Quinn Fitzgerald: Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Flare – Ep. 104

About Quinn Fitzgerald:

Quinn Fitzgerald is the founder of Flare, a smart, fashionable bracelet that provides 24/7 safety without drawing attention to itself.

The product was designed to prevent sexual assault, but it’s features are perfect for a range of unwanted situations.

The bracelet can call 911, notify friends/family that you’re in distress, help you receive an in incoming phone call/text message, and more.

By tapping into an unfortunate but very real need, Quinn has seen her business explode, getting her millions in funding and placement in TIME, Fast Company, Forbes, and more. I’m humbled and honored that she’s here with us today to share her story.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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On Flare And How It Can Help
*1:54 – “My product is called Flare and it’s a personal safety communication system, so it’s a bunch of confusing words all jumbled together. What that means is it’s a system made up of a smart app that connects to a smart bracelet that looks like this and like this. For those of you who are just watching or listening, it’s a cuff bracelet or a leather bracelet or a beaded bracelet that has a technology module underneath it with a button that you can press to get help. You can send yourself a phone call, use that as your excuse to leave. It’s a real phone call, but we call it a fake call because it’s a recording on the other end that has a conversation with you. It sounds like your partner checking in on you. You’re late for a meeting, your roommate is locked out, your friend got broken up with – all reasons and excuses that you would need to leave right away. You can also press that button and send your GPS location to your friends and family, telling them exactly where you are and that you need help. You can also access an on-call trained agent who can help you through an unwanted situation or unsafe situation and can send emergency response directly to your location.”

3:53 – “I’m a survivor of assault and so is my co-founder, and that’s what I meant in the beginning when I said I took my worst experience ever and changed it into something that would prevent that thing from happening to anybody else again. And I was assaulted by somebody I knew in a relatively familiar place. And when I say safety, I think people tend to think, okay, you’re walking down a dark alley and somebody is going to jump out and grab you. And that’s what the industry has perpetuated. That’s a stereotype of what safety actually is.”

4:23 – “1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the US experience assault in their lifetime. And of that, 80% of that happens with somebody you know, in a familiar place. Because of that, 60% of people report that when they get those red flags, they get the feeling in the pit of their stomach…they feel like something is off but they don’t know. They don’t take action…because they are worried that their action isn’t justified…They are worried that they’re going to make the situation worse and make that person more violent. They’re in fear, right? Or they’re not sure how to take action in a reasonable way. On top of that, we’re faced in a world where when you take action, you’re often jeopardizing something that you’ve worked really hard to build – your reputation, your work environment…We took all of this information together and we thought, ‘What if there was a really discreet way that you could get help where you didn’t have to jeopardize anything, where there was a ready-made plan, your friends and your family already knew about it and so you knew exactly what you could do. You had a discrete way of doing it and you felt confident taking action.’”

6:05 – “We came up with this idea of let’s take these safety features, the system that gives you multiple options, not just one thing, because only having something that escalates the situation, making it worse, reduces your own agency and your own control. So what if we gave you multiple options and we had it readily available right on your wrist at all times? And it didn’t actually look like it was for safety, so that if you needed to hit that button without anybody around you knowing, you could do that.”

7:43 – “We felt like one of the reasons why the safety industry has perpetuated victim blaming, often making situations worse for people and sharing false information is because they didn’t actually go out and talk to the people who are experiencing these things on a regular basis. They said, ‘Hmm safety, I know what an emergency is. You’re in trouble. You need to cause harm to the other person. You need to call the police.’ And they just rolled with that. And so we knew that we didn’t want to make those same mistakes. So instead of just operating off of our own experiences, we went out and talked to literally thousands of other people about their safety. And that was a first step that we took. And that was so important because in the beginning we didn’t have all of these features, but we developed these features by talking to more people and no two safety situations are ever the same, but there are a lot of patterns that we noticed.”

8:41 – “Somebody would often say to us, ‘Oh, I just wish that like somebody would have randomly walked in the door. Like if somebody had just walked in the door, it would have changed the whole entire situation.’ And we said, ‘Okay, that’s really interesting. Well we can make that happen by telling your friends and family who may be at the same party with you or maybe in the same office with you to come and walk in the door. Or we can make that happen with technology and send you a phone call, which is a very similar thing, because what it’s doing is providing you with an interruption and then you can take advantage of that interruption and use that as an excuse to leave to give yourself a moment to collect yourself.’”

10:18 – “We call ourselves a safety communications system, because what we want to do is create this platform where we can continue to add more features. So we chose these initial features first because they can help in the vast majority of situations and because there was a clear hole in the market where people were only looking at the emergency situations and not those earlier in the moment, questionable, unwanted situations. So we knew we could fill that gap and we knew that by filling that gap, we would make it much more of a useful, everyday tool instead of something that’s like an insurance product for the rare emergency.”

On Flare’s Mission
*12:50 – “Our mission as a company is to put ourselves out of business and create a world where a product like ours isn’t needed anymore. I hate that we’re here. I hate that we have to hide technology in a bracelet to help keep you safe. That’s not the kind of world that I want to live in. But we need better tools for today and tomorrow while we work on creating that real, lasting change that will solve this problem.”

13:44 – “We think that you need a lot of other tools. And those tools come in the form of other devices if you want them, if they fit for you. But also in terms of self-defense, terms of mental work, to give yourself confidence in knowing what type of situation that you’re in and to feel like you can take action. It requires talking to other people about safety. It requires education to understand the kind of situation that you’re even in and to understand what your boundaries are and where they cross the line. Because we all have different safety preferences and different boundaries and we need to learn what those are so that we then know how to act around them.”

14:40 – “My personal belief is that you’re never too young to start talking about safety, and I’m not going to sit here and be like, this is exactly when you should buy a Flare because only you can decide what’s right for you. Maybe you have a job where you’re traveling at odd hours, or you’re meeting strangers, or maybe you’re moving to a new city. Or maybe you have bad anxiety and you know that something like this will give you the confidence that you need when you’re going out. Because Flare isn’t just about having a tool and using that tool, it’s also about how do you live your life when you feel like you have a safety plan in place and that you know you can do these things? Because what people often do for their safety right now is they avoid situations and sometimes that serves as a detriment to themselves.”

16:19 – “Sometimes people ask this question of, ‘Will the efficacy go down as more and more people know about the product?’ I’m still waiting for that to happen. We’ve been in the market for two years and it hasn’t happened yet. Most people feel really confident wearing the product. It comes in many, many, over 35 different styles. And so it’s not explicitly recognizable. And we have some customers who actually tell us, ‘Oh, I hope they do recognize it, because then they know I’m prepared and I’m ready, so they won’t try things.’ And so we have some customers who feel that way and some customers who feel like ‘I hope they never, ever recognize it.’ And so we cater to the customers who hope that they never recognize it.”

17:47 – “What I get really excited about is how often I see people wearing the product, which is a lot, and that they say that 100% of our customers feel safer when they wear the product. And that’s incredibly powerful, knowing the kind of world and the kind of opportunities that exist when people who have felt marginalized or not confident before, now feel confident, feel like they can tap into their own agency and go after the things they want. That’s the world that I get excited about being in.”

19:47 – “I used to work in the Obama White House and because of that, I had some colleagues who were working on women’s issues at institutions that worked with a lot of celebrities and just happened to be talking about safety and telling somebody about the product. And they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a wonderful idea. Let me talk to them.’ But if you’re a founder and you recognize the power of celebrity and want to take advantage of it, there’s a lot of different ways that you can do that. You can work with a PR firm that might already have relationships with celebrities. You can find organic connections. You can also talk to other founders who have found ways into celebrities – giving those founders opportunity to invest in you and then talking to them about how they did it.”

23:03 – “I really loved the idea of entrepreneurship, but I never thought that I was an entrepreneur. I thought, ‘that’s so cool, that’s so beyond me.’ And then it took coming up with an idea that hits so close to home for me that I couldn’t put it down. I remember going on a vacation in the middle of business school, being halfway across the world and standing in a desert thinking about Flare and being like, ‘okay, this is a sign.’ And so, in a way, finding something that talked about safety helped me overcome my own fears…My background is actually in conflict resolution. I was the first person in my undergrad to design my own major in conflict resolution, and it’s just been a consistent thread throughout my life. And so it just brought everything that I was passionate about, and that I viscerally knew the impact of, together.”

24:33 – “I quickly realized that being an entrepreneur is not a profession. It’s actually just a way of living and looking at the world and saying, ‘This is the status quo. I don’t like the status quo. I think we can do better. And I don’t just think, I’m going to do it.’ And that can exist in a corporate environment, in a public environment, in a home environment, anywhere. And so I quickly realized that I had actually been an entrepreneur my whole entire life. I just was so intimidated by that title and that word that I never thought that that was actually me. And it took me having this idea that was so close to home and trying it to know that that was actually me and what I’ve been doing. And there is nothing more powerful than taking the thing that eats you up inside and transitioning it to find a new definition for it.”

25:45 – “I like to create my own definitions because how we define safety in this world is has been wrong for a really long time. And the fact that safety is the base of the pyramid of needs. Everybody needs to feel safe in order to do anything yet it’s the thing that you have the eyeroll, ‘There goes mom or grandma again talking to me about.’ It just baffles me. It just means that the branding of the word safety is so off. But it should be something that we all immediately jump to and all immediately get and should feel confident talking about. And that’s what we’re trying to do as a company.”

27:07 – “What Flare is helping me do as a founder and as a person, as a survivor, is redefine what I think being a survivor is. In a way, I’m taking this identity that was never my choice and redefining it for myself and claiming it again for myself. And by sharing my own story, I feel like I’m taking this terrible thing and I’m taking that negativity and I’m forcing it into positivity by sharing it with others so that they can learn from it.”

27:56 – (Ross) “It speaks to the general safety of our society that there are groups who aren’t marginalized that can believe that everything’s fine. But ask a vet who has come back from war in the Middle East, who is afraid of the 4th of July and spends their evening shaking in the closet every time they hear an explosion, ask somebody in a developing country where they have a public latrine and they have to go out – there are many examples where people’s safety is very quickly questioned, and the idea that somebody can be meaningfully productive in a general sense when they don’t feel safe is absurd. And some people, I would say billions of people, experience that on a daily basis. And that’s why these people aren’t rising up and becoming the next Internet tech billionaires. They’re just trying to get through every single day.”

28:48 – “A disadvantage to this industry is that there’s not good data out there around the impact of safety…my example of an assault is really powerful, but it’s a small example of safety itself, right? Anybody with a disability or with a health condition or who visibly looks like an identity that’s targeted, anybody like that knows that the stat I gave is just a small portion of the impact that safety has in our lives, because there’s a whole magnitude of reasons.”

On Safety in Sweden compared to the US
*30:15 – (Ross) “Places like Sweden, where I’ve been, that seem sometimes to be 50 or 100 years in the future when it comes to so many things like gender equality and general safety and cleanliness and the way that they’re able to be just so generally well-adjusted. They’re all college educated, they have free education, free health care, so many things that we’re so terrified of here in America they just have. And witnessing the way that they feel safe has been a profound, life-changing experience for me. Just visiting, I realize, ‘Oh, you just don’t worry about the same things that we do.’ I was living in East Hollywood. You step over thousands of homeless people every day. You’re very aware of what can happen if you slip up. You say, ‘If I make a mistake, if I don’t earn money this month, I can very easily become like you. And nobody will care if that happens to me.’ We live in a society where that’s possible. That’s kind of scary. There are many different degrees of what safety means to us from extreme physical danger examples to just micro-aggressions and tiny things that make our life miserable.”

33:40 – “For me, the way that I think about it is not I don’t want to be defined by this anymore, but it’s instead to make my own definition for what that phrase or that identity means to me. So instead of people telling me what it means to be a survivor, I’m going to tell them what I think being a survivor means, and I’m going to act in a way that helps make that definition true for me. Right? So I’m going to take the negativity that is associated with this term and turn it into as much positivity as I can by finding amazing connection with other survivors, by talking to them about the thing that hits home most to them, I found a new level of connecting to other people because of this.”

34:41 – “I have found this new passion and I have learned so much about how to build technology. I’m not a coder, I’m not a hardware engineer, but yet I have a software and a hardware business. And so by finding my own definition, I have found other ways of finding passion and interest through that definition that help me connect with others, help me learn new things, help me explore the world.”

38:05 – (Ross) “So many people feel in many situations that they don’t have a choice. ‘I put up with a boss that I hate at a job that I hate because I feel that I don’t have a choice. I have to earn money. I have to do these things.’ And that makes a lot of this stuff tricky. And once, there was a situation, I won’t even say the relationship to me to really anonymize it, but somebody very close to me many, many years ago was in a situation, a horrible situation like you describe, a nightmare scenario where she was working at a restaurant decades ago and a coworker pulled a gun on her. And you can imagine where the idea was that was going to head. And the next day she chose to come back to work. Because ‘I need this job, I need this money. I can’t afford to not get my paycheck.’ So many of us feel trapped. And this society, the way that we’ve established it, it really brings it out. I don’t know if you’re ever on Reddit, I don’t know why you would be but there’s a community that used to be called anti-work and it’s now called work reform, and you see the way that people just in general behave when they feel trapped. And a lot of us in many situations feel trapped for one reason or another.”

41:35 – “I think the most important thing that you can do when you’re starting is to listen to others and to put yourself in front of others who experience the same problem that you’re thinking about and try to understand what their pain points are. And then be willing to be flexible and change your ideas based off of what you’ve heard…You can’t just go and listen. You have to actually act on what you’re hearing and be willing to change based off of it.”

43:17 – [On the origin of Flare] “Because we were at school at the time, we were lucky enough to have access to an accelerator innovation program that had a 3D printer. So we 3D-printed in plastic, literally plastic bracelets. And then we found some engineers and we gave them a small portion of the equity of our company to work with us to build the prototypes for the electronics and the hardware and the app. So then we built rudimentary versions of those and we put it in the plastic and we literally spray painted it silver and gold to make it look like jewelry. And then we asked people to wear it and we had people who wore it for a week and they were like, ‘Actually, this was valuable.’ And we’re like, ‘Wait, so you’re saying that wearing this plastic thing on your wrist made you feel safer and was valuable?’ Well, that gave us the knowledge to know that if we actually went and built it for real, that it would actually add value.”

On How To Develop An Idea or Product
*44:32 – “We went and we listened to people then we acted and we changed. And then we started by building something that was frankly really shitty and had no chance of ever making it. But we started by building because as soon as you build, you’re learning already. And what’s important is that when you’re a founder and an entrepreneur, you’re learning. And as you learn, you learn that something is wrong. You’re still progressing forward. Even if you’re building something that you know is going to be wrong in the end, you still learn parts that work on the way and then you can use those parts that work when you build the next thing. And so the most important thing that you can do is just get started and just keep going. Take one lesson, bring it into another lesson, bring it into another lesson and set small goals for yourself. Because otherwise, the end goal seems insurmountable and unachievable.”

46:02 – “You have to have your phone nearby, your phone has to have battery and service in order for the product to work. Something that we’re very clear with our customers about. But with that limitation comes huge ability to actually make something that’s small enough to be discrete and look like jewelry. Your phone is usually always on you and charged anyways, so we know that it will help you in the vast majority of situations and we use the power of your phone to limit the power that you need on the bracelet so that you never have to charge it. Because we want it to always be ready. We never want it to feel like a burden for you.”

46:50 – “We have a whole entire backend system on top of your phone. So what we do is your bracelet pings your phone, your phone pings our backend, and then our backend jumps in to work. We have like a suite of phone numbers that we own and we use and that customers can choose between because some carriers limit some numbers and not other numbers, and so they can test out which ones work for them. And then that will be the number that Flare comes from. They can also change it up if they want to. They can save that number in their phones if they want to pretend like it’s Felicia calling them, for example, they can or if it’s you they can put Ross Palmer in there. And what it will do is it will send you a real phone call… you get a phone call and it’s a recording on the other end. We’ve made over ten different recordings and we’ve had customers make recordings for us too, which is really fun.”

48:14 – “We exist in a world where your socio-economic means can also impact your safety. And so we knew that people who need it most might not be able to afford it. So we tried to price the product the best that we could. It’s not perfect. It’s still not accessible to a lot of people. So we actually have a nomination program where you can nominate yourself or somebody else in your life to get a product for free. And we select up to five people every single month out of that nomination program.”

49:26 – “You need a lot of help as a founder. And so you’re always talking to a lot of different people and trying to network, especially trying to talk to people who have some clout or knowledge about the industry and space that you’re in…A lot of people end up giving you advice and ideas, and some of our best ideas came from getting that advice and it’s been really helpful. But you get a lot of bad advice too, and we’re in the business of innovation. If we did everything the same way that everybody else before us has done it, then there would be no innovation and then there would be no start-ups. And so it takes a lot of confidence in yourself to hear somebody with a lot of clout give you advice and decide that that’s not something that you’re going to do. I say develop your own mental trash bin, take the advice in, say, ‘thank you so much.’…take some of it and say, ‘I’m going to run with that. That’s a great idea. I agree. I’m going to take it. I’m going to make it my own,’ and then take some of that advice and throw it in your mental trash bin and remind yourself that you know your business better than anybody else.”

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