What is it about the Black Eyed Peas frontman?
Falling somewhere along the same spectrum that Shingy and Ashton Kutcher occupy, will.i.am seems to be one of those soothsayers who does more saying than soothing. But his presence in tech, somehow, remains inevitable.
I was recently on a Zoom call with will.i.am and John Waldron, the CEO of Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions. The two shared a dark room with leather chairs. Will was in all black, sporting Fendi sock sneakers, giant glasses and his latest creation, the Xupermask, around his neck. That's not a typo; the new mask (pronounced "super mask") is meant to be a high-tech solution to all the mask wearing we now have to do, and Honeywell, which has ramped up its industrial-grade mask production capabilities during the pandemic, was more than happy to turn will.i.am's idea into a retail product.
The mask costs $300, features Honeywell HEPA filters, noise-canceling Bluetooth earbuds and can light up at night. Will.i.am said he decided to design the mask because "people wanted to express themselves" as most masks on the market give off a sense of "doom and gloom." Conversely, my colorful Atoms mask costs $12 and my AirPods $150, and I do not light up at night.
Whether you think there's value in connecting your face mask to the internet, will.i.am has been given space time and again to come up with some of the zaniest ideas in tech — many of which have been complete flops. There was Omega, the voice-based operating system he launched in 2017; his Buttons wireless earbuds in 2016; the Puls smartwatch in 2014; the Dial, a different smartwatch in 2016; his Ekocycle line of recycled products with Coca-Cola in 2015; and the phone-case camera he launched in 2012. That's just to name a few.
Judged on the gadgets will.i.am has released, his work outside of music leaves a lot to be desired. He's also somehow managed to spin his tech work into roles at Intel and 3D Systems, and raised millions of dollars in venture funding from the likes of Salesforce. He was also on the comically terrible Apple TV show "Planet of the Apps" that wanted to be like "The Voice" (which he also appeared on) for tech startups.
They haven't all been flops (though his track record comes pretty close): Will.i.am was one of the people who helped shape Beats By Dre, perhaps one of the greatest gadget success stories in recent years.
Perhaps that success rate isn't wildly different from that of other parts of tech. The overwhelming majority of startups fail to turn into unicorns and provide the exits their venture backers expected. I asked will.i.am what he thought about his hit rate. "I think you have to stay creative, and learn and solve problems," he said. He admitted that it's not always easy to come up with the right product at the right time — coming up with a good idea is only part of the process. Take his attempt to launch a smartwatch, for example. "The watch, was that too early and people didn't want it? I think people didn't know they didn't want it," he said. "Apple has now figured out a way to sell that product — sometimes it just takes giants to to weather the storm."
Rather unsurprisingly, will.i.am sees a corollary between making music and designing tech products, although he suggests there's little room for "solo artists" in tech. "Everything is about tuning your instrument and bringing the best for the song: In this case, the song is a product and you're working across different disciplines," he said. "You have your rhythm section, and say that rhythm section is your developers writing algorithms; and then you have your lyric section, the folks telling you what you can say and can't say; and then you have the design in the hardware, [which] is the chord progression and the melody."
Will.i.am argued that cross-disciplinary thinking is necessary for both making music and designing tech: "Working with all these different disciplines is just like making a product, because it takes all these different types of thinkers and talents to come together that are paying attention to every single detail and balance everyone off to complete the product."
And not every band or company is going to produce something that's music to everyone's ears, but the hope is not to become some one-hit wonder. And for a man with so many swings and misses on a virtual press tour for a $300 light-up Bluetooth mask, the hubris does not seem lost on him. "You have to stay collaborating, you have to stay innovative in the purpose of solving problems," he said. "You can't just make Frankensteins."
But will.i.am's tech instincts do not seem wildly displaced. The Apple Watch is a massively successful product now, millions of people use voice assistants every day and I think Beats have sold a few pairs of headphones over the years. "Sometimes it's good to be early, sometimes the first mouse gets hit by the mousetrap, and sometimes the early bird gets the worm," he said. "You've got to figure out what is the right time to be early, and I caught a couple of mousetraps in the past."
The pandemic is far from over, and even with vaccines going into arms, there are still strong reasons to suspect we'll be wearing masks in public for years to come. So perhaps will.i.am is right on time this time. "I think right now with the partnership with Honeywell, we're the early bird," he said.