In 2010, when Nike first began developing the FuelBand, a small, secret team of thirteen would run around the company’s campus testing early prototypes. “We actually created fabric covers that we could just pull over them,” recalls Stefan Olander, Nike’s VP of digital sport, with a smile. “No one lost [them] at any bars either, so that was a good thing.”
Olander’s team had been working on a number of related ideas for months, but it’d be years before the product would actually hit the market. Back in 2010, the FuelBand, the electronic wristband that enables users to track their activity, was far from the sleek, elegant product it is today. Then, as Olander relates to me in his office, it was nothing more than a colorful Velcro bracelet, inspired by the sweatbands athletes often wear on the field or court. “In 50 years, no one had done anything with the sweatband–with that real estate of the wrist,” Olander says. “There must be something there.”
Indeed, the release of the FuelBand is the culmination of Nike’s transformation into a digital powerhouse. “Nike has broken out of apparel and into tech, data, and services, which is so hard for any company to do,” says Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps. During my reporting for Fast Company’s recent profile of Nike, which we just named the world’s Most Innovative Company, I learned the true story of the FuelBand’s creation. It’s a complicated tale, involving a number of players and partner companies. But the origins of the FuelBand–and some of its most memorable features–can be traced back to the first prototype Olander and his team showed CEO Mark Parker in 2010. Rarely do we gain access to such a specific, creative moment in corporate history.
In the course of my reporting, I saw a number of early FuelBand prototypes, from concepts designed for the leg or upper arm to ones with e-ink displays that resembled an Amazon Kindle screen. There were hundreds of prototypes imagined throughout the process, but two early and very basic mock-ups foreshadowed where the product was heading: one, which Olander showed me in his office, was a white leathery Velcro bracelet marked with green calculator-like numbers; the other, pictured above, is a black and bright green band that shows the product’s emphasis on stark color contrast.
“We had been talking for years about the wrist and the power of performance color–it’s actually a thing that Mark had been talking about for a long time,” Olander recalls. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could just go red to green?’ This was like the first meeting we had with Mark, so we had these [prototypes] whipped up. We just went down to the lab, and we did some designs. We had them in red, yellow, and green, and we put them on under our shirts.”
Then came their first pitch to Parker. “We pulled up [our sleeves] and revealed this,” Olander says.
Parker’s reaction? He instantly saw it as a “smart” version of the already popular Livestrong bracelet. “The comparison I used was to that yellow band, which is incredibly simple. It’s about as simple as you can get,” Parker recalls. “It’s essentially shaped like the FuelBand. I liked the simplicity: [It was] minimal, clean, intuitive as possible.”
Adds Olander, “Mark is so consumer-driven that instinctively he said, ‘Go do this now.’ His first question was, ‘How fast can you build this?'”
As we explained in our profile of Nike, the tale is a bit simplified if not straight up romanticized. But it was one of the first moments in the FuelBand’s development process, long before even the concept of NikeFuel was fully realized. (Back then, Nike was considering calling it “Nike Power,” “Game Fuel,” or “Power Fuel,” according to Olander.) And just because Parker might’ve then approved a Velcro product, it was a long way from being built. “The head of engineering said, ‘First of all, there are no color displays that are flexible; second, you would have to run around with a backpack with a car battery,'” Olander recalls. “When we sat down with our engineers and industrial designers, they gasped.”
It was a start though. And the exploration of the concept led to 12 prototypes, which were culled down to roughly half that number before Nike got its outside partners involved, which included industrial design firm Astro Studios, interactive agency R/GA, and engineering companies Synapse and Whipsaw.
So when a three-person Nike team first flew to San Francisco, the basic idea of the FuelBand–especially its all-important color scheme–was more or less realized, though still very bare bones.
As Astro design EVP Kyle Swen recalls, “They had this concept of a tennis sweatband with an electronic watch–a real crude prototype.” Not that his team or the other partners involved had it any easier trying to evolve the product. “Certainly when the engineers saw this, they were like, ‘No fucking way,'” Swen says.
Says Olander, “It’s been so amazing to see this path of a crazy vision just resonating from this simplest idea.”