ask the experts

How Four DTC Brands Adapted the Product Development Pipeline for Working From Home

Designing at a distance has its challenges. But brands are making it work.
article cover

Francis Scialabba

· 6 min read

My work day hasn't changed much since the Brew adopted a WFH model in March: Office or no office, all I need to write are my laptop, strong wifi, and Twitter. The story's different for the teams at leading direct to consumer (DTC) brands, where creating new products requires handling and testing materials for quality control and collaborating with several partners (suppliers, manufacturers, other teammates). Without an end to WFH in sight as the pandemic rages on, how are DTC brands approaching the remote product development process?

The teams at Rothy's, ADAY, Alleyoop, and Madhappy devised inventive strategies to ideate and iterate on new products—even at a distance. So for our latest Ask the Experts column, I asked leaders at these four DTC brands to share how they've adapted the product development pipeline for social distancing, and how other brands can follow their lead. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Lavion Gibson, Senior Design Manager at Rothy's

The new process: "Usually we visit our factory [in China] two or three times throughout the design and production process for a new style. Not being able to engage with our team and review prototypes, construction, materials, and quality on the ground was a big adjustment. We relied heavily on WeChat and Zoom to conduct virtual line reviews and initial production. We managed to keep things moving in spite of the physical limitations, problem-solving and dialing in all the details as we usually would if we were on the factory floor."

"With our Design and Development team in the U.S. all working remotely, we were not able to review and collaborate in the manner in which we accustomed. Every shoe goes through multiple rounds of color, construction adjustments, pattern revisions, and fit before approval—under normal circumstances we conduct our reviews and collaborate in the office. Now, each part of the process required us to fine tune everything separately.

"To manage the change in our workflow, we increased the number of samples we developed. We also shared and discussed samples over Zoom, held at home wear tests, and streamlined our communication and decision making in order to turn around adjustments as quickly as possible. It really forced us to focus in and take ownership of each of our respective areas of the process. Rothy's was built around lean design, so in many ways this experience pushed us to really embrace that core value of the brand."

The takeaway: "Staying nimble throughout this process has been key to keeping things moving. For other designers working on product development during this time, I recommend taking a close look at how you work with your manufacturing partners and resetting what makes sense."

Nina Faulhaber, Cofounder and CEO of ADAY

The new process: "We accelerated our 3D sampling capabilities allowing us to fit our new designs without in person contact, and focus on hyper-efficiency and fast timelines in a Zoom world. Using 3D samples, we’ve been able to reduce sampling rounds, improve digital communication with factories, and even preview styles to our audience for more informed inventory investments. We also love the sustainability of 3D sampling, eliminating waste and reducing the need to ship samples across the world. This allowed us to eliminate unnecessary meetings and accelerate our work with our manufacturing partners."

"We also had to rethink our creative operations to continue to create beautiful content and photography in a socially distant way. We shot our first post-pandemic e-comm shoot at our cofounder’s apartment with a bare three-person photo team (usually it’s closer to 10). Our first post-pandemic lifestyle shoot was a four-person team and we’ve worked a lot more proactively with user generated content, community content, and team content to fill the gaps."

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Our free retail newsletter delivers insights to keep retail leaders and decision-makers up to date.

The takeaway: "One strategy we follow to design new collections during our 'new normal' that other brands could consider is ramping up communication with our customers. We hosted a comprehensive focus group via Zoom and it was extremely successful—we got better results than we typically do. Our feedback usually comes from in-person interviews with consumers in New York City and London, but with a virtual focus group, we were able to reach a more diverse set of participants who live all over the world."

Leila Kashani Manshoory, Founder and CEO of Alleyoop

The new process: "In the past, we would come together as a team for an hour to test products and provide feedback in a single sitting. Now, we’ve had to adapt to shipping products to each team member’s home. While it has slightly slowed down our timelines, we’ve found that having each person test the products from the comfort of their own home, in the environment they’d actually be using it in, has resulted in a better understanding of the product and therefore better, more detailed feedback. It’s also allowed us to see how the products arrive in transit and how different shades look in different lighting and environments—all of which we weren’t able to know when testing from the same conference room table."

The takeaway: "Something we’ve always put into practice is to never let an idea die. Over the course of our product development journey we’ve had so many ideas that were left on the table—be it due to timing, manufacturing, etc. But we keep an organized record of everything to ensure that our innovation pipeline is always well stocked. That way should the timing become right or the need arises in the market, we’re already 70% done with a new product that might be more relevant for today’s changing times and consumer preferences. If you keep track of prior
product ideas and revisit them every so often, it might surface your next hit product."

Peiman Raf, Cofounder at Madhappy

The new process: "It was definitely a big change for our product team as we are always used to being in the office: feeling product, looking at our art boards, and going back and forth. We worked hard to set more daily check-ins on Zoom to make sure we were all on the same page and knew what the priorities were for that day, week, month." The takeaway: "We have seen the power of being able to communicate without all being in the office. We had some initial experience with this with a few team members that were already remote. But this test showed us that as a whole, we may not need to be in the office as much as we all thought to still be productive. We do however see the power of collaboration together and are excited to carry out a hybrid model moving forward."

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Our free retail newsletter delivers insights to keep retail leaders and decision-makers up to date.