Alec Babala

e: alec.babala@gmail.com
in: linkedin.com/in/alecbabala

I believe in making less and connecting more. I'm passionate about bringing people together through effective learning and communication.

Several anecdotes about luck and how Felix was designed

Several anecdotes about luck and how Felix was designed

Our product families describe the guiding form and function of its pieces. In other words, how they were engineered. The materials used in the Felix Family are constructed from baltic birch trees found in southern Finland. The family’s name is inspired by the material’s Scandinavian origin, and the Eurasian Lynx cats that are known to inhabit the region. The name stems from the Latin word fēlix, meaning “the lucky one”.

That is the version we tell people who ask where Felix, the name of the product family, came from.

For the people who want to see past the lofty designer jargon, the genuine explanation is we decided on the name seven months after all the pieces were designed, because the name felt right at the time. But as you can imagine, people unattached to a decisive moment like this have a hard time understanding an answer like that. They might describe it as impulsive or even careless. It’s this sort of flawed reasoning over a decision based on a mindset, that makes luck so elusive to some.

A little bit of “magic”.

A little bit of “magic”.

I wanted to share some of the luckiest decisions that have gotten the Felix Family where it is today. I think it’s important that people can read the raw story behind the design, free from polish, so you can interpret our process how you see it. So let’s get past the lessons we’ve learned, the systems we’ve adopted, the accolades we’ve collected, and all the numbers that count the hours we’ve worked and the dollars we’ve invested into this collection of furniture. Here are a few of our stories.

Making Our First Decision

After John, Bruce, and I moved into our new “office” in Providence, RI in March 2015, a.k.a. a loft space where we would live and work for seven months, we spent the first few nights listening to each other’s radically different visions for Greycork and thoughtfully discussed all those possibilities, as big as business pivots and as small as product features, in depth — articles, interviews, and surveys. It took a couple of weeks to exhaust these topics and to understand each of our individual perspectives. The deliberate decision to design a sofa for the living room was the result. It felt natural.

“Our user-centered design process begins with understanding the user’s mindset regarding the home. In this case, we found users tend to think about the living room most, when thinking about their home. Then, we found a user’s primary aspiration for their home was a social space. Based on the data, the living room was a natural first collection.”

“Our user-centered design process begins with understanding the user’s mindset regarding the home. In this case, we found users tend to think about the living room most, when thinking about their home. Then, we found a user’s primary aspiration for their home was a social space. Based on the data, the living room was a natural first collection.”

In March 2015, John, Bruce, and I faced a wall of 100+ post-it notes, all written with our thoughts for new opportunities to reinvent Greycork’s product offerings in the home space. We took the time to vote for what each of us felt was feasible to execute, desirable to market, and viable enough to sustain a business. Here are some of the ideas the three of weren’t ready for:

  • No-assembly furniture
  • Rental home furnishing
  • Adhesive lighting and shelving
  • Guide book for how to efficiently move homes
  • An affordable moving service
  • VR app for furniture

I specifically remember arguing over what “no-assembly” meant and how critical of a product feature that is, or feeling turned off that I was the only one excited about adhesive wall-mounted products, or agreeing that we weren’t capable of making an app.

After some sorting and decision matrices, our options narrowed. On the wall, one of the few post-it notes that we each voted for had “sofa” written on it.

We expanded on the idea and talked about how we could validate it. It took some research on the industry for buying furniture online, quick and pointed SurveyMonkey polls on furniture features, and a handful of informal interviews with friends and family on home essentials, to reach a product direction that carried some intellectual weight.

Looking at the Clock

When we started designing the sofa in April 2015, we only had a pocketful of cash saved up. The amount of time that bought us was enough to launch this concept on Indiegogo by the summer if we were responsible with our time and made every hour of every day count. In three months, Jonah joined us to scrappily build a sofa with the bare minimum features that we prioritized: simple assembly, delivers in a box, and at an affordable price. Our peers perceived this Greycork piece as a design-worthy product, which we thought was a humorous yet thought-provoking comparison, because of the corners we had to cut to get it production ready. It felt like we’d taken our product to the right place and at the right time.

“Part of the idea behind the lean startup is to prove demand, and build products in a rapid, user-centered design cycle. By reaching out on Indiegogo, we can assess our demand, build a stronger relationship with our early adopters, and use feedback to make our product as amazing as possible.”

“Part of the idea behind the lean startup is to prove demand, and build products in a rapid, user-centered design cycle. By reaching out on Indiegogo, we can assess our demand, build a stronger relationship with our early adopters, and use feedback to make our product as amazing as possible.”

In September 2015, our team was four people deep. John, Bruce, Jonah, and I were working on the floor of our loft space, now unrecognizable when littered with sofa prototypes, sketches, post-it notes, material samples, and Dunkin Donut coffee cups and empty sandwich bags. If you looked hard enough, you could find the two queen-sized mattresses where Bruce and I slept every night.

Three months prior, time was running out for Greycork, and each of us was scrambling to prepare for our launch on Indiegogo — everything from reaching out to media, building the website, conversations with suppliers, finalizing product specifications, and touching up our crowdfunding video and photography. We saw the Indiegogo campaign as our bridge to the next iteration of the sofa and the living room set that would accompany it.

Here is a list of all the product features we considered in that time:

  1. Affordability — price points competitive to IKEA
  2. Aesthetic — a culturally relevant and minimalist style
  3. Multifunctional — pieces serve more than one purpose; a sofa that can be used for seating and sleeping over
  4. Convenience — essential home furnishings delivered in a box with simple assembly; a full living room set that takes no tools to put together
  5. Transportability — lightweight construction and removable parts for ease of carry and storage when moving
  6. Modularity — interchangeable system for replacement parts and product upgrades and customizations; armrests and different color slipcovers
  7. Durability — high quality materials and packaging to protect products during shipping and to increase the lifetime of each piece
  8. Ergonomics — comfortable and natural form and function

Amazingly, we had a physical, production-ready prototype (and not just digital renderings) to show the world that you can sit on it when we launched. By no means did we fully master a single feature due to our constraints in time, but we managed to include a little bit of each into the living room set. We came out with a whole product that seemed to resonate with those who found Greycork.

Back at the loft space, the four of us were still working hard, even though we had beat the clock. In our heads, another clock for fulfilling those orders was already ticking.

Raising the Bar

We received an overwhelming amount of support by November 2015 — we had over 900 pieces to make, not counting the additional pre-orders coming in from our website. We were concerned about product quality and shipping dates with these level of demand. Our team of four was preparing for the busy time ahead of us: traveling to factories, coordinating with suppliers, reviewing samples, and countless other tasks. Yet, what we did not prepare for would be the immense amount of pressure we had from our early supporters, and even each other, to not disappoint. We set a revised Greycork mission to align our decision making: to responsibly grow a brand for the home through an understanding of our users, our partners, and ourselves. It felt genuine.

“We took a step back to figure out the guiding attributes that were needed to represent our furniture. The primary attribute was high quality. With this in mind, we upgraded the panels from veneered MDF with edge banding to high quality baltic birch plywood that will last a lifetime. Baltic birch plywood is a beautiful, strong, and honest material that is produced without any toxic chemicals. We decided to leave the edge exposed to showcase the high quality core that is made up of 13 layers of void-free birch veneer. Plywood is dimensionally stable and has a uniform strength in all directions, which is not achievable with a MDF panel."

“We took a step back to figure out the guiding attributes that were needed to represent our furniture. The primary attribute was high quality. With this in mind, we upgraded the panels from veneered MDF with edge banding to high quality baltic birch plywood that will last a lifetime. Baltic birch plywood is a beautiful, strong, and honest material that is produced without any toxic chemicals. We decided to leave the edge exposed to showcase the high quality core that is made up of 13 layers of void-free birch veneer. Plywood is dimensionally stable and has a uniform strength in all directions, which is not achievable with a MDF panel."

In late November 2015, we began placing purchase orders for a major design change in our products — we upgraded all the MDF panels found in each piece to instead be constructed of Baltic Birch wood. There are a few logical reasons to that decision:

  • It is a very strong and stable material when layered
  • It won’t chip along the edges if you carry your furniture to a new home
  • It’s more resistant to damage if water or another liquid were to penetrate the wood finish
  • It is free of formaldehyde or any chemicals that could be harmful

But the main reason was our want to deliver a product that the team can be proud of, and our customers prouder, with a sofa that could compare among others at higher quality. Yet, with every decision comes a trade-off, as we experienced a cost increase with our partners as well as slew of logistical puzzles that needed to be solved during production. Despite the obstacles, we knew the design change would be an upgrade people would value and also a challenge we felt as a team was worth taking on.

We missed multiple deadlines for shipping orders to our early supporters. There was enormous guilt around every decision we made as it related to production, as we could not seem to win. Through the defects in material shipments and delays in fulfillment at the warehouse, we’ve never let go of our standards of delivering a high-quality product to the best of our abilities and always improving it.

Today, we’re a small team of 10 now working out of a beautiful, old yoga studio on Thayer Street in Providence. We’re getting ready to re-launch Greycork to finally be able to operate the model we envisioned for this business.

Looking back at the past seven months, it is hard to deny how big a part luck has played in these events, and how it continues to do so. It only felt appropriate that we name our first product family, Felix — after the Latin word that means “the lucky one”.

200 miles across Tuscany

200 miles across Tuscany

Fortunes