Reading time: 7 minWe arrive in Salt Lake City on a mission: to discover how in the hell a 30-year old lanyard company, within an old and commoditized product category, can become a $40 million creative powerhouse.We’re full of questions:
- How do you go from making lanyards to creating food, to pouring essential oils, to imprinting shoes … under one roof … profitably?
- How did such humble beginnings lead to a company that produces a torrent of creative projects?
- How does a 30-year old company become new again?
What can we learn from this visit that we can apply to ourselves?
Confession: I (this is Bobby speaking) didn’t expect our discovery to lead to much more than I already knew. I’ve been in the industry a long time, so I arrived with preconceived ideas about who Snugz is, most of which would change in 48 hours.Because we were there to capture a few podcast recordings with the Snugz team, we approached our task like investigative reporters. We spent the next 48 hours grilling Snugz about operations, profitability, and the creative process (all to be released on an upcoming skucast) and we were surprised at what their non-verbal replies revealed.
In some ways, the story of Snugz is the story of its city, an old-city-becoming-new, emerging out of the religious shadows of its past.Revitalization has ignited Salt Lake City. The tech sector is booming. Big companies are planting deep roots here: Adobe, eBay, E.M.C., Edwards Lifesciences. The rail system, to meet demand, is sprawling across the metro, an expansion so swift and consuming that even the prison is getting uprooted and relocated to make way for prime real estate. Forbes magazine ranks Salt Lake as one of the best cities for tech jobs. CNBC claims it is becoming a high tech mecca to rival Silicon Valley.And nestled amid this expansion is this 30-year old industry manufacturer, quietly participating in the revolution by reinventing itself. Immediately, you think the city’s revitalization explains the reinvention of Snugz, but there are adverse effects as well. The city’s growth poses chronic problems for the manufacturer. Talent, recruited here in droves, is expensive. Labor costs and living expenses continue to rise. Thanks largely to its religious roots, a massive international influx floods the city (over 120 languages are spoken in Salt Lake County alone), which poses both problems and opportunities.
The velocity of change and the sheer speed of our industry creates a wind tunnel effect for the Snugz team: They are so busy they can rarely lift their head from the hustle to simply reflect.So, we ply them with questions and force their hand.In the next 48 hours, we discover things about Snugz that we’re not even sure they realize.Since the podcast recordings will reveal what the Snugz team thinks, we boiled our pages of notes and conversations down to six subtle secrets that were not expressed, subtleties detected that we can learn from, to reinvent ourselves and our brands:
Subtle Secret #1: Recruit Talent RuthlesslyWhen Snugz CEO Brandon Mackay first reached out to Jeff Anderton (now Snugz Sr. Content Strategist), he wasn’t even sure why, he just had an inkling that they should get together. This wasn’t easy. Jeff had been a competitor before, and they had exchanged merely cool glances, it was typical adversarial bravado hiding politely behind gritted teeth. But, laying down their swords, they met for lunch. It’s a classic story of “Hire for talent first, find fit later.” This is a hallmark of successful reinvention: humility, risk, and collaborative discovery. Today, Snugz is one of the foremost creative powerhouses simply because Brandon (and his team) chose to become vulnerable enough to set pride aside and come to the table in the spirit of collaboration. Behind the gentle facade, Snugz recruits talent ruthlessly. Petty differences become second to progress, and subsequently, their talent roster grows.
Subtle Secret #2: Democratize and DeputizeWe assemble around the boardroom table for lunch where horizontal windows peek out over the factory floor. We ask questions like reporters, seeking real answers behind varnished responses. The former CEO in me watches body language among team members around the table as they interact. I pick up some tension between manufacturing and marketing as they trade stories of successes and failures. But the conversation rotates easily around the table. No single, strong personality steals the show, not even Brandon, the CEO. It’s obvious they have learned to work together. Moreover, they each seem to feel like they have a voice at the table. This doesn’t mean there aren’t clashes and disagreements, I’m sure there are plenty, but they seemed tempered by deference. And each person bears pride in ownership. From Rosanne, the COO who began her career at Snugz in an entry level accounting role, to their VP’s and Directors of Manufacturing. It’s clear that Snugz (it’s clear that Brandon) fosters interdependence with his team and deputizes them to take risks.
Subtle Secret #3: Embrace Permanent BetaNo one at Snugz stated it as a philosophy, but it became apparent that Snugz uses new product development as a way to invigorate the brand and their team. Change is constant within Snugz and, after 30 years, they have many long-time employees. By shifting product priorities, they require even tenured people to iterate and improve. Brandon Brown, Snugz Director of Marketing, is a good example. It can’t be easy to constantly adjust to marketing trends while balancing new product promotions with proven tactics (hello, catalog sales), but the Snugz team tends to steer with the waves as opposed to against them. This might not always be true, but their growth into broad product categories proves that, on the whole, they embrace beta as a permanent way of working. All too often, we fight change in our lives, but the most adventurous paths in our journey (personally and professionally), are usually the result of being willing to change.
Subtle Secret #4: Make Your Own EnergyThe story of Salt Lake City seems to affect Snugz with a palpable enthusiasm. Snugz, probably purposefully (I didn’t ask), paints the outside of its building black and yellow, the colors of its logo. Out-of-towners like us wouldn’t know it, but Utah’s nickname is The Beehive State, an all-too-obvious metaphor for a company whose state motto is simply “industry.” Snugz, buzzing inside with energy, actually builds much of their product themselves. This was my biggest surprise. There was a stunning amount of handwork on the factory floor. (I’ll never look at the cost of a set-up in the same way). The pathetic adage I’ve heard in the industry “we’re just a bunch of decorators who import from China and slap a logo on things” would be profane at Snugz. Cakes of soap, vats of oils, raw thread and fabric spilling over tables, and pallets of leather pieces, prove that Snugz is clearly a vertical manufacturer. The maker movement might have ushered in a feeling of respect for small crafters, but Snugz has been a large maker for years. Subtle secret: set aside time for yourself and your team to actually make things (yes, literally). “But, I’m a distributor,” you might say. But you can still make. A new website? A new landing page? A new campaign? Making builds confidence. It breathes new life into an old job, it becomes a stimulant, an addiction even. The more you make, the more you risk. The more you risk, the more you fail. The more you fail … the more you learn. Until you finally succeed.
Subtle Secret #5: Encourage Work That Looks Like PlayWe walk in the room and are stunned. In the photo above, you can’t see all the gear strewn about (most of it is out of the frame) but there's a serious investment here, backed by sheer belief in creative power. All this work looks like play. Case in point: On day two, we’re sitting in the second-floor room of a rented condo in Park City, having a serious discussion about (even more) new product development, when outside the window a buzzing sound grew louder and louder until finally, a drone appeared hovering just outside our window. "Jeff and his toys," someone replied.This was work that looked like play; play that looked like work, a theme consistent even on the factory floor. As Mark makes a key tag (photo below) I pick up a weird looking leather basket and turn to Eric Arave, R&D Manager, who shrugs and says “It’s just something we’re playing around with.” It takes confidence in yourself and your team to grant them the license to experiment (which is really just a grown-up word for play). A question for you: What kind of work in your life looks like play? Do you encourage your team to play?
Subtle Secret #6: Venture wildly (but Anchor to the Basics)We just arrived. I’m standing in the hallway greeting members of Snugz' top brass. After shaking hands with Stevie Clark, Director of Customer Relations, we start talking shop: customer service calls, number of orders, tenure of employees. Stevie leans against the wall as we chat and cooly mentions how their error rate dropped by 20%. “Wait …. What?!” I stop her mid-sentence, “20%! How the hell did you do that?” This would be a theme repeated throughout our visit, from the customer service director to each of the manufacturing directors on the factory floor: changes, improvements, percentages. Many of the points I’ve mentioned so far seem frivolous to the factory-minded. You can’t build a $40 million dollar company just playing. There’s a counterbalance to work at Snugz. Wild product experiments -from food to shoes- are balanced by an adherence to the basics: response times on calls, order processing accuracy, ship times. Key operating metrics keep all the wild adventurers tethered to shore. You can’t risk failure if you aren’t profitable, and you can’t become profitable without mastering the basics. You might be in a season of change where you are doing all you can just to function and stay alive, and that’s OK. Master your basics now, because someday they will become the anchor that allows you plenty of rope to roam for adventure.
I’m sure the Snugz team would prefer I speak about the science and engineering behind product development, and the incredible investment (millions of dollars worth) in equipment, and the capital intensive and risky venture that manufacturing represents.But when we left Snugz behind, with its immaculate headquarters and sophisticated machinery, I was left with one strong impression:
We, as an industry, are far more imaginative than we realize.Distributors, suppliers, and service providers should never demean this industry by defining it as a profession that “imports cheap stuff from China that we slap a logo on,” a throw-away line, seemingly benign, but toxic. We are oblivious to how harmful such self-described statements reshape our image of ourselves and our profession to the public. There is real craftmanship at work in this business, and tech and marketing mastery, from suppliers like Snugz, Numo, and RuMe, to distributors like Anthem Branding and Printfection and many more.
The six subtle secrets listed above are largely possible because we work in a medium that is vast with potential. Because of this, there is opportunity for any company, -regardless of age, regardless of size- to revitalize, refashion, and renew themselves.After all, with product and ideas that allow us to roam wildly, and possibilities to make our own creative energy, and mostly, with the heart and opportunity to embrace permanent beta, we are an entire industry of hard work ... that looks like play.