“When we first launched our e-commerce site, the only product was our ‘Culture Manual’. This document outlined our ‘WHY’ to Accelerate a Brighter Future, with all of the proceeds going to an international non-profit that transforms communities through innovative micro-financing of social enterprises. All aspects of our brand align with this philosophy. We’re continually looking at ways to join and support a community of disruptors determined to shape tomorrow. Our footwear products promote reduced consumption through versatile, timeless and durable products. If we can help educate consumers on the positive impacts they can have by thinking and purchasing with this mindset, we can reduce our overall footprint and leave the world in a better place for generations to come. As consumers, innovative e-commerce platforms and the accessibility of the Internet allow us to purchase only from brands that share our values and viewpoint. The power has shifted.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Reid, Kevin is an accomplished Industrial Designer and co-founder of the disruptive footwear startup, Casca. With innovation that rivals sportswear giants and a performance-driven approach to everyday products, Casca is at the forefront of a wave of performance brands challenging the traditional retail market. Kevin has travelled and developed hundreds of consumer products in China as a lead designer for internationally renowned brands like Native Shoes and Norse Projects. From concept to production, from loudspeakers to sneakers, he has a nuanced understanding of product development and a progressive approach to business overseas.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Some of my first memories are of running around inventory-filled warehouses where my parents launched their first company. Being raised in an ever-changing, entrepreneurial environment instilled a sense of creativity and determination to start my own ventures from a young age. In my youth, I balanced a passion for soccer that took me around the globe, with a love for sketching, building, and ideation. I have been analyzing performance gear and developing ideas for products and brands as far back as I can remember, so it was no shock that I pursued my bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design after high school.
My first position was at Vancouver-based Kanto Living, designing and developing Bluetooth speakers in Shenzhen and Ningbo, China. Soon after, I was on a flight to Copenhagen to begin a Design Internship with emerging menswear label, Norse Projects. The position quickly evolved into a Lead Designer role where I expanded the brand’s offering to new categories like leather goods, bags, footwear and knit accessories. Three years later, at 24, I was Head Designer at Native Shoes helping shift the brand from molded footwear to more soft-top based offerings.
Working for small to medium-sized businesses provided me with hands-on experience across the entire development process — this was a rare opportunity that allowed me to gain a more holistic understanding of design, manufacturing, and sales. Through these experiences, I discovered a number of faults that are now pushing me to challenge the traditional footwear market. The lack of versatility and function in everyday products, the constraints of limited development windows, and the exuberant retail markups that hinder innovation or accessibility for consumers; solving these problems through Casca is what motivates me every day.
We know that it is not always easy for a foreigner to do business in China. Can you share an interesting story about a challenge that you faced, and how you overcame it?
Early in my career, I travelled to a trade fair in Bologna, Italy to source and develop a line of premium bags and backpacks. As we intended to make the carry goods from waterproof synthetic fabrics, it made sense to seek out a factory in China where there’s an abundance of technical fabrics and experience crafting such products.
I was particularly keen on one supplier that specialized in dry bags and waterproof construction, so on our next development trip to China, I pushed our team to take a detour and check out this factory. I had met the supplier’s team, read the factory overview with pictures, and was confident we had found a great partner.
After deciphering some complicated train routes, we arrived 2 hours late to a factory deep in the industrial sprawls of Southern China. We entered the factory to find bins of ‘Hello Kitty’ and ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ lunch bags, both of which were produced by teenagers on piece rate pay. The Chinese factory staff acted cluelessly, and then tried to recover by mentioning their friend’s factory a few hours away could be suitable for more premium soft goods. Chalk it up to a miscommunication or a shady attempt to get our business, this kind of thing can and will happen.
In the end, we found other suppliers and the project moved forward, but the experience was eye-opening and pushed us to be far more diligent with future developments. The language and location barriers can be a huge source of frustration, especially when they are used to deceive you, so the important thing is to be prepared for this. With Casca, we’ve mostly relied on our networks for trusted referrals of new suppliers, and have held remote conversations with suppliers to double-check all the details. When all of those boxes are ticked, we’ll take the time to visit and tour factories to ensure they’re clean, safe and healthy working environments that show pride in the products they produce.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
We’re currently running the pre-order campaign for Casca’s first offering, Avro. The minimal sneaker is offered in waterproof leather and seamless knit variations, and features our proprietary support system along with a number of cutting-edge details designed to above and beyond customer’s expectations of daily footwear. The response has been incredible so far.
From countless development trips to China, to collecting user feedback, to building a thriving community of ‘Future Builders’, our small team has worked incredibly hard to get to this point. We’ve put the utmost attention to detail into each aspect of the brand and tested our products relentlessly, from daily commutes to the mountaintops to the tennis court. We’ve really pushed the potential of everyday shoes and as a designer, I’m incredibly excited to see the response.
Next week, I’ll be flying to Guangzhou in Southern China to oversee production for our first delivery this fall.
What advice would you give to other business owners who do business in China, to help their employees to thrive?
Approach any project with open eyes and a collaborative mindset. There’s often an assumption that China is this mysterious vending machine where you send design specs and out pops a prototype. Working under this assumption not only wastes time as parties try to define each other’s needs, but also hinders the final product by limiting collaboration.
In reality, there’s a wealth of experience and expertise in China; they have really progressed as a technological leader in a wide array of industries. Merging that knowledge with western design thinking and creativity can produce incredible results. Communicating the big picture vision and welcoming input is where you can get true value out of those partnerships.
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 about that?
I am so fortunate to have had so many amazing people in my life, but if I had to pick one, it would be my father. When I was a kid, he would come home from work trips with pictures and stories of all the crazy things he’d seen on his overseas work trips. Mopeds stacked 30 feet high with materials, basketball games with factory workers, and stories of all the wild and crazy cuisine he tried.
I was still in school when I joined him on a China work trip. I went with the assumption that the business relationship would be fairly one-sided and direct, which it can be at times, but watching the way he interacted and collaborated with overseas partners was really special for me. I’ve been around a lot of people since, that can be brash and impatient, showing little empathy or concern for the locals — it’s no surprise that there’s far less willingness to get help when you take this approach.
To have that exposure and realization so early in my career has been instrumental in the relationships I’ve built and how it has impacted the company I’m building today.
What do you think are the new untapped markets in China that may become the next “big thing”?
China is a developing country, so it’s full of opportunities and risks, but the middle class is growing incredibly fast. With a population of 1.4 billion people, even if you target the top 10 percent, that’s still about 140 million — equivalent to the entire population of Mexico.
Within this market, I think there’s a lot of potential for premium and technical apparel. Other Vancouver-based brands like Arc’teryx and lululemon athletica have seen tremendous success there already. Much of the growing middle class is well-versed in performance apparel, putting high value on Canadian craftsmanship and design. It’s an exciting time as there’s tons of promise and great reception for emerging brands like Casca.
We keep hearing about the “Trade War”. What are your thoughts about it? Given the unknowns, how do you plan to pivot?
We opted to manufacture in China because of the presence of technical expertise and accessibility to cutting-edge materials. With Casca, this is where we feel we can make the best products, as China is no longer just a destination to capitalize on cheap labour and resources. We’ve discussed the potential challenges with industry peers and with the FDRA (Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America). Many leading sportswear brands and even high fashion brands are developing their pinnacle products there, so we’re all facing similar challenges.
As a direct-to-consumer company, Casca has more flexibility than traditional retail brands and can react quickly to any changes. Casca’s sales model already offers incredible value to our customers, but our innovative approach and unique brand vision are key to our continuing success. Because of this, we don’t feel too threatened by fluctuations in duty rates or minor adjustments to our pricing.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Do Business In China.” (Please share a story or example for each.)
I’m always cautious about telling our partners how to do something. Ideas are one thing but be careful requesting something be built a certain way. They’ve probably been gluing soles, bonding materials, and molding parts for far longer than you’ve been in business. Consider the manufacturer of your goods as a partnership; ideas need to be shared and nurtured between all parties. Manufacturers will have some great solutions to problems you’re facing. If you’ve been too strong in your opinions about how to do something, you’ll get it your way, which may not be the best way.
Creating open dialogue and showing that you value their input can lead to breakthroughs for both parties in the future.
There’s no replacement for getting on a plane and having all of these experiences firsthand. I’ve had many disappointments, but also surprises visiting a factory after making contact or meeting people from a trade show. Are they who they say they are and are they capable? Many times they don’t sell themselves and their abilities well, only a factory visit will get you exposure to the products or capabilities they’re not quite ready to show in public, but after a social night they’re excited to share more details.
My favourite thing to do with a new manufacturer is to walk around their factory and warehouses, seeing who they build for and seeing shipping boxes with competitive brands ready to ship out. It’s always good to know the quality of their work by evaluating and knowing whom they currently build for.
Extend the relationship beyond the boardroom. Expect to meet someone for a three-hour lunch or dinner. Business will come and go and many of your contacts/factories will cycle through importance to your current business — but they can and will re-emerge. Having built a strong relationship ensures when you need them again, they’re giving you the required focus and attention. Just because you’re moving on now doesn’t mean you won’t work together again in the future.
The language barrier is real. Most factories, especially the component or sub-suppliers in China do not have a fluent English speaker. If you don’t have someone that can communicate directly in Chinese on your team, make sure you find someone to hire or a trusted partner in China to help. Even with those that speak English, it’s important to re-confirm details in writing whenever possible, as there can be frequent misunderstandings otherwise.
If you are communicating entirely in English with a Chinese factory, it is most likely through a third party such as a trading company or agency, especially if the contact was made through an English-based sourcing site. Trading companies can be helpful to find factories, but they come with a number of hidden costs and do not necessarily understand the manufacturing process. If there are technical changes you are trying to make to the product, it can often lead to more miscommunication and frustration. If possible, it’s always best to have somebody on your team that can communicate directly in Chinese to avoid these problems.
I know this one sounds a bit obvious, but it really is important. For westerners, it is crucial to understand that there are cultural differences between both parties. Being mindful of the Chinese calendar, differing values and even perceptions of norms we assume are simple; even the order in how you enter a room or greet one another can impact first impressions. Sometimes these details can’t be understood without experiencing them firsthand, so it’s critical to observe, learn, and ask questions when appropriate.
There will be times where communication is lost in translation, or negotiations don’t go as either party intended. When faced with these situations, it’s important to respect the cultural differences in place, and work together to overcome them; we found this worked best when communicating in an open and transparent way while remaining confident in the product you want to create.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people” — Dieter Rams
A simple quote from one of the greatest designers of all time.
When I was younger, I would get caught up in trends and fashion losing the sense of purpose that fuelled my initial passion. Ultimately, design is problem solving for people. I strive to accelerate the world towards a brighter future and improve lives. Ram’s design philosophy is a huge inspiration for that.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Our brand and products are a vehicle for our greater purpose. My work at Casca constantly strives to influence a healthier and happier planet for all. When we first launched our e-commerce site, the only product was our ‘Culture Manual’. This document outlined Casca’s ‘WHY’ to Accelerate a Brighter Future, with all of the proceeds going to FINCA, an international non-profit that transforms communities through innovative micro-financing of social enterprises.
All aspects of Casca align with this philosophy. We’re continually looking at ways to join and support a community of disruptors determined to shape tomorrow.
Our footwear products promote reduced consumption through versatile, timeless and durable products. If we can help educate consumers on the positive impacts they can have by thinking and purchasing with this mindset, we can reduce our overall footprint and leave the world in a better place for generations to come. As consumers, innovative e-commerce platforms and the accessibility of the Internet allow us to purchase only from brands that share our values and viewpoint. The power has shifted.
Originally published at medium.com