Need/Want’s head of design on how they’re building multiple thriving businesses at once
At Crew, we’re huge proponents of doing more than one thing at a time.
Sure, science has told us that we can’t actually multi-task, but we’ve found that having multiple projects on the go is an incredible way to boost your creativity and elevate your thoughts. While working on one project, your mind is subconsciously in the incubation state for another, making connections, trying things out.
As acclaimed designer Dann Petty explains:
“I do my best work when I’m working on multiple projects at once. I’ve realized each project is related in some form. Whether navigational issues or hard conceptual problems, working on multiple projects lets you tackle all issues at once.”
This isn’t to say the ‘do one thing and do it well’ isn’t a great way to run your company (or live your life). But that the landscape has changed, and you need to provide extreme value through multiple products of offerings, to really get noticed.
One company that’s embodied this idea though creating their own product ecosystem is Need/Want, the 3-man team of Marshall Haas, Jon Wheatley, and David Myers, who in the past few years have come out with a best-selling iPhone case, the world’s first smart bedding, and a notebook that’s archived in the cloud (plus a number of other products).
On the surface, all these products seem disjointed. You’ve got ones existing purely in the physical or digital worlds and then a couple of hybrids. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a thread running through every single Need/Want release: some of the most deliberate, conscientious, and thoughtful design you’ll ever see.
We sat down with Need/Want’s head of design David Myers (and head of design studio Fruda), to chat about their business model, how they handle running so many projects at once (with such a small team), moving from the valley to St. Louis, and the importance of embracing creative diversity.
You got started in tech and design pretty early on. What drew you to the space originally?
I got my start at about the age of 12, so definitely early on!
At the time, I happened across a little community of other kids who loved creating websites, which is actually where I met Jon, one of the other co-founders of Need/Want. All through high school and college this group of us would work on projects together. Someone would hire me for design or I’d hire someone else for code and we’d sell the results or sometimes sell them to each other.
From there, Jon ended up creating a company called Dailybooth that took off and got funding in San Francisco, so I moved out there to help with design and we did that for a good few years. Actually all of our backgrounds, me, Jon, and Marshall the other co-founder [at Need/Want] came from this digital startup-y space, so really working with physical products is pretty new to all of us.
So talk me through the transition from the digital startup space into creating all these physical products.
After Dailybooth was acquired by AirBnB and I left to lead design on an internet connected door lock called Lockitron, which was my first venture into the hardware/software space.
Along the same time, Jon was working on Peel, which is our minimalist iPhone case, and Marshall was working on what became our other physical product, SmartBedding. Marshall initially reached out to Jon over Twitter and they started working together. Throughout the beginning of Need/Want I was helping with design remotely, and a year later I moved out to St. Louis to join as a co-founder.
It’s sort of this strange, convoluted timeline with Jon and I knowing each other since we were kids online and then Jon meeting Marshall, and eventually all of us working together.
It’s serendipitous when it all comes together like that. But I see that attitude reflected in your business model at Need/Want, which is basically an umbrella company with all these different brands and products.
What’s interesting about Need/Want is all 3 of us are so used to working on many different projects just because of how we grew up.
When I first moved to San Francisco it was a different environment working on one particular startup and diving fully into that and only focused on this one thing for so long. I’m used to being able to bounce around between a couple projects and take ideas from one thing and apply it to another. I think the Need/Want model works better for me and my strengths.
At Crew we talk a lot about side projects and always have a few things on the go at once, which I think actually helps me focus. Because when I’m working on one thing, I’m still subconsciously thinking about the other projects.
Yeah that’s 100% how we feel. Take even a basic example of going ‘hey, this checkout flow is working great for Peel. Let’s try it on Smart Bedding’.
Can you dive further into your process when it comes to thinking about and designing a new product?
How we loosely split up roles is that I mostly handle the creative, Marshall looks after the business side, and Jon focuses on the product ideas. With that being said, there’s a lot of overlap since we’re a small company.
As far as coming up with the seed of an idea, we try to have an environment where there’s no stupid ideas.
How do you protect that culture of experimentation?
We actually have this process we call Rubber Ducky. Initially this concept was meant for engineers to be able to talk to a Rubber Duck to work through debugging, and we somehow stole the term. Essentially when someone calls out ‘Rubber Ducky’ it means this might be a bad idea so make sure to not judge it too quickly or shut it down right away.
What’s been awesome about this is that yes, sometimes the initial idea isn’t the best in the world, but instead of shutting it down a dialogue can be started from that seed and it can be crafted into something that’s awesome. So we just always try to have that open mind.
Was Emoji Masks a Rubber Ducky idea?
(Laughs) Emoji Masks? That was slightly before I made it out to St. Louis, but Jon and Marshall can attest that it was very much a side project. It was a fun experiment for Halloween, which actually almost scrapped before launching. When it took off that was super unexpected and seen as a side project, and but then it blew up and got all of this press.
So is there any typical process when you’re looking at actually creating a product? Where do you first start?
None of us actually have an industrial design background so we’ll very roughly come up with these concepts of what looks good? What doesn’t? What materials do we want to use? And then we go collaborate with different people who we think can refine our ideas.
So if it’s a Notebook kind of company we’ll talk to experts in the notebook making industry. And then it’s really crafting the story, and continuing to refine the idea. Once we start building the website and crafting the whole product experience we’ll write about why we created it, what problems we’re solving, and what makes our product better and different from competitors.
Seems like storytelling is really important to you guys. Not just through your publication Minimums, but in how you design and craft your product experience.
Story is definitely important, and core to Need/Want. The story behind a product can be a big reason of why someone would want to buy it. Our products generally have some sort of innovation or twist to it. For instance with Peel, our super-thin iPhone case, we talk about how it doesn’t ruin the aesthetic of your phone while still providing protection, which is a big contrast from the typical bulky cases you generally see.
In the end, we’ve been making all of these products for ourselves so having that narrative of why we feel it’s important and why we made it is really key to how we create an experience.
Did it feel like a risk moving from the digital to physical space?
Only because it was new to me, but what’s cool with a physical product is that you actually make something tangible. It has a price. You can touch it. And someone buys it. This is a wild concept in the startup world.
When you’re actually selling something that has a price tag it’s a whole lot less stressful than when you raise a ton of money, have a crazy burn rate and have to figure out how to become profitable before you run out of money. Being in that high stress space for so long and moving to something where you can actually quantify how well your business is doing is something I really enjoy.
Do you also find it’s more meaningful to be able to hold something that you’ve designed and created?
Working in the purely digital only you can see a stat on Google analytics that X many users are using your product, but you can’t really grasp that as well as when you create something physical that you can hold and use. We were recently at our fulfillment center and it’s always amazing to see stacks and stacks of Smart Bedding and Peel.
It really changes your perception once you can see everything and be like ’whoa, this is something real’.
But this has its own issues, doesn’t it? You guys recently visited your factories in China. Can you tell me about why it’s important for you to actually see the supply and manufacturing line?
Definitely. What we did before we had the knowhow and capital to be able to go to our suppliers and oversee everything is we’d talk to them on the phone, email, and Skype. We’d give them drawings and they’d send something back. The back and forth can take weeks. Something could be incorrect with a sample and it’d take another few weeks. The lag time was crazy.
When we were initially doing Smart Bedding we decided to go to China because we just didn’t want that whole back and forth. Even spending 20 minutes at a factory is worth weeks and weeks of this back and forth online or on the phone.
What would be your number one piece of advice for someone looking to get into making physical products like you have?
Unless you’re making something extremely simple, go and meet the people physically making the product face-to-face, wherever that is. Or else you can get into some trouble with breakdowns in communication.
It also really gives you a great insight into how your products are made—seeing the whole process from front to back. With Smart Bedding, it was seeing the actual fabric get made—watching the stone washing process, sewing, etc… For Peel cases, it was seeing just how much of the process was done by hand. It’s not just pouring plastic into a mould. It’s cutting or burning off excess plastic around seams, quality checkpoints, and really just making sure that it is crafted to the best quality.
Also, I know there’s a stigma around making products in China, but the way we see it is that we try to be location independent and just want to have the best partners wherever that is.
When I was in San Francisco my bubble was all startup people. In Saint Louis, it’s going back to reality where you can easily meet people from all different professions.David Myers
That idea of being location independent also seems to be a part of Need/Want’s model. On your site you talk about making the ‘deliberate move’ to St. Louis from the Valley. What was it that made you guys move?
So before Need/Want Jon and I were working in San Francisco, and Marshall had actually gotten a grant for his previous company to be in St. Louis. We looked at costs and Jon and I were paying a significant multiple for an apartment in San Francisco over what Marshall was paying in St. Louis. So from a burn standpoint of ‘hey we want to go make these products and be able to have as much runway as possible’, we’re going to have a much better chance in St. Louis.
And then as far as not being in a place like San Francisco, the majority of my great connections have been through Twitter or forums from when I was younger. I think more and more people are going to realize that specific location doesn’t really matter and you can make connections online or by traveling and still have a very successful business.
In San Francisco, it’s such a big startup community that you can get lost in it. When I first moved there, I wanted to hear everyone’s startup idea. They were so interesting to me. Eventually, however, you become someone numb to it and you can become burned out.
Over here, since the city isn’t San Francisco, a lot of the startups are trying to help each other and it becomes much more of a community trying to build up the city as well as these individual startups themselves, which is a really cool environment to be in .
Do you think there’s also a diversity in thought that comes from being in a place that’s not just known for tech?
Yeah, I mean even from an idea standpoint. When I was in San Francisco my bubble was all startup people. Here, it’s going back to reality where you can meet people from all different professions.
This is good not only for diversity, but to meet people who have different opinions and thoughts outside of the startup space, which in turn opens you up to ideas you may have not stumbled upon otherwise.
Also, outside of Need/Want I run a small design consulting agency called Fruda (who you can hire in Crew) with my friend Julian, which helps keep my thoughts extra fresh and not just in the e-commerce space.
Last thing, where’d your Twitter handle (@digit) come from?
Oh wow. This goes way back to when I was a very young entrepreneur. When you’re on these IRC channels and forums ‘David’ is of course going to be taken so I just came up with this name and it’s stuck with me for a long time. A long, long time.
If we’re thinking about names that we called ourselves at 12 that’ve stuck with us, I think any of you got out ok!
(Laughs) Yeah, I’ve embraced it. Call me whatever you want!