Thursday, February 9, 2012

Risky Ideas Turn Into Smart Businesses When Your Values Are Clear

This article originally ran in Fast Company as part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

Risky Ideas Turn Into Smart Businesses When Your Values Are Clear

Written by: Craig Dalton

Even though Craig Dalton’s business had so many things "wrong" with it, honesty, transparency, and connection between his customers and the artisans making his product were enough to create a successful company.

The advent of new technologies often begets the decline of established crafts. But sometimes, to quote the cliché, when innovation closes one door, it opens another. When we started DODOcase--which makes iPad cases using bookbinding techniques--on paper we were doing lots of things “wrong.”

We had decided to manufacture our products in one of the most expensive cities in the world using techniques that were hundreds of years old. We operated without an office, meaning we had no permanent production facility, and we had just a small core team. No one had seen the iPad at this point, so we designed a case for a product we’d never laid eyes on or used. As it turns out, each of these seemingly questionable, and certainly not advisable, decisions turned out to be keys in building a profitable business that encourages sustainable products and creates local jobs.
Tweaking an old industry to support a new one

San Francisco was home to a dwindling bookbinding industry that was eager to find new ways to remain relevant, as well as a vibrant woodworking community. This gave us access to a pool of talented local artisans to work with our product concept and execution. Once we had these relationships in place and a prototype in hand, we elected to go live with our simple e-commerce site before we had ever physically held an iPad. We had a feeling that people would appreciate a quality product that was locally built, as well as one that supported the adaptation of ancient techniques. The choice to employ local artisans wasn’t just a move we made to be "good," but a valuable investment because the connection between consumer and craftsman quickly became a large component of our identity.
Honest businesses are more flexible

In general, but especially because we were launching a case for an iPad that had never been seen, transparency in our processes, timelines, and purpose was essential. Social media proved to be an amazing vehicle to accomplish this goal, and we freely tweeted and Facebooked about who we were as craftsmen, and how we were progressing in our production. Having customers understand from us personally that these cases were being built for them, by hand, and by local craftspeople was crucial to them tolerating the wait. We would never go so far as to say our customers “liked” waiting in those early months, but surprisingly, the scarcity of the product proved to translate into an important marketing vehicle for us. Customers tended to post when they finally received their DodoCase. Because everyone shared their anticipation and excitement upon receiving their cases, including us, we built an active community between our company and our customers.
Encouraging values through practice

The mission of our business, then and now, is encouraging consumers to consider their purchases carefully. Our message had to ring clear: We preserve the art of bookbinding, create jobs in San Francisco, and make a product that people feel emotionally connected to. We are able to breathe freely, and act with total transparency simply because we have nothing to hide. As it turns out, people gravitate toward honesty, even (and maybe especially) if you are doing things "wrong" on paper. Today we have a full-fledged bookbindery, woodshop, and office space in San Francisco. We continue to work with the local businesses and craftsmen to incorporate new book binding techniques into our products. We’ve collaborated with local artists including Rex Ray and Jenny Beorkrem of Ork Posters notoriety, as well as large specialty brands such as J.Crew.

Risky ideas can turn into smart businesses when core values and goals remain clear. As people adopt new technologies and are bombarded by mass-produced goods, they’ll increasingly search for emotional connection and individualization. The businesses who can tap into this with a clear and honest message will prosper, and maybe change manufacturing for the better.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I love my DODOcase

On my recent Thanksgiving travel I ditched the device I use pretty much every day of the week, my iPad, to try an alternative. My main goal was to experience another up and coming tablet, but my experience lead me to an even more powerful discovery: I love, and I mean LOVE, using a DODOcase! Sure, as a founder, this is probably a foregone conclusion, but after leaving my DODOcase behind for the weekend, I had an incredibly visceral reaction to its absence.

A little background on the type of tablet user I am. I love the convenience of a good tablet. I use my tablet as a second monitor (actually third…yes I'm a geek), I bring it to the coffee shop with me to take meeting notes, I rock a little Pandora and I love streaming videos (thanks @netflix and @hbo). My iPad is the first thing I pick up in the morning and usually the last thing I put down at night. When I travel, I love reading my Kindle Keyboard. So…by now you get the point that I am a tablet obsessed kind of fella.

I didn’t have a case for the tablet that I was testing so I was using it by itself, and what amazed me quite quickly was how notably uncomfortable, even awkward I found it to use. I realized pretty quickly that this had nothing to do with the device itself it was just the lack of the right case. I couldn't quite figure out the best way to comfortably hold the tablet while sitting in a chair, and it was difficult to hold and use at the same time. Later in the evening as I laid down in bed to stream my guilty pleasure (AMC's The Walking Dead) I discovered I couldn't assume my favorite viewing position (DODOcase tented on my chest) and had to find a pillow to hold the tablet up. Not good … at least not good for my use of this particular tablet, but, excellent news for my love of what we are doing here at DODOcase!

After this recent experience, I can say that I firmly believe we make an exceptionally useful and well crafted product. Almost two years after starting DODOcase and it’s great to be able to share my recently renewed belief in our product, especially from the point of view of a consumer/user. The DODOcase works well for me in the office, provides protection when I'm on the city streets and works great to improve the utility of my tablet. I love the look and feel of the DODOcase and I'm proud of both what and how we do the things that we do.

-Craig Dalton

PS - the best news is that when I returned from my trip I found a prototype case for the mystery tablet I was using had been completed! More on that soon.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Artisan of the Month: Keoki Surf Boards

Shape Up: Keoki Surf Boards
By Jesse Szymanski

This month we found a surfboard shaper in my old stomping ground, Honolulu Hawaii, who’s been making surfboards for 18 years. Keoki Ching, owner and founder of Keoki Surfboards, grew up in surfing family that also shaped their own boards.

“My father and his brothers used to shape their own boards as they were growing up in Oahu. As I was getting more and more into surfing I got curious to do as my father and uncles had done, shape and surf their own boards. So really I think I did it for the experience and personal satisfaction of making something for myself,” he said.

Hand shaping surfboards has been a tradition in the Hawaiian Islands since the arrival of the ancient Polynesians, constantly improving wave riding for surfers, many of whom don’t realize the time and effort put forth into their finished product.

“Few people understand the amount of labor that goes into making a proper surfboard to Hawaii standards,” he explained.

“People have often asked, 'how much will it cost if I order two surfboards?' (expecting a big discount)  To which I've responded, 'it would cost twice as much, because that would be twice as much labor involved.'  People have to remember that there are seven to eight people involved in the production of any given surfboard, and each person has their special step,” he said.

With a degree in molecular biology, Ching took on surfboard shaping with a scientific approach, embracing CAD to help him perfect his designs.

“Technology has helped us with repeatability.  Surfboard CAD technology has helped us make repeat surfboards.  Hand shaped surfboards, no matter how hard we try to repeat what we've done before, are always going to have subtle differences between boards.  This is just a fact of the surfboard shaping industry. Technology has allowed us to make absolutely accurate differences in a previous design. We've been able to fine-tune our designs with repeatability. CAD technology has become a valuable tool to surfboard shapers worldwide for these reasons,” Ching said.

With the majority of surfboards being shaped overseas in mass-manufactured factories, people like Ching are holding onto a passionate and perfected art that is certainly an endangered craft in our consumer-based society.

If you’ve ever surfed or lived in Hawaii then you know that every surf-break is unique to itself and those who ride them take the design and functionality of their boards seriously, with each one in the quiver offering variations that help for a better ride.

Much like our efforts in great production here at DODOcase, Keoki Surfboards has a hands-on team dedicated to creating great boards.
“I work with amazing craftsmen in our shop. Each surfboard that comes out of our shop is a team effort of some of the top surfboard-building individuals in Hawaii. We can provide a better product if I only focus on the shape, the laminator focuses on laminating only, the air-brusher specializes in airbrushing, the sander in sanding.” Ching explained.

Surfing is a soul thing folks, with a whole lot of heart put into the shaping of a great board and Hawaii is steeped in a small community of skilled craftmen.

“By tradition surfboard shaping has been a secretive art, so many shapers keep to themselves.  Our community is small though, so most of the guys all know each other.  Though there is no formal association, I think I've noticed a little more camaraderie amongst the local Hawaii shapers. We call each other when we need to, we do help each other out as we've realized we're all in the same boat,” he said.

The same boat there in is one apart from the companies who mass-manufacture over-seas, with less attention to the individual and more put on turning out a product. And while CAD has helped Keoki Surfboards improve on design it has also given way to heavy competition.

“The problem with surfboard CAD technology is that it has allowed the mass manufacture of surfboards internationally, which has helped our industry reach a saturation point much quicker.  As it stands our industry is absolutely saturated, meaning our supply has finally met our demand.  Market saturation has driven surfboard prices down, making our industry less profitable,” he explained.

This is true for anyone who has been to the islands and seen the overwhelming host of shops, teams, companies and logos everywhere. Having so many different boards and shapers to choose from, the market is flooded with all sorts of styles and designs. What sets Keoki Surfboards apart is the one-on-one customer attention they put into each board as other companies continue to outsource.

“I think it is safe to say that the market is saturated.  Many companies have been falling through the cracks in the past few years, so it is actually a good way for our industry to sort itself out. The companies that are surviving are the ones that are remaining true to their core philosophy,” Ching stresses.

While hand-shaping is an endangered art in this day and age. It is up to people like Keoki Ching to keep the spirit and craftsmanship of hand shaping alive. Having worked as a consultant at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Ching has had access to the most ancient of surfboards in their collection, giving him both ideas and inspiration to preserve the past while shaping the future board by board.