Using new computer vision technology, this startup is bringing the world its first quick serve beauty service

Straight from the future, meet the first beauty robot that can paint your nails in the time it takes you to get a cup of coffee or eat a quick breakfast or think about painting them yourself. 

I’m thrilled to tell you about Clockwork, the company behind the 10 minute robot manicure, or “minicure,” a new beauty service for busy people who would like to be able to change their nail polish quickly in between longer trips to the nail salon. The team at Clockwork has made this possible using new computer vision technology and sensors developed only within the last five years, and they were testing the robot on real users within 10 months of ideation. This summer they brought nail painting robots to market with their first pop-up store in San Francisco, Clockwork’s Lab.

Unsurprisingly, people love it. Appointments are getting booked over three weeks out, customers have posted TikTok videos that have quickly gone viral with millions of views and likes, and national media has taken notice. You can also see our own Garry Tan get a “minicure” in his latest YouTube video.

When you look at the size of the market and the lack of technical innovation in the space, Clockwork’s success makes sense. There has been a trend toward quick service beauty like Drybar and Heyday, where people want to get the same high quality services but in a way that saves them time. There hasn’t been a solution for nails, and so many people paint their nails — one in three Americans in 2019 to be exact. Beauty services are a huge and growing market. The U.S. nail salon market was $8.36B in 2019.

Clockwork opened its Lab this summer when COVID infections finally dropped to give us a moment of relief. There was a spike in online searches for beauty services according to Spate, an Initialized portfolio company that tracks beauty trends with data. People were coming out of their houses after lockdown and excited to experience an inexpensive, fast, contact-free way to have a small grooming habit make them feel a little more normal again.

Clockwork co-founders Renuka Apte and Aaron Feldstein are former Dropbox engineers, and the founding team has over 50+ years of experience at robotics firms, machine learning startups, and leading technology companies. They built a proof of concept nail painting robot, then sent out an email asking for volunteers to test it out. Within 45 minutes, they booked three days’ worth of appointments and they knew they were on to something.

Though the robots make the manicures look quick and easy, manicures are difficult for even humans to do well. In addition, hardware and software are both complex things to build accurately and efficiently. The Clockwork team has an amazing combination of practicality and ingenuity that has driven them to make both of these parts of the robot production seem effortless. They have always found solutions to any problems they have encountered — from the types of cameras they needed to use to the types of polish that work well with the machine, to needing to study the viscosity of nail polish by color to understand how each evaporates differently for the polish cartridges. Not to mention they were working on hardware during the COVID lockdown when it was difficult to meet in person. Despite all of these challenges the team always hit its roadmap deadlines, something unheard of in early stage startups. 

When we met the Clockwork team, I was excited to meet founders with such an impressive engineering background applying computer vision to a beauty problem. They also had an interesting go-to-market strategy focused on meeting women where they already are instead of trying to sell hardware to consumers, which can be an expensive and difficult business. Clockwork machines can be in a variety of locations where women are already living and working, making them very convenient.

In a short amount of time, it’s pretty incredible that they’ve not only built a robot that can do something that is hard for a human to do well, but they’ve also launched a storefront for customers to use it, secured the attention of retailers that are interested in having a robot in their stores and have received hundreds of requests from businesses to franchise the robots in various locations. 

We’re very excited to have led Clockwork’s $3.2M seed round and can’t wait to see Clockwork’s nail painting robots delivering on the promise of practical AI in more locations where people can experience them.