This blog comes from Caroline Walerud, a natural scientist turned deep tech entrepreneur and investor. She is Co-Founder and Executive Chair at Volumental, a company with a mission to build a world that fits through 3D and AI technologies within consumer retail. She is also Partner at Walerud Ventures, a deep tech pre-seed investment firm focusing on planet positive companies. She recently spoke at a Women Rock-IT event. To hear more from Caroline, click here to view the video on demand.
I was in a shoe store in Italy, but could find not a single pair of women’s sandals big enough for me. I was only nine years old, and already felt like a monster in shoe stores. Since then, I’ve sported mostly men’s shoes, accompanied by countless blisters.
Check out these feet. They are all the same length. But do you think these feet will be happy in the same shoes?
Finding a solution that fits
Shopping today is broken. People browse endlessly for products that might fit them, often leaving empty-handed. E-commerce purchase returns are skyrocketing. Brands are discovering that some shoe models don’t fit any real feet at all. Despite the seemingly endless choices, it’s hard – sometimes impossible – to find the right fit.
And, as a consumer, it’s hard to avoid the nagging thought that the problem is my misshapen body, not the unforgiving system.
Volumental changes that system. We solve a problem that is big and painful (like my large feet). Instead of mass production, we make personalization scalable. We’ve already helped six million people understand their feet and point them to products that will fit them correctly. We are live in 40 countries, with customers like New Balance, Bauer Hockey, Fleet Feet, and Wintersteiger. And we are the standard tool for footwear research and development. Our customers call us “The Moneyball of Feet” and we have published our footwear research in Nature Magazine. Find more illustrations and customer testimonials on our website.
Our product ensures that retail becomes highly personalized and efficient, no matter your body shape or individual preferences. We’ve already helped 6 million people – that’s 12 million happier feet! And our goal is one billion happier feet by 2025. With the world’s biggest database of feet, we also help improve shoe design, manufacturing, inventory, and logistics, and reduce purchase returns.
We are building a world that fits you.
How did I get here?
We started in 2012 with four founders. Alper Aydemir, Miroslav Kobetski, and Rasmus Göransson – three awesome PhD students in computer vision and AI, and me, acting as the CEO. I was 22 years old.
Since then, we have grown the team to 45 wonderful foot and fit nerds. I am so proud of what we have built together.
People react with surprise when they hear I didn’t have a tech background or even the business idea. But I still managed to build a successful deep tech start-up, becoming cofounder and CEO, at 22 years old.
This journey was not insurmountable, but was instead made up of many manageable steps. Here’s how I did it:
1. Find a hard and important problem to solve.
Solving problems is hard work. By choosing a problem that really matters, you and your team have more purpose and are more resilient. By choosing a problem that is hard, each solution you find makes it harder for the competition to catch up.
2.Learn transferable skills.
People are surprised that I did three years of hardcore science at university and didn’t take a single business or coding course. But learning at International Baccalaureate High School and then Natural Sciences at Cambridge University taught me how to work hard and efficiently, how to design experiments and interpret data, and how to communicate. If you throw yourself into the most interesting and challenging things you come across, you’ll have a great base to build from.
3.Learn by doing.
I’ve been an entrepreneur since age 14, when I started a sourdough bread bakery. Or, you can also learn, like I did, from larger companies. I joined my friend’s dad’s start-up as his first employee. There, I dealt with the earliest stages of business development hands-on. I didn’t have much formal experience, but that just meant that I improved with each iteration and found answers for each need as it popped up.
4.Find a great team.
I knew I wanted to join a start-up, but didn’t have my own ideas or the tech skills to code it. I asked local universities if they knew of any great tech ideas that needed a business co-founder. In October 2012, I met my co-founders for the first time – they were so smart and fun! The next day I suggested I work half-time for free for a few weeks, and then if we got along I’d join the founding team. A month later, we had written the first shareholders agreement. And by December 2012, we had registered Volumental AB. (Similarly, if you are a tech person find your complement at business start-up events).
5.Ask for help.
Volumental joined the Sting.co incubator, which coached us along each step of the company-building process. I’ve leaned on mentors. More recently, we’ve supercharged our strategy through bringing in an advisory board with senior executives from Nike, Tesla, and Google.
Get customer feedback as early as possible, since it will help you build the right product for your target customers. You also need to communicate (a ridiculous amount) internally, to make sure everyone is aligned to the same vision and to catch fires before they explode the whole company. Companies fail because of team issues more than product issues.
So, go out and dare try to solve your chosen problem! To do that you need to soak up skills, find a great team, ask for help, and communicate clearly. If enough of us choose to solve important problems, we can improve our world one small step at a time. I hope we create rings on the water.