Episode #3 - Mirror

Mirror's Fitness Device Is Poised to Become the "Third Screen"

Illustrations by Ilya Milstein

Brynn Putnam lays claim to a rare hyphenate: that of ballet dancer-turned-tech company founder. Putnam got the idea for Mirror—the interactive, immersive, reflective display that streams everything from HIIT classes to meditation into your living room—while running Refine, an early player among New York’s boutique fitness studios. “I never thought of myself as a founder,” she says. “I just think, ‘that looks broken, and I have a good idea how to fix it.’ ” In the course of solving a problem (How can you get a studio-quality workout from home?) Brynn is not only revamping the at-home fitness experience, she’s building a bigger case for why any and everyone needs a Mirror at home. 

A “dumb mirror” sparks a big idea

I'm not a technologist by trade; I have no hardware or software engineering skills. In 2010, I launched a boot-strapped fitness studio with $15,000 of personal savings. One day, while watching a class, I realized the teacher was checking a stopwatch, reading an exercise planner, adjusting exercises for people with injuries, and then demonstrating the exercises themselves. These instructors are also stars—they’re the personality. Nine out of ten things they’re doing, they don't need to. I thought, there has to be technology that can keep time, provide modifications, and provide exercise demonstrations. The instructors should just be thinking about how to inspire.  

When I was early in my pregnancy, I had severe morning sickness and couldn't travel to a studio to work out anymore. My clients were also having children, and schedules started to get tight. I started to think about working out at home, but when I researched existing technology, I wasn’t finding anything. Looking at an app wasn’t immersive enough, and a television should be for entertainment and sitting on your couch. 

“Looking in the mirror while you work out is a fundamental part of the fitness experience.”

The a-ha moment happened at Refine. We put up more studio mirrors—just regular, dumb mirrors—and when we did a member survey, it was by far the most important change we’d made. I had been stuck on the delivery mechanism for the technology I wanted to provide, and it was a fortuitous coincidence that the survey dialed me into the form factor of a mirror, because looking in the mirror while you work out is a fundamental part of the fitness experience. I asked my husband, who does have engineering skills, how hard it would be to build a prototype. He said, “if you want an ugly hack, that's not that hard.” I didn’t care if it was ugly; I just wanted to know if this reflection-transmission experience could feel as immersive as it did in my mind. It had to feel like being transported to a different universe, not like watching a television through glass. And it worked: I saw the idea come to life on our kitchen table. It was a piece of glass the size of a legal pad, and an Android tablet, but it answered my question. Once I validated that, I knew I could figure out the technology.

A prototype of a prototype: Brynn’s early proof-of-concept for Mirror, on her kitchen table. 
“You don’t need a technical co-founder”

The next step was the fake-it-until-you-make-it step. A lot of hardware companies will build functional hardware, but that’s ugly and unbranded. They’ll worry about the aesthetics later, after the technology works. I knew from the beginning that we weren’t going to succeed because of hardware—we’d succeed if we built a brand and an experience that people love. To show investors what I meant, we built a fake prototype. We filmed an animated three-minute workout video, and built a “Mirror” with some off-the-shelf-type components. It wasn’t interactive, but the number one thing people said was some version of, "this is the future."

After we raised our first round of financing, it was time to build a real prototype. I'd heard a lot of horror stories about people who hired industrial design studios to build a beautiful piece of hardware, but then they’d go to manufacture and find that their core assumptions about the hardware were wrong. I thought, We're going to win on the content and on the experience, but since there are a few elements of the hardware that are important to nail, why don't I write those down, go straight to the manufacturers, and work on a product that can be built at the price I want? And that was the napkin sketch.

“In retrospect, unveiling an internet-of-things product on the main stage at a tech conference is probably not a good idea.”

When you’re building original hardware, software, and content, you have three very unique workstreams that don’t move at the same pace. I had to develop some technical fluency, so that I could ask my engineers the right questions, and identify red flags or bullshit answers along the way. But I tell people this all the time: You don’t need a technical co-founder. The number of people who really know what an audience wants is so much smaller than the number of people who can build technology. We missed our initial launch date because of these differing workstreams. So I decided we’d launch at TechCrunch [Disrupt SF 2018]. I felt we needed a moment for the team to unite around—a little bit of public performance pressure. As a dancer, I really like the cadence of uniting as a group around a performance. In retrospect, unveiling an internet-of-things product on the main stage at a tech conference is probably not a good idea. But it went great. We turned on the website, and throughout the day, sales just kept rolling in.

The Mirror prototype that Brynn used to raise a seed round of funding. It wasn’t interactive, but investors still said, "this is the future."
A Mirror in every home

Before we even launched, I had the idea that Mirror could be the third screen in the home. It seemed clear that we were missing a dedicated portal for the next generation of content where we’d do more than just watch. We wanted to build a media company with a direct channel into the home, with original content that comes on that channel. We knew that fitness was the first vertical because subscription behavior exists—people already pay gym membership fees. But there was always an eye towards expansion into other types of immersive, interactive experiences that make people feel good about themselves. Activities like physical therapy or nutritional content make a lot of sense. Anyone who's been injured knows that the sheer act of going to a physical therapist is the worst. At the same time, one of the biggest challenges has been just saying no to all of the inbound interest from different content partners with ideas for different verticals. It’s a steady stream all day of people from fashion to beauty to health who have ideas for how their expertise could live on Mirror. But for any new kind of content we take on, there needs to be frequency on the part of the user. That’s how we’ll become the third screen.

“There was always an eye towards expansion into other types of immersive, interactive experiences that make people feel good about themselves.”

I worked with Lululemon a decade ago as one of their ambassadors, and they helped me learn how to build a brand when I was launching my studio. Lululemon gives us immediate access to millions of consumers, 500 stores, and incredible infrastructure as it relates to the brand. It’s a way to accelerate our vision of getting more Mirrors out there. Because for us, it's all about winning that place in the home.

From the beginning, Brynn envisioned Mirror as an immersive experience. “It had to feel like being transported to a different universe,” she says.

Mirror: An interactive fitness device for the home
Founded: 2016
Initial Partnership: Led the Series A in 2018
Exit: Acquired by lululemon in 2020