For our last publication of 2019, I wanted to get at the story of our good friends at Flowfold. They’ve supported TPP from the very beginning, even partnering with us for our very first limited collaboration. James Morin, Flowfold’s COO, sat down with us to chat about textiles, manufacturing business models, and of course, puppies.
Brandon: “Lighter and stronger gear” has always been a cornerstone of Flowfold’s design philosophy. Can you tell us a bit more about how you put this into practice in your products? Have you ever found those two things in conflict with one another?
James: For sure. There is, at times, an inverse relationship to weight and strength. This is not news to anyone, especially TPP members. The weight of the fabric has to do with the thickness of the fabric and that impacts its tear strength and resistance to abrasion. That being said, it’s important to think about this in terms of relativity. We are always thinking about making “lighter” and “stronger” packs, but it’s important to remember your reference point. Lighter than what? Stronger than what? Here’s an example: we recently used a new lightweight V07 LS material (the material used to make Everest tents). Is it lighter than the LS 42 we typically use? Yes. Is it, therefore, less strong? Again, Yes. But when you make a fanny pack out of that fabric, is it fair to say it’s lighter and stronger than a cheap knock off polyester fanny pack? Also, yes. The goal isn’t to make a light pack or a strong pack. The goal is to make the highest quality product we can. A super-light product that falls apart right away doesn’t do anyone any good. Likewise, a super heavy duty product that will last a lifetime that’s too uncomfortable to ever use is equally useless. It’s about balance and we are meticulous about this.
Brandon: XPac variants and LiteSkin are obviously your current materials of choice, but we’ve seen some experiments with more exotic materials, like the upcycled Everest tents. What’s been your favorite to work and build with and why? Is there still an elusive textile out there that you’re just itching to make a pack out of?
James: This is a really interesting question and it will depend on who you ask here at Flowfold. For me, personally, I’m really interested in the VX styles that haven’t become as mainstream. The future of potentially having a VX fabric that’s made from recycled plastic, or organic cotton. The VX and LS fabrics we use are extremely technical in performance but also in feel. So I’m excited about having a technical fabric that doesn’t feel technical. We’re getting close with the cotton and canvas laminates and I’m excited to see how those are introduced into the pack market. Also (and yes this is a call for help from TPP members), I’d personally like to get into more sustainable fabrics. Recycled plastic is still plastic. What about hemp? What about mushroom leather? What about test tube-grown leather? What’s the future there and how can I get my hands on it?
Brandon: Can you give us some insight into the Flowfold design process? How do you come up with new products, and how do you decide which to build and which to shelve?
James: I’ll start with the cliche answer: “It’s a team effort”. That’s real of course. We have monthly meetings with the entire Flowfold team where we talk about trends we are seeing in the market and then we add them to our list of R&D projects. We have a goal to spend at least 20% of our production time on R&D so it’s an important initiative for us. But let’s break this question down into two parts. 1 – Where we get ideas, or design inspiration, and 2 – How we choose to act on said ideas, or design execution.
Design inspiration can come from any number of places. All ideas eventually come from a Flowfold team member but the idea has to start somewhere and I’ll break that down into three main external buckets; External Trends, External Competition, External Customers.
- External Trends: This is basic SEO type stuff. Go to Google trends and type in “fanny pack”. From Jan 2017 to about June 2018 you saw a steep incline in search. People wanted fanny packs. It’s been on a decline since then but it’s still being searched for more now than in 2016. “Men’s crossbody” is on the rise since 2017 and trending up but messenger bag is trending down. Does this mean we’ll make a men’s crossbody before a messenger bag? No, but it’s a data point that goes into the equation. You can do this same sort of analysis on Amazon (and we do) to gauge the size of a market based on how often it’s searched for and how many products are available. High search and low availability is a good product to go after.
- External Competition: What is our competition doing? Where are they winning? Why aren’t we playing there?
- External Customers: This can get broken down into a couple of buckets too all depending on your business model
- Individual Customers: If you have a Direct to Consumer Model you’ll have a customer service team that is interacting with customers. Even if you don’t have a D2C model, you’ll have wholesale or retail accounts that are selling your products. And if you have a brand that means you’ll have a social presence and the modern-day customer doesn’t live in one channel for communication. Customer service happens on email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, phone etc. But, these customers, your users, will always have ideas for new products or product changes. It’s important to listen.
- Retailers/Distributor: For us, we’ll also get ideas from our small mom and pop shops who have customers coming in and always asking for a “bigger tote” or something. Or sometimes it’s our large accounts like L.L.Bean or REI who are pushing us to come up with more sustainable fabric options because that’s what their customers want. Sometimes it’s an entire country. We get a lot of design inspiration from our partners in Japan as an example.
Design execution is different. Most companies don’t have an idea problem, they have an execution problem. That’s a challenge for us as well. Ideas are easy and you’ll always have more than you can execute on so you have to prioritize. We just started using a very simple scoring method to help us with that. Anything with too much structure will break, but you need basic principles to guide you. A tactic we’ve used successfully in the past is stack ranking opportunities based on their “ICE” score, which is simply: Impact, Confidence, and Effort. The key is prioritizing opportunities that have the biggest impact (I), you are the most confident in (C), and require the least amount of effort/risk (E). As long as you have strong product-market fit, there isn’t a limit on how many products you can offer. The key is investing your time appropriately and dropping the products that miss the mark.
Brandon: We’ve seen a lot of collaborations from Flowfold, both big and small. From LL Bean boots and bags to the recent wallets with Alaina Marie. How do you balance your own original designs with working on collaborations? How do you choose who to collaborate with? Any upcoming collaborations you can tell us about?
James: There are a lot of reasons to do collaborations. Here’s the best reason I can explain why they are important; If you have an iPhone, go into your settings and look at your screen time analysis. Check out how many notifications you get on your phone. Me personally, I have on average 187 daily notifications and that’s not including email (I block those notifications on my phone). That’s messages from friends, family, girlfriend, Instagram, ESPN, News, Calendar, etc, etc, etc. These are all people or things trying to get your attention. As a business trying to sell you a product I’m also trying to get your attention. How am I possibly going to be more important than the other 187 daily notification you get? I have to do something different. I have to do something unique. I have to tell you a story. And in many ways, that’s what a collaboration does. If done right, all parties in a collaboration get something they couldn’t get alone: a reason to get your attention. So how do we pick? We ask ourselves how good the story will be. At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. Of course, there are other considerations. Is it authentic? Is it on brand? What’s the goal? What’s the strategy? Do we want revenue? Do we want exposure? Do we want emails? But none of that matters if the story isn’t compelling enough to get your attention in the first place. That’s the first question you need to answer when going into a collaboration because the only thing that matters is whether or not it will be relevant to your customers.
We have a couple of collabs coming up but they aren’t developed enough yet to share in detail. What I can tell you right now is that one is with a big hydration company and we are working with their designers to figure out a product we can incorporate with hydration needs. And another one with a brewery because… well who doesn’t love craft beer?
Brandon: A lot of consumers conflate maker size with the ability to fulfill custom requests. How did Flowfold come to the decision to offer semi-customized products? How does the process for those differ from your standard offerings? Do you plan on adding more customized items in the future?
James: As a maker grows it transforms from a craft company to a commercial company and there is a big difference. A craft company can make one-off custom products because the overhead is low, the demand from customers is relatively low, and the margins are relatively high. You can actually run a fairly effective and profitable model this way. But this model doesn’t scale. I’d love to be able to take every custom request we get from customers and make it, but it’s simply too expensive. You have to allocate resources to make that happen and the ROI isn’t there. However, “big is the enemy of cool” (this was said by the Urban Outfitters CEO). People want to support cool companies but they don’t want to blend in. So that’s why we launched our semi-customization option. You can’t pick a new silhouette, but you can take a silhouette our team is trained on, with patterns already defined, and fabrics in stock, and make it uniquely your own. We can then batch all those custom orders and do them together to create some scale. That’s how you can start to scale the unscalable.
Brandon: We always like to finish by asking what’s next, so, what’s next for Flowfold? Any new designs or projects you can fill us in on? And more importantly, any more upcoming gear for all the four-legged very good boys and girls out there?
James: Ha, everyone loves the four-legged very good boys and girls out there so yes, it’s fair to assume you’ll see more product in our pet category, but it’s not just because we shamelessly like pictures of puppies. We know who we are and we know who are customers are. And ⅔ of our customers either have a dog or plan to get a dog. We are listening, and we also know that the majority of our customers aren’t going to be scaling Everest any time soon. They need products that they can use every day. Honestly, I really love TPP, but the odds are the vast majority of your members want features that are more technical than we normally provide. It’s just not where we excel right now. I come to you guys for advice, not the other way around. So, let’s close with that. Big thank you to you and to all TPP members for being experts and willing to support brands like Flowfold. We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for you all.