Elias Stahl of HILOS: “Commit executive leadership to the process”

Include the rest of the organization from the outset, showcase successes and failures, and be transparent and motivating about where this could take the business. Excite your team! No need to black box the process — everyone gets excited and inspired when a company is trying something new. This is an age that values transparency and authenticity, […]

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Include the rest of the organization from the outset, showcase successes and failures, and be transparent and motivating about where this could take the business. Excite your team! No need to black box the process — everyone gets excited and inspired when a company is trying something new. This is an age that values transparency and authenticity, inside and outside of an organization. Leverage that.

As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elias Stahl, founder and CEO of HILOS.

Elias began his career in the Israeli special forces but soon found himself working with Fortune 100 brands on incorporating sustainability into their core strategy through custom business intelligence analytics. In 2019, Elias founded HILOS to pioneer zero-waste, on-demand manufacturing for footwear.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Wherever I found myself in life I tended to gravitate towards the most challenging problems I could find — call it masochism or the need to test my mettle. That’s how I found myself trying out for the special forces. While earning my graduate degree after my discharge I became interested in local government, and that led me to better appreciate what incredible opportunities are out there to rethink some basic core tenants of the communities we live in. I began to think that a few emerging technologies could help us not just improve current models of business but instead completely transform how we view certain industries. That’s why HILOS is hard to describe, it belies a traditional understanding of a brand, a manufacturer, or a software company.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I actually thought that it would be a good idea to start raising money immediately. Our first week we were meeting with VCs, who always tell you it’s “never too early.” Well, it definitely can be too early and it’s often worth being gradual about those conversations. But in hindsight, pitching from day one helped us hone our story, despite the bruises we came away with.

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? Can you share a story?

There were innumerable people that helped in small ways that led to some big wins. Being in a startup really teaches you what a difference a small gesture or an introduction can make. Serendipity plays a huge role. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have strong partners from the very beginning, experienced entrepreneurs like Ronda Sensenig or Hap Klopp, the founder of the North Face.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

How about a quote instead, since there are too many books to choose from. Virgil wrote, “they do all because they think they can.” The motto of the SAS was Who Dares Wins. There’s a powerful message as old as the Romans there — half the battle is your own will to accomplish something, to see it born into the world.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Our vision is a world where everything is made for you and not a warehouse shelf, made-to-order locally and sustainably, the product of a collaboration between a customer and a brand. Our purpose is to rewire global manufacturing and show that we can make incredible zero-waste product that benefits those same communities that buy it.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

We’re about to launch the first commercially available, 3D-printed and customized fashion heel, the Georgia, this Spring. We’re also working on several upcoming collaborations for 2021 with other footwear brands, helping drive a new generation of zero-waste, additive footwear.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?

Digital Transformation done right should entail a hard look at where digital technologies can provide the most value for your business and customers. For some industries that could mean rebuilding upstream sourcing or downstream customer service. In our case it meant developing an entirely new design and manufacturing application for footwear that would allow us to make on-demand.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Where I think the word transformative comes into play is when you take an existing process, product, supply chain, or component of your business and rebuild it from the ground up using a new set of digital tools. This is where you can really reap the benefits of digital transformation, but you’ve also got to be careful to validate with stakeholders and de-risk accordingly.

We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.

For us, we were able to invent a new way to manufacture footwear that had an impact on the customer experience, the product’s sustainability, our supply chain and our development process. I think that is why rebuilding a process from the ground up can be so powerful. With a digital product optimized for additive manufacturing we built a digital workflow into everything from concept creation to order and delivery. We actually had to adapt physical retail to take advantage of the digital ordering process. This shrank development lead times from 12–18 months to 2–4 months, and delivery times from 60–90 days down to 7–10 days, allowing us to eliminate inventory and the capital normally tied up in it.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

The companies we work with in footwear have had a challenge adopting the new tools that enable future digital transformation. Something as simple as designing in 3D rather than on paper is a critical first step, but there’s a reticence.

What we are seeing is that there is a comprehensive push from all levels for more sustainable production, and that could provide the impetus to adopt new systems and approaches. It takes bold and sustained leadership as well as an agile team that can move with focus and purpose.

Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Identify one segment of your business you want to rebuild from the ground up. There should be a clear idea of how new digital technologies can provide exponential value for your business.
    We chose to focus on fashion footwear because the value of new materials, wider size ranges, and increased comfort and performance are in greater demand than in athletic footwear. Everyone was trying to 3D-print sneakers because they were used to seeing technology first deployed in athletic gear, but they were missing where the value would have the greatest impact.
  2. Build a strong team in that segment that brings together a broad set of expertise alongside an ability to learn new systems and tools.
    Our director of product is a mechanical and electrical engineer, a hydroponics entrepreneur and a professional chef. Our footwear line manager has her own leather brand. My co-founder has done everything from custom pillows to sleepwear and children’s clothes. That’s the kind of breadth of experience and perspectives I’m talking about.
  3. Commit executive leadership to the process.
    We’ve gotten to work with some very large companies that have committed executive leadership and that means that meetings are attended, everyone is enthusiastic, and projects move ahead on time or early. It’s critical for momentum.
  4. Run the transformation like a start-up: lean and agile, with collaborative sprints.
    Every week we have a sprint meeting, not to update each other but to wrestle with a development or supply chain challenge that could use input from around the table.
  5. Include the rest of the organization from the outset, showcase successes and failures, and be transparent and motivating about where this could take the business. Excite your team!
    No need to black box the process — everyone gets excited and inspired when a company is trying something new. This is an age that values transparency and authenticity, inside and outside of an organization. Leverage that.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

It’s all who you hire and the culture leadership sets. Don’t embrace the routine and make sure teams have the time to explore new and novel applications. Hire motivated and creative thinkers and give the freedom to fail.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I like to say the glory is in the attempt. Don’t be so afraid of failure you never try. It’s a cliché but there’s a reason why — it’s far too common.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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