Behind the Scenes Part Two: Eric Hayes, Visionary Footwear Leader and Flowbuilt Board Member.
As a board member at Flowbuilt, Eric spends a great deal of time thinking about you. He’s thinking about problems you don’t know exist and solutions you didn’t know you need. “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” is an adage Henry Ford once used, and continues to accurately illustrate that while consumers might be able to communicate a problem, they may not be as articulate about the solution. This is where Erica spends his time: looking for holes in the market, identifying problems that consumers aren’t necessarily aware of, and determining how to ‘give the people what they want’.
Tell us about your background and how you’re drawing on it to help with your current role at Flowbuilt.
I have spent most of my career parsing through what qualifies as “consumer demand” and what can more accurately be described as “consumer acceptance”. The public doesn’t necessarily ask for specific products or services to meet a need or solve a problem in their life, but they may show signs of acceptance and a willingness to adopt new products or services that they’re not even aware exist. And sometimes, it isn’t even a new product or service, it may just be a new way to view or use an existing solution.
For Flowbuilt specifically, I find those moments, examine them, and then provide strategic direction and manage partnerships that facilitate the solution. A perfect example is more personalized products that are tuned specifically for a user’s individual needs. A bespoke product or service, perhaps. Currently we may not have folks banging down our door saying, “we want custom shoes,” but we know that when presented with the options of customization and personalization in footwear, they love it, engage with it, and ultimately would buy it.
How do you describe Flowbuilt to a prospective partner?
First and foremost, Flowbuilt is a manufacturing company. We make high quality shoes at approachable price points, close to home. Flowbuilt is also a development partner for brands that want to make their custom footwear dreams a reality. We’re inventing an entirely new category in the very mature and very established footwear channel.
We’re taking the expertise of Superfeet and our deep knowledge of fit and shape, and bringing that to partner brands who can take that information, bake in their respective brand DNA and with Flowbuilt, build a custom shoe.
What is Flowbuilt’s unique value proposition for your prospective partners?
We have three unique stories: (1) made in the USA and close to home, (2) digital manufacturing 4.0 capabilities, and (3) 3D printing. The Pacific Northwest is packed with iconic footwear companies and Flowbuilt provides them a viable option to design and manufacture their products not only in the US, but literally in their backyard.
With our tie-in to Fitstation and the ability to generate a person’s digital profile, to then design and manufacture a shoe specifically for that consumer, we’re able to do things other factories simply can’t do right now. And finally, our utilization of HP’s MJF (multi-jet fusion) printer, we have dramatically reduced the amount of time that it takes to go from an idea to an actual sellable shoe with 3D printing.
This means that businesses can stop trying to predict future trends and chasing ever-changing consumer tastes. They can now begin designing products quickly and efficiently for one consumer at a time based on their individual input - from design, to fit and functionality. We’re radically changing the economics of footwear and providing a better experience and a better product for the consumers. When consumers are getting something that is made to their personal specifications, they no longer have to settle.
What’s the vision for Flowbuilt and how do you see it in the future?
The concept of ‘custom’ has been around for a while in the footwear industry, but has mostly been limited to the aesthetic aspects of the shoe. Considering the capabilities of Flowbuilt, the future is practically limitless. As consumer expectations continue to change and as brands adopt the concept of custom, we will start seeing customization playing a much larger role in Flowbuilt, and begin to realize what’s possible for both the manufacturing facility and the footwear industry.
What, if anything, has surprised you about Flowbuilt since you started working there?
Flowbuilt was set up to respond to the imminent changes on the horizon in the footwear industry. We’re already seeing it play out in apparel. I think the alignment of the various elements was expected, but I’m surprised at how quickly it’s happening.
There’s a consumer demand with a willingness to adopt the concept of custom. There’s the brand’s desire to offer a better experience to their consumers. There’s the retailer’s desire to connect with their consumers in a more meaningful way. And then there’s the global environment that’s forcing brands to look inwards and at how they can bring manufacturing back home.
What obstacles do you foresee Flowbuilt needing to overcome?
You have to keep in mind the number of years, decades in some cases, that footwear brands have been tracking down a well-traveled path. And the resources they’ve dedicated to squeezing and optimizing their operational process, which is where they actually make their money.
Asking those brands to consider a completely different mode and method of manufacturing, it can be incredibly challenging for them to picture and embrace that. And they’ll be the first to say that the current process is broken, but to radically change course is difficult, it’s simply human nature to resist change, and so this shift takes time.
Stay tuned for Part Three of our Behind the Scenes Series where will be interviewing Chuck Sanson, Director of Business Development to learn how he is bringing the human element forward in his thinking around the future of footwear manufacturing.
In future posts, we’ll also take a closer look at some of the challenges and issues facing today’s manufacturing industry as a whole, and how we are using new innovations - and existing technologies in new ways - while looking to turn the entire industry on its head.