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Lucas Werthein of Cactus: “The role of modularization and modular design will be huge in retail”

…This disruption in the new realities of retail will create new opportunities for modular concepts to come to life. We’re actually working on a modular product for retailers and startup retailers that plans to scale quickly. The objective there is to create a solution for temporary structures, or for structures that can be built quicker […]

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…This disruption in the new realities of retail will create new opportunities for modular concepts to come to life. We’re actually working on a modular product for retailers and startup retailers that plans to scale quickly. The objective there is to create a solution for temporary structures, or for structures that can be built quicker and cheaper, without necessarily committing to leaving that structure in that specific place. So I think that the role of modularization and modular design will be huge in retail.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lucas Werthein, co-founder and head of technology at Cactus, the experiential design firm behind some of the most innovative retail projects including the Nike Store in Brazil, and the Color Factory in NYC. Lucas works at the intersection of digital technology and physical architecture and specializes in identifying efficiencies and resources that bring seemingly impossible projects into the realm of technical feasibility.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

During undergrad, I studied foreign politics — but was very passionate about photography. I thought I wanted to become a photographer, so I was taking trips and focusing on documentary photography and soon came to the realization that photography had become ubiquitous as expressing yourself — the medium became a part of daily lives as phones were getting better cameras and quality continued to rise.

At the time I was working in Brazil (where I’m from) and applying for my Master’s. I applied for two different paths: one was at the London School of Economics where I was going to continue in the path of Intl. Relations/Foreign politics and follow in the footsteps of my parents, who were diplomats, and the other was at the Interactive Communications Program at Tisch at NYU which was a program for engineers who weren’t afraid to experiment as artists and vice versa. I was accepted to both and ultimately decided to go to ITP (what the NYU program is called). I chose this because it allowed me to follow my artistic pursuits through innovative mediums, which is at the heart of the program as it experiments with the cutting edge.

When I got there, I really fell in love with software development and programming and dove in headfirst. I started developing my own projects for companies, and as the projects grew, I came to manage teams of developers and the technology itself. This led me to where I am today — as I lead the technology and production team at Cactus. At Cactus, I’m always thinking of the creative intersection of technology and design.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

A couple of years after I started my career, I was lucky enough to be able to work on a project for Beyonce. She was going to perform a song at the United Nations called I Was Here to celebrate humanitarian efforts on World Humanitarian Day.

It was a really, really fast-paced project. We were going to projection map the general assembly inside the UN and turn it into a canvas — she would perform inside of this giant screen that wrapped around and visually told the stories of these humanitarian efforts.

Again, it was a really quick project that only took about 6 weeks to produce. I remember going into the first meeting and talking to the facilities people at the UN and the engineers thinking about how we’d hang the screen. They insisted that there would be no problem with the structure and ceiling, but funnily enough, I thought we should double-check — and 2 weeks before the performance took place, I went in with my team and the drawings said there’d be about 70 bolts to hang from … and there were only 6 or 7. It was insane. So we had to quickly find a company that had FBI clearance and was able to go into the UN to secure the ceiling and put in the hanging bolts so we could hang the structure — the one that’d be hanging over the heads of world leaders. It was a lot of responsibility!

Essentially the funniest and most interesting aspect of it all is that we were responsible for making the ceiling more stable and secure for future performances.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

We were working for a client at the time and developing wristbands that had LEDs in them that could blink. It was for a specific event and the goal was for all the guests to have wristbands and when specific things happened or were said by the panelists, they would blink. The funniest mistake is that it was a 1-day event and there were a lot of high-stakes (per the clients). And when the time came and it was time for them to go off, they didn’t — and it was a disaster. It was sad and frustrating at the time.

The main lesson — and this was one of my first projects — was that you can never really trust technology when you don’t have a lot of testing, quality control, or quality assurance. I learned and have implemented that ever since — it’s a main thing here at Cactus. Sometimes you don’t have that luxury of R&D or years of testing like other companies do because the things we do are often custom, but there still needs to be testing in the circumstances they will be used in, so you can tweak things or work with clients to push back.

Navigating these scenarios (and the politics around them) alongside minimizing risks, all while innovating with technology were the biggest takeaways that I’ve implemented since then.

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

We’re working on a couple of new and trending projects. I’d say one of the most exciting ones is called The Center for Health and Performance.

The Center is actually a facility that is being built within a hotel in downtown Miami to push the boundaries of wellness and healthcare. This 10 story facility is being built as a way to rethink how healthcare and wellness are being delivered. A big part of this space will be taken over by the regular hospital system, but the most interesting part to me is that the top floors will essentially be a large wellness center. There we are developing a benchmarking system and facility using some of the latest technology and some incredible experience design in which you can go through and understand how your body works.

You can take all sorts of tests and measurements and from there — which then promotes treatments or suggestions that you can tackle from within The Center of Health and Performance. For example, after testing, you can go into The Center and tackle something specific like working on balance with yoga or go through a guided meditation to work on your stress levels or go to the compost store which is a Japanese traditional medicine that integrates food medicine and herbology.

The Center will be very interesting because it combines both Eastern and Western medicine. You take these tests and are able to act on them and circle back and reference those initial results vs. new ones to see and understand how you’ve improved.

I think this will really make an impact on how patients should be thought of, the attention they receive, and really, the experience the patient should be given — an experience that needs to be so much better than what’s being offered now in traditional healthcare.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I think one of the most important tips has to do with lack of focus and lack of ability to have your attention on specific things and the overuse and abundance of technology in our daily lives.

To avoid burnout, personally, I have specific moments in the day where I am very focused on things where I’m doing specific tasks and close out distracting things such as email, etc. By trying to get away from this multitasking habit I try to be as efficient as possible by hyper-focusing on tasks until they’re completed so I can then take time away from devices. This allows me more time to do things I enjoy — such as spending time with the kids and my family, surfing, doing martial arts, and really being present in those moments.

I think one of the largest causes of burnout is this excessive ‘always working’ attitude in a way where it isn’t particularly efficient. I think it is important to have parts of the day where you’re not focused on work — so that when you do go to work, it’s more focused and you can be present in every moment instead of half-present in several moments.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I think the main person I’m grateful for having met in my professional career is a person named Zach Lieberman.

When I was doing my Master’s, I saw a project I got obsessed with and decided that that is what I wanted to do. It was a project where Zach used the lighting facade of a building in Austria to create different patterns. At the time it was very, very innovative and no one had done anything like it — so I reached out and was very persistent in interning for him. He accepted, even though at the time I didn’t know much. He introduced me to a programming framework he created called Open Frameworks and that was my introduction to this world of creative technology. I learned a lot from him and this community of friends that he would bring in the studio and share knowledge with, as well as some of the other interns that were there at the time. It was a really cool environment of creation and creativity and tinkering and working with some pretty incredible projects.

I’m really thankful for having had the opportunity to work with him and intern for him. We’ve kept in touch and I’ve seen what a big impact he’s had on the community.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

When we first started Cactus, we actually thought that the company would be one that would focus on events and experiences — and actually nowadays, the majority of our work comes from the fields of wellness and healthcare.

Obviously, wellness being described as anywhere from gyms to spas to fitness concepts — and startups and health really being as over encompassing as anything related to healthcare. The good that we’re trying to bring into the world and into that industry is that those fields are really antiquated — and still haven’t been disrupted as they’re being held back by the rigidness of the systems that hold them. We’re trying to create new ways that make, in general, experiences better for people. No matter where it is, whether it’s booking, to their interaction with a practitioner or doctor, our mission is to transform and be the leaders in that transformation. We want to have an impact on people — because everyone at some point will need treatment and/or healthcare, and we want to make sure that not just for the people who can afford them, but for the community at large. Better care is possible.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

  • Individual attention
  • Scheduling
  • Experiences
  • Modularization

With so much online shopping happening throughout the world, retailers need to focus on not only how they’re going to sell their products in a more efficient way online, but what will happen with the physical nature of these products. One of the most interesting things I’m seeing happening is the effort to get the attention of individual customers. How can you get people to have individual experiences when they come into stores? Is this an opportunity for stores and retailers to create bespoke experiences for their customers? What that means is an opportunity to educate their customers, create awareness, and an opportunity for customers to engage when they go into a store. This has to do with the nature of the pandemic — because you can’t have too many people in the store, so you need to create specific solutions around that.

We’re very used to, for example, creating reservations at restaurants. Is that going to be the new nature of going to the store? Are you going to have to put in scheduling systems and booking systems to go to that store and actually have to schedule something? Part of this new normal is you’re going to schedule time, go into that store, and receive a bespoke experience and individual attention. The reason you’re going into a store is to connect to that brand, which generates an opportunity for the physical footprint to create an experience for the customer — regardless of if its a way around set design or an interesting background to take pictures in front of.

The last thing I would say is that this disruption in the new realities of retail will create new opportunities for modular concepts to come to life. We’re actually working on a modular product for retailers and startup retailers that plans to scale quickly. The objective there is to create a solution for temporary structures, or for structures that can be built quicker and cheaper, without necessarily committing to leaving that structure in that specific place. So I think that the role of modularization and modular design will be huge in retail.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

I absolutely think retail stores and malls will continue to exist. Yes, for certain things, perhaps you won’t need to go to a store — and that’s why we see AmazonPrime being huge during the pandemic. At the same time, there’s so many products we want to hold in our hand, that we want to feel, want to hold and touch. Additionally, there are also many retailers that need physical footprints. Coffee and tattoo parlors, for example, are great examples of places that need to be physical presences and have physical footprints in order to succeed. I also think that the physical footprints of retailers who currently dominate the online industry still need to exist because it is an important part of the strategy retailers have to disseminate and have people connect with their brand.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Away

Casper

Peloton

One of the most interesting things out of some of the examples that are mentioned, is that a lot of the time, these brands have been able to launch themselves because of the power of creativity — and because of the power of branding — and even create a following before a product even launches.

We take other examples such as Away, Casper, and Peloton which are essentially digital brands, and they have transitioned into the physical space in order to create touchpoints and to have a connection of physicality between themselves and the customers.

Part of the success of these profitable retailers is the lack of boundaries that exist between physical and digital. Really, that’s what Cactus preaches — these boundaries and limits are disappearing because the physical and digital worlds are merging. I think the companies that have had the most success doing that are the companies that have made that transition smoothly over time.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

I’m not sure I agree with this. I think this is right for products that are brandless then yes, of course, price matters — but I think we are living in a time, and have a generation among us, that really care about the nature of where these products come from and how they are made.

One of the most important things is to focus on the creative power that creates a good brand — a brand that connects with people, that speaks the language of the people it wants to connect with and represent. If that is done, I think the pricing sensitivity of the competition is less important, because that’s the nature of how these products and brands are built.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. 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. 🙂

As a fanatic surfer and fan of life around beaches and the sea, I would help bring awareness to the amount of pollution currently generated in the sea — specifically in regards to the amount of plastic that is currently being dumped in our waters around the world. I would bring awareness to the impact that we have when purchasing products and the pressure we can put on retailers and manufacturers to find solutions outside of plastic packaging.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Go to our website www.cactus.is, follow us on LinkedIn, and follow us on our Instagram (@cactus.is).

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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