Episode 7: Sprout Studio on How Supply Chain Challenges Encourage Product Design and Innovation


Adam Honig: Hello and welcome to Make it. Move it. Sell it. On this podcast, I talk with company leaders about how they’re modernizing the business of making, moving, and selling products. And of course, having fun along the way. I’m your host, Adam Honig, the CEO of Spiro.ai. We make amazing AI software for companies in the supply chain, but we’re not talking about that today. Instead today, we’re talking with Jordan Nollman, the CEO, and principal of Sprout Studios. Sprout is an amazing design studio focused on the visual and physical design of products. Jordan, welcome to the show.

Jordan Nollman: Thank you, thanks for having me.

Adam Honig: Yeah, my pleasure. You guys work on some really cool products and help people really see what can be made of them. Maybe just tell us about a fun project that you guys have been involved with.

Jordan Nollman: We just finished up a breathing coach for CVS, and the local client in Boston as well. That was a pretty fun one, a lot of these projects usually take about six months to get the innovation, get everything behind it, and it’s about another year, year and a half to market. It was really nice for us to kind of see that one come to market and that one kinda happened through COVID too.

Adam Honig: And so a breathing coach, what is that all about?

Jordan Nollman: It’s basically a small pebble and maybe the same size as your iPhone case or iPhone ear-bud case, but something that you put in hand and maybe before you go to bed. Or if you’re having a stressful morning at work, you kinda hold this, and it kind of vibrates to slow you down and has different vibration patterns that will make you hopefully breathe easier.

Adam Honig: Gotcha. I know there’s a lot of people in yoga and stuff like that who talk about bringing consciousness to the breath, and this is like physically reminding you of that. Is that kind of how that works?

Jordan Nollman: Yep, exactly. And for us too, it’s nice to be in the wellness space. That was part of a project where we did probably about 20 different concepts in the wellness space, that was kind of a lower-hanging fruit. Most of what we do is consumer electronics, and it’s an easier consumer electronics to create.

Adam Honig: Yeah, so to your start, how did you get involved in all of this? 

Jordan Nollman: Great question. I have a very solid story here, it was really nice, it kind of came full circle about a year ago when we were pitching HASBRO for some business. So I found industrial design junior year of high school, a solid D minus student. And I was really into art, so I was building a lot of stuff. I was into graffiti, I really liked toys, and my dad and my uncle, we went out for Sunday morning brunch and they were like alright, you can’t pump gas your whole life or whatever, what’s next? And I said I wanna design toys. Didn’t think much of it, next weekend we went out again, and my uncle kind of presented “Oh, I have a friend who’s an industrial designer, and he says RIT is a really good school,” and I said okay. Then as faith would have it, the next week, the RIT advisor was at Freemium high school, and I showed up for the meeting. And within a year I had a portfolio together, I got into school, and really fell in love with industrial design. Never got the toys and then lo and behold, fast forward 20-something years I’m sitting in a meeting with HASBRO showing pictures of me at graduation from  Freemium high school toys, you know motor board full of toys and all the toys that I’ve always collected in the back. And yeah, it’s great to actually finally get to work with HASBRO, and hopefully, be designing some toys soon.

Adam Honig: Yeah. And so when you’re thinking about designing something like that, I’m sure CVS had some requirements that they wanted, but where do you start when you wanna design something like that?

Jordan Nollman: So everything usually starts with research. With this one, CVS had a pretty lengthy, probably like a hundred-page overview on, I dunno, years’ worth of research in different categories. From there we took a couple months to go through their research, do a little bit of our own, and then cherry-pick the nuggets. That would be a great product design. I unfortunately can’t talk about any of the other ones, but there will be a few more coming out, but this is the first one to come to market.

Adam Honig: Oh yeah, we don’t want you to tell us any secrets here. We’ll definitely let you surprise everybody with that. So the idea is it’s a little thing that you hold in your hand that helps you remember to breathe. Do you sleep with it or is it only while you’re awake?

Jordan Nollman: It’s literally just something you’d put in your hand. So you can leave it on your bedside table, you can put it on your office desk, depending where you are, but it’s meant to fit in your pocket as well if you wanted to bring it to the office and it’s a tiny little product. 

Adam Honig: Gotcha. And is there a particular demographic that you designed it for like older people or younger people? 

Jordan Nollman: Kind of middle of the road, I think mainly because if you get too old, they’re just not into technology. And even though it’s pretty simple technology, it may be too much, but yeah, I’d probably say it’s somewhere between the thirties and forties, something like that.

Adam Honig: Cool. Yeah, that definitely sounds like a challenge. What would you say, were there any particular obstacles that you had to overcome when you were thinking about the design or trying to make it manufacturable or anything like that? 

Jordan Nollman: There are a lot of obstacles with manufacturing nowadays as everyone knows, the supply chain is really brutal. But with this one, honestly, we use a lot of commodity electronics, inside of it it’s got a vibration motor, it’s got a small circuit board, You know, there’s really not a ton to it; it’s got a battery, and it’s rechargeable by USB. We got a little bit lucky on this one, in terms of that stuff, whereas we have a lot of other projects we’ve been working on that’s been delayed months, years, type of thing, waiting for components.

Adam Honig: So when you’re working on a project and there’s like a supply chain issue in the design, do you try to factor that in? You advise the client, oh let’s not use this because I know we’re never gonna get it from China for the next nine months.

Jordan Nollman: Yeah. So often we get into the sourcing and manufacturing stages of the project, but it is really at the end. So the design’s done, we’re kind of sitting there and trying to figure out the materials of what’s called a bomb. A lot of that is when we’ll have that moment of we might need to change to an older USB because the new USBs are not available or something like that.

Adam Honig: How frequently is that happening these days? Is it like every other product?

Jordan Nollman: It’s interesting. Again, we’re really front facing, so we’re really working on future concepts. So like the work that we’re doing today is gonna be for three years. It’s good, we see a lot of our clients innovating and pushing limits because we’re assuming the supply chain will be fixed by then, or they’ll probably accept manufacturing in a lot of other places than currently are today. Whereas like some of the projects now that we’re having issues with are the ones that we designed a year and a half ago. And you can’t plan for that, unfortunately. What’s interesting is you just see people going to other places in China and now because they have to, but there are certain things like certain chips that you just can only get there and they’re in short demand and it is what it is.

Adam Honig: Have you seen any trends of any other particular countries like Vietnam or something becoming more prominent? 

Jordan Nollman: Vietnam got really prominent right before COVID actually, which was interesting. So really like 19, I feel like it was a great year for Vietnam. A lot of Chinese companies were moving to Vietnam because it was close and they could move shop over there. Vietnam also, like they’ve always been really big in textile, so anything from clothing to bags, things like that, they started getting more into consumer electronics, I would say around 2019. So it has been a nice safe haven to go for manufacturing. They’re actually very easy to deal with and it’s a great country to visit.

Adam Honig: Yeah, so you’ve been to Vietnam?

Jordan Nollman: I have actually not, I’ve just lived vicariously through one of our clients packed bags, and just eating way too much Vietnamese food and we put together videos of their trips and things like that, but yeah, it’s high on my list to hopefully get there. 

Adam Honig: Yeah, it sounds like a really fascinating place. I don’t know this year, maybe in the future years, I’ll be able to get to that myself.  And I heard there is some good surfing there too, by the way.

Jordan Nollman: That’s another part of my plan, so hopefully we’ll get there soon.

Adam Honig: Gotcha. Okay, so you’re seeing some trends with manufacturing shifting to other locations, a little bit like projects from products that were being designed from a couple of years ago. People are starting to think, oh no, what are we gonna do about these components that we’re missing? So stuff is being completely redesigned or just kind of tweaked around the edges, what’d you say?

Jordan Nollman: No,  just tweaked around the edges and some product launches too are being pushed back. I think what we saw at the beginning of this year and the end of last year is a lot of those delays. And then a lot of people are shooting for that third quarter launching holiday, things like that.

Adam Honig: Right, the ever-important Thanksgiving to Christmas season for things. 

Jordan Nollman: Exactly. And China’s now open, so there’s more hope.

Adam Honig: And I’ve been talking with a lot of people who are concerned on the inflation side, that the cost of a lot of things are going up, how is that coming into the design world?

Jordan Nollman: So for us, again, we just do design only, we don’t have our own products to have to deal with. But yeah, a lot of people you’re just seeing product pricing is going up, they try elsewhere first, but it’s similar to what you’re seeing happening with food and gas. And there’s only so much that you can do until the price has to go up.

Adam Honig: So you’re not recommending the gold plated cases anymore, you’ve had to stop doing all of that because of the inflation?

Jordan Nollman: No, although ironically, some of the really expensive materials that have been sitting for longer because they were so expensive are now affordable. So we are seeing nicer what we call CMF (Colour, Material, Finishes) put on the products because you’re paying just maybe a couple cents more to go with a nicer finish than you would’ve previously just because the ones that were more affordable back in the day are now hard to get, more scarce. And some of the more expensive ones were lying around in the price that came down.

Adam Honig: Gotcha, that’s super interesting. What’s an example of something like a nicer finish?

Jordan Nollman: Well furniture is an interesting one, but so we were doing a project. This is more for computers in stores, but where we were using a lot of Birch ply and that used to go for, I wanna say 45 bucks for a 4 X 8 sheet. And basically it went up to a hundred bucks and it was 120 to get a sheet of walnut so much higher in wood and crazy how much more affordable that became.

Adam Honig: Yeah, so if people are kind of thinking about building products with the materials that they used to think was out of reach, they should reconsider that at this point because maybe it’s just the same price.

Jordan Nollman: Yeah, it all happens in that kind of way, I felt like in our fifth phase, which is like that finalization phase, you’re really working. You like alright, we’ve made all the materials we want and then you go and you do that final cost with that bill of materials and you’re looking at options A and B. And yeah, again for maybe 5 more percent you’re getting a much nicer finish, maybe you could bring the price on the product up higher too so you easily compensate for it.

Adam Honig: I’ve been at a factory recently in Indiana and they were making these industrial coils and they were talking about how do they maintain the quality of electrical conductivity with a lower-grade metal. And so it’s really interesting to see all the different angles that people take to try to keep costs low.

Jordan Nollman: There’s a lot of innovation going on and it’s because it’s necessary. Like let’s just say they only have a certain amount of copper they can use so maybe they try to make it thinner. I’m sure there are lots of different kinds of workarounds people are coming up with and hopefully, it’ll be for the better too, you know, stuff we can use forever once they figure it out.

Adam Honig: Yeah, maybe more sustainable, do you see a lot of clients wanting sustainability in terms of the products?

Jordan Nollman: That’s a really big push for us. We have so many different clients that are working on different levels, actually not so much locally, but we started working with Pratt, which is kind of the largest US manufacturer of all paper packaging products. They do recycle corrugates to you name it.

Adam Honig: And the company is called Pratt? 

Jordan Nollman: Pratt Industries, and they do everything from what you see in the moving aisle at Home Depot for those boxes to what comes with if you’ve seen like a butcher box and it’s like really insulated corrugated boxes which ships in the mail and your meat is still frozen when it gets there. They do a lot of stuff that’s recycled. We’re working with Kohler faucets, kitchens and bath-type things. They’re very much in that sustainability kick and just wherever we can try to do more there.

Adam Honig: Now let me ask you this question, when you think about sustainability, obviously you want the product to be recyclable or be used from recyclable materials, but what about the design? Is there some sort of effort being made to show people that it’s sustainable, like as part of the design so people recognize that?

Jordan Nollman: Yeah, a lot of times you can do that with the material finish I was talking about earlier. So packaging’s a really good example, obviously we’re going with something that’s more cardboard stock with a one color soy-based ink or something like that. It’s very clear, like oh this full color package that used to be completely not recyclable and not made for recycled materials, actually I have one right here, now it looks like this, which is crazy because it’s something I got in the mail.

Adam Honig: Yeah, I can see that, and you can look at it, it definitely looks recyclable right off the get-go, yeah.

 Jordan Nollman: It’s all the way through, and this is for Bronco, it’s like a totally crazy setup. Anyways, that looks like it’s sustainable, everything’s paper, wood, materials are much different.

Adam Honig: Gotcha. Yeah, so this is a podcast, and just for the people watching at home through the radio, Jordan is showing me a very complicated box that’s got a lot of different components, but it really looks like it’s got the right color and feel of it to be recyclable. It just says that way. Do you feel like clients want to put a big recycling stamp on it so it’s even more obvious?

Jordan Nollman: Well yeah, I think with the packaging stuff is very clear, but again, I was gonna say with consumer electronics in general, what you’re seeing now is a gauge where it’s like X amount of bottles saved you might see on the Elkay sink, right? So every time you’re filling up your water bottle, they’re making it clear. Or they might put something across the top of their website to say whatever they’ve done for the environment, or how they’re covered in footprint has gone neutral or is going to in 2025 kind of thing.

 Adam Honig: That totally makes sense. I’ve got this theory that a lot of companies are investing more in packaging as we’ve moved to more things being delivered via eCommerce through the mail. Or whatever sort of shipping area, have you been seeing that sort of trend as well?

Jordan Nollman: I guess where we see it, is it used to be ‘design us a beautiful graphic to put on the package.’ Now it’s designed us a beautiful out-of-the-box experience that somebody’s gonna take their iPhone and do an out-of-the-box unboxing and put it on YouTube, and that’s what they all want now. So yeah, you definitely see that trend and I think it’s good for everything because they want to see that it’s sustainable, and there’s not a lot of plastic in that packaging. We actually started an organization called SeaHive, which is all about zero plastic and packaging. And we have a little certification badge that we throw on there for SeaHive, so it’s been really good. We’ve done this with a couple of our different clients.

Adam Honig: My kind of working hypothesis of today is that every manufacturer, every business wants to be Amazon or Apple. They either want to get every product to you, like in the next hour, just have it automatically show up or they want it to be so beautifully designed that you just are in awe of it.

Jordan Nollman: Yep, those are like the two full powerful designers. As soon as they hear that, they’re like of course, everybody says this, but as a design firm, this is where we push ourselves. So we look at the greats and try to figure out how we can make that experience something for the customers.

Adam Honig: And what happens if somebody shows up, like my friends in the electrical conduit business and they’re like, we want it to be like Apple, how do you work with them on something like that?

Jordan Nollman: Yeah, we’re probably gonna have to pick that one apart. Is it the actual customer experience that you’re talking about? Is it the product, is it actually the way that they’re using electrical conduit? You gotta kind of do a little bit of research to see how that works for their business. So it could just be a really slick website.

Adam Honig: It could be, it is about creating the right perception.

Jordan Nollman: It’s funny. We work in the cannabis space as well, and depending on the different dispensaries or cultivation facilities.

Adam Honig: You said cannabis, I thought you said Canada space. I’m like oh, the great white north, but no, it’s cannabis.

Jordan Nollman: Cannabis. And it’s interesting because some of them are very into agriculture and that’s what they’re all about. And others are very into the tech and the use of the fact that they’re like zero carbon footprint and they’ve got solar panels all over the top of the building and this and that, so that goes into branding them. And we’ve had one that said “Hey, I want it to feel like Apple when you walk into our store. So we went with a very white clean aesthetic and I would say we gave them what they were looking for there. Same thing with their website and their logo.

Adam Honig: Now in the cannabis space, are you designing like cannabis devices too?

Jordan Nollman: We’ve done not so much vapes, but it’s a little bit of a conflict of interest and things like that, but we’ve actually been working on security devices. We’ve got a few different takes at that, so safes that basically we’ll keep children away from, we’ve played with that. We’ve had a lot of requests to work in the vape device space, but we haven’t done any of that yet. And then also childproof packaging, so actually, just physical packaging, different mechanisms, you know, whether it’s pushing down on the bottle cap, which everybody knows, but different ways to do that as well.

Adam Honig: That’s really interesting. I had a guy who pitched me a concept of a camera inside a liquor cabinet, so that every time it opens up, you can see who opens it up, just in case the teenagers get into it. I thought that was a little bit over the top.

Jordan Nollman: So our highest end model when we were working on this project was a basically size of humidor and it did, it had actually had a camera that was inside of it. And I guess it was just keeping track of your stuff and making sure your kids aren’t in there.

Adam Honig: Make sure with the cannabis that you remember that you were in the cabinet and had it. Later you’re like what happened here? Oh, that was me. Yeah, so this is sort of an interesting field because a whole new industry is being created with all kinds of different ideas.

Jordan Nollman: It’s really great. I compare it to craft brewing like 20 years ago. And so it’s different because it’s a drug and it’s not alcohol, but the other side of it is that it’s really gray space for design and so you can shape it and mold it into stuff. And it’s becoming more ubiquitous and more and more states are coming online and whatnot, but you get a blank canvas to do whatever you want, both graphically and physically. And with that experience, we’ve done everything from naming them, doing the strategy for the place itself, then helping to design the showroom and getting into the brand and the packaging and all the promo gear that goes with them.

Adam Honig: Cool. Well, Jordan, this has been really interesting. I’m hoping that listeners get a sense of the importance of design when they’re thinking about creating new products or even changing old products. That’s another thing, taking existing product lines and updating them. I’m sure that’s something that you see a lot of as well.

Jordan Nollman: Totally, and one thing it’s funny, you just mentioned that, but the importance of design, and we spoke on it earlier before we started this, but I was thinking and leading up to this, probably the most interesting, I would say, trend in my business as a small, medium size design firm that we’ve seen is that every other recession, whether back in 2000, it was like the Dotcom blew up and the product design world fell apart. We had nothing to do with it, it wasn’t fair. Then it was 2008, it was the same thing. There were other reasons for that crash. All these places, you can see your business do a dramatic dip. Well this time, which is literally just in the last year or so, we’ve seen it kind of go the other way. Or even since COVID started, it was the first year everybody was just like, what’s gonna happen. But on the second side of it, people just realized they have to innovate, design is that major differentiator for the brand and how they’re gonna come out. So for the first time and with three different dips in the economy, we’re finally seeing that design’s not the first thing getting cut any longer, which is really nice to see.

Adam Honig: Totally makes sense. If you can’t look different, if your product doesn’t look different to people, there are a thousand choices on Amazon. All of them look exactly the same, but if yours looks better, that’s a big differentiator.

Jordan Nollman: Exactly. Yeah, so again, it’s nice, and I feel like, at least in the United States, people have taken note of this and it really is, I guess, the biggest infiltrator in a lot of these brands, especially a lot of the startups.

 Adam Honig: Yeah, definitely. And I definitely am seeing more and more companies on the industrial side thinking about that as well. Predominantly on the packaging because there’s not a lot you can do with the electric conduit and stuff like that. But yeah, definitely seeing a lot of innovation about just how people are thinking. We work with a lot of family businesses, and I think what happens as well is that younger generations are starting to take over some of these more industrial firms and they just grew up in a world where design was part of the experience in a way that maybe our father’s generation didn’t see it that way.

Jordan Nollman: Exactly, typically you’re led by sales and marketing one, and if it’s an engineering founded company, sometimes engineering. So it’s really nice to see design taking the lead all of a sudden.

Adam Honig: Well is there any advice that you would give people out there when they’re thinking about creating the next generation of products or revamping their existing product lines?

 Jordan Nollman: Yeah, this one’s a tough one. It’s specific to the industry of course, but I think for me is really getting your elevator pitch down to the firm that you wanna hire. Like what is it, and try to distill it down to one page of what you want to do. You don’t need to go and write a giant brief because quite honestly, that’ll get thrown out the window once you start the process. But really just being focused on exactly what it is that you’re trying to achieve. Is it just product base or is this your business decision and need to move everything because some technology we’re currently doing is going away.

Adam Honig: Yeah, I think that’s super important. Start with the end in mind. Why do you wanna redo it? Why do you want to think about the design differently? What are we trying to achieve? Not just like oh, I had this great idea, what’s gonna happen if we do that? 

Jordan Nollman: Yeah, exactly. 

Adam Honig: Cool. Well this has been awesome, I really enjoyed chatting with you and getting your perspective on all of this. Hopefully, we can plan that trip to Vietnam soon. Let’s do it. I think for a lot of people thinking about products out there in the world, I think the importance of design is just gonna be increasingly more important. I don’t think it’s gonna slow down, I think it’s gonna accelerate. So I think that this concept is super important. But just for our listeners out there, as a reminder, you can find every episode of the Make it. Move it. Sell it. podcast at Spiro.ai/podcast. And I would challenge anybody to try to say that three times fast. But please, if you like this episode today, you thought that Jordan and I were having a good conversation, please maybe give us a good rating or subscribe and maybe let some other people know about what we’re talking about here. Jordan, you think that’s a good idea? 

Jordan Nollman: Sounds good to me.

Adam Honig: Thanks everybody for tuning in! We’re looking forward to the next episode.