Blaze are the makers of the Laserlight, a bike light built to save lives. The Laserlight uses a green laser to project the symbol of a bike in front of the cyclist. It tackles the blind spot incident by allowing drivers ahead to see the bike when they would otherwise be hidden and prevents them from turning across its path. The company was founded by Emily Brooke after she realized how stressful and dangerous urban cycling can be. We sat down with Emily to discuss manufacturing in China, figuring out how to price their product, and her journey from studying physics at Oxford to running a business.
Tell us about Blaze.
The Laserlight tackles the biggest problem for cyclists on the road today: safety. The most common cause of fatality is a car turning across an unseen bike. The Laserlight allows a biker to be seen when they’d otherwise be invisible. 79% of cyclists hit are actually travelling straight ahead and a vehicle turns across them.
By law, you have to have a bike light. The Laserlight is a front facing white light, but it's housed in beautiful diamond cut, aircraft grade aluminum casings. It's completely waterproof, USB charged, has a backlit control panel and most importantly a laser! The laser projects a symbol of a bike onto the road in front of you, giving you a presence out of your usually small footprint.
Tell us about your background and how you got started working on Blaze.
In school, I studied a lot of science, but what I really wanted to be doing was art and design. I was quickly told that I could do art and design in my spare time and that I should concentrate on academics. I ended up going to Oxford where I majored in physics, more because I could rather than actually wanting to. I left Oxford after a year. When I took physics in school I loved it, but in university it was all theoretical — it was nothing that I could touch, feel. I left to do product design at Brighton. In my third year, I did a placement at design school in Milan and during that year I decided to cycle the length of the UK for charity, having never been on a road bike in my life. A friend and I decided to cycle 1,000 miles for a charity that's very dear to both of our hearts — injured soldiers coming back from Afghanistan.
After that, I got the biking bug very badly — I’ve been on a bike pretty much every day since. During that ride, I realized that cycling in the countryside was wonderful and relaxing, but cycling in the city was exhausting, stressful and dangerous.
I went back to my final year at university and had to design a product from a problem to a marketable product. For the project I decided to focus on urban cycling. I set myself the challenge to find the biggest problem facing urban cyclists and tackle it. During that time, I worked with driving psychologists, the Bus Company, Council, talked to a lot of cyclists and did a lot of statistical research and the thing that I found most shocking was that 79% of bikes hit are traveling straight ahead and a vehicle turns into them. I had that stuck on my wall as the challenge that I wanted to solve.
As I was biking around town, all I could think was that the car or truck in front of me couldn’t see me. If I could just be five yards ahead, I would be fine. That’s where the idea for the Laserlight came from and it became my final year project.
How did you go from the idea to making a product?
I knew that this idea was good and that I wanted to do something about it, but it did take me a long time to contemplate doing it myself. I definitely wanted to make sure that it actually came to life, but initially I wanted to license it to someone who knew how to do that. I got an entrepreneurial scholarship to Massachusetts and that was the first time that I got exposed to entrepreneurship. It wasn’t even discussed at my university, even though the course was product design.
When I got to America, that really opened my eyes to the world of entrepreneurship, and when I got back to London I got accepted into an entrepreneur course at an accelerator called Entrepreneur First. I got into it because of Blaze and the success that I had with that, but they wanted me to build a tech company — an online business. They also wanted me to have a co-founder, because they wouldn’t support individuals, so I had a co-founder. I spent the summer learning to code and looking at what we could be building and hacking a few things together and testing them. That whole time, I was still working on Blaze — I just couldn’t leave it alone.
Then one day, I came out of coding class late at night and found my bike was gone. It was the bike I had done the long ride on. It completely and irrationally ripped my heart out. I was utterly mortified and devastated. I then went to the police station and eventually got home and it was quite late. I went online and I saw that there was a young guy who worked at a startup in East London called Moo, who was just killed by an Olympic bus turning across him on his cycle home. I just had this slap-in-the-face moment of, “What the fuck am I doing? Look at me, look at how upset I am. This is what I care about. If this is what I really care about, why am I not doing this?” I called my mum and she answered in the middle of the night. She said, “We all know you should be doing Blaze. We just had to wait for you to figure it out yourself.” That was September 2012 and I decided to commit myself full time.
"I had that stuck on my wall as the challenge that I wanted to solve."
You were part of the PCH Accelerator, what was that like?
As a hardware startup, we have all of the challenges of a tech startup, plus a ton more. Working with PCH has been an unbelievable journey. I met Liam Casey in the summer at Founders Forum. I biked across town to have coffee with him and I left that meeting completely buzzing. I thought, “This guy can make all of my worries disappear.”
All of this has been the steepest learning curve I could possibly imagine. I can’t imagine how we ever thought we could have done it ourselves. I went out to China with my designer Matt, who has experience bringing product to market. We were going to do it ourselves and we found the suppliers that we wanted to work with, but I now realize that managing the actual process is the real challenge. There are just so many moving parts and every moving part depends on the moving part before it. You have to be solving problems the whole time. For us, we have a tiny team of five people, so there’s no way we have the manpower or the experience to deal with that.
My last trip to China was completely overwhelming. From the team at PCH, there’s about ten of them that I work with. There are multiple calls/emails exchanged between us every day. But on this trip, I was seeing teams of different people every single day who were involved in my product and know it better than I do. It would be somebody who gets up in the morning, goes to work and obsesses over the angle of the diamond cut edge at the front of the Laserlight. I don't even know what the angle of the diamond cut edge on the front of the light is and this person's entire job is to get it right. It's been incredible, knowing there are many people on the other side of the world who care about my product as much as I do.
The PCH Accelerator model right now certainly isn’t perfect, but honestly there’s no right answer to it, yet. The problem is being a very small company trying to work with big suppliers. They want to work with millions of units, not a couple of thousand. But even if I’m building a couple of thousand, I want the best quality — I don’t want to work with a tiny, backroad supplier. It’s the inertia of getting going — the capital, manpower and expertise it requires. PCH are helping us over that initial road block and setting us on our way so we can build to those million units. Internally they’re working hard to shift mindsets to work with hardware startups doing it for the first time.
What was the process like of trying to get your Kickstarter campaign ready?
We launched the product pretty quickly after I committed myself to it full time. I committed full time in September and we launched our Kickstarter campaign in November. The company at that time was just an intern and myself. We spent as much time as two people can spend on that campaign. Our biggest challenge was actually educating the UK market on what Kickstarter was, because it just launched here a few weeks before. We were one of the first UK companies on Kickstarter and people did not know what Kickstarter was.
During the campaign, the press in the UK was all inbound and it still is. I think it’s because it’s such an important topic and people have been talking about it so much. In the two weeks before Christmas, we had nine fatalities in London. We’re solving a very big problem and so the PR in London and England has been really great, but the rest of the world is my next big focus. We’re now really looking to get visibility in the US and all over the world.
What are your strategies for expanding internationally?
I want to do it the hard way. I like the idea of manufacturing and distributing myself. I don't necessarily want to play with big distributors or retailers if I don't have to, I’d rather sell directly from our website. I want to do it that way because then we can build a community and a brand around it. We can build up loyalty and content so that consumers will want to come to us and buy direct from us.
"I just had this slap-in-the-face moment of, 'What the fuck am I doing? Look at me, look at how upset I am. This is what I care about. If this is what I really care about, why am I not doing this?'"
Have you guys been able to do any testing with the prototypes so far?
We haven’t had the final thing until now, so we’ve been limited to our precious prototypes. Will, who was my intern and is now a full time employee, has spent many hours cycling around a bus with one on. We worked with buses and driving instructor from the Brighton Bus Company to test and film it. A lot’s still to come and I'm working with Transport for London coming up; we're going to do a test with them.
We've also got an amazing driving psychologist, who I was originally working with back at university that analyzes accidents as a living. His name is Dr. Graham Hole and he has this amazing technology that tracks the human eye. It basically shows you footage of traffic and urban driving scenes and it can track what the human eye perceives as a threat and where you look. We want to do a series of clinical tests of footage with Blaze and footage without and you can see drivers see it and spot the cyclist and actually get some data on how well it works.
How did you decide what to price your product?
We really looked at it from the bottom up. We looked at what we thought the Bill of Materials was going to cost and then worked out what we need to make as a retail price to make it make actual business sense. We then had a number and went out and tested it with a ton of cyclists.
On Kickstarter, it was £60 and it's now selling for £125 — over double what it was on Kickstarter. An example of a first time hardware entrepreneur right there and optimism on what our Bill of Materials would be. We’ve had over a thousand pre-orders and we’ve only had three emails from people questioning the price difference. Only one of them was a complaint. We're thrilled customers are happy with the price and we're confident that we can make the price make sense for us.
What’s your current state of mind?
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Dropping out of Oxford.
What’s your favourite quote?
“Life is wonderful because it’s full of changes, challenges and the fun part is ways to solve it or else we are just animal.” – Bob Wang
Which talent would you most like to have?
Ability to sleep. To turn off like a switch. And stay off.
Which living person do you most admire?
What is your greatest extravagance?
Food! I can barely make toast. I eat out a lot.
If you were to die and come back as another person, who would it be?
Me. I don’t mean that conceitedly, I’m just very grateful for the life I have.
What is your most treasured possession?
Sophie’s Angel. A tiny doll my Mum gave me when I was young. She’s lucky.
What do you consider the most over-rated virtue?
Someone being described as ‘nice.’
What book are you reading right now?
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami.
Where do you see Blaze in five years?
I want to be the urban cycling brand globally. There are so many problems for city bikers. I want to start tackling all of them and I want to be known around the world as the urban cycling brand, creating really innovative products. Everything has got to be thought about from the problem first — the problem we're trying to solve and then what's the best way to solve it.
What’s your focus at this moment?
Our biggest focus right now is shipping product! I saw today that our first 800 lights have been made. They’re done and they look beautiful. I tried to stay professional and not emotional, but it was really amazing to see. Those units are our Kickstarter units, which are going out in the next few days.
Greg Ponesse of Bubl asked, “How do you decide the right partnerships to go with and maintain focus?”
Complete gut instinct, and trusting Liam Casey.