Last night, Aliph, the makers of the Jawbone, invited a handful of journalists to sit down and rap about the company’s roots, over dinner at The Standard Hotel’s buzzy new restaurant. Hosain Rahman, Aliph’s co-founder and CEO, and Yves Behar, the designer extraordinaire, sat across from each other and shared a single enormous roast chicken, like an old married couple.
Rahman launched into an introduction of the headset–spinning that standard tale of fashion and tech savvy which Jawbone has marketed so well. And then Behar stepped in to correct him: “In Silicon Valley, design and fashion are still dirty words. But when Hosainand I met, we liked each others’ jeans. That single fact made me think, Maybe there’s hope here after all,” said Behar. So began a collaboration to make the wonkiest of gadgets into a fashion statement, on par with artisanal, $200 jeans.
Of course, plenty of entrepreneurs want to make their products sexy, but they end up embarrassing themselves in their choice of designer. Rahman says he managed to avoid that trap, because as a engineering grad student at Stanford, he was steeped in design owing to the fact that the department was stocked by IDEO designers, such as David Kelley.
The tortuous, stop and start development of the Jawbone in turn taught him one particular lesson about design: “You have to push your product to the point where it seems like it’s going to break. Otherwise, it can’t redefine the market.” He gave an example that predated the first launch of the Jawbone, when he and Behar were walking the grounds at CES. Then and there, they decided that the product had to be a third smaller. That put the entire company on hold for eight months, as engineers furiously tried to miniaturize the circuit boards inside. As Behar put it, “If you don’t have a design, you don’t have a business.” To which Rahman added, “I tell the engineers that what they’re doing will effect everything else, down to the packaging on the shelf. That helps everyone get it. You can’t just put a skin on a product at the end. That’s what Dell does.”
Behar then made a crucial point, for any would-be design savvy business: Apple’s design success could have been predicted, based solely on the fact that Jonathan Ive used to lunch everyday with Steve Jobs. By contrast, Microsoft has no designers on its board, and no designers on its executive committee. “I don’t know if it’s true now, but two years ago, Microsoft had 600 vice presidents,” said Behar. “Not a single one was a designer. When I’m thinking about working with someone, I ask them how often the CEO talks with the designer.” He and Raham, apparently, see each other several times a week.