An interview with US mass customization veteran Scott Killian on what are his objectives with Yerzies (see previous posting) and what he sees next.
Scott Killian has been advising and operating successful e-commerce companies for 10 years — most notably as Chairman & CEO of FanBuzz, a leading e-commerce outsourcing and fulfillment company. Killian co-founded mass customization site FanBuzz in 1996. In 2000, Killian raised the first of two private equity rounds for the company totaling $10 million. Scott has been a long-time advocate for the use of mass customization to better understand consumer preferences, reduce inventory, improve assortment flexibility, and enhance the overall brand experience for consumer products. His insights have been featured in such national publications as USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and CBS Marketwatch.
Frank Piller: What is the idea behind your new venture, Yerzies?
Scott Killian: We began about three years ago with DemandMade, a software platform that helps manufacturers adapt their production processes to support units of one and online retailers to effectively communicate with these factories. As the network of manufacturers using our platform grew, a consumer-facing opportunity of our own began to emerge.
Retailers were taking advantage of the platform, but most of them lacked the expertise in product development they needed to really get the most out of the manufacturing options we made available to them. Yerzies effectively places the capabilities and the limitations of these factories into the hands of ordinary people. We've begun with apparel, but we will be adding more product categories soon.
Not only is Yerzies a platform for user-generated content, we're also entering into licensing relationships with a diverse group of brands that will allow us to offer a "long tail" assortment of designs and intellectual property from movies, television, lifestyle properties and consumer products companies. Customers will have the option to purchase or customize products bearing these trademarks.
Finally, we're also providing many of these same tools to other retailers and content properties who wish to offer products that are made on demand. For example, a major consumer brand is using DemandMade this holiday season to launch an entire apparel program which will be produced on demand in our factories.
FP: But your roots in mass customization are much older. You are a co- founder of FanBuzz, a large provider of customized sports apparel, started in 1996 as one of the first BtoC mass customization operations in the US. Later, you started DemandMade as a BtoB enabler of mass customization. How did you incorporate your experiences from FanBuzz and DemandMade into Yerzies?
SK: After we sold FanBuzz in 2002, I began providing advisory services to online retailers and consumer products companies, including several projects involving mass customization. DemandMade started in early 2005 and is now the parent company to Yerzies. All of these experiences required us to "get our hands dirty" along the entire length of the value chain and I think that was a tremendous advantage for us over somebody just getting into this business. We learned a great deal about licensing, how to connect the manufacturing processes with the end consumer, the danger of burdening users with too many choices, how to scale these programs, etc...
What's really interesting about Yerzies is that the entire business began with a three-year investment in the back office. When it came time for us to develop a consumer-facing application, we were able to do it on a strong foundation. Despite our interest in concepts and processes, we have strong roots in retail so we're really here to create merchandising programs that capture the hearts and minds of end consumers. This is always our first priority.
FP: What are future steps planned for Yerzies?
SK: We're just getting out of the gate right now so our immediate focus is on attracting an initial audience of users. In the coming months we'll be announcing some interesting twists to our business model which will help us draw an even larger mainstream audience, but we're satisfied for the moment to operate in beta mode while we whittle away bugs and garner feedback from early adopters. In the meantime, watch for a huge increase in the number of licensed properties. We've signed many that we haven't announced yet and we're currently in active discussions with many more. We'll also be expanding the array of embellishment options in Q1 of 2009. Despite the launch of Yerzies, DemandMade continues to support other retailers who are launching programs. We will be announcing several of these before the 2008/09 holiday season.
FP: More general, what are recent trends you see with regard to mass customization?
SK: If the first wave of innovation we saw online was about letting users create or configure a customized item, then the second wave is clearly about the intersection of social networking and mass customization. Although Etsy.com isn't a mass customizer, they have proven that users are not content to merely sell the items they've created, they want affirmation and interaction with other users. Since eBay has long dominated the online auction world, conventional wisdom would suggest that a start-up like Etsy would have no chance at success, but they provided a sense of community and a platform that respected the handmade items these folks were creating and that was perhaps more important to these users than the size of the audience.
If I've seen a trend, it's the recognition that these communities will be important to the long-term success Iof many mass customization programs. Ponoko and Red Bubble are two really interesting examples of this at work.
FP: What would be your main advice for a manager who wants to lead a mass customization implementation?
SK: In larger organizations, the development and execution of these programs often requires a diverse group of departments to coordinate their responsibilities. As you can imagine, getting folks from engineering, product development, legal, marketing, creative and operations to huddle around an entirely new concept they may not completely understand (or even believe in) is a major task. My advice to someone trying to develop a program like this within a major company is to make sure they have support at the highest level within the organization - they'll probably need it.
Regardless of the program size, unless the brand has some other strategic objective, most of these programs are still retail businesses at their core. As such, it should always start with the customer. I've been involved in the planning and execution of many mass customization programs, including some for major consumer products brands and I think it's very easy for management to project its own preferences or assumptions onto these projects without first identifying and understanding the customer. People create, modify and personalize products for many different reasons. Although it might be impossible to address all of them, I think it's critically important to understand what customers really want before investing in the idea.