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In Part 1 of our Interview with Joshua Poertner, the owner of Silca, he told us about some of the strategies he uses to divine the basic needs of the rider and how that can influence product design, rather than just build on what may be incorrect existing assumptions. It’s a strategy he has used to help reinvigorate stagnant categories like pumps, tools and saddle bags.
In part II of our discussion Josh delves deeper into the questions he asks himself during product ideation and development and this strategy of discerning what riders want – a desire that may even be subconscious. We also learn about how Joshua’s time as Zipp’s Technical Director taught him invaluable lessons he has brought to the Silca brand.
[PELOTON] Is there a set of questions you ask yourself before deciding how to tackle a new product?
[Joshua Poertner] We spend a lot of time looking for what I call the ‘Root Need’ which is along the lines of a ‘root cause’ familiar to engineers. The ‘Root Need’, is the essential want/need/desire of the customer, and it often exists at an almost subconscious level.
I like to look at how people are using it and ask them what they hate about their current experience, about the frustrations of use, we talk about comparing frustrations between different products. We’ve found that if you ask people what they want, they often articulate their frustrations as easily solvable and offer you a solution which often times sounds like a technology rollback. We say, what do you hate about working on your bike and people universally say ‘I hate Torx fasteners.’ We could solve this if you would stop using them on stems.’ Now, clearly that would be one solution, but Torx are truly superior and when we had hex fasteners people complained about rounding the heads, so why do people ‘hate’ Torx? What’s the root need? Well Torx is angering because there isn’t one handy on the work bench, my existing multi-tool doesn’t have one, etc.. So the problem isn’t actually that modern stems are using Torx, it’s that your cycling paraphernalia hasn’t caught up to the state of your equipment.
This was a real ‘Root Need’ we discovered in HX-One. We wanted a superior hex key due to our experience with old/soft/cheap hex keys damaging Ti fasteners. Personally I’m pretty disorganized, so I wanted organization and anti-slip and some other features, but it was listening to people complain about Torx that really changed the project. The statement over and over again was to, ‘get rid of Torx’, but for us the realization was that the Torx keys needed to be handy yet unobtrusive. So we developed the magnetic adapter that could convert the 6mm hex key into a bit driver and then included the range of Torx bits. We get some remarkable emails about how life changing this feature is which makes me really proud, our team really stopped having the old debate, ‘Torx vs Hex’, and reframed the discussion as hex keys that were Hex and Torx.
[PELOTON] How does your background at Zipp play into this?
[Joshua Poertner] At Zipp we were always pushing the absolute edge of technology and the atmosphere was highly oriented toward experimentation. We called this ‘fail fast’ and the idea was that an experiment or prototype made today is better than two days of talking about it. The culture there, which we have really recreated at SILCA was one where anybody could experiment with any idea at any time, and we really celebrated failures as the means by which the best learning could happen.
[PELOTON] Do you have a simple design philosophy or mantra you try to apply to all your ideas?
[Joshua Poertner] We spend significant time up front working to identify the ‘Root Need’ behind the problem. I feel that this really helps us better frame the possible solutions and often opens up entirely new ways of thinking about something. I preach the mantra of ‘the third way’. So often we self-limit by viewing our designs on a continuum between two desires, ‘stiffer vs lighter’ as an example. I like to reframe those decisions as, ‘What if there’s a third way to do this?’ It’s another way of saying can we achieve both? Good example, we wanted hi-visibility on the HX-One hex keys because we like that feature on PB-Swiss keys. However, we also like this sample of rubberized polymer hi-grip coating we had, that was only available in black. It seems obvious now that we’ve done it, but we spent actual time debating which way to go before deciding to do both. Often times the third way simply involves reframing the question, in this case we had asked, ‘Do you make this coating in bright red?’, to which the answer was ‘no’. The right question turned out to be, ‘Is it possible to develop a red version of this coating?’, to which the initial answer was ‘possibly’ and the longer term answer was ‘yes’. I like getting to, ’Yes’!
[PELOTON] How does the trial and error of design and production influence how much the initial idea changes?
[Joshua Poertner] This is so huge to the process. I’m a huge believer in ‘fail fast’ throughout the design and engineering phase. We can talk about it all week, but if we just go make one, we will know more in an hour. It is common for us to build a prototype from duct tape, clay, epoxy or fabric during a company meeting, it’s transformative to the discussion if everybody can see and touch the concept being discussed. It’s amazing how often something seems so clear in your head and then you begin to shape it with clay and the whole idea falls apart. The more mistakes we can make very early, the fewer we will make later in a development. I’m a huge fan of what we call ‘smart mistakes’, which are mistakes that provide direction for moving forward.
[PELOTON] What else should we know about Silca design and the process?
[Joshua Poertner] We also believe in putting the money normally allocated for fancy packaging into product. I hear over and over again from retailers and even our customers that we need fancier, prettier, more expensive packaging, but it’s my belief that every dollar we can pull from the package is a dollar we can put into the product. So would the user rather spend say $5 on a package that gets thrown out on day one or have $5 used to replace plastic parts with metal ones so that the product works better and lasts longer? This is a very hard balance to make, but we trust that with education and understanding people ultimately prefer the better product in the un-sexy package.