Find great partners and build strong external relationships. When you first start out you are usually running lean and trying to keep burn to a minimum. Sometimes you jump at the less expensive route in order to keep costs down. It is important to work with quality partners and balance the cost because the output is a direct reflection of you in the end. The final product and output is what you will be known for — build a quality reputation. Stay true to your values.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bret Recor.
Bret is the Founder and Creative Director of Box Clever, a brand strategy and industrial design studio which he founded in 2012. With a creative strategy rooted in design principles, Bret and his team take ideas from concept to market and are committed to executing a challenge to its most brilliant realization. An expert in creating physical experiences that delight consumers and help companies lead market categories, Bret balances creative vision with real-world experience of industrial design, brand strategy, and business ventures.
Bret has applied his expertise to the launches of several high-profile products and initiatives, including Away, Nebia, and most recently Caraway. Bret has also launched separate studio initiated ventures including Fadestudio, with a flagship product, the Fade task light. Prior to founding Box Clever, Bret was a design director at fuseproject, working with clients including One Laptop Per Child, Herman Miller, Johnson & Johnson, Issey Miyake, Jawbone, and the New York City Department of Health.
Bret holds a primary degree in Fine Arts, and also studied at Pratt Institute, where he obtained a Masters in Industrial Design. Bret has a wide range of design experience having previously worked in diverse roles including at a timepiece consulting agency designing watches for clients including Barney’s and Tiffany’s, and worked in house for Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut.
Bret’s work has earned several awards around the world including INDEX, Spark, IDEA, iF, Clio, D&AD, FX, Spark, and Red Dot. His work is part of the permanent collections of NY MoMA, SFMOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Centre Pompidou.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The longer story of how I came to industrial design started during my time in graduate school at Pratt. I was studying product design during the peak of the dot-com boom when a lot of my classmates were bailing on industrial design to shifting toward digital design and working for tech startups. I ended up not following that path and sticking with designing physical products and materials.
And then I graduated into the dot com crash — it was a dark time in terms of seeing my peers who had decided to go that route being laid off in large numbers. But given my commitment to product, I was able to work for multiple consultancies and go on to teach design at Pratt.
After six years in the Northeast, I had the opportunity to move to the West Coast to work with Yves Behar and fuseproject. It was a pivotal moment for me — leading many high profile projects at fuseproject allowed me to almost run a studio within a design studio, traveling around the world, meeting and working with global clients. It was also in a new golden age for design and its growing importance in the business world — occurring at the same time as the boom of Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Quirky.
And I saw an opportunity to expand what we could do helping innovative young companies bring their product to market. That led me to co-found Box Clever in 2012.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
In the journey of Box Clever, in 2015 we moved from having two co-directors to myself becoming the sole director and leader of the company. This period also challenged us to do a significant rethink of our business model. We were always looking at how to improve, and we started to put a real emphasis on balancing the work we do with young and emerging companies with our work with much bigger and more established companies. Alongside this we were also trying to balance growing the business in a way where there would be positive pressure and excitement about the work while addressing any concerns about stress and how to make all of it work.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I relied on my network. Through my career of nearly 20 years in this industry, I’ve developed an amazing group of contacts and peers. So I just started having conversations with people, generating ideas around business models, getting their perspective on the industry, conversations about opportunities for partnerships and collaboration to see if we could stir up some new projects together.
When you meet really good people and have mutually positive and beneficial relationships, that can create so many opportunities.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going great today! And a lot of it has to do with those relationships we’ve established and the work we’ve done — both with our peers in the design industry as well as in the wider business ecosystem of investors and strategic partners.
One of the sayings I refer to a lot is the work you show is the work you get — whatever you create and put out into the world if what you generally get more of.
And the first question new clients always ask is what have you done recently. That portfolio of work really starts to validate what you do, which in turn leads to more successful projects.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re very inclusive in our design process and our process really relies on that early relationship building and communication, and maintaining that through the whole process from idea to market. And we truly are a team, with a pretty flat structure and without the hierarchy that is often found with consultancies.
The main thing that makes us stand out is how we engage the companies we work with, who we think of more as partners than as clients.
With Jordan Nathan, CEO of Caraway, we worked super closely together, going through hundreds of iterations of products and samples to develop the perfect cookware line. We would even go shopping together to look at and understand what we liked and didn’t like. It’s always a really collaborative process.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s a good question, especially with everything going on right now. We encourage people to work remotely not just at home, but trying to work from different kinds of settings.
And we make sure people really do take time off, and we offer a solid vacation package for all of our team. It’s so important that people take time off and get breaks, even if they love what they do for work. That pause is really important. You need to let things soak in and have time and space to get away and and reset so that when you come back you’re refreshed and not run down,
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Number 1 is, my wife and my family. Having personal support to share the excitement and push me to be better in every way.
Number 2 is not a person but my whole team — what we do is truly a team effort and we have a great respect for each other in the studio. I am always learning from my team and we have become much stronger working through all the challenges we face, including 2020 (Covid, CA Fires, Elections, etc..)
In terms of business relationships, there are a lot of both people I work with and peers who I deeply respect for their ideas and opinions who I talk to regularly. And after speaking with them I always leave feeling more energized and with a new perspective. Number 3 is Christian Dorffer — Entrepreneur & CEO of Sweet Capital — we connect every few months and share perspectives. He works mostly in software digital products and it is always great to share ideas.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The main thing is leading a studio and designing products that are working towards sustainability, and how we define it in relation to the products we’re developing and designing — whether its consideration for materials, thinking about reuse and the whole product lifecycle. All of those things come into play.
And our job as designers is to show how we can make things better without compromise. We should be mindful throughout our process and create products that are lovable and high quality so they won’t be as easily or quickly disposed of. We need to ask ourselves how we can make successful products, businesses and experiences that are great for the world and for the bottom line. You can have both, you just need to work with the right people.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Set realistic goals. When you get going you tend to set really big goals which are usually the dream. Set short term goals and have bigger dreams that you work toward over time.
2. Create a wide mouth bottle. This is hard when you first start, but the sooner you balance your time the better it is for everyone (team, client, partners, you, family, etc.). In order to do great work you need to avoid the bottle neck. It burns you and your team out. You can’t do it all and expect to grow a great company.
3. Find great partners and build strong external relationships. When you first start out you are usually running lean and trying to keep burn to a minimum. Sometimes you jump at the less expensive route in order to keep costs down. It is important to work with quality partners and balance the cost because the output is a direct reflection of you in the end. The final product and output is what you will be known for — build a quality reputation. Stay true to your values.
4. Have a mission — Keep it simple and focused. Find new challenges and then update the mission with your team. Be inclusive with the team.
5. Enjoy the ups and downs — if you start to feel too much negative pressure then it is time to make changes to recapture the positive excitement of doing what you love.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The sustainable design movement is a big part of it for me, and we have to be aware of it. We can’t do it overnight, we have to push and work with people across industries to really move the needle and have staying power and a positive change that’s also economically viable.
And hand in hand with that is a push for high quality, more thoughtful design in everything — not just in high end and luxury goods with oftentimes inaccessible price points. We need to remove the idea of products as disposable and that are designed and bought as ‘good enough for now’. We need to move ambitiously toward a circular economy. We need to design great products at accessible price points so that everyone can have products that are durable and less in need of replacement.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Folks can follow the studio on Instagram @bxclvr.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!