“Leadership vs. Management” Understanding this distinction is critical to growing a team. Management assumes that more process will solve problems, while leadership prioritizes empowering employees at all levels of the company. In a technology company where people are your biggest asset, giving them the context and support to solve problems creates better outcomes than a manager adding SOPs.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Shames.
Sam Shames is a Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer of Embr Labs, the first thermal wellness company and maker of the Wave bracelet. Sam has been with Embr Labs since inception and has held a variety of functional roles from R&D, engineering, manufacturing to fundraising, finance, and sales operations. Sam received his bachelors degree in Materials Science & Engineering from MIT and has been recognized as a Forbes 30 Under 30 for his work at Embr Labs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I arrived at MIT as a freshman in the fall of 2010 not knowing what I wanted to do. I chose to major in Materials Science & Engineering because every field can benefit from new materials, so I figured it would be a good foundation for a variety of career paths. At the same time, I always had an interest in starting a company, but I didn’t know there was a term for someone who did that until I took an entrepreneurship class. I was involved in research as an undergraduate and met my eventual co-founders through my experiences in a research lab. We came up with the idea for Embr Wave to enter into a prototyping contest in the summer of 2013. We won the contest and incorporated Embr Labs in early 2014 to commercialize our technology.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Embr Labs is disrupting the wearables industry by going beyond just tracking and actually helping users. Our first product, Embr Wave, heats and cools to use temperature to help with comfort, sleep, stress, and hot flashes by balancing the autonomic nervous system. With over tens-of-thousands of devices sold and customers in 160 countries, we’ve shown that consumers want devices that do more than count steps and measure sleep. Our customers use Embr Wave to make thermal wellness a part of their routine and to support people living with underserved medical conditions like menopausal hot flashes, POTS, anxiety, and more. We’re showing the future of the wearables category by making the therapeutic power of temperature accessible to all.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The first time we emailed out 20,000 person mailing list back in the summer of 2014, we mistakenly sent our message without BCC. Over the next hour, people on the mailing list replied (to everyone) and sent over 200,000 emails until the email server ultimately (and appropriately) blocked us. We were so embarrassed and had to make a public Facebook post apologizing, but thankfully our customers were very understanding. Through this gaff, we learned how important it is to have SOPs for any publicly facing deliverable, and fortunately, we haven’t made that mistake ever again.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
We’ve been fortunate to have countless mentors over our now seven-year journey as a company. Our first mentors were all from MIT, and they were instrumental in helping us to reach what they call “escape velocity”–having enough momentum to leave the academic ecosystem and survive as an independent company. They had a lasting impact by instilling a customer-centric mindset. A good example of this is when we told them after winning the prototyping contest in 2013, we said we wanted to launch the product in six months. Their first question to us after hearing that lofty goal was “who is your customer?” When we didn’t have an answer, we realized that we needed a lot of help. Over the next nine months, they guided us on the process of primary market research to answer that question and helped us identify the market segment that is still our primary customer today.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Disruption at is most fundamental level is change, and of course change can be either positive or negative depending on your perspective and the outcome. From the lens of entrepreneurship, disrupting an industry is positive if the customers are better served as a result. In the case of Embr Labs, disrupting wearables allows our customers to do something to improve their hot flashes, sleep, anxiety, or other pain points.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1. “The single necessary and sufficient condition for a business is paying customers.” As I noted above, this advice was given to us by mentors from MIT, and it illustrates the difference between inventing technology and building a business. Technology can only become a company if people are willing to pay for it.
2. “You have to know the numbers.” Sometimes as technical founders with a strong scientific background, you feel like all you need is the technology to secure investment, but if you don’t have command of the numbers and financial projections of your business then you won’t be taken seriously by potential investors. Knowing our financials like the back of our hand made a big difference when raising our Series B, and investors appreciated the quality of our financial model.
3. “Leadership vs. Management” Understanding this distinction is critical to growing a team. Management assumes that more process will solve problems, while leadership prioritizes empowering employees at all levels of the company. In a technology company where people are your biggest asset, giving them the context and support to solve problems creates better outcomes than a manager adding SOPs.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
At Embr Labs, our mission is to build the technology that brings thermal wellness to the world, so that’s exactly what we’re focusing on. We’re investing in new software for Embr Wave that lets our customers do more with the existing product, and at the same time, we’re building new hardware to make future products even more powerful. We know there are billions of people around the world who could benefit from our technology, so we’re just getting started.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg has changed the way I communicate at work. The book provides a simple but powerful framework for fostering empathy and collaboration. It has been essential to working together with other people on the Embr team and external partners. It’s been especially powerful when things have gone wrong by guiding the conversation from what happened to what we need to do differently.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Love until it hurts.” After losing a close college friend after a tragic accident in 2016, I realized how fragile life can be and that we don’t have nearly as much control as we might believe. At first, this made me feel really afraid, but at the funeral someone said, “when you love until it hurts, you find the hurt disappears and leaves only more love.” Cherishing other people will always leave the potential for pain but living without caring relationships would be even more painful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I truly believe in the therapeutic power of temperature. I’ve spent the last seven years of my life at Embr Labs because I’ve heard all the ways temperature can be a huge pain point in someone’s life and how our technology is life changing for our customers. So my movement would be to inspire people to harness the therapeutic power of temperature. It can be as simple as bringing more intentionality to how you use temperature as a tool to change the way you feel in your daily life — from the warm morning shower to start your day off right to a chilled beverage after work to relax.
How can our readers follow you online?
Embr Labs is on all the major platforms at @embrlabs — please get in touch if you want to learn more!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!