German entrepreneur Constantin Schwaab has changed the way people get everything from movie tickets to solar power. Now, with Wirelane, he’s set his sights on shifting the way Europeans get around. He acquired a software company that made an app for locating public parking spaces, and has used the technology to develop a sophisticated ecosystem of charging stations for electric cars. The first of these stations debuted in Germany in 2018 and received an honorable mention in Fast Company's Innovation By Design Awards.
Constantin Schwaab (left) and Franz Blach at IDEO Munich
We sat down with Schwaab and Franz Blach, a design director in our Munich studio, to learn more about the growth of Wirelane:
IDEO: You’ve founded startups in a range of industries. What got you excited about electric vehicles?
Constantin Schwaab: One of my former companies, Plain Energy, operated solar power plants. Back when it started in 2005, there was no option to buy electric power for vehicles, which got me thinking about how we could electrify mobility. I knew we could use smart software to solve this problem, but we’d also need even smarter hardware and infrastructure. The legacy market for EV charging infrastructure was very technical, and the hardware was typically not very accessible to humans. So a simpler solution needed to come from a user-centered perspective.
IDEO designers work on a prototype of Wirelane's hardware
What was it like to embed in our studio and work closely with designers to build the business?
S: I had a lot of reservations at first, not because of IDEO, but because I’d never worked with a design firm before. I thought, “Why would I work with an outside firm if they only work on a project for a given number of days or weeks? How could they ever be as motivated as I am?”
The biggest surprise for me was that you’re an extremely dedicated team. That you’re able to recruit the best people and make them stick with you says more about IDEO than any product you’ve ever designed. The team brought so much value to Wirelane. Without you, I’m sure we couldn’t have met our goals in the amount of time we had and at the level of quality we reached. When we came into your Munich office in June 2017, we wanted the hardware design ready by September because all the other steps were built off of that design. Your team developed a completely new set of hardware in two months; it was an incredible experience. I wasn't sure if an outside design firm could actually deliver something ready to go to market. My expectations for IDEO were not only met, but far exceeded.
A rendering of one of Wirelane's EV charging stations
What about this collaboration was most valuable to your team?
S: Coming from a software background, we had no idea about hardware development—the tools, materials, and technology we’d need to get a product to market. Scarcity of resources is the biggest problem for any startup, so when we came to IDEO we immediately had access to the abundance of this office and could tap into a wide range of backgrounds and competence in so many fields.
How did Wirelane identify its core mission?
S: We bought a German business that had a legacy, and through the IDEO process we found there were already some core values in place, such as honesty and openness. We asked everybody what the company meant to them and what kind of culture we would need to be successful. Based on all these inputs, we created The Wirelane Manifesto, which holds our mission, purpose, and core values. The book is so strong because we created it together as a company.
Now, every new team member gets this book to learn about our values and contribute ideas for how to bring them to life. We think this clear mission will help us become a magnet for top talent. People talking to us or visiting us already recognize the quality of this design-driven work.
The Wirelane Manifesto.
Franz, what was the experience like for IDEO, working so closely with Constantin and his team?
Franz Blach: Many CEOs are flying at 8,000 feet; instead, we worked hand-in-hand with Constantin in how we made decisions. Working so closely, we didn’t have to convince or explain or bring him along—he already understood the value of being customer-centric and solving human problems through design. It was all about getting this project to market—together.
For me, one of the proudest moments was seeing Constantin step in as the new leader of the company, motivating people and galvanizing the culture. He said, “We’re doing this together.” He talked about employees dedicating the energy of their lives to this work. People listening went from, “Who’s this guy?” to, “Wow, I’m excited and I want to work on this!” Helping to transform a vision into a product with a great user experience, and ultimately into an organization with a meaningful brand and an empowering culture, is magical.
Constantin is a maker at heart. He always says, “I can fix this and I can make the future a better place.” This dedication to making an impact on society is a passion he shares with our IDEO team. It’s all about powering—or empowering—the future.
Wirelane's new brand guidelines
Constantin, what were some of the skills Wirelane learned through this process?
S: Applying the design process IDEO taught us was very enlightening; employees found out they could move beyond just responding to immediate customer demands and think bigger.
We took many of the techniques we use now from the experience with IDEO. What differentiates our hardware is its ease of use. It’s a high-tech product, but we wanted to shield the user from complexity. And the user is not only the consumer; it’s also the electrician-installer, the business that hosts the station, and so on.
Where do you see Wirelane, and EV technology overall, 10 years down the road?
S: I think electric vehicles will be the standard for individual mobility in 10 years. There will be a tipping point soon, influenced by the regulatory environment. We’re already seeing laws in Europe that would prohibit the use of internal combustion engines.
Through this collaboration, I think Wirelane has a very good chance of creating the best product on the market—a market that is about to see explosive growth.
Wirelane's web portal and mobile app