A new vision: How one entrepreneur changed his thinking about the blind


Hyungsoo Kim’s new timepiece was built with both blind and sighter consumers in mind — but it didn’t start out thay way. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)

It’s a reliable formula for entrepreneurs: Identify a gap in the market, pinpoint your target consumers and build a product tailored specifically for them.

Hyungsoo Kim did all three, so he was surprised when his concept — a wristwatch for the blind that featured braille buttons — fell flat. It was then he learned an important lesson about his customers.

“Instead of special product designed just for them, they want inclusion,” Kim, an entrepreneur based in the District, said in an interview, recalling focus group meetings he held with visually impaired people. He noted that watches available at the time either spoke the time audibly (precluding them from use in quiet settings) or required users to open the face and touch the hands (often pushing them off the correct time).

More importantly, though, like his own initial design, “they all drew attention to their disability, and that’s the last thing they want.”

So, Kim scrapped his first approach and set out to build a timepiece that would appeal to everyone, sight or no sight. A little more than a year later, he returned to the same focus groups with a new prototype.

Called the Bradley, it’s a watch with internal magnets and two ball bearings, one circling the edge of the watch that indicates the hour and one on the face that indicates the minute. Because of the magnets, the metal balls will return to the correct spot if bumped out of place.

“They loved it,” Kim explained, and that was partially because sighted individuals did, too. Many, he says, noted that it’s rude to look down and check the time during meetings, interviews and dates, and to flash their phone in a movie theater. Now, they can feel the time.

Investors, on the other hand, were not nearly as enthusiastic. Many were wary of a product-based start-up hoping to break into an already crowded market of watchmakers, particularly with a design Kim soon learned was too simple to be patented.

“I tried hard to find funding, really hard, but those conversations never lasted more than one or two minutes,” he said.

Unable to attract capital and running on fumes from his own $150,000 personal investment, Kim unveiled his design publicly through an online crowdfunding campaign in July. He hoped to pre-sell about 400 watches and raise enough capital, around $40,000, to keep his start-up afloat and show investors some evidence of demand.

On the first day, his sales doubled those goals. A month later, he had sold more than 4,500 watches to customers in 65 countries, bringing in nearly $600,000.

“It really blew me away,” he said.

In addition to the way it was designed, Kim credited much of the Bradley’s appeal to the way it has been marketed. First, he named the company Eone, short for Everyone. Then he named the first timepiece after Bradley Snyder, a Navy lieutenant who lost his sight in a bomb explosion in Afghanistan in 2011. One year later, Snyder won gold and silver medals in swimming at the 2012 paralympics in London.

“He has the same message we want to send with our products,” Kim said. “By designing products with everyone in mind, we can promote a sense of inclusiveness.”

Once Kim finishes shipping the current orders, he hopes to find time to start pitching again to angel investors and venture capitalists. Meanwhile, his next product is already in the works, as the company has developed a concept for a bedside alarm clock.

Most of the ones on the market today must be set by someone with sight, and many do not allow blind users to check to see if alarm has been activated. His model would allow visually impaired users to do both, using a similar design to the Bradley.

Hoping to build on his marketing success, he is already in talks to name the alarm clock after Christine Ha, a blind chef who won the third season of Fox’s “MasterChef.”

Kim wants to design more than just timepieces, though. He notes that the electronics industry in particular has become less accessible to the visually impaired over the past few years, as touchscreens have expanded beyond smartphones and tablets to the latest television remotes, microwave ovens and washing machines.

Consequently, the blind are left shuffling through outdated and often pre-owned electronics and appliances, as the market for gadgets with physical buttons disappears. Kim hopes to introduce products that will not only improve the lives of the visually impaired, but inspire other firms to recognize the importance of inclusive design.

“I would actually be very happy if any of the big companies copied our designs,” Kim said. “That means we are doing something well and getting our message out. We want others to embrace our principles and help break down these stereotypes for the visually impaired.”

“Plus,” he added, “they can copy our designs, but they can’t copy our brand or our story.”

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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