Interview: Sylie Claes
Launching a startup
You have to work very, very hard…
Realise Product Design talk to Sylvie Claes: A designer-come entrepreneur who is bringing a new product to the market that has already won numerous awards including a Red Dot and a best of Dutch Design Week Award, given to only 6 of 2500 participants.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your you background and where you are from originally:
A: Ahh well that’s probably the question I dislike the most because where I’m from is actually quite complicated: My dad is Belgian and my mum is South African. I was born in Belgium but when I was 2 years old I moved to the US, and there we lived in Texas and Michigan. From there we moved to the UK where I lived for a couple of years in Ascot. I then moved to Dubai where I lived for a further 5 years. After Dubai, I moved back to America for a year and after America, I moved to the Netherlands to study. And here I am now.
Wow, that’s quite a few journeys to go on as a child:
Yeah, my entire growing up phase felt like it was always spent in a country that wasn’t my own so when people ask where are you from or where do you feel most at home I don’t really have an answer. But I feel like all the travelling I’ve done has given me a very well rounded perspective on different cultures and interacting with different people. I feel it has given me a very empathetic view of my peers as my whole life I have been trying to understand people and where they are coming from or box myself up in a certain way to fit into the next new place that I was going to get thrown into.
So while I feel that was very difficult for me at the time, I also feel like that is an asset to me now, to be able to empathise with people and connect with people and connect them together. I feel like that is a big part of what I do in the design process.
So if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you now?
I’m 23 now, have been in The Netherlands for 5 years and I like it here. They have a big design culture, everyone speaks English so that’s what brought me here and I’m happy here. Well, I’m still here so clearly enjoy it very much!
I did my bachelors here and I’ve also done a masters. I did my bachelors in industrial design engineering and I did that in The Hague. It was a very practical kind of study. I then moved over to Eindhoven to do my masters, which was also in industrial design, but a lot less of an engineering perspective. My masters was a lot more focused on technology and utilising technology in design. It almost felt a little like interaction design in a way but I’ve always stuck more to the traditional product design process and methodologies.
During my masters, it was great to be a part of this current transformation in the design industry. All products are becoming more connected and have technology in them and as a designer, you need to know more about electronics, about making interactive prototypes in order to test with users.
So that was a good stepping stone forward [for Hugsy]. I didn’t specialise in the technology/electronics area (it’s actually not my favourite thing to do…) but during my masters, I did a specialisation in design leadership and entrepreneurship. Focussing more on the end phases of how to bring a product to the market and finding a product-market fit.
And that is the experience and teaching that you decided to take forward with Hugsy?
For me, that [getting a product to market] was one of the most intriguing things in design. I think something that was really demotivating for me while I was studying was that you always work on a project, you get super into it, you create the passion for it but you sort of stop at the end of the concept phase or after you make a prototype. In my studies, we didn’t often go into that next phase – “how do we get this out to the customers, what are their needs, what are their wants? And how do you manufacture a product?” Just that whole end phase. To me, it was a little disappointing to every time be like “oh it’s been 6 months, alright, we are dropping this project now” and then you’re on a new project again. I always had the passion to see things through. Rather than just developing a lot of different things over and over again.
Often, especially during my masters, I saw some other students that had some really cool projects and I was like “you should turn this into a business” I really felt like what they had was awesome and should be on the shelf in shops. But they were just like “Nah, starting a business is hard, I’ll just do something else.” so I think it’s kind of interesting how many great and innovative ideas are coming from design students at the university. It would just be great to see more of those coming out and being used in practice.
So what made you make that step from being a student and having a great idea and actually having a marketable product to then leaping into entrepreneurship?
I was actually one of those people that thought “Oh god that sounds crazy!” So before I was actually even thinking about starting a business there was a phase before that:
We were working on a project called Hugsy in the first year of my masters degree which was easily the best project I have ever worked on. The team vibes, really clear problem-solution space to design for, we had a partnership with a hospital, so there were a lot of great nurturing elements starting the project anyways.
And when the project ended, we didn’t stop working on it. We kept working on it in our free time. We were going to design events, to conferences and sharing our ideas and we got a really strong positive response from people in the industry: People in the medical field, from other designers and we really started to get some attention. And that is when I really started to make that switch in my mind and think “Oh we could really see this through”
So we did a business course within our university, just to start thinking about Hugsy as a business. We didn’t actually do anything business-like with Hugsy at that point. It was more about thinking from that perspective and looking at Hugsy specifically from that perspective. I found it really interesting and I felt as though we all felt that there is potential and there was a business model that could make this work.
Plus just working on the topic of premature babies gave me that extra push you know? You’re working on it, nurses, doctors and mothers are responding to it and they all want this product that solves this really painful issue in the field. As a designer I am very much into social projects and really feel that design can be used to make a difference in people’s lives so it felt wrong to just stop after giving them this idea of this great product that’s coming to solve this problem.
So was there an element of guilt involved in you wanting to launch? After telling these mothers with premature babies about Hugsy did you feel like you had to bring it to market?
I don’t think it was guilt. I felt there was a real need, there’s a real problem, we were designing a solution and I felt responsible and enthusiastic to see if we could really bring it to the market to make it work. So that was my personal drive – I felt like our product could really make a difference. After doing the research, running the tests and going through the whole process. I truly truly believe in it, especially in the hospital setting and that was what pushed me forward.
There was a particular moment when a researcher from a hospital in Eindhoven (the Maxima Medical centre) called and told us they wanted to do a clinical trial. This was about a year into working on the project. As a young student designer, this was huge. We thought “Oh my god we have the opportunity to actually test what we’ve designed on 20 premature babies in the hospital” and I think that was the final “come on, let’s do this” for me.
So at that point, I started to think about it from a business perspective, I was going into my final graduation year and I was thinking what I want to do. And then it first popped into my head “I could turn Hugsy into a business” I thought that could be such a cool project, we have clinical trials, it’s moving, the product is there. We just needed to focus on the entrepreneurial side and figure out how you build a company, how do you do that? What steps are involved?
But I think I was still thinking about it in a very “student” mindset. As a student, everything is hypothetical, you are just guessing you don’t know anything at that point. Which is what I realise now in hindsight.
So I competed in an accelerator programme for startups called HightechXL. And at that point, I was going through my graduation year and I thought this is going to be a great support to my project. Competing for that was really difficult, We got in. and they basically told me you need to find a team, if you have a team, you’re in. But at that point, all the students I had worked on Hugsy didn’t want to continue on. They didn’t want to be in a startup.
So how did you find your team?
I found a co-founder: Jody. To join the programme with me. She joined me in the second month. And that moment at HightechXL was when we were in it. When the hard work started. Before that it was all nice, “yeah starting a business is fun, everything is great, fun times” but that is when it started to truly become a startup and a real business. We’d jumped in to in the the deep end. You had to be committed. There was no “you know what, I don’t like this”
So was that your meeting of your co-founder’s and her influence that really pushed you to make that mindset switch or was it more of an organic understanding?
I think it was the latter actually – We met through a contact at HightechXL. He knew I was looking for a team and told me about his girlfriend who was a communications wizard, had seen Hugsy on Dutch Design Week and was looking for a new opportunity.
So we had a coffee and it was immediately back and forth. Very natural rhythm, passion and enthusiasm. And about a month later she quit her job and joined me. So it wasn’t like we knew each other before, it really was a joining of passion in something that we both felt really excited about.
So what sold Hugsy? What gave Jody that enthusiasm and made her want to join you in your venture and get involved with your design idea?
When a baby is born too early they need to spend a lot of time in the hospital sometimes weeks or even months. So what’s happening is that they are missing really vital contact with their parents. And that sort of sensory deprivation from a parent is proven to have a really detrimental effect on a baby’s development on their brain, on their language and cognitive outcomes. So a lot of these babies grow up to have major issues or developmental impairments later in life.
Kangaroo care, which is what our company focuses on, is all about skin to skin contact, when a baby is laid skin to skin on their parent they become in sync. They co-regulate their temperature, they co-regulate their heart rate, they co-regulate their breathing and there has been tonnes of research on things like hearing heart rate, hearing mother’s voice can have positive effects on a baby’s development.
So what was your design brief?
Parents can’t always be at the hospital all the time. So how can we re-create the positive stimuli that comes from kangaroo care and how can we put that back to the incubator.
What we designed was a product that supports kangaroo care when parents can be in the hospital and it simulates the effects that the baby gets through kangaroo care inside of the incubator.
We developed a multifunctional blanket that supports transfers in and out of an incubator to keep a baby warm, acts as a supportive wrap during the skin to skin contact period with parents, and absorbs a parent’s warmth and smell into the textile blanket. The blanket also has positioning features to position the baby optimally in the incubator. In addition, we designed a heartbeat device that records a parent’s unique heartbeat and translates that into an audible sound and vibration. Re-creating that sensory kangaroo care environment within the incubator.
So has your mission for Hugsy changed since the beginning?
Well, we realised that getting a product into a hospital, there is a really high bar to cross to really get a product into the hospital. And there are all these rules and regulations before you can get in there.
So we realised that was a difficult market to enter and also a small market, however, we are still 100% into tackling that market as it’s a core part of who we are. But to build a viable and sustainable business we need some revenue streams other than hospital sales, without other revenue we wouldn’t be able to grow and sustain ourselves as a company.
That’s when we decided to pivot initially (after about a year and a half of working in the hospital setting) – We validated that all babies need nurturing so we thought we could apply our products to the homecare setting too. Then you just need a CE mark and there are a lot more opportunities and a variety of channels and markets to approach within that market.
And were there challenges in making that step change to how you are going to sell Hugsy?
There were. The problems that we ran into are down to the fact that we took this product that we had a year and a half of research with for the hospital setting and just dropped it into a completely different market. We didn’t think about the homecare market as thoroughly, we just thought we needed that market and put our product in it.
When you take something that is intended for premature babies and is about nurture and bonding then you run into mothers that say “I don’t need a device to bond with my child, I can bond with my child” So that is the challenge that we are facing right now about the marketing and the messaging and our overall branding in the home market. Are people even aware of us as a company there? We might even reach the end of this stage and realise that there is no market need for this kind of simulation replication device at home. But that is what you do as a business you need to go out and test and validate your great idea, to see if other people are willing to put their money down because they also think it’s a great idea.
So are you validating that at the moment?
Yeah, we have just launched a Kickstarter campaign but it’s not doing super well. Which has brought down a lot of team morale. It’s not been great but we’ve validated this online channel and now the next channel is to validate physical retail channels. It’s a great learning experience. We just need to keep validating until we may find out there is no market need for home-care or if we’ve found the perfect channel for the home-care market. It’s a rollercoaster of a process.
They do say starting a business is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, is that true?
It’s 100% true, sleepless nights, tearing your hair out, working insane hours. It’s all true. But it’s a great learning experience. I am learning an incredible amount going through this and a lot of it is free-falling and finding your way in the dark.
And starting a business as a female entrepreneur?
We are an all-female founding team so actually working day to day feels quite womanised, which is nice. But I do think that being female and being young as a business owner is actually quite an asset. People feel inspired by you and they want to help you and give you their time. I don’t think it would have been any easier as a man, I think it would have been the same. I think it’s your mindset. You can’t think “oh I’m young and inexperienced” then people will respond and pick up on that and treat me like that. I’m confident and people take me seriously. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve felt like people are thinking “oh this young girl” but again I am in the Netherlands and people are very open here and always promoting equality so I know that other people don’t have it so easy.
With all the media that’s out there and all the stories, it’s very easy to get into a negative mindset and I hope that I can inspire women to get into business and take that step.
So do you have any tips or ways of working that you could give any aspiring entrepreneur?
I think the most important thing is to have a supportive team around you. People who are dedicated to you through the hard times. When things are going majorly wrong they are happy to dig in and offer their support to you, being a call away from you when needed to offer advice. So having and building that network is critical. Always surround yourself with those people and keep those contacts warm. There is always someone that has been through your exact situation.
And who has been that person with you, who’s always been there for you?
Actually, it’s my dad. And I know how that sounds. But my dad was the one who suggested starting Hugsy as a business, throughout everything my dad has been pushing me and always been super supportive. Sometimes it’s hard because he is a shareholder and challenges me regularly. But he and my mum have always said if you’re happy and you’re healthy and you’re able to take care of yourself then do what you want and that’s my life motto.
So what’s your ambition? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
So at the moment, I am doubly CEO and Creative Director. But at some point, I’d love to just be the Creative Director. I want to be able to scale and develop the company to a point where I can step back and hire an experienced CEO and then we can have a whole department that is focussed on innovation for babies creating these connected products and what we call “Tech and Touch” products that you don’t see on the shelves right now – combining the best of tech with this softness and comforting. So my position is to develop myself as much as I can continuously so that at some point I can step into that role.
Sylvie is an inspirational female designer and businesswoman that is using design to make a difference in the world. If you want to dive into Hugsy a little more and find out what they are about then visit hugsycomfort.com and show support.
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