great opportunity came up. This really, really pulled me in and got me very excited, so this was one I really had to commit to.
TWICE: How did you and Will.i.am get acquainted? What’s the story behind that?
Molyneux: I met Will in 2012 at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. Will and I were introduced by our mutual friend, and we started to talk about all things technology and trends and where we saw the market going, and what we thought were the key players. I quickly inferred that Will had this very significant understanding of the consumer electronics and the tech world, amongst all the other great things that he’s highly capable of doing. We kept in contact, and Will started to share with me his thoughts on what he wanted to build, and where he was going with his technology venture.
Fast-forward a bit more, and I was lucky enough to be able to have an early Puls, and I was blown away with what he had managed to bring to life as a startup and as a small company. The Puls being the first telephone, in reality, that is on your wrist in a smart band was highly, highly significant to me. Not only is it a smart band that’s very elegantly and beautifully designed, fusing technology together with fashion — we call that fashionology around here, and that’s a beautiful term for what needs to happen to wearables, and Will had cracked it — but, more than that, they’ve taken open-source Android and built out the unique operating system. They put in a virtual assistant that’s bordering on artificial intelligence. They built a whole back end of plumbing to deliver content and rich experiences to the Puls for consumers.
So when I looked at all of those things together, frankly, I was hooked. And it came to the point where Will said, “I need somewhere there who has the capability of building the team out, building the strategy out to the next level, someone who has the capability to scale for not only the U.S. and the U.K. basis, but on a global basis as we go forward.” So, fast-forward just a few weeks later, and here I was. I’m just into my fourth week this week, and I’m enjoying every second of it.
TWICE:Do you have an update on the Puls?
Molyneux: We had a controlled launch of the Puls, and the controlled launch was to selected individuals, who we called fashionologists, who really wanted to try it. The controlled launch was built around something called the “Make It Great” campaign. It was a very smart initiative. This was way of getting the first product down into people’s hands, or, more importantly, on people’s wrists, so they could give us rich feedback on what they enjoyed for the device, what experiences it delivered, what areas would need to be improved, and what we need to add to the product. They purchased it full price from an online platform, and we’ve had immensely rich feedback that we’ve been able to filter through, and will apply to future iterations of where we go as we build out new products and experiences.
I see that as really strategically important because the big guys out there can’t have this level of connection with their customer base. They just can’t do it, and I know that. I sit from a position of authority, both to be able to talk to individuals who have experienced and use this and love this device. The freedom that it gives people is quite something.
TWICE:How do you think your experience at Sony will play out in your new position?
Molyneux: I’ve run very, very large operations at Sony. I’ve run smaller operations over time going back in history at Sony. But I’ve always somewhere in the larger operations had what I called a skunkworks, where I could concentrate on innovation with a small group of people who are able to free-think in order to come up with new innovations that we’ve taken to market. More recently one, I led the Sony 4K Ultra High Definition ecosystem development, and that was really about how do we create a download service with 4K content through a media server for our 4K TVs … and I worked on that with less than 50 people, engineers, marketers, people from Sony Pictures, etc., in order to bring that live in a very short window of time, all done primarily in the U.S. So I have the experience of guiding small teams to success from product creation, ideas, right the way through go-to-market. I can apply those principles and learnings and experience to I.am+ and the work we’ve got on the table here. If you couple that together with my global experience and global manufacturing through to mass market and through to global distribution, that’s going to come into play somewhere down the line, in the not-too-distant future.
TWICE:How large is I.am+?
Molyneux: Today we have 85 people. The headquarters are in L.A., which is where I am. We have a team of hardware engineers in Singapore. We have the core head of software development, operating systems, platforms and applications in L.A. We have an extension of resources in Bangalore in India. ... I just brought in a CFO [Ro Peschken] just last week, which I think is a very important step in order to bring another level of control. What start-ups always need is more control, as well as a highly credible supply-chain specialist, because we’re in an industry with great partners like AT&T and Telefonica in the U.K., these large companies, that when we go to market, we’re talking about potential millions of units that we’ve got to put into the supply chain. The supply chain becomes one of the core components that we need to put our hands around early so we can feed demand effective and tidily. So we’re adding new resources as we speak, but with a measured focus perspective on what we can do at this stage.
TWICE: Smart watches and wearables are getting to be a pretty crowded market. Does the company plan to diversify beyond this category? How do they plan to stand out from the competition?
If you look at the Puls itself, it’s truly merging tech and fashion, a very unique, compelling design that fits on the wrist. No. 2, it has its own operating system, something we heard back from the “Make It Great” campaign, Anita, the virtual assistant, is really appreciated by customers, and really better than anything else on the market. Our device is a stand-alone telecommunication device. My experience is this really quite liberating because you put the Puls on your wrist. Just this morning, I left my phone at home and thought to myself, “Should I turn around and pick my phone up?” And I thought, “Well, I don’t need to because everyone can call me or I can call them from my Puls.” And I text, and I can read email, and if I have time to post to social media today, I can do that as well. … Of course, this is aimed at the user who wants to be free, who doesn’t want to go to a nightclub or go out for the weekend with a large piece of glass in their pocket or purse. Just to have it on the wrist, and have your hands free to do whatever you want with, that’s true mobility.
TWICE:Can you give a hint if future products will be in wearables space or something completely different?
Molyneux: Committed direction is wearables space, but, very importantly, from a different perspective. Just remember fashionology. Anything you wear, whether it’s technology or clothes, should have fashion embedded into DNA. TWICE: What’s your perspective on the overall wearables marketplace? Is everyone on hold to see how the Apple Watch shakes out? Molyneux: It is a crowded market. I think there will be some shakeout. There will be a need for some differentiation. ... I think Apple coming into their fray with their smart watch, I think will help all boats rise as they come in. But it tethers, at the end of the day, to the iPhone. It’s not stand-alone. It hasn’t got a radio in it. You can’t make calls without your mobile phone being tethered to it. But I think that will be a positive. They will widen the market appeal. We know our demographic. We know where we’re shooting for initially. So we’re clear on our targets. So I welcome Apple. It will stimulate the whole market.
TWICE:Can you provide any insight on the company’s retail and distribution strategies going forward?
Molyneux: We’re fortunate enough to already have great partnerships with AT&T in the U.S. The Puls itself went through validation and certification process through AT&T, and that is really significant. AT&T has a very rigorous and robust approval process. We now have our product approved, that’s why we can launch this controlled launch with the support of AT&T. And, more importantly, we now have tactic knowledge with how to work with AT&T in the future.
We have Telefonica in the U.K., and that’s certainly something to build on in the future. And part of my role is looking at the global rollout and where do we go next, and why do we go next. I’m in the midst of building that strategy as part of our overall strategy. It’s a big world out there, and we’re fortunate to have fantastic initial investors that are very well connected and very credible businesspeople, and strategic in the point they can help connect us up wherever we need connected up in order to roll into other countries.