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Sunday Sitdown: Your cap, your team, at the touch of a phone

Jamaal Crayton, founder of Zero Wearables, wearing one of his caps with a front display that can be changed at the touch of a smartphone. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Jamaal Crayton was watching a TV awards show when he got the idea for a business producing a smart hat — a flat-brimmed, baseball-style cap with a display on the front that you can change at the touch of a smartphone. Crayton, who lives in Highwood and works for Caterpillar Inc., started Zero Wearables and is pushing to gain a foothold in the competitive sports-licensing field. He plans to sell the caps in three basic colors — gray, black and camouflage — for $100, and for $125 to $150 to get custom colors and materials. He spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sandra Guy. An edited transcript follows.

Question: How does it work?

Answer: The caps — we are now refining the prototypes — feature embedded computer chips that connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth.

You see the app for the hat on your smartphone. The connection gives you access to images and photos, so you can send them from the smartphone back to the cap.

My idea is that sports teams’ logos, at the college and professional levels, will become the biggest content that the target audience­ — young men 18 to 35 — will upload to display on their caps, especially during games.

I’m anticipating they’ll be on the market sometime in the last three months of the year.

We’re contacting leads to get the proper licensing to let people purchase Cubs and other licensed content from the MLB, as well as the NHL and the NFL. The license fees vary per school and per team organization.

Separately, we want designers themselves to be able to put their work on our platform and charge for access to their designs.

Q: How did you get the idea?

A: I was watching the BET awards show last June. I saw one of the rappers, Lil Wayne, wearing a hat. I wondered if he could put some kind of message on it.

I got the idea partly because I’ve worked for the past eight years at Caterpillar in telematics. It involves taking data off of an item and transporting it into the cloud, so people can get quick and easy access to it.

Q: What’s the goal?

A: I have the patent, and I’m willing to take on the manufacturing and carrying costs of producing the caps. My idea is that the NCAA sells more licensed content than anyone. We expect licensing in general to make up a reasonable amount of the overall portfolio.

Most sports fans identify with their college experience more so than with NFL or professional teams. I hope to negotiate a license deal with NCAA college teams, so they could use the interactive cap as an additional revenue stream.

Q: How did your family play a role in this?

A: I grew up in Peoria as the middle child between two brothers and two sisters. I worked with my dad Jerry Crayton, starting with a newspaper route at 10. My dad worked in marketing and purchasing at Caterpillar for 32 years, but he also owned 30 to 40 rental properties. He would get home at 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m., and after I got my homework done, we’d start working on the rental houses — sweeping, repairing plumbing, cleaning up, patching walls and installing wood floors. I still own one property. I learned about business.

Q: How much has this cost? And what would you advise others thinking about prototyping an invention?

A: I asked one of my brothers, Nuri, a computer engineer, to co-found the venture and set up the code. We thought it would be a couple thousand to develop. It’s probably now up to 10 times more than I first thought. We’ve funded it ourselves — our family and friends, no venture capital.

The expenses include the patent, developing designs, creating custom chip sets, testing display boards and paying someone hourly because they have an expertise. If you don’t know, hire somebody. Stay in your lane, and do what you do best.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I love going to live sports events, specifically my college football team, Grambling State University in Louisiana, spending time with my 3-year-old daughter and my wife Crystal, along with doing community service with my fraternity’s graduate chapter of Omega Psi Phi.

Jamaal Crayton’s advice to other entrepreneurs: “If you don’t know, hire somebody. Stay in your lane, and do what you do best.” | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
Jamaal Crayton’s advice to other entrepreneurs: “If you don’t know, hire somebody. Stay in your lane, and do what you do best.” | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times