Amanda Knox met her future partners, Kim Hoffmann and Sarah Shaughnessy, at the Product Realization Lab, Stanford's prototyping and fabrication facility. Knox, a jeweler, and Hoffmann, an engineer, were both earning a master's in the product-design program. Shaughnessy was getting her PhD in mechanical engineering.
In hindsight, the location of their first meeting seems almost too perfect. Just two years after graduating and launching RedStart Design in San Francisco, the trio has not only realized close to 10 products but also landed one in the Museum of Modern Art. The jewelry startup's patent-pending Subtle Safety ring will appear in the museum's upcoming exhibition "Safe" and is for sale in the museum store catalog.
Jessie Scanlon, BusinessWeek Online's Innovation & Design editor, recently talked to Knox about what it took to get from master's program to museum-worthy.
Are more design-school grads going into business themselves? Is there a startup frenzy all over again?
I don't think so. Most of my classmates went to work for established firms. A lot from Stanford end up at Ideo, Williams-Sonoma (WSM
), Pottery Barn. And lots go into medical-device design, which is huge now.
Not very many start their own design shops. Stanford is an excellent school, but it's not a vocational school. So a lot of recent grads feel they don't have the business background they need. So they take a job at a big company for a few years.
What convinced you to go into business?
I always knew that it was going to be the next step. I mean, that was why I went to grad school -- to refine my skills so that I'd be able to do my own thing. Lots of students talk about doing startups, but they end up at a big company, and that dream gets lost. We decided to just see what comes of it. If RedStart isn't a success, we've only lost time.
How does a three-person jewelry startup raise funding?
We took loans from our families for the initial capital. And in the fall of 2003, I ran into an old colleague who had recently gone to Fossil and was looking for freelance designers. We worked with Fossil for about a year, which gave us the time to refine the Subtle Safety ring and develop the other collections.
How long did you spend developing the Subtle Safety ring?
The first iteration was made while we were still in school. It was just three silver squares horribly riveted together. We needed to find a stainless steel ribbon that wouldn't rust. The hinges had to be tight enough to hold the three bands together, but loose enough that they could untwist.
During that time, we also developed the other collections, because we knew we didn't want to be a one-product company.
Two years later RedStart has a piece in MoMA. To what do you attribute that success?
That was a tremendous amount of luck, first of all. I remember my adviser asking me, "What's your advantage? How are you going to separate yourself?" It's the unique combination that we have. Sarah and Kim are both mechanical engineers, and that allowed us to make full use of CAD programs. It took a lot of modeling to refine the shapes of the Subtle Safety components.
It's one thing to set up a small design shop, but it's another thing to ramp up production. How did you set up a manufacturing capability?
We rented space in a warehouse near [San Francisco's] Candlestick Park and found some local shops to do some casting and soldering. We found an EDM [electrical discharge machining] specialist in Wisconsin to cut the rings in batches of 100.
They had never cut silver before, and we look very young. And we're women. But luckily, we could speak enough of the technical language to convince them that we weren't clueless. We handle texturing, polishing, and assembly here in our studio. We aim to have 20 rings in every size in inventory.
We're developing a line of electromechanical jewelry that will change in response to an external stimulus.
How are you funding that research? Is the Subtle Safety ring selling well?
Sales of the Subtle Safety ring aren't quite enough to cover the electromechanical research yet. But our custom work has been a good source of income. We do a lot of engagement rings and wedding bands.
So we're aiming to get the development done and introduce the electromechanical rings by mid-2006. Although, I'm an optimist! Sarah says it will be closer to the end of the year.