Founded by Michael Schaeffer and Marcus Wilson in 2013, NOBULL is a footwear, apparel and accessory brand “for people who train hard and don’t believe in excuses.”
Interviewed by Stefane Barbeau | 05.02.2017
Stefane: What challenges do you face with hiring design talent?
Michael: Actually, the biggest challenge we face overall is finding people with a good cultural fit. There’s no lack of talent around us. We’ve just got a really unique team that we’re cultivating. We’re at 15 people, and we’re finally starting to hire designers. Until now I did all the design and visual work myself, whether it was graphic, product, photography, or video. We have a NOBULL ‘code of conduct’…principals that we stick to, whether it’s in our interactions with customers or with staff.
We tend to stay away from hiring people who need too much hand-holding, and don’t want to hear about business details if they’re not directly relate to their job. We want people who get involved. Of course, not everything is shared, but we want to staff to know how many shoes we’ve sold, what our projections are, as much transparency as possible. We know that as we grow we’ll wind up being more department-segregated, but for now want to take advantage of our small size.
Stefane: What is motivating this approach to staff involvement?
Michael: This is in part a response to my previous corporate work format, where there were politics and not much inter-department sharing. This is true with lots of big orgs, and mostly for good reason. But from a creative standpoint, we missed opportunities for connections and inspiration. Marcus and I realized that the consumer doesn’t buy into those separate departments; they see a whole brand. We want our whole company to be a reflection of consumer expectations, including our infrastructure. For now we’re in a sweet spot where we can be that way, especially as we’re finding our voice and growing.
Stefane: How is this working out with staff?
Michael: There are some challenges. From a practical standpoint, staff need a way to describe their job. We don’t want to sound too traditional, but they do need to be able to identify themselves in outside meetings with Google or YouTube. So our titles right now are based on what the consumer experiences: the person’s job title is a reflection of how their work impacts the consumer. Basically, we’re committing early on to a creative culture. We’re approaching the structure of our company like a design project. Everything is a design project.
Stefane: Is that a burden?
Michael: Not really. It’s an opportunity to change the template. It’s a necessity if we want to stick to our commitment and do it right. It’s a sense of freedom.
Stefane: Has design helped you mitigate disaster?
Michael: Absolutely. Our biggest disaster was early on; we were at the Crossfit games in California in 2014. We had only one person working for us, and there was a lot to do, and there was a time crunch, so we had all of our first production samples shipped directly from the factory in China to our hotel. It was about 100 pairs in different sizes and colors. We were going to do a soft launch at the games via networking. But the product looked like shit. It was the worst thing I had ever seen in all my years of footwear development. We were totally deflated, and didn’t know what to do. We repacked all the boxes, didn’t show a thing, and told everyone it was going to be a while. We had to regroup.
“How we treat people is part of our success. The whole experience is one design project, not just the product.”
One option was to give up, of course. But we reminded ourselves this was really not unusual in a regular design and prototyping process. The difference was we did not have the time and money that we were used to in a big corporation where this all still happens; the difference is there is no one person who takes the burden – it’s a diffused team. But here it was all on us to follow through. Six months later, we launched our updated designs at a major Crossfit event in Boston. Looking back, this was the best thing that could have happened to us. The second round was a much better solution. Much more compelling, much better performance. If we had launched with the previous product, we would not have been as successful as we are now. The disaster gave us time to redesign. It took us a year of revisions but we stuck with the same factory! They worked to get things to a new level. It’s been a great partnership ever since.
Stefane: Was there a transformative period where you realized design was crucial to your growth and competitiveness?
Michael: It depends on how you describe design. Product design was secondary to brand development at first. It was the attitude we wanted to design and capture. We asked ourselves what frustrated us with previous jobs and products. How do we NOT repeat all of that? The name came from that attitude: no bullshit. NOBULL. Then, the challenge was to design based on that. Let’s cut the crap and take everything off the product. No gimmicks, no pseudo-tech. Just well-crafted, well-performing shoes that function and last. The shoe is not going to make you run faster – you make yourself run faster. The shoe protects your foot while you’re achieving new performance levels.
Now that we’ve got a strong, clear attitude, we can apply that to customer service, interacting with employees… so the transformative period was when we realized we could apply our brand design to all facets of the business.
Stefane: This is blunt and wise.
Michael: Yes. It’s direct, and works for certain people, but turns some people off. Not a lot of grey area!
Stefane: How do you quantify the value of design in the success of your company?
Michael: Not formally. It’s hard to track ROI in the conventional way. But we can gauge content really well. We market and advertise on social media. Our primary channel is Instagram. If we did not have that channel with consumers, we would not have grown this much. There’s such a beauty to this direct conversation with consumers. No focus groups are necessary; we get unfiltered feedback all day, every day. We hear, and everyone else hears too. And they watch how we deal with it. How we treat people is part of our success. The whole experience is one design project, not just the product. We can see immediately when something is not as compelling; the engagement level goes down. It’s a very direct, very personal measure of the value of our design work.
“We learn a lot from what we put out there. Our first product is never perfect, but then we get instant feedback and sit down and analyse how we can improve that on the next round.”
Stefane: Do you ever say ‘good enough’?
Michael: Yes, we do that a lot. We don’t want to create mediocre product, but a some point we need to start shipping. We could work something to death and never get it perfect. And then you never show anyone and get nowhere. We learn a lot from what we put out there. Our first product is never perfect, but then we get instant feedback and sit down and analyse how we can improve that on the next round. We also feel no reason to reinvent the wheel every four months – if something works, then let’s refine it and make it better and look at how we can expand on what’s already doing well.
Stefane: Why are you located in MA?
Michael: Good question. The main reason is because this is where we were based to start. We’ve felt no need to be elsewhere because there’s a vibrant startup community in Massachusetts. A lot of other footwear brands are already here, and others are considering it: Reebok, Converse, New Balance, Puma and others are here, and Asics is coming. Soon we’ll need to make many more hires, and we’re well-positioned because there’s a pre-existing, thriving footwear and apparel design community here that we can tap into. The east coast is good feeder for future potential talent hires. RISD, Mass Art. Plus we’re so close to New York.
Stefane: What is an example of the best use of design at NOBULL?
Michael: Actually, We get a lot of comments on our content. I wouldn’t say that we’ve nailed it, but people relate to how we talk about the company and product. We feel like we’ve really got a good handle on our tone and messaging. NOBULL looks very different, its voice is different now, from how we started. We were a lot more aggressive at the start. This evolved through the people who work with us. The staff personalities really come through. We’ve become really good at copy-writing and the tone has evolved over time. Not everything is hardcore camouflage product. We have red shoes with sprinkles on them now. Everyone knows you need your ‘cheat day’ for workout regimes, but you don’t necessarily always talk about it. Those shoes are a nod to that, and people like the humorous side, and that we’ve exposed that. That was a leap for us in terms of our process of listening and reflecting.
Stefane: What other companies do you admire?
Michael: That’s tough. Wow. An obvious example is Apple. They’ve got a seamless experience that covers product, brand, packaging, stores, etc. Plus the product is engrained in daily life. There are some smaller brands that do this too, but Apple is still the tops. I’m also inspired by TLC icon – they restore old Landrovers. I think it’s run by a former Nike design director. Beautiful. they strip them, then refurbish them with modern tech. It’s very honest and transparent, and I like the attitude.
Stefane: Thanks Michael!