Valerie Crisp is the founder of Toronto-based company, Watson — the backpack that hacks your everyday. When she successfully raised nearly $200,000 on Kickstarter, she was able to take her new business idea and bring it to market. She will be speaking as part of a female entrepreneur focused panel at Dx3 2019–Canada’s largest retail, marketing and tech conference taking place at the Toronto Metro Convention Centre on March 6-7th and we had the chance to catch up with her to chat about her business.
Business Name: Watson
Name & Title: Val Crisp, Founder
Location: Toronto, ON
Edit Seve: Tell us about your business, what do you do?
Valerie Crisp: At Watson, we make design driven backpacks that you’re actually proud to take into a meeting. I am a product designer that is always looking to improve the status quo – especially everyday items that we just take for granted or look past. We invented the only pack that is freestanding and opens with the push of a button – so you no longer have to rifle around to get at your devices. Since our packs are designed around our customers daily routines, they operate like a daily assistant and are unobtrusive in the modern workplace. We are a vertically integrated company, so we design and manufacture all of our packs here in Toronto and sell directly to our customers online. I am the design lead and oversee all of our operations.
E7: How did you start your business? What inspired you to start?
VC: I would always see professionals in New York, San Francisco, and Toronto carrying just the worst student backpacks to work and it drove me crazy! Backpacks haven’t changed in 100 years, meanwhile, they’ve become THE everyday carry of our generation. I saw this trend as an opportunity to turn this one thing you carry around with you every day into a real asset and I knew I could make something 10x better than what was out there for a particular subset of forward-looking professionals. The first prototype was actually a gift for my fiancé who needed a new pack at the time that I was tinkering with the idea. He’s a startup founder so it wasn’t long before he had me put the idea on Kickstarter… and the rest is history!
E7: Why do you love what you do?
VC: I love to solve design problems, especially the kind you didn’t even know you had. I love to take some point of everyday friction and design a new solution that eliminates it and offers a new benefit that was previously impossible. When done well, the reaction from a new user is just the most awesome thing. I used to work in film making costumes (SUITS, American Gods) and no matter what was asked of our department, the understanding was that you said yes and then figured out how to do it. Once you believe the possibilities are infinite… they are.
E7: What makes your business special?
VC: Our mission is to set an example for the future of everyday objects and frankly, consumerism as a whole. I know that’s bold. But why can’t innovative brands also be sustainable? I think it’s only a matter of time before that is what’s expected from a modern consumer. Our model encourages customers to buy fewer, better things. And to us, better is not just performance, but sustainability and social impact. We manufacture in house and the idea is that an entry-level technician can scale all the way to a C level position. A growth mindset is essential for any business that’s going to stand the test of time.
E7: What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from running your business?
VC: OY, where do I start? Two things. 1) Shun the non-believers. You really need to be strong and ignore criticism while you’re executing your vision. If you’re truly innovating, a good chunk of people just will not get it. And unfortunately, the internet breeds anonymous hate. Once you’ve validated your idea, stay laser focused. Separate those who are cheering for you to succeed from those who want to see you fail and ignore the latter completely. As a diplomatic empath, I learned that the hard way. 2) Do not outsource your core asset. For us, that’s the industrial design and engineering of the product. Realize that, again, if you’ve got a new idea there is no expert for hire that you should trust to make decisions. Hire skilled people to help execute your vision and give feedback but at the end of the day it’s going to be you who is on the hook for the decisions they make so you need to be a part of every one of them. This is also a symptom of entering a male-dominated industry (which, aren’t they all…) As women, I think the statistic is that we want to be 80% sure of our ideas before we even mention them, meanwhile men are comfortable speaking up with something like 40% confidence. If you don’t interject, those ill-founded ideas will end up as your liabilities.
E7: You successfully raised close to $200,000 on Kickstarter for your business – why did you choose this model?
VC: We used Kickstarter as a tool to validate our idea and assumptions. Would people be open to a hardshell backpack? Would they see the value in getting rid of zippers and adopting a more modern design? How much would they be willing to pay? And would they be the urban professionals we thought they would be? The funds raised were only a fraction of what it takes to launch such a complex hardware product, but the successful campaign gave us the proof we needed to go after it and launch.
E7: Throughout the years, have you had to change your business plan and adapt to the market? What was that like?
VC: Yes. I didn’t initially realize how niche our customer was. That meant that securing a spot in a trendy brick and mortar store was a lot less valuable – because the chances of our unique customer walking in are slimmer than a more mainstream product. We also learn every day just hearing from our customers. We’ve learned what type of language is clear and resonates versus what is confusing. My favourite feedback loop is the email chains I have with our customers. I get to hear all about what kinds of new conversations our packs start for them and what they notice about all the nuanced features we’ve packed into the product.
E7: What have been some of the pros and cons of building your business in Canada?
VC: From the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to race to the bottom. Meaning our price point and quality would be upmarket. This gave me the ability to manufacture locally and thank goodness I did. It has been absolutely essential to be able to drop into the factory and iterate, solve problems, improve processes, and do quality control. One downside is we’re not based where our biggest concentration of customers are: San Francisco and New York. Still, I travel often for work to keep a keen eye on the market.
E7: What advice would you give to a fellow entrepreneur who is interested in building or evolving their own business?
VC: Do not be afraid to ask for help. And if you are, work to get over that fear quickly. It can be lonely and having a network of founders, elders, and friends to talk to is essential. Otherwise, it can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders and you can’t see the forest for the trees. Schedule monthly chats with these people and stick to them.
E7: Is there anything you wish you’d known before starting your business?
VC: I think every founder says this but if I knew how hard it was going to be I probably wouldn’t have started! You have to realize that it would have been done by now if it were easy and that hundreds of others have tried and quit before you. That being said, here’s the most important thing: No failure is fatal. Failure is how you succeed. Practice failing. Over and over again. Don’t dwell on it too much. It won’t matter in a week or a month or a year. Just keep going. I wish I had internalized that earlier.
Find out more about the Watson PACK on their website.
E7: What is your #1 piece of advice to keep in mind when starting your own business?
VC: How we spend our days is ultimately how we spend our lives. What do you want to spend your time doing? It’s like that Howard Thurman quote – “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” You need to love your mission/goal or you will quit when it gets hard.
E7: How do you stay organized, balanced and motivated?
VC: For motivation, I lean on my fiancé, Nikolai, a lot. When I feel out of my depth with a business or negotiation problem, he shows me that all of these roadblocks can be seen as fun riddles to solve. I also journal and try to talk to myself like I would a friend. We all give great pep talks but often to forget to give them to ourselves! I am not always organized but I do try to stay balanced by eating clean, quitting work by 7 pm and traveling often.
E7: Who are some of your mentors/role models?
VC: My parents have been the most amazing mentors throughout this journey. This is my first business and they started a family business around the same age. Their wisdom and our adult friendship have been the most special byproduct of becoming a founder. Role models from afar include Seth Godin and Sara Blakely.
E7: Do you have a daily or regular ritual you practice that you love?
VC: I meditate most mornings and I love the feeling it brings me of doing something nice for myself. I also often have solutions to problems I’m working on pop into my head while meditating. SO that’s a nice bonus. Another habit I recently started is a daily goal of doing one hard thing (tasks that are intimidating or uncomfortable that I tend to want to put off) and then rewarding myself for completion. Just one is a nice achievable number!
(Story by Contributing Editor, Ama Scriver)