Co-founder, industrial design, branding/web/experience design, business development, supply chain management
Matthew Johnson (co-founder, industrial design, graphic design)
SDS began as part experimental design, product design, and graphic design studio but quickly evolved into an artisan glassware design company after the success of one of our products, the Saturn Wine Glass. Building the company was an excellent opportunity to use design strategy to identify and take advantage of our strengths in product differentiation, low risk experimentation, and personal communication.
Although it took us a while to get there, we realized, as a small company, we couldn’t compete with large glassware manufacturers at their own game: high volume, low margin, large variety sales. We had to design more expensive, higher quality, more personal glass and get them to our customers without big retailers. We asked ourselves, how do we use low risk prototypes to iterate on our products, methods of developing those products, and our modes of selling and distribution?
Normally, both blowing freehand and tooling a production facility to make a prototype is slow and expensive. In glassblowing, each new shape and color style takes time to perfect because the blower needs to practice and adjust their techniques. Over time, I developed a way of blowing glass using molds made of wooden fins that could be operated by one person. This let us experiment with new ideas quickly and with low investment. After building an array of standard mold shapes, I could try many times more experiments than I could with traditional methods.
In software, the idea of a product being in beta testing stages is normal practice, but with physical products it’s extremely rare. When an idea showed promise, we used our mailing list and loyal fans as test subjects. By collaborating with local glass blowers, we could also produce any promising designs in limited releases, get feedback, and refine before committing to larger fabrication runs abroad.
Having multiple, increasing scales of production available (as opposed to just prototyping and mass production) allowed us to try out designs that might be too risky for larger companies and slowly raise volumes as needed. With this strategy, we hoped to fill the public’s desire for objects that were more personal than mass-produced goods and for connection to the people that made them.
For us, the user experience of SDS coordinated branding, product, interaction, writing, storytelling, and even the story someone else told about our designs. We didn’t have much budget for marketing, so we had to identify each place a potential customer would engage with SDS and coordinate as many of those pieces as possible, particularly online. We also identified which of those pieces we had an advantage in and tried to focus most of our effort there.
Storytelling seems to be the biggest area where a small company has a clear advantage over a large one. Our target customer wants to support a small business over someone like Walmart. We designed the story of our glass and our company so that it was not only easy to tell, but made people feel good to tell it. For example, the Saturn Glass’s spillproof function made a great conversation starter because it was not overt. Some customers would go as far as scaring their friends by pretending to accidentally knock over their glass of wine at dinner.
For me, this was the first time I began to think of the customer experience starting before the product and extending beyond their purchase; checking in later to thank them, make sure they knew who we were as people, and that we were there for them if they had any issues.
On the website, one of the largest challenges was balancing a unique brand experience with an efficient ecommerce funnel that was easy to understand (this meant the architecture couldn’t be too different from other checkout processes we’ve gotten used to) and guided users towards making a purchase or signing up for a mailing list. Making the ecommerce flow efficient also involved figuring out where the customer’s points of hesitation were in the buying process and minimizing the number of page changes it takes to make a purchase.
The other part of designing an ecommerce platform isn’t actually on the website itself. A lot of an online brand experience exists through emails: newsletter emails, follow-up emails, thank you’s etc. Finding a pacing that doesn’t feel overwhelming and also keeps you in the customer’s mind through interesting content without directly trying to sell, is a careful balance.
Other than word of mouth, storytelling was also on our side when it came to getting press to spread the word about our designs. During the early days of SDS, we were lucky enough to get picked up by Dezeen, The Huffington Post, Food & Wine, Yahoo News, Daily Mail, Brit+co, Metropolis (print), and more...
When it was time to expand our product line and take our fabrication abread, we successfully launched a kickstarter campaign introducing the Saturn Rocks Glass. The $14.5k we raised allowed us to begin production in the Czech Republic.
Moving production to the Czech Republic and outsourcing fulfillment was a more complex supply chain to manage, but the efficiency we gained allowed us to deliver a better experience. Before working with Novotny Glass, we were shipping orders individually which was expensive, slow, and didn’t leave us enough time to develop new designs. We had to take stock of what resources we were low on and what we had in abundance. At the time, we were low on money, manpower, and space but had new ideas and demand in excess. We eventually began working with a 3rd party warehousing/fulfillment company that had plenty of manpower, storage space, and shipping logistics expertise. Turning over fulfillment ended up giving us more time to experiment with new work, saved us money, lowered shipping prices for customers, and delivered orders to them much faster than we could. For them, the experience was much smoother and for us, we weren’t spending all our time just trying to keep up.
Turning fulfillment on “autopilot” also let us double down on direct to consumer sales via our ecommerce platform which left us with better margins than selling wholesale and allowed us to maintain control over much more of the customer experience.