Posted: Mon 12th Apr 2021
When Alisha Zhang bought her first Alexa in 2017, her perspective on the future of home space massively changed.
She recognised that smart homes were coming, that they were undoubtedly the future. But she also saw that Internet of Things products were, by and large, quite techy. They were gadgets that prioritised functionality over design.
So, Alisha decided to dive headfirst into the tech world and, at the tail end of 2020, launch her own smart home challenger brand: Accio. Where did she even start? What products has she successfully launched? Could Accio change the way all of us interact with our homes?
Here's Alisha's story…
Alisha, how did you get into the tech world?
"Well, I have a master's in real estate investment and finance, and I previously had a job at a big company in property development. I've always been interested in the future of residential buildings and the future of living, and that's how I got into smart home technologies.
"A lot of my clients were interested in having these kinds of products in their homes, and also it was a way for developers to stay competitive and relevant in a very competitive market.
"It was in 2017, when I bought my first Alexa, that I really got into smart tech and artificial intelligence. I was absolutely stunned by its ability to carry out tasks just by using my voice."
Is that when you thought you'd like to launch a business in the space?
"I finished my master's in 2018. I was a few years into my career, and I started thinking about my life choices. I realised I wasn't happy working at a big company. I didn't really fit in.
"So it was actually quite an easy decision to leave my corporate job and start something that's my own. I knew I wanted a start-up; I just had to think of a business idea. Accio ended up being the chosen one."
How did you turn the idea for Accio into real-life intelligent products?
"I didn't have all the Internet of Things technical expertise. So it was scary, but also very timely. At the time I was looking for smart products for my home. They all had pain points - the setup process was complicated or they needed a hub that cost £50.
"Others compromised design for tech, because they're perceived as gadgets. It also felt like they weren't very sustainable. It was always like, 'OK, this is really good, until the next product comes onto the market.' The newest one was always pushed - until another one comes out.
"I started thinking about addressing these problems. I wanted to create something for the home that I'd want to buy, that's easy to use for people who aren't techies, and that's beautiful to look at. It also had to be sustainable.
"So, I started looking at what I wanted as an end result. I brought in specialist teams and acted as the project manager. I told them what I wanted and what my vision is; then we walked through the designs, the colour schemes, and the technologies."
Did you want to launch with a set number of products?
"I'm very ambitious. I want to create a whole system of smart products for Accio - lighting, security cameras, locks, smart coffee machines, pet feeders - anything. We chose lighting to begin with because it's already a well-received product in the market.
"We have two collections - one is the filament collection, with what looks like vintage Edison bulbs coming in three colours and two shapes. We also have the mood collection: automated ambient lighting with different colours and functions.
"We're still very new. Accio was officially registered as a company in 2019, but, after a few personal setbacks, we only launched in November 2020."
Tell me about the space you're in. Is it changing pretty fast, in terms of loads of us spending more time at home?
"People are having a more profound realisation of how important their home space is. And with this comes wanting to increase their home's functionality.
"But, regardless of the pandemic, smart tech will be so essential to the future of the home space. We don't want to be following this trend; we want to be driving it.
"We want to change people's perceptions of tech products. Everyone will have a smart home. It's the future. We want to make the whole process simple for people to set up, and to make it as inclusive and accessible as possible. That's our mission."
Consumers like convenience, right? You could argue that thermostats and light switches are convenient. How will you convince them that smart devices are the way to go?
"We're focusing on three things: the simplicity of setup, the design aspect, and the fact that these are sustainable products. They're energy efficient. To be honest, all tech companies should strive to have these three things as their vision.
"I'm absolutely fascinated with Tesla cars; the fact that you can just update the software and you've almost got a new car. This is what we're doing with Accio products - they're built to last, and we're constantly upgrading the software so that you can have new functions on your app. Our mood lights last up to 30,000 operating hours; our filament lights up to 15,000."
How have your lights been received by customers?
"I'm proud to say that they've been really well received by the community, and especially by the interior design audience. Word of mouth and Instagram have been great for us. Customers are telling their friends and family.
"It's interesting because the Internet of Things has been around for a while, but it's not in everyone's homes. It's still associated with gadgets. We're really trying to establish Accio has a home interiors brand that just happens to be smart."
You're a young female entrepreneur who's established a challenger brand in a space dominated by men. How does that feel?
"Imposter syndrome has been experienced by a lot of female founders in the start-up scene, but a lot of the challenges I've faced aren't gender specific. I faced them because I am a young entrepreneur.
"This has happened before in my career. In business meetings I've felt like I've had to fake my age, because I wouldn't be treated seriously if they knew I was in my early 20s. I had to pretend I was in my late 20s.
"I feel embarrassed looking back. I think we should all embrace the fact that we might not have the most experience in the industry we want to break into. That doesn't mean we don't have something to bring to the table. It's OK to not know things. It's OK to be inexperienced. It's more important to be your authentic self than to pretend to be someone you're not."
What's next for Accio?
"I want Accio to be the brand that people think of when they talk about tech and design. When they talk about the future of home space, I want Accio to be the brand that comes to people's minds.
"One of the challenges I'm facing now is resource - having enough capital and enough talented people in my team to help me with things I'm not an expert in. But, you know, it's a journey - I'm having to embrace the fact it will take time."
What does your team look like? How does Accio come together?
"When I first started I was acting as the project manager, like I said - spending my own money and bootstrapping everything. Because of this I'm very cautious about which roles get investment.
"I've worked with freelancers and studios on my branding and marketing. Now I actually have someone, which is great. She is a hugely valuable a member of the team.
"I also have another full-time job managing my mum's business. I'm actually borrowing some of its resources in China - we have a team of people that oversees quality control and liaises with manufacturers. I also have a team of warehouse operatives that help me with the logistics of shipping and delivery.