5 Lessons I Learned Creating Flo Mask, The World’s Best Face Mask For Kids

As someone who has spent most of my career developing consumer products, I’ve always had an inkling that my kids would one day inspire me to create something to solve a user need they faced. This calling never rang more true than during the 2018 Camp Fire wildfire in Northern California.

The entire San Francisco Bay Area was blanketed in toxic smoke for two long weeks. My kids came home from school complaining of nausea and headaches. As a dad, I desperately wanted to protect them from this health crisis, so I started searching for a solution. After hours of scrolling through page after page online, I was in disbelief to discover that N95 grade masks for adults were plentiful, but completely non-existent for kids. The irony here is that kids are the ones most impacted by air pollution, yet there were no solutions to protect them.

It was that night that I committed myself to creating a kids mask. And if I were to do it, I would do it right, and it had to be good enough for my own kids. Halfway into the development process, COVID rocked our world and I knew Flo Mask was needed more than ever.

I’m still learning every day and continue to hone my craft. I’d like to share these key lessons I learned over the course of this two year journey.

Lesson #1 — Define your core pillars early and stay true to them

I knew when I decided to create Flo Mask that I would aim to develop the very best mask in the world. There was no compromising because the alternative is a product that is simply ineffective and could potentially cause harm to my users. Therefore, I identified three key problem areas I wanted to solve:

Screenshot from my original presentation

Flipping these problems into solutions, I defined the three core pillars that became my north star over the next two years:

  • Tailored Fit — If it doesn’t fit well, then harmful particulates in the air will get inhaled.
  • Comfort (Physical & Respiratory) — Without comfort, users won’t wear them for long.
  • Effectiveness — The filters had to be as good as an N95 mask or better.

Compromising on either of these pillars would render this project a failure. Therefore, it had to be all three or the project wasn’t viable. These pillars continued to guide me in my decision making process as I worked towards solving them one at a time.

Lesson #2 — Surround yourself with a great team

Some early concepts in how to engineer an exhaust valve

Even though Flo Mask was my personal project, I couldn’t have successfully developed it alone. I recruited several friends who just happen to be award winning designers and leveraged their expertise and opinions to navigate the challenges of building a kids mask.

Did we always agree? Absolutely not. But did we respect each other’s opinions? Always. I played the “Product Manager” role within the team and ultimately made the difficult decision to eliminate our exhaust valve as it took away from our filter surface area. This was done after many weeks of trying to solve for the best approach to implement as an attempt to stay true to my goal of maintaining respiratory Comfort.

As you can imagine, it was an incredibly difficult decision, but what I appreciated most was that my team was supportive and trusting in the path I chose to take. Not a single one complained despite the huge amount of work we had invested that would be thrown out. More importantly, once we made this decision, we never looked back and instead focused heavily on making our new path successful. Because we lost the ability to expel stale air for improved respiratory comfort, it drove us to further optimize our design for maximum air flow, creating generous openings in the form factor, combined with one of the most breathable filtration materials available today.

Given that most masks with exhaust valves are now banned from so many places (hospitals, airplanes, etc.), it’s now obvious we made the right call. But having a supportive team is oftentimes the most crucial aspect to delivering a successful project.

Lesson #3 — Telegraph your passion and others will believe

My very first 3D scan with a $25,000 scanner!

Having some experience with a 3D scanner while working for an AR start-up, I knew from the start I wanted to leverage a similar process for Flo Mask. I hypothesized that I could create a one-size-fits-all solution for kids, but only if I knew what their actual face shapes were.

Aiming to prove out my first core pillar of Tailored Fit, I spent weeks researching various 3D scanning solutions. Most options I explored couldn’t provide the level of accuracy I wanted. The ones that could required kids to sit incredibly still for over a minute, which we know is an impossible task.

I ultimately discovered an industrial grade 3D scanner that could complete a scan in 20 seconds with an accuracy level of 0.5mm. It was even more unbelievable that the company selling the device was located only 15 minutes from my house! I called them on my day off and they invited me over to evaluate the product.

Of course, it was too good to be true. Despite the scanner meeting every single one of my needs, it was way outside of my budget with a price tag of $25,000. I did however have a great conversation with the team there. I shared my story, speaking to my product experience, why I wanted to create a kids mask, and how I desperately needed the 3D scanner to solve my need for Tailored Fit.

The team empathized with my mission and decided to offer me an unprecedented deal, allowing me to rent their demo unit on the weekends since they were only using it on the weekdays. It was still expensive and required a two hour training session, but at least it was within my budget.

Another instance of this was when I spoke with the director of product development at my now filter manufacturer. I can’t imagine how he felt speaking to me for the first time, a total stranger with zero clue about filtration materials and only a vision to create a mask for kids. I even confided in him my thoughts of giving up because every filter in the market I had tested to date did not meet my respiratory Comfort and Effectiveness pillars.

However, the director spent over an hour of his precious time on our initial call, listening to what my aspirations were with Flo Mask, and being a dad himself, genuinely caring about helping me solve for this massive need. After several follow on discussions and brainstorming sessions, he was able to find a solution that is now the unique material we’re using today. We’ve since had Nelson Labs test this filter, proving that it blocks over 99.8% of viruses while maintaining an air flow rate 600% better than the FDA allowed standards.

Had I not expressed my story in a passionate manner, I couldn’t have convinced these critical contributors to partake in my reality distortion to build Flo Mask.

Lesson #4 — Obsess over the details, but the ones that matter

Color sample is approved!

In the past, my team and I would work tirelessly to uphold our product design specs to incredibly tight tolerances: colors, textures, sink marks, etc. And of course, some of these issues were ones that only our team of product designers would ever notice, but it meant a lot to us to get it to perfection.

With Flo Mask, it was still important, but not at the expense of increased costs or schedule delays. For example, we ultimately chose resin colors that were really close to our original Pantone colors. Even though they were a slight shade off, we benefited by choosing colors the supplier could nail easily. It also avoided the time consuming process of running multiple trial runs and sending samples back and forth for review and approval. Yes, design is important, but 100% accurate colors were not part of my three core pillars.

Instead, we spent our time and effort to focus on refining meaningful attributes, such as dialing in the front cover snap strength that secures the filter, ensuring our design would allow trapped moisture to air dry and not grow mold, engineering the cord retention buttons in a way so they don’t go flying off if a kid fidgets with it, etc. Ultimately, these are the details that truly matter most and the ones worthy of our time investment.

Lesson #5 — The unspoken words are equally as powerful as the spoken ones

Early prototype where the top and bottom straps were easy to confuse with each other

When you’re so invested in a project, as I’ve experienced many times before, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. After several initial rounds of prototypes, I realized that I was always the one to place the mask on my kids. I was so fixated on validating the incremental design improvement of this new generation prototype that I overlooked the user experience of a child putting a mask on themself.

The first time I let my son do it, I noticed a grave error on my part. We had designed the top and bottom straps to be identical, so a kid putting it on blindly behind their head wouldn’t recognize that they may have criss-crossed the straps. I had already gone through a dozen rounds of strap prototyping with the factory and I knew they were on the verge of murdering me, but this was a big enough deal that I would be willing to stop ship on the project. I ultimately came up with a simple solution, just make the bottom strap a regular, thin elastic strap since it would be more comfortable at the base of the head, while the top strap would have our signature anti-slip feature. Not only did we improve on the user experience, but we also reduced our cost…win win!

The first time I let my daughter put Flo Mask on, she grabbed the bottom of the filter opening to adjust and center it on her face. The cover immediately popped open and my jaw dropped, knowing how big of an issue this was. The team and I took this observation as an opportunity to increase the snap strength around that area of the cover. We’re also planning to create some How To instructions by suggesting to users to adjust the mask by holding the side buttons as strong anchor points.

Again, these were all unspoken needs that wouldn’t have been discovered had I not been watching intently and with a fresh pair of eyes, as if I were seeing it for the first time.

Recap

As I think about my 100+ products I’ve developed and launched over the years, I deeply believe these five lessons, or principles, have been guiding me for some time now. I hope they’ll do the same for you.

Define your core pillars early and stay true to them

Surround yourself with a great team

Telegraph your passion and others will believe

Obsess over the details, but the ones that matter

The unspoken words are equally as powerful as the spoken ones

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My name is Kevin Ngo and I develop amazing products that people love. I'm on a never ending quest to discover, learn, and be inspired.

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Kevin Ngo

Kevin Ngo

My name is Kevin Ngo and I develop amazing products that people love. I'm on a never ending quest to discover, learn, and be inspired.

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