The survivor-made wearable tech brand that wants to put itself out of business

October 3, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC
Sara Dickhaus de Zárraga and Quinn Fitzgerald, cofounders of Flare.
Courtesy of Flare

Not all wearable tech is about counting steps and calories. Flare bracelets feature a control button that can send text messages and GPS tracking to friends, a pre-recorded call to a designated phone number, or even connecting with the police—essentially, options to act in any level of situation.

Since launching in early 2020, Flare has seen rapid growth. The company says it has already sold out of inventory three times over, and according to SimilarWeb, a digital intelligence firm for website traffic, it is the fastest-growing direct-to-consumer brand with a 313.7% increase in website traffic quarter-over-quarter.

And yet the company’s mission is a heartfelt one, even if it doesn’t make business-sense to some: the founders want the product to be so successful at protecting their customers that they put themselves out of businesses.

Fortune recently spoke with cofounders Quinn Fitzgerald and Sara De Zarraga about Flare’s first year in business and plans for its future.

Sara Dickhaus de Zárraga and Quinn Fitzgerald, cofounders of Flare.
Courtesy of Flare

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Fortune: Can you share a bit about your professional backgrounds prior to launching Flare?

Fitzgerald: Conflict resolution has always been a passion for me, since starting to work on social justice issues in middle school. I attended the College of the Holy Cross as an undergrad, where I was the first person to both study abroad in El Salvador and design my own major in conflict studies. I then served as assistant director of the White House Business Council during the Obama administration, working to set up public-private partnerships across many policy areas. Sara and I met at Harvard Business School, where we bonded over our shared experience as survivors and our passion for using technology to contribute to solving some of the world’s largest and most important problems. It is from these deep conversations on campus that Flare was born.

De Zarraga: Flare sits at the intersection of three of my passions: women’s issues, using business as a tool for good, and building things.  I attended Wellesley College, one of the oldest all women’s colleges, where I had the space to explore the unique challenges women face and how we move through the world. After graduating, I worked in investment banking where I focused on industrial and manufacturing clients and learned how companies build things at a large scale. Then I worked for the World Bank (at the International Finance Corporation), where I spent my time traveling to developing countries in Africa and Latin America and investing in infrastructure projects that could achieve triple bottom line results: make money, stimulate the local economy, and adhere to strict environmental standards.  I love working in an environment where I bring those passions together to build a product that supports people’s safety and helps them live with more agency, confidence, and control.

What inspired you to launch Flare?

De Zarraga: We are both survivors and wanted to create the tool that we wish we’d had at the time, and an alternative to the male-created safety products that often do more harm than good. A tool that can de-escalate situations instead of making them worse and doesn’t require you to jeopardize your reputation or success in that environment. Flare gives you options to decide what is right for you in the moment. It fits into your life instead of you having to do something new or different and connects you to others, so you are never alone. Quinn and I were both in the same class at Harvard Business School and one of our projects was to create a start-up concept. This is when we created the concept behind Flare, but knew this was way too good of an idea for a business school project. We kept Flare close to our hearts until we were fully prepared to develop it. 

Fitzgerald: We were tired of the victim-blaming that has dominated the safety industry and seeing images of people walking down dark alleys, when the vast majority of assaults happen with someone you know. We wanted to create a tool that was not just built for emergencies, but for the gray area—for taking action earlier when you get a red flag but don’t yet have certainty. Because that is when it is safest for you to take action. We are driven not only by our own personal experiences with assault but also the experiences of thousands of people who have shared their stories with us over the course of four years of product development and research. We have a vision to help women, and anyone who feels this need, live safely, with confidence and control.

That being said, we can’t talk about Flare without addressing how terrible it is that a product like this needs to exist; frankly, we hate that this is needed in society. We want to see a cultural shift, including changes to our legal system, better education and resources for those affected by assault, along with better youth education and mental health to help curb toxic masculinity in the first place, to name just a few. While those systemic changes happen, we created Flare as a stop gap for today while real change is made. That’s why our mission is to put ourselves out of business and create a world where safety products like Flare aren’t needed.

The ‘Cuff’ style comes in a variety of finishes and metallic colors.
Courtesy of Flare

What went into developing this particular device, both from an aesthetic, fashionable perspective given it’s a jewelry brand but also from a technical and safety perspective given the company’s mission?

De Zarraga: In the development stages of Flare, we spent four years interviewing thousands of people with similar experiences and asked them what they find lacking in traditional personal safety devices and what they are looking for as protection. We found that people are looking for a quick, subtle way to exit uncomfortable and unsafe situations. We decided to create an app that enables the user to customize their own safety features and preferences, then created a button to activate those features discreetly. We hid the button in a simple piece of jewelry, something that could blend in and make you feel good, so you can activate it without blowing up your spot. The designs of our bracelets are very intentional, from the hidden technology module, to the diverse aesthetics, to the placement of the button, we didn’t want the bracelet to be triggered every time it brushed against something, but also wanted it to be easy to activate. The product went through countless iterations and testing in the real world before launch.

Fitzgerald: Most personal safety devices were designed by men decades ago and based on what they think women need, not what we actually experience. Historically, safety companies have perpetuated claims to “solve safety.” That is incredibly damaging and victim-blaming. As two survivors, we wanted to flip that on its head by looking at safety as an opportunity to own your agency. With creating Flare, we wanted to offer an effective, practical tool, not a solution,  that would give people more options to take action earlier in a moment of uncertainty.

A model wearing the Flare bracelet.
Courtesy of Flare

The business originally launched in February 2020, a precarious time, to say the least. How has the pandemic affected your business?

Fitzgerald: Yes, we iteratively developed Flare with feedback from thousands of people, and after four years of product development and testing, launched straight into COVID in February 2020—A+ for timing there. Honestly, we were very concerned initially that the pandemic would limit the perceived need for our product, but COVID-19 did not solve safety issues, and, in fact, we found that there was a higher need for our product both at home (domestic violence) and out of the home (as people adapted to a new normal). 

We overcame extreme uncertainty and adversity to re-launch in June 2020. Since then, Flare has seen remarkable growth selling out three times and has grown over 55 times.  We’ve sold out and restocked and overcame people who didn’t think we could do it, not to mention the global supply chain issues, all with an incredibly small team.

Flare is currently available for iPhone users; any plans to expand to Android?

De Zarraga: Of course. As a small team with limited resources we have to make real trade-offs every single day. We have not yet had the capacity to build out our technology on Android, but stay tuned for some developments there. We want to help as many people as we can. 

Looking forward, do you plan to expand Flare’s line of jewelry and/or services?

Fitzgerald: Yes, we are constantly looking to add to our styles and options to meet our customers where their needs and styles are. One of the most common questions we get asked is about diversifying our style options, making styles that are less flashy, for example. One of the reasons we believe the safety industry has been so ostracizing and has gotten it so wrong for so long is that they haven’t been listening. Our approach has always been to not just listen to feedback but to act on it. The last thing we want to do is create another safety device that ends up in the junk drawer. Look out for a big step in that direction coming later this year, after all safety is a basic human need that everyone experiences, not just specific gender identities.

This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.