The Munich-based industrial wearables startup produces smart gloves with a built-in scanning system, allowing manufacturing and logistics workers to scan objects hands free. This simple idea has had a big impact, attracting customers like Bosch, Lufthansa Technik, Audi and Rewe. We spoke to co-founder Thomas Kirchner about ProGlove’s inspiration, their journey to success and why sleeping in your car contributes towards making a truly original product.
We came up with the idea for ProGlove at the end of 2014. Intel was holding a big competition called “Make It Wearable.” It was a San Francisco-based competition, which was appealing from a German perspective — if you look at startup competitions based out there, there are always two extra zeros added onto the end of the prize money in comparison to what’s usually offered in Europe. Since startups stood to win half a million dollars, we thought it would make sense to apply.
But the competition was only one part of our inspiration. The other aspect was that one of my co-founders Paul was working at BMW at the time. He was making money while studying by showing tourists around the BMW manufacturing site in Munich. He noticed that if you had to assemble say, 1000 cars a day, the workers had to carry out the same action 1000 times over. Paul thought, if I save a worker just one second, then I’m saving them 1000 seconds collectively a day — plus they’re already wearing gloves, anyway. So it was kismet: the competition on one hand and on the other hand, Paul’s observation that there was potential for things to change at BMW.
It helped that we’d been working together as entrepreneurs for a while. I founded my first company with Paul roughly ten years ago, it was an online shop for environmentally-friendly tech gadgets and we also founded a second company with one of the other ProGlove founders that was like Uber or Lyft but it didn’t take off. We did a lot of innovation consulting at big companies like BMW or at banks and explained to them how to come up with good and innovative ideas. We placed third in the Intel competition which meant we won $250,000 in prize money. Six months later, the prestigious car manufacturer became our first customer.
We needed some time to figure out what the right thing was to do so from mid-2015 onwards, we took part in a pilot program with BMW and they paid us to test out our devices on their manufacturing line. From there, we continued with prototyping and spent the whole of 2015 on that. Typically as a startup, you start with one product and 100 features and at the end of testing, you have one thing with three features. We did the glove version of this, starting with an intensely smart glove and in the end we realised our number one feature was hyper-efficient documentation — and this remains the most sought-after feature today. So it’s basically all about the barcode. Before our glove, workers took a scanner, scanned something, got feedback from somewhere. We figured out if we made barcode documentation hands-free, they could save three-four seconds per documentation, so they wouldn’t have to grab the pistol anymore, they could scan with our glove.
We’re effectively replacing pistol scanners. While other companies offer finger scanners, we’re the clear market leader when it comes to scanner gloves — we don’t have any major competitors yet. This might be partly thanks to the workers’ affection for our product. One of our marketing interns who recently went to BMW overheard someone saying “You’ll have to pry these from my cold, dead hands.” As much as our sales pitch is increased efficiency, what’s really important to us is making sure these workers enjoy using these gloves. If they don’t want to use them, we can sell as many gloves as we want, but we’ll eventually drop out of use. Fortunately, workers love our product. We have three different forms of gloves we’re using and for them it’s just finding the right glove for their use case.
In 2015, we also participated in the international acceleration program co-established by Intel, Cisco and Deutsche Telekom for IoT and IoE startups, ChallengeUp! This led to Hubraum introducing us to business units from the ICT solutions provider T-Systems — right from the beginning it was clear for both sides that there was huge business potential at play, with our future data product and T-System’s end-to-end solution approach. The challenge wasn’t just beneficial for us in terms of networking, but also in terms of exposure, with Deutsche Telekom showcasing ProGlove at the T-Gallery, Innovation Center München and at several business fairs like Cebit and Hannover Messe.
As such, it’s no surprise that we’ve grown the company substantially! After BMW, other OEMs like Audi followed in 2016 as well as first-tier suppliers like Mahle. The first customer we started working with from a totally different branch was the supermarket chain REWE Group. We started off with just ten of us, and in the interim, we’ve blossomed into an 110-person strong company since then thanks to settling on a product that was a great fit for the market. We hired with an initial focus on the development and sales departments, but with a very broad mix of talents from the beginning – all of them tinkerers.
Despite this swift growth, we’ve managed to remain a pretty unique company. We name our prototypes and products after our ex-partners. Our first glove, Mark, was named after our first communication designer’s ex-boyfriend. Our second glove, Katharina, was named after my ex-girlfriend. Why? Because relationships can be a little bit like prototyping. After every girlfriend, you should think about your next girlfriend. And it’s the same thing with prototypes. You shouldn’t fall in love with a prototype because after every prototype comes the next prototype. So don’t get too attached to one prototype, because you’ve got to focus on the next one.
The other thing that most people don’t know about ProGlove is that one of our co-founders, Thomas, has been sleeping in his car for the last three and a half years. This isn’t about money – we count Porsche, BMW and Ikea as customers after all! – it’s just a life choice. We moved office three months ago and now the distance between the office and the parking lot is too much for him so he sleeps in the office — he still hasn’t got a flat. And that’s why we have a state-of-the-art apartment in our office. We have a gym here, we have a laundromat, we have showers. So we now have some people sleeping in our offices because it makes sense sometimes. Occasionally everyone gets caught up discussing ideas and people stay too long and before you know it, the metro has stopped running so people think, let’s just sleep here.
But I think that the unconventional aspect of ProGlove is the same factor that has led to our success. Despite adding 100 employees over a few years, to still have so many unique characters who bring so much of their personality to the work that they do can only be a good thing. When you bring strong personalities together, that’s the moment when things get fun.
We want to scale our product and bring it to the US — we have a little office in Chicago already. So America is our first goal and in a year from now, we’ll be bringing it to Asia. We’ve chosen to start with America simply because the markets are very similar to what we see here in Europe, even if the manufacturing industry isn’t quite as big there as in Europe. It also makes sense for our partners — we’re at 99% of all BMW plants in Europe, so if they have factories in North America, obviously they want to get the same results. We also want to look more closely at software. We’ll still have a hardware base but we’ll sell software on top. In short, things can only go up from here.
As told to hubraum.