Zephyr Berlin wraps up – What we learned

After just about 4 years, we’re wrapping up Zephyr Berlin (archive page). We’d been making some excellent pants that look good and travel well, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, supported local manufacturing. In many ways, this was a small but real success.

But maybe more important than this, to me personally, were the other aspects, the intangibles. The first is that we got such great and warm and kind and helpful feedback from our customers. (Dare I say that a community formed around these trousers? At times, it certainly felt like it.) The second is how much I had the opportunity to learn.

This wasn’t quite the first time I was involved in shipping physical products, but it was the first time this happened in something like a real scale — I’ll come back to scale in a bit — and a certain amount of complexity.

We designed and planned 2 models (which for lack of a better terms were labeled “men/women” for traditional cuts they were based on) in 3 sizes each, plus an “extra long” option. This means we had 2 x 3 x 2 = 12 versions of those pants. That’s a lot of versions. This count does not include, by the way, the iterations of pockets we had over time: We started out with “regular” pockets and after feedback and testing especially from cyclists changed pockets to be much, much deeper to accommodate larger phones without any risk of slipping out while on the bike.

I was quite grateful to our designer Cecilia for not mentioning early on that pants are pretty complex pieces of apparel with plenty of complications built in, and lots of variety in how they would be used. In other words, all bodies are different. (Sidebar: Let’s face it, legs are weird once you start thinking about them.)

Learning: 12 versions of a product are a lot of versions.

Having 12 version of a product — or given the two basic models, rather 6 version of 2 products each — quickly becomes a challenge for physical products simply because you have to decide in advance how many of each you’ll be making. But most of the time, there’s no good way to know how many you’ll need of each size/version! Except for the initial Kickstarter campaign, we didn’t want to go the route of pre-orders simply because it would have made our lives easier but at the tradeoff to lead to long delays between placing an order and receiving the goods, which can be frustrating. Even for the Kickstarter, we placed the order before finalizing the campaign based on what we knew by then so that we could ship on time. (And we did! How many Kickstarter things have you received on time? I’m pretty proud we managed to keep our schedule and not let anyone wait for their Zephyrs.)

Learning: If you want to quickly deliver, you need to guess future demand. The tradeoff is to be able to quickly fulfill orders requires more risk on your side.

Speaking of fulfillment: We hand-shipped everything our selves. We literally had our inventory at either my office or our home, and whenever orders came in, we hand packed and shipped them out. You get good and fast at this quickly through practice, but it still means a lot of hands-on activity that takes small bites of time out of your day.

This was primarily a function of scale, as indicated above. For an operation as small as this — a side project in the true sense of the word — our production and sales numbers were below the threshold that would have justified hiring even a part time person. So a couple of boxes of pants and a stack of shipping boxes was our fulfillment center. We enjoyed the direct contact with customers. Had we ramped up production, this would have hit a hard time limit quickly, though. Also, during vacation times fulfillment came to a screeching halt: You can’t just quickly ship something while you’re away like you could with a software update or an email.

Learning: Shipping physical products is very different from shipping digital products. There are longer lead times; Larger upfront investments of time, money and planning; And you need a literal place to store your stuff. Also, for fulfillment to work someone needs to be physically around at all times.

While I never fully did the math, I suspect that a small to medium increase in numbers would have required hiring outside help, and maybe renting a space, without providing the extra margin to pay for the expansion. A large increase in numbers would have increased the margin a bit — really only a bit, given we produced locally at fair rates, and the materials also don’t get that much cheaper at scale — and paid for the extra expenses. But going large scale would have also required a massive upfront investment, which in turn would have required much more marketing and branding work, some legal and tax consulting, etc., which would have required more investment still. In other words, without massive investment this would not be commercially viable as a “main gig”. As a side project, though, small is beautiful.

Learning: There is a sweet spot in size and scale where you can do everything yourself. There is not an easy path from there to global scale, though. Those are simply two different playbooks.

We toyed with the idea of going all in, full scale, and compete with the global market on this. After all, some of the brands that continue to inspire us appear to be doing well. But in the end, apparel simply isn’t our calling; all three of us work full time on issues around responsible tech & sustainability, and wouldn’t want to trade this even for a fun gig such as this.

I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn all these things. And I’d be lying if I said I’m not occasionally tempted to explore another physical product.

For now, though, we’re wrapping up Zephyr Berlin and reflect fondly on 4 years of thinking about pants, pockets and packaging. Thank you!

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