Fraser Callaway – Co Founder Re Fold talks about the cardboard standing desk that can fold away to a carry case and how this innovative solution was designed to solve a blocker of growth their main business had encountered.
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The Ryan Marketing Show
Fraser Callaway – Refold Cardboard Desks – EPISODE 13
Voice over: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, fire.
Ryan Jennings: This is The Ryan Marketing Show and you’re listening to episode lucky thirteen of one hundred. Today I’m down in Wellington, joined by Fraser Callaway from Refold. Good day Fraser, how are you doing?
Fraser Callaway: Good, thank you.
RJ: Now, tell me about Refold. Where did they idea come from and then how has it evolved since then?
FC: It’s been a project that we’ve been working on for coming up on two years, and we actually came up with the idea while we were still studying at university, and it was– interesting story, it was actually a small part – a very small part – of another project that we were doing, which was our final project at university, and it wasn’t about desk; the desk was a tool, it was an enabler to actually kick off the rest of this project – the project that we had. So, our goal with that project was actually to connect local students at the university with the local design industry that we have here in Wellington, and when we went around door knocking on the studios to try and sort of get the students in there and make these connections, we found that they didn’t have any desk space available and that the whole project was in danger of falling over if we couldn’t come up with a quick solution for a mobile desk that the students could literally carry in there. So, two weeks later, we went back to the same studios, knocked on the doors with our very first Refold prototype, which was pretty shoddy, I have to admit, but it did the job. A lot the studios turned around and said, “Wow, that’s incredibly impressive. First of all, we didn’t take you seriously, second of all, that’s an incredible product that you’ve managed to design.”
RJ: And what was the actual product that you wheeled in two weeks in? So, for those new listeners, go ahead, what is Refold? Where’d it come from? What was that first desk product?
FC: So, it was a cardboard standing desk that could fold away to a carry case, and all of that sounds pretty ridiculous, but there was some very clear decision making processes going on there. So, we were students – the material had to be cheap; we didn’t have much money, so cardboard ticked that box. It had to be light, because the students were going to be carrying it, so cardboard ticked the box again. It had to be strong, and at that point, we didn’t know how strong it could be, but we thought it could work, so we gave it a go, and it turns out that it’s incredibly strong; one of the most underestimated materials there is. And it needed to be easily hacked. It needed to be prototyped really quickly, it needed to be morphed and changed really quickly, because we didn’t have much time; we had to make it really fast. So, cardboard was ticking all those boxes, and we kind of just naturally ended up there. It wasn’t like a case of, oh, let’s be real different and quirky and design a cardboard desk, it was purely out of a problem that we had coming up with an innovative solution for that problem. And the reason it was a standing desk, completely honest, was so that we didn’t have to design a chair, because the students were just going into these spaces where they needed a workstation; they needed a mobile work station, and that was it. We didn’t want to muck around with making a chair, so it was a standing desk.
RJ: So, there was no upfront let’s do this for health reasons, for standing desks are supposed to be more healthy, this was just we need desks for students in these places, otherwise we can’t complete our primary aims of our project.
FC: Correct. And as soon as we designed the first iteration and it was a standing desk, we did do a lot of research into standing. Is this going to be a good thing or a bad thing? And we quickly found out all of those health implications and then very much got on the train of, okay, this is what we’re producing. There are more reasons behind this than just that.
RJ: So, what did you then do when you’ve got this primary project and now you’ve created something that has– kind of this side project, kind of interesting in its own right? What conversations are you then having with the people on the project team?
FC: At that point, it was still very much about enabling the other project that we had, so much so that the tagline for that project became “So much more than just a desk,” because we wanted to divert people’s attention away from the desk to this bigger problem that we were trying to solve.
RJ: Which was?
FC: Which was students in New Zealand graduating and not getting jobs. So, it was a project around helping smooth and facilitate the transition from studying to getting employed, and the project that we did was called Connection, and Refold was born out of Connection. So, yeah, it was really funny, because the desk kept stealing the limelight. At all of the trials that we did, all of the designers were just gravitated towards this thing. At are end-of-year exhibition, again, all these people just gravitated towards the desk, and no matter what we did, we couldn’t get them to stop being fascinated with this thing and look at our bigger project. And so at that point, we’d also had a lot of interest and orders, so we thought, you know what? Let’s go for it. Let’s start a company, and let’s see how we go. And at that point, we were still at university, and, yeah, just decided to do a Kickstarter, and that’s how we thought we’d kick it off.
RJ: So, you persevered for a while, in spite of what the market was telling you, and eventually capitulated and went, “Right, obviously there’s something in just the desk.”
FC: Yeah, pretty much. Connection in its own right has gone on to be a very successful project as well, but hasn’t had the sort of global viral interest that Refold has gone on to have, which has just been a crazy ride.
RJ: Let’s talk about that part of– you’ve created your prototype, you’ve now gone onto Kickstarter. What was that first public market entry like going into Kickstarter?
FC: It was pretty terrifying. We kind of had the blinkers on a little bit, being sort of typical Kiwis, we weren’t really thinking big scale; we were kind of thinking New Zealand, Australia, that’ll be it – that’ll kind of be our market. Kind of forgot about the rest of the world, which is pretty funny, looking back at it. And I think it was about week one that our Kickstarter campaign got posted on Design Boom, that has millions and millions and millions of followers, and then got put onto Fast Company, which again, has like millions of followers. And then it did the circuits of all of the who’s who of the blogs, and it was– it just blew up. It just went crazy. On Design Boom, the article that was written about Refold had more views than the launch of the iPhone 6, which was pretty cool. And that was– I think it was like 50,000 views in the first day or something, so it was just crazy.
RJ: That’s amazing.
FC: Yeah. From there, there was mixed responses all around the world. A lot of people didn’t get it. A lot of people just see cardboard, they think cheap material, they think, “What happens when I spill my coffee on it?” They think, “How does it cost that much?” They don’t understand the ethically-minded, locally produced kind of idea that we were running with, which was supporting local economies and supporting the New Zealand economy, producing it here, doing the right processes in terms of the right materials, it all being environmentally friendly – PVA glue is environmentally friendly, and in fact, the entire thing is actually recyclable. A lot of that was lost on sort of the wider market, but the people that did get it, the people that saw what we were trying to do, really started to champion it, which is awesome. And I think a lot of that success was down to the brand that we built, and it sort of inspired people to really think about how they were currently working and how they could change that style of working, and how this desk could actually enable that.
RJ: And then once you knew that this was going to be bigger than Ben-Hur, this was unintended, how did you then adapt going back into the business when Kickstarter’s at that stage where you don’t really have a production line, but you have ideas or a forecast of how to produce? How did that then impact the delivery part?
FC: We had explored a little bit of how to produce it, because we had made a few; we had made like ten, or so – or maybe a bit more; maybe more like twenty – to get the design right. Being designers and self-proclaimed quite perfectionist-based designers, we wanted to get the product really, really slick before we put it out, which kind of goes against the Kickstarter model, which is hack something together and throw it out there and see if people like it. So, we spent a few months, or three or four months, refining the design, and in that process, because we were refining the design, our supply chain got refined as well. So, that side of things wasn’t too bad in terms of once the Kickstarter actually was successful, the transition to making the orders and fulfilling the orders wasn’t too bad. We learned a hell of a lot. A Kickstarter looks great – numbers look great on a page. You don’t make money. It’s very, very hard. Unless you’re in the millions and millions of sales, you don’t make money. And most of the time, you probably lose money if you’re counting your time. We learned a hell of a lot about how hard it is to ship a product of our size in nature around the world. Exceptionally hard.
RJ: Because you just launched for New Zealand shipping, right? And maybe Australia. Is that right?
FC: No, we initially had that in mind; that was our kind of original plan was just New Zealand and Australia, but when it went viral, we decided to open it up to the rest of the world. We accounted for it all in the pricing structure and everything, so it was all paid for, but it cost more than the entire desk to send it overseas, so it doubles the price just because of the shipping, and a lot of people couldn’t understand that because it’s so light. But all international shipping’s done in volume metrics, not on weight, and so you get all these complications: import duties, taxes – ridiculous. Just really, really hard. One of the most unbelievable things that we’d learnt was – and this goes against everything– goes against logic – shipping, I think it was about 300 desks overseas or something like that, it was more cost effective to send them individually on a plane than to send a container on a ship. Work that out. We spent like three months trying to work it out and trying to do the numbers, and we got people all around Wellington to try and help us. It’s crazy. It doesn’t make sense.
RJ: So, as you’re moving through that Kickstarter process, it’s actually evolving the business, but in ways where you’re heading up against regulatory or areas where you just have no control, particularly on the international front. Do you then decide to continue to service those markets? Where has it now got to, and if you knew what you knew now, how would you have changed that process? Or, I guess, how would you have leveraged that international viral nature of how your product got launched, knowing what you know now?
FC: Very much would’ve changed the way we launched. In hindsight, it’s very easy to say, “This product is going to be popular, so, okay, we’ll plan for it.” We would’ve done localized manufacturing hubs, selected key locations around the world that could produce the product to the right quality, first and foremost, cost effectively second, and then had good shipping channels. So, we would’ve set, probably, something up in Mexico, probably something up in China, probably something up in Australia somewhere, and we would’ve done some research into companies that we could use over there beforehand – before launching it altogether, and then that would’ve completely eliminated the shipping costs, which is the biggest barrier that we have. So, bringing that price point down in each of those locations would’ve had a big impact on the actual number of sales that we manage to generate. Here in New Zealand, it’s been exceptionally popular because the shipping is cheap; it’s a small country, it’s relatively easy. Even going overseas, it’s still been really successful in terms of numbers, but nothing– drop in a massive ocean in compared to what it could be if we got the price point right down, which is hard when you’re trying to do it locally and when you’re not trying to produce them by the tens of thousands in China and then just ship them all around the world, which we’re not really– we’re not against it, but it’s not how we see– it doesn’t fit with our brand.
RJ: Going back to what you said earlier around Kickstarter being great for awareness, but not if you want to make a dollar, how have you gone on to leverage the awareness side to then follow up to make sure that revenue then flows into your balance sheet from what is essentially almost free marketing? There may not be any profit in it, but you’re getting free marketing awareness.
FC: I don’t know if we have managed to do that as successfully as we would’ve liked. It has been an awesome ride, and Refold still gets posted on blogs all around the world every day, and we don’t do anything to push it, which is incredible. I think a lot of that comes down to a lack of time that we have available to us at the moment to actually invest in growing the company and taking advantage of those marketing opportunities and leveraging them. What we’re really looking for at the moment is finding a person who’s willing to come into the team and put their skin in the game and take a chunk of the company, and their job is to grow the company internationally. That’s what we want, that’s what we’re looking for, and we’ve been looking for a person to fit that role for months, but we just can’t find the right person. And at the end of the day, that’s what companies come down to is having the right people. And I think we’ve got an incredible base: we’ve got three incredibly talented people that are driving the company now, but we need one more person that is solely focused on Refold and nothing else.
RJ: And before we started this interview, you talked about the other side of the other business you have. How do you split the resources between the two? How do you do that balancing when you know that both could be successful in their own right, knowing that what you focus on is what the results you get?
FC: It’s tough. It’s very, very tough. We see our other company Strategy Design & Advertising, which we actually got involved with because of Refold, I think. And because of the success of Refold, and because of the success of Connection, it kind of got us on the radar of a few people around New Zealand– well, a lot of people around New Zealand, and we were given the opportunity to take over the Strategy company in Wellington because of that awareness that we had generated. But I think we had been seen to put ourselves out there and launch a company and take the risk and all the rest of it, which are– and do well, and so that’s how we sort of ended up in this situation with these two companies. But at the moment, our– and for the first year – we’re a year on now from taking over Strategy in Wellington – for that first year it was grinding. It was really grinding. Basically setting up and reestablishing Strategy in Wellington. And so Refold kind of got put on the back burner. Whether we chose it or not, I don’t really know. We’d always dreamed of having a design studio when we were growing up, and so we had this design studio and then we kind of had this crazy product company that we’re just taken off, and we didn’t really know how to take it to the next level. And then we had this design company – we were kind of in a safe space and we knew what we were doing, so it’s been a real juggling act.
RJ: Interesting. So, your own passion, the team’s passion, comes from the design side, yet the biggest success you’ve had to date has come from what the market’s responded to one of your first designs, which is a standing cardboard desk.
FC: Yeah, pretty much. Yep. So, it’s– yeah, it’s a tough one. At the moment in terms of how we manage the time between the two companies, Refold is still kind of getting neglected, to be fair. We have all these ideas for new products, we have ideas about setting up localized manufacturing and key hubs around the world, we have all of the stuff, but it is a big unknown, and it is a much bigger risk than continuing to do what we’ve been doing with the design company. And we’re not afraid of taking risks; we’re probably more up for it than most, but it is just– it’s a leap. It’s a leap of faith, jumping on a plane and heading to Mexico or America and spending a month over there setting these things up, or wherever it is, and at the moment, we can’t justify doing it, hence why we want that person. We need that person to be able to jump on a plane and go and do it for us.
RJ: Well, this may be the perfect opportunity. There might be someone listening right now that–
FC: I hope so.
RJ: Hey, if you are listening right now and this sounds exciting to you, get in touch with Fraser at Refold.
RJ: Sounds like a potential opportunity there. So, you guys– we’re in the level three here of a building down on Vivian Street. Are these relatively new offices to you? It looks like you’re expanding.
FC: Yeah, we moved in here when we took over Strategy, so about, what, fourteen months ago. And we have just– so, we took over one office space in here – a relatively small office space in here – and about three months ago, we took over another space, so we are expanding, which is great – it’s really exciting. Strategy’s going really, really well, Refold is still just ticking along. But yeah, it’s a pretty awesome spot in terms of the location in Wellington. It’s kind of starting to become a bit of a creative hub down this end of town. There’s some really great cafés and– a really good location.
RJ: When you’re out and about and walking past offices or going to client meetings, do you see your desks in places? Are they dotted around…?
FC: They’re everywhere. It’s crazy. It really is crazy. I was walking to work last week and the courier was carrying one, delivering it to somebody, so bump into them all the time. It’s actually worked out really well for our design company; it’s got us in a lot of doors. A lot of people know Refold and then when they find out that we have a design company, they’re really interested in seeing what we can do because of the success of Refold. So, the two companies, the synergies between them, work really, really nicely.
RJ: Has anyone gone all out and just got rid of their seated desks entirely?
FC: I think there’s actually a company upstairs that were talking about doing that. They haven’t done it yet, but they were pretty keen to. A couple of companies have completely got rid of their meeting room desks and changed them to our Refold standing desks so that all their meetings are stand-up meetings.
RJ: Great. That’s a great productivity saver there.
FC: Definitely. And time saver. So, that’s been pretty cool to see. A lot of companies– and as we do as well at Strategy, we don’t necessarily work at them all day every day; we have them kind of as hot desks almost, so we can– and we have a very fluid space in there, so we don’t have desks that we call our own; we just– it’s very nomadic. It’s kind of we work wherever we want to work. If we’re working at a Refold, cool, if we’re working at a sitting desk, cool, if we’re working on a couch, cool. Could be working by the coffee machine – doesn’t matter, it’s just anywhere.
RJ: I think that’s what I’ve found a benefit of the one I purchased from your site initially, is that it’s great to just swap around. It’s good to have a seated desk for certain deep thinking activities, and it’s also great just for health reasons to have some standing time as well, so I still switch between the two.
FC: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that flexibility is becoming more and more of a trend in the workplace, and being more flexible with your workspaces is something that we’re really excited about; something that we’ve been doing a bit of work on with Strategy as well as with Refold, so again, synergies there.
RJ: Got it. And one thing we haven’t covered off is that yes, the desk is cardboard, but there are some souped up options of things you can put on top of the desk.
FC: Yeah. This kind of came out of that Kickstarter when we launched it, the number one comment we got, it was just unbelievable how many people commented, “What happens when I spill my coffee on the desk?” And so, we– I can’t even remember the last time I spilt my coffee on a desk or water on a desk. I mean, I don’t know if that’s some– I can’t remember the last time someone in our office did that either. But nonetheless, we saw that as another opportunity to add to the design of the Refold, so we very quickly made some tweaks and some changes before the desks went out to everybody who had pitched on Kickstarter, and enabled them to have a waterproof top that can clip into the design. So, it’s made from polypropylene plastic and that’s made of a composite of recycled bottles and of new raw material, and it’s fully printable, fully waterproof, it actually works as a pretty good whiteboard as well, which is pretty cool, and we’re just in the process at the moment of doing a really exciting artistic collaboration with some Wellington artists to do some limited edition print runs on some waterproof tops that they’re going to design for us, so watch the space on that one.
RJ: That sounds like a fantastic way to add some personality to desks and actually brand up your office in a cool and fun way.
FC: Yeah, definitely. These guys – we used the illustrators for our Kickstarter, or some of them. We got new, exciting ones coming as well, but they’re exceptionally talented.
RJ: Excellent. Well, that’s all the questions I’ve got for this interview, Fraser. It’s been quite insightful, actually, hearing– and it wasn’t what I was expecting, actually; I was expecting just the Refold story. But having those two different businesses, you’re in quite an interesting situation where you’ve got two potential babies to grow and feed. It’s just making– having sure you’ve got the right resource to take Refold to that next international level.
FC: Yeah, definitely. I mean, the last year, the last two years, has been crazy. It’s been one hell of a ride. It’s been hard, been a lot of late nights, a lot of sacrifices, but we’re on the edge of something really special, so we’re really excited and we’re looking forward to the next chapter.
RJ: That’s great. I mean, from the outside in, it looks like you’re making this all look really easy, so…
FC: It’s not.
RJ: Thanks very much for your time, Fraser.
FC: Cool. Thanks, Ryan. Cheers, mate.