I’m a cobbler and my children have no shoes

My background is in design research and design/brand strategy. I believe in the importance and power of these disciplines. Yet, for my own business, I rarely do either. What the heck?!!?

Since acknowledging that the adage about the cobbler’s children without any shoes applies to me, I googled the expression to find out how I turned out like this.

A couple of theories of why this happens:

  1. Externally Motivated. Is my drive to please others stronger than my drive to just do high quality work? It’s a possible explanation as to why I conducted proper research for my clients and just do minimal internet research for myself. With the former, I would have an audience gathered around a big conference room table to listen to my every word and congratulate me on what a good job I did. With the latter, I have to wait months to see if my conclusions from the research were correct and, even if they are, there is still no one to pat me on the back. I never knew that praise was important to me, but it is.
  2. Limited Resources. Whether money, time or talent, you’ve only got so much of each. Whenever someone would suggest that I do research, I would say, “But I don’t have time!” even though I knew that research doesn’t have to take a lot of time or money. So, while this may be true for others, for me it was just an excuse.
  3. Lack of Confidence. I never received proper training or education for design research and strategy. I developed my methods myself based largely on intuition and what seemed to work in the field. Interestingly, I felt like that sufficed when working with clients but fills me with doubt when working on my own business. The stakes certainly seem higher now, so maybe just going with my gut doesn’t give me enough confidence?

Obviously, these are all rather lame excuses for not doing something that is incredibly important. Doing my first bit of consumer research this past week, albeit a very small bit, was a good confidence re-builder. It forced me to acknowledge that there are things about my consumer that I do not know and that I can use my old research methods to start to figure them out. I’m looking forward to doing more in the future.

Any other examples from other entrepreneurs out there that found themselves neglecting their specialty in running their own business?

How I ended up with too many SKUs

If you read my post yesterday about how there are too many Po Campo products in my line, you might be wondering how I found myself in this predicament. I was wondering the same thing! Upon introspection, I believe this is how I get to a point where I have 40 SKUs in a business four years old with a hard time retaining customers:
  1. I like designing bags. I would design a new bag every day if I could. I would introduce a new bag every month if I could. It’s fun!
    Lesson: It takes a lot of money and time to support every SKU. I’m seriously lacking in both so these so having the freedom to design my brains out will be something to shoot for: grow the business so there is enough $ and manpower to support that activity. Until then – stop it.
  2. Women like to have options. This is pretty well documented and the reason I would tell myself that designing so many bags was a good thing. Again, I’m too small to have the options that Fossil and Le Sportsac have.
    Lesson: Have patience and wait until you’re closer to being a multimillion dollar company before you start acting like one.
  3. I was reactionary. A customer would say, “Oh, if you had this or that bag, I would buy it.” I would think, “Oh – that’s a good idea!” and would design this or that bag. And said customer would order 8 of them and I would be stuck with marketing the other 292.
    Lesson: Only design this or that if they are going to order at least 500 of them.Homepage
  4. I was chasing instead of leading. Po Campo started off with two bags (the Clutch and the Satchel) and sales were “meh”. In using the bags ourselves and talking to others, the consensus was that neither were good for “everyday” use. The clutch was way too small and the Satchel was too big. So we did an in-between-sized bag, the Pilsen Bungee. Sales continued to be “meh” so we did some more digging and learned that the price was too high. So, the Wristlet and Logan Tote were introduced as cost-reduced versions of the other bags. Sales continued to be “meh”. You get the idea. Pattern is too polarizing? What about these? Bags are too feminine? Let’s try this. Function is too complicated? How about this? Before I knew it, I had 40 SKUs to support.
  5. Lesson: Going forward, I am going to take all of those requests but stop throwing darts at the wall to see what sticks. I am going to choose my best darts and stand a foot from the wall to make sure they stick.
All along, the real problem was that the bags weren’t selling well in stores. I should be able to solve this with a few SKUs, and then go from there. Wish me luck!

I need to stop designing things

I have problems with sell-through (which means my products sell slowly in stores) and maintaining customers. While my business is still growing, I know that these problems will eventually kill my business if I don’t fix them since there are only so many possible Po Campo customers out there. Today, an advisor diagnosed these problems as symptoms of SKU-proliferation disease. I have to agree that she is correct, as my resources (money and time) are stretched very thin supporting all the bags in my line.
The cure? Not only to stop designing new bags, but to also stop making bags already in my line. She told me to just pick my four best selling bags and just make and market those. My first thought was, “My babies!”. I have 40 SKUs (which stands for stock keeping unit and means every individual item that I sell), so narrowing down to four will be sacrificing much of my offspring. My second thought was, “Okay, point taken, I have too many. Let’s just cut the number of SKUs in half”. Now after mulling it over for an hour or two, I think she was right. I am going to shoot for selecting 4-6 bags.
How do I decide? Here’s my plan:
  1. Look at which bags sold the best this year and take the top 6.
  2. Look at which bags are going to be new for next year and take the top 6 that I’ve gotten orders for so far.
  3. Have a popularity contest. Tomorrow I will put these bags out on a table at during a Christmas cookie party of potential Po Campo consumers and have people pick their favorite three. I also plan to put a survey together online and blast it to the world – both consumers and customers
  4. Study the results, and pick 4-6 bags.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Hoping to have an idea with what to move forward with the first week of January.

Selfishly mentoring students

*Note: This is reposted from my entry on the Po Campo blog

I recently joined the mentor program at my alma mater, University of Illinois at Chicago, in which I meet with a small group of industrial design students every month or so to advise them on their studies. So far, as most other mentors say, I think it is helping me more than it helps them.

1) Makes me feel like I actually know something
It’s a purely selfish motivation, but it feels good to feel smart. Starting and running Po Campo has shown me how little I know because every day is filled with new lessons, mostly learned from making mistakes. But, working with the students, I feel like a genius! I’ve realized how much I’ve learned (and accomplished) since I was in their shoes as a sophomore in undergraduate studies.

2) Reminds me why I got into design in the first place
I fell in love with industrial design the moment I learned about it. I thought it seemed like the perfect job for someone like me, somebody who liked to make and sell things.

Now after working as a professional industrial designer for about 12 years, I appreciate the breadth of the profession. There are so many things you can do with ID training, from designing cell phones to museum exhibits to starting your own company (hello Po Campo!). All those possibilities begin with these first design courses, when you learn how to get the ideas from your head onto paper, and then learn how to evolve them and share them and – hopefully – make them real. My days are now filled with spreadsheets and supply chain issues, so it is enjoyable to table the “business side” of design for a little bit and just get into the nitty gritty of how to design something that looks nice and works well.

Prototype of desktop pen organizer for semester final

3) Teaches me how to teach
Before starting Po Campo, I worked at design agency Webb deVlam, where I held a senior position and would manage small project teams. Now, as owner and “boss” at Po Campo, I realize how easy I had it then. It’s much easier to manage people who are skilled, experienced, and doing a job you know how to do. It’s much harder to manage a small, inexperienced staff in doing a job you don’t really know how to do (or the best way to do it, anyway). See point #1 above.

Since the latter scenario is my new reality , mentoring this small group of ID students feels like teaching with training wheels. I am teaching something I know reasonably well but to a student who is very fresh, but also very eager to learn.

My co-mentor Bill working with a student

If I could impart one lesson, it would be to not get to discouraged and to keep at it. Despite being probably the coolest job on earth, industrial design careers tend to be rather bumpy and it can take awhile to find your place. But, perhaps that is how most things in life are.

Since I am new at this, I’m interested in hearing what your experiences are with teaching/mentoring or inspiring the next generation in your field. Please share in the comments below!

Finally, Something Good Happened!

The first 6-7 months of 2012 were pretty good, as far as sales were concerned anyway. I went into August with a full calendar of trade shows and a new sales team, pretty certain that I’d end the year just as strong as I started it.

But, I was wrong. Sales in August, September and October were about half as much as I was planning on, which was pretty devastating. Then my sales manager left (along with much of my sales team) when it became clear she wasn’t equipped to handle the problem. Then several stores returned their bags because they weren’t selling. Then I found out that one of our most popular styles was defective and that some customers were dealing with returns of up to 30%. Then I got turned down for a loan (after I was approved no less!) and I had to stop paying myself.

Finally, today, three good things happened.

1) The University of Chicago Business School is including Po Campo as a project case in their Marketing Research class! That means I am going to have 5 MBA students working on Po Campo for an entire quarter! This is too good to be true. Knock on wood.

2) I stood up to my manufacturer. I’ve been told I’m waaaay too nice and understanding and need to toughen up and be more forceful with my manufacturing partner, otherwise I’m just going to continue to be docked around. I really gave her a piece of my mind today, and it felt darn good. My intern said I sounded “assertive”, which is definitely a step up.

3) After seeing our bottom line go farther and farther into the red the last few months, I rolled up my sleeves to dig deeper into the Quickbooks file to see if something was wrong. I mean, I know things are bad, but really this bad? Good news, I found some oddity in the file that was having the cost of goods on some items be double what they actually were. In other words, it was only showing half as much profit as there actually should’ve been. After figuring out how to correct it, I improved our bottom line by $20,000! Hallelujah! (And why didn’t my accountant catch this?)

I hope this means that I’ve turned a corner. I’ve noticed my optimism increase as well as my general jolliness. Times sure can get bleak around a small company, but finding the patience and strength to wait it out and/or pull yourself back up can be certainly rewarding.

Failing Fast with Durable Goods

At a party last night, I was talking to friends about the big learning curve I’ve experienced with Po Campo. In short, at 4 years in, I feel like I need to rethink who my consumer is and what my distribution strategy should be. In some ways, it feels like going back to the starting line.

Agile Vs. Waterfall product development
My friend Randall, who works as a programmer, suggested trying the agile method commonly used by Web 2.0 developers, that encourages you to develop a product in quick iterations to “fail fast”. It is thought to identify and fix bugs faster and less expensively. Agile doesn’t have a definitive endpoint, you stop when you run out of time or when the product is good enough. This contrasts with the traditional waterfall method, in which development and management follow a sequential stage-gate process. For example, you know there will be, say, five phases of product development and what will happen in each phase and what criteria needs to be met before moving to the next phase. I grew up with the waterfall method in industrial design, which always made sense to me since there is more capital investment involved and more interdisciplinary stakeholders that need to be managed. You can’t pay to have a mold built and then decided you want to change it. And what about rapidly getting approval from marketing, engineering, procurement, logistics? That sounds like chaos!

Graphic from Thycotic Solutions, http://logicboost.com
Graphic from Thycotic Solutions, http://logicboost.com

I told Randall that it was hard for me to fail fast because it took a long time to get learning in the marketplace. By the time product is made and shipped to stores, 3-6 months have already gone by. We need another 3-6 months to see what consumers think, so my rounds of iterative development would be every 6-12 months – not very fast. Also, all of that less-than-perfect product would still be out there, potentially tarnishing my brand name. It’s not like I can just do a software update and bring everyone’s Po Campo bag up to the latest model. Retrieving them and replacing them would be too costly to consider.

No new machinery here!
No new machinery here!

Yet, I’m interested to see if there is a way to become more agile in product development. As consumers, we are getting accustomed to products being rapidly improved and the kinks worked out on an ongoing basis. There isn’t really any reason why this should stop with durable goods. One thing I like about cut-and-sew is how it is already inherently pretty agile, in that no new tooling is generally required and doing running changes is pretty acceptable. If agile was going to work with any manufacturing process, cut-and-sew would be the best fit.

Our bags in a store
Our bags in a store

What’s holding me back? I get confused with implementation. Most of our business is wholesale, meaning that we sell to other stores who sell it to the end user. They are a fairly traditional bunch and I know they would only want the latest and greatest. They also discourage change (even seasonly!) because it makes things harder for them to manage. Online sales seem like a better match because we can communicate with our end user and get feedback faster. Again, the bulk of our existing wholesale customers will push back against this, as they do not like product available online that they can not sell in their stores.

Has anybody else had success with implementing agile in their development of durable goods? I’m very interested to continue this discussion.

Mourning the loss of a business plan

For the last two months or so, every day seemed to bring bad news. I got turned down for a loan, my sales manager quit, a customer canceled an order, I didn’t have enough money to pay the bills, the Internet went out, my mother-in-law died, on and on. Even things that seemed like good news (“We got a large order for spring!”) became bad news in my head (“But I have no money to make more bags!”).

"Winter in the City" Photo by Andrei Spirache
“Winter in the City” Photo by Andrei Spirache

I was pretty gloom and doom, could hardly pull myself out of bed in the morning and wanted to just lie on the couch and drink boxed wine every evening. The whole starting-a-business thing started to feel like too much of a struggle, like maybe I wasn’t up for the challenge after all. It’s possible that I could fail, right? Is this what failure looks like?

I’ve gone through rough patches before, and would lie around and feel sorry for myself for a few days before finding the strength to “get back at it”. This time, that drive was slow to reappear. Each time I felt a little positive, something discouraging would happen that would send me right back to the couch. This time, the weight of despair felt heavier. I felt like I was in bereavement, buried under a heavy weight of sorrow.

"Shadowy Room" by Arunas Klupsas
“Shadowy Room” by Arunas Klupsas

But what was I mourning, exactly? I realized I was mourning the loss of a business plan.

I find business plans (and plans in general) a great source of comfort because they give you a sort of map to success. If checking off items from a to-do list gives you a sense of accomplishment and progress (like they do for me), they are great. But, as I learned this year, they also give you false hope because you say, “If I do X, Y and Z, this and this will happen”, but that’s not always true.

In my 2012 business plan, at this point, I was supposed to be sitting on top of a nice little pile of money – not a crazy amount, like $25,000, that I could use to buy more bags. I would have paid off one of my loans. I would have a small, but livable, monthly income. I would have orders booked for Spring 2013 for my new, big customers, like REI and Title Nine.

None of those things came true. Instead, I am struggling to find additional capital, have no monthly income and have to find new customers for next spring.

It dawned on me that it wasn’t so much the pitfalls of the business that were dragging me down, but more the feeling of being betrayed by my business plan. I trusted it to work and it didn’t and now I have no plan, no map to success. I was mourning the loss of my compass, my talisman.

"Trees in the Mist" by Beate Waetzel
“Trees in the Mist” by Beate Waetzel

So, what’s next? On my to-do list for this weekend is to start a new business plan for next year. This time I’m going to consider it a guide rather than a promise, and stay more vigilant about watching the story unfold rather than hoping that it will just all work out in the end.

I’m still on the hunt for my talisman, though.