FUSE for Thought with Truman’s Jon Bostock
While attending FUSE Design Conference this year I had the opportunity to sit down the Jon Bostock, CEO of Truman's cleaning company. I thought I'd just pick his brain, but it turns out that when it comes to design thinking - there's more than a little to talk about.
Jon, during this year’s FUSE Design event, we heard a number of perspectives around the value of brand and design in business development and growth, including the thoughts you shared during your keynote. Can you please share some of the design actions you’ve implemented and/or witnessed within an organization that truly unlocked business value?
I co-founded cleaning products company Truman’s with the goal of appealing to today’s consumer with an emphasis on simplicity, convenience and sustainability. Our four simple, non-toxic household cleaners come in small concentrate cartridges with users simply filling and refilling the same bottles with tap water and inserting refill cartridges as needed.
It’s a new take on cleaning concentrates. Businesses have used them for decades, but they never made inroads with consumers because of the mess that came with mixing. So we designed a business around concentrate cartridges and an auto-dispensing mechanism to ensure there’s never any mixing or mess.
We designed a new purchase process as well, upending an industry that focuses only on getting cleaning products to store shelves. As a direct-to-consumer company, we ship our cleaners directly to your home, and the compact size of our cartridges makes them perfect for “bulk” shipments with a decade’s worth fitting in a single kitchen drawer. Consumers today expect to have replacements on hand for products they need and shouldn’t need to sacrifice much space to achieve that.
Our biggest innovation, though, has been completely rethinking the supply chain. We follow a totally different “demand chain” route that uses less packaging, involves fewer overhead costs, and results in lower overall energy consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions. Thanks to our direct contact with customers, we’re able to keep close tabs on demand. We manufacture and ship only the number of products that have been ordered, and we deliver them straight to the door, carefully packaged to minimize waste.
We’ve heard evidence around the great potential for design-driven business growth in the product and service-based sectors. Can you please share some examples of user-centric, analytically informed design approaches that have had a clear growth impact on an organization?
As a leader at General Electric, I oversaw the use of product design as a tool to increase margin through the GE Café appliances brand. The brand allowed people to achieve a restaurant-inspired look at an accessible price. Customers could elevate their kitchens and create spaces unlike anyone else's by taking these products that were viewed by competitors as commodities but by us as interior design elements in and of themselves.
Ultimately we linked the visual brand language of the product to a unique merchandising strategy and required any dealer to utilize that structure. What that allowed for was an agreement that said, “If you want to be a dealer, you have to offer this experience.” That mitigated a lot of risk for us as our design-driven brand’s display requirements prevented retailers from selling the brand online at a reduced price.
How would you suggest design/marketing leaders take the first steps to integrate these design/brand actions in their own organizations? And with which internal audiences should they initially engage?
First, you need to consider what appeals to you. If you’re not passionate about the design and function of your product, you’re not going to be passionate about bringing it to market. The next step is to start talking with people to see if that vision resonates with them as well. Talk to friends, strangers, partners, former co-workers who don’t like you very much — anyone who will give you honest feedback. Seek out those who will be super critical and embrace their feedback.
Then you take your message public and consider those comments. Social media makes this a much easier proposition than in the past. At Truman’s, we engaged followers on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more. We asked for feedback every step of the way, even before the company launched. We even settled on an exact shade of blue for our glass cleaner based on what customers preferred.
How important do you think an organization’s understanding of the user/consumer experience is in driving business decisions – specifically, as it pertains to where design lives within an organization and where design can truly make a difference?
You have to understand your customers’ needs. What are their pain points, what are their necessities and what are the nice-to-haves? And you have to approach it with the realization that this is not a user-experience exercise or a singular effort, it’s the core competence of your business. Truly engaging with customers is the biggest benefit to the direct-to-consumer model. I answer every message on Twitter personally. Big brands don’t do that, because their customer isn’t the customer — it’s the retail store.
You also have to think about design from the highest possible perspective. You’re designing a product that mixes form and function. It should be gorgeous, easy to use and highly functional. But you’re also designing an experience, and part of that design is how you interact with people online, how long shipping takes and the package’s appearance. Everything should work in concert. I’ve worked with super-smart engineers who design these stunningly gorgeous tech products, but the software and the user interface is written by engineers for engineers. That doesn’t work. Everything has to be simple, and it has to click.
Broadly speaking, what metrics or frameworks have you seen and recommend an organization apply to quantify the value of brand and design?
You definitely need to measure net promoter score and customer sentiment, as they can help you gauge brand loyalty and excitement about your product. However, my more contrarian answer is that it depends on the level of your organization. Large corporations should rely on those tools, as they need to keep an eye on sentiment as much as they measure financials and ad performance, for example.
For startups, though, I truly believe it’s more important to talk to your customers rather than creating an elaborate framework. A healthy relationship with your customers is as important as maintaining healthy relationships in your life, and that requires listening and communication. The authenticity of conversations with customers can’t be replaced.
Now, let’s talk about your role at Truman’s. Can you please walk us through a typical day-in-the-life of Jon Bostock, Co-Founder/CEO?
I intertwine my day-to-day with my family life, which is crucial. When I first wake up, I check the company’s latest metrics and respond to Tweets and DMs from customers and potential customers. Then I walk the dogs, and my wife and I get the kids ready to roll. I drop my 8-year-old off at school then I call Alex Reed, who co-founded Truman’s with me, on the way to the gym. We chat the latest updates and strategy, as well as address any fires that need putting out.
Then I turn off my phone. I work out six days a week with no phone, no music, no anything. It’s the one time a day I disconnect entirely. My routine varies — two days of pilates, two days of cardio and strength, and two days of cross training. After working out, I check in with Alex again and work for a few hours. I’m typically responding to customers on LinkedIn and Twitter, sending emails, and making calls to clients, partners and vendors. I also like to meet new people, so something very important to me is taking meetings or calls for at least five hours a month with new faces.
In the evening, I cook dinner almost every night for my family (and then clean up with Truman’s, of course). Cooking is very important to me, as I spent the start of my career on the road so often that I really value the time with my family. I work for a short while after dinner, and one funny thing is my 3-year-old asks that I work in his room until he falls asleep. I guess he likes the glow of the computer and the white noise from the keys.
I also coach little league, so I’m off the clock during practices and games.
What is the most interesting insight you’ve learned about the consumer products industry, specifically household cleaning, since you’ve worked in the category?
People care a lot about cleaning. They take it very personally. It becomes almost a part of their identity, the same way they might define themselves by a job title. People care about their surfaces and what types of chemicals and ingredients they use on them. Truman’s customers are some of the most engaged buyers with whom I’ve ever connected, and that makes sense because if you’re cautious about what types of chemicals you use in your home, you have to become familiar with ingredients and potential side effects. It’s that market — the people who really take cleaning seriously — that are the biggest brand advocates for Truman’s, because we simplify their lives in such an immediate way.
What components of the Truman’s brand are you most proud of? And why?
I’m most proud of how we engage with our customers – be it email, social media or web chat – in unscripted and very transparent ways. We don’t shy away from talking to anyone, even those who are critical of what we are doing, and that really sets the Truman’s brand apart. Recently, there was a gentleman who criticized us on Twitter, calling us the single-use coffee pod of the cleaning sector. I pointed out that coffee pods took a reasonably green bulk item and made it single-use, but we’re taking single-use plastic products and eliminating weight, reducing plastic and creating a greener system. Facing those kinds of criticisms transparently is awesome. There’s no need to silence critics when you have a brand that truly is as good as it says.
What brand/product qualities do you feel most differentiate Truman’s from its competitors?
It goes back to humanity and transparency. Most brands in this space are very faceless. They’re sold at retail with no link to their actual customers, instead relying on input from focus groups and studies. Their executives are siloed, spending more time emailing internally than talking with customers. The big difference is we’ve created a human-centric organization.
As a business founder and owner, how do you stay inspired? Where do you go to learn?
Challenges inspire me. In the case of traditional supply chains, it’s much easier to create systems that adhere to what’s already in place. Big businesses say, “We’ve got these manufacturing facilities, these vendors, these fleets of trucks and these retail partners, and we have to use them.” Actually, you don’t. To be a truly forward-thinking brand, you must challenge the status quo.
My other source of inspiration and one of the ways I learn best is simply listening to people – particularly those whose experiences are unlike my own. The most important part of hiring a diverse workforce and engaging with diverse customers is exposing yourself to diversity of thought.
Any other parting thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
Consumers should always be skeptical. Consider your own buying habits and the real cost to delivering those 10 Amazon packages you receive every week. There’s always a better way, but most companies prefer the status quo to real improvement, and they won’t change unless customers force it upon them by seeking out alternatives.
Not enough lightbulb popping thought for you? Check out my earlier FUSE interview with Medline's Christine Mau.