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Rob Forbes: How I Survived My Worst Failure

About this talk

In this presentation, entrepreneur Rob Forbes recounts his biggest failure: the underwhelming launch of PUBLIC Bikes. “It had me in the fetal position,” he says. “I’ve never been so wrong in my life.” Forbes recounts how the humbling experience made him return to basics and value creativity over being clever, giving him a new mantra: “Failure is an option.” 


Rob Forbes, Founder & CEO, Design Within Reach

Rob Forbes has been a ceramic artist, professor, author, publisher, photographer, and business entrepreneur. He has held executive positions at numerous retail companies including Williams Sonoma, Selfridges, and The Nature Company, but is best known as the Founder of Design Within Reach (1998) and PUBLIC Bikes (2009). DWR pioneered many changes that have become mainstream today: internet retailing of modern design, design blogging, transparent pricing policies, and a focus on designers themselves as much as on their products.

PUBLIC bikes is a similar business venture but with a mission to bring design awareness to our public urban spaces and to our civic lives. Rob has received numerous awards and public recognition for his advocacy of design and urbanism and serves on numerous boards in the non-profit sector. He recently authored See for Yourself, published by Chronicle Books, which includes over 500 images and asks us to look more carefully and curiously at everyday design in our man-made world.


Full Transcript

It’s inspiring being here, and also kind of humbling. I wanted to tell you that I come from a very specific, narrow background of specialty retailing. And I’ve been there for like 30 years, so when it comes to technology or consumer branding, not so much. That you might think about, because I come from retail I would be a perfect fit for this conference, cuz retail’s all about operations and executions like a restaurant. If you can’t, you know you manage a lot of products and information transactions everyday, and if you don’t do it you’re out of business.

But the truth is I’m never really been a skilled operator myself. I’m one of this impatient people and a little problems with authority. I can do the vision thing okay, but I’ve been responsible for two pretty cool companies. And I got there by surrounding myself with talent. So that’s one of the themes that I wanted to drill down on today.

The other fact is that I’m probably have more experience with failure than success, in retail it’s actually about you launch ten products and you watch nine of them flop and you become pretty humble that way. So, and I’ll show you some of my best work in that area today.

In thinking about this talk, I opened this drawer at home, and it had these Rhodia pads that reminded me to go back to the beginning time of Design Within Reach, which is in 1999. I took a full year off, quit my job, 7 by 24, really to learn about the design industry, and really to test my hypothesis that we should make design more accessible.

So I traveled the world and interviewed everybody that knew more than me to try to kind of figure out what was wrong with this. And the people in here, Paul Antonelli, Ayse Bersel, Beth, you’re out there somewhere, and your conversations are located somewhere in those pads.

After I did this, I felt confident that I couldn’t find any big holes in my idea. And I’ve raised some money and started a business that grew quite quickly and quite successfully. And there were three other companies that were started at that time, that were funded in the 20 million, 50 million, 100 million dollars. That was, and something else. And the dot com bubble burst, and they evaporated and we were still standing. And I think the reason for that what not that I was that much smarter, but I had really spent the time researching this problem.

Also, I had really asked a lot of questions. And I had built a lot of allies and a lot of these friends that kind of stuck with us over the long term. And I think, why is this relevant? I think in the creative communities, we like to show people that we’re more clever sometimes and more curious.

But I found that being curious and ask questions really endears smart people to you. So, it took a lot of time, and asked a lot of questions in the formation of Design Within Reach. We get a lot of credit for our success and all that, and I put the slide up. I don’t wanna leave the slide on too long, because you’ll realize that there was so much low hanging fruit in the design world at that time that I was just being a lot more logical than creative. I mean first online newsletter, and carrying inventory and shipping immediately. I mean we’re the first company to stock an Aeron chair, and it was the best selling chair in history. And providing universal access.

We were essentially the first design company to harness the internet. But relevant to this conference, I think, we really focused on speed and not style. So I say we’re really the first design retailer to really prioritize kind of, operations

My first hire was a guy who had 20 years experience in the industry. So, we could kind of hit the ground running. We built our website and title ourselves. My designer friends said, it looks more like a hardware store than a designer website. And I said that’s the point, it works really quickly. But, let’s move on.

Something that a less obvious lesson that I learned in DWR was the value of being a little bit crazy when you start a business. And this came some to me when you’re a startup, getting people to work with you is tricky, and at DWR this meant getting the Italians to work with us because we needed their products. DWR was largely started with a Herman Miller collection and about ten Italian vendors.

And in a super critical meeting with an important vendor I tried my flattery and my pentagram boards and that didn’t go anywhere, and finally I just admitted okay, I’m a little crazy. And, they said well, we’re a little crazy too and they supported me and then things were kind of a roll from there. But that stuck with me, that idea of being out there a little bit and pushing, pushing the boundaries, and because we had a very successful operations, and we were highly profitable initially, it allowed us to have a lot more fun with the business.

And I did a lot of things that may seem common now that they were heretical to retailers back at that time. Like filling out studios with the portraits and biographies of designers, and we’re flying in Spanish designers, and having conferences. And I was flying around the world and writing a letter every week. A newsletter every week about everything, but furniture design. We launched some used vintage Vespa’s from Italy. Really dumb cuz, their liability issues, and you can’t really send them, and all that stuff.

But what I learned from that was that if you don’t have much money you can build a brand on the cheap by doing this kind of stuff. But more than that, because we were breaking a lot of rules we really attracted extraordinarily talented people. DWR became a magnet for really tremendous people. So on the basis of having great operations and really terrific staff, that’s what made the business as successful, and I think it’s what makes a business successful today.

If you’ll indulge me a little, I took this photograph several years ago in a remote part of Uruguay. And I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to use it. I was in this remote area, here’s a guy reading a book on branding in his leisure time. He looks like he’s lecturing his grand kids. That are all decked out in J.Crew or something. But this is just an actual shot walking along the pool. And if I think if we went down there today and that same guy was there I think that book would be on design thinking, you know? I think I’m happy that design has entered the business vocabularies and common parlance, but I have this sense that it’s getting marginalized a little bit. And it’s just my way of thinking or asking especially now, I really believe that designers are the most important species on the planet. And they have capabilities of really changing the world.

And I love to see it when it’s applied to solving some really new problems, not just the promotion of selling the same old kind of products and stuff like that. So I get really excited when I see a company like Airbnb that’s taking on the whole hospitality industry and going about things differently. So I took, DWR went public, and then things got really crazy, and I had to get out of there.

And I spent a few years, then came up with a concept called PUBLIC Bikes. And it was largely similar, kind of like a Bikes Within Reach. You know, web platform. Make well designed stuff accessible to a proud group of people. It initially resulted in the biggest failure of my career, like times ten.

So I wanted to share that pain with you in some detail. So like DRW, there were a whole lot of firsts. And first e-commerce, really, in the industry. We really focused on women who are really underserved in this market, prior to our social media and all that stuff. But first, I’ll get on a whole bunch of this stuff. I had spent a lot of time in Europe and watching the enlightened, kind of urbanization movement. Europe’s a little bit ahead of the US. But bike share programs in Paris. You’ve got stuff in Amsterdam, you know, Copenhagen, and that all that. And bike share things happening in the US. But I saw this whole movement towards urbanization and more intelligence mobility.

In New York, Bloomberg’s here and Times Square has made a pedestrian zone and Daily in New York with Millennium Park, phenomenal stuff going on in San Francisco, even in Los Angeles, converting it to a bike area. So I thought, this secret, all these trends are working in this right direction. This all made sense.

This was a typical bike store, and this was actually a good one. This is kind of what they looked like. This is the fanciest booth in the fanciest trade show, and this would give you an idea of how you might feel as a woman in the industry. It looks kind of like a tech conference, but I figure this is the least visual industry I’ve ever been in.

There’s a lot of low hanging fruit. This is going to be a slam dunk. It was just basically to shift the psychology from the American notion of cycling to a softer kind of European thing. So this is just kind of the image of the company and how we started. And used this on the cover of the catalog and in the website. And partners were like coming to us like Gap created a pop up store for us and bought our products at retail and put it in the best location in San Francisco. Tree Touring gave us free space in their space in SoHo in New York. This is the media coverage that we had at the time of our launch. This is ’99. We don’t have an agency, no PR.

Our story was just that good that everybody was covering us. So we launched the business, and this is a blank slide because it was a complete disaster. Like I can spot a dog when I see it. I’m pretty good at reading metrics, and this one was really tricky. And I kind of let a week go by to see what happened, let the dust settle. And it stayed that way and you’ve got investors and staff all asking you what’s going on, and I had really no idea. I really didn’t. All I knew, I thought maybe the name is really wrong, public, you know? Maybe the shopping cart doesn’t work. No, shopping carts work, there’s just not much stuff going through it. But I was in a fetal position at home really, on the couch for like. For about a week, with, you know, that feeling of loss in your stomach, or failure and you don’t know.

So, finally I got together with the staff, our small crew. And I summoned my favorite quote that I use all the time Mark Twain, when in doubt tell the truth. And I said, here’s the truth, I have no idea why it’s not working. All I know is that I’ve never been so wrong in all my life. But I said, but I think it’s probably a lot of things, cuz it’s such an epic collapse. And so we can change them.

And where they’re sitting with a couple containers of bicycles that nobody wants, and I could see that we’re gonna be out of dough by the end of the year. So, we sort of said, our only hope, okay, let’s bring in some cheaper bikes and try to get them in for the holidays, and let’s see what happens. And we did that, and it worked. And this wasn’t like the turn around event, but it gave us light at the end of the tunnel, or just some vision that this business could actually be sustainable.

But I met with, you know, carrying the weight of a failure when it’s you know, investors and your money and your idea for nine months, it’s a burden. And I don’t take rejection that well anyway.

But I really sat with a group and I say hey you guys, my little management team, a failure is really an option. And what I know is that I don’t have many silver bullets, this is way over my pay grade. And you guys are terrific, you’ve done a great job and if you want to make this work, let’s go. I love you guys, love our mission, want to make this happen but it’s going to be up to you and they said, let’s do it.

And so I did the normal kinds of things of asking them to step up in management. Gave them a lot more stock of the company. And now it’s four years later, and we had our first profitable year. And I was able to raise a couple million bucks. And there’s a store we just opened up in Seattle. And we’ll be perhaps, opening up a store near you soon.

I want to talk about, and take this the right way, a little bit of a challenge to the premise of the 99 Year Conference, is that I believe that serendipity and chance play a lot in our roles of stuff. And I bring this up as kind of a footnote to the failure thing thinking that I’ve learned to be kind of humble, and I don’t really like seeing too much arrogance. And I think that being humble also attracts people to work with you.

So I’ve had my share of good luck and I’m gonna tell you just a few stories. This is a current website from DWR, it wasn’t the one that I’m gonna be referring to, but in our first year of DWR we were way ahead of plan and completely burned out. And I gave all of the staff Thanksgiving off for four full days. You don’t do that in retail. This is like ’99 we just put a little sign up on the web that sort of said, no ones here, but if you place an order you get ten percent off. And everybody went home and said we’ll talk to them. And this is back when you usually had some human interaction Interaction to manage transactions, everything wasn’t quite automated.

And during that Thanksgiving period, we had budgeted I think to do 50,000 and I think we did 500,000. But we did ten times what we thought we would do. Now this is 15 years later, everybody knows how to promote and do sales on the web, but this was early on. But it was mind blowing what we did. And that sale event worked into a semi annual event that actually allowed our company to be profitable a full year before we had anticipated. And why is that relevant?

Well, after that period, both with the dot com burst and also with 9/11, it was a really grim period in the economy and for retail in particular. And had we not figured out, had we not been profitable at that time, we may had gone under. But, instead, we were fortunate and we could pick up some cheap leases in New York and take the company forward but it was really, really, really by chance.

This is Dan. Dan is my partner at Public Bikes. He’s the 99U. He’s the reason that the business actually works. He’s the reason I can talk here and write books. I didn’t find Dan through LinkedIn. I was having a bike ride down Valencia Street in San Francisco before the, I was kinda a dapper guy on a cool bike with some accessories and I said hey, could I talk to you, just kinda learn about some of the stuff on your bike. And he came down, and we became good friends and he came to work at Public. And he’s been there ever since, and been through a lot of these difficult times, but he manages. He’s like the COO. Had no background or retails from public policy and Harvard, an activist. But manages the whole thing, let’s just say a casual bike ride and some just ended up being the person that’s like actually running the business so that’s pretty poetic.

The last one here is a Design Within Reach, the actual identity of Design Within Reach came about, it was a total, a total fluke. I had this idea that I wanted the company to be named Octopus. Just, I wanted some, sort of irreverent kind of organic thing that was anti Helvetica and anti me, all the stuff that I love. But I just thought we needed to take some of the edge off of it.

So I love the logo of DWR, even when I see it now on homeless people and stuff like that, it’s great. This was Kit Hiendrichs at Pentagram who did this but I love it. But anyways, we’re there at the early stages of the business trying to make this octopus thing work and the guys are tolerating me. You know, try and make an octopus work and it was a pretty dumb idea.

This wasn’t it, but this was kind of the thing. And if you imagine that working with modern design, not so much. But Alex, a copywriter guy. And part of it, we came up against this deadline, okay. We had to get paperwork done in order to take money to form the business and get a website and all that stuff. And he had actually come up with a tagline for this octopus, called design within reach, thinking of the tentacles. And so push came to shove, and we just kind of said hey, let’s start. It’s gonna be a staffing logo. Kit isn’t going to like it, but let’s make it work, and that’s what we did.

So bearing that in mind and my preference for a little bit of being a little crazy, and also having friends help me out with stuff. I thought I’d just take this 99U logo, which I love. I think it’s terrific. And I just asked some friends to play around with it and inject some of this serendipity, and a little bit of humor to it.

Okay so these are quick sketches. Don’t take them seriously at all. This one is from my friend John Bielenberg. You may know John. And it’s kind of a silly bit of a, It looks a little like my octopus, but I think it’s humanizing this thing a little bit.

Jennifer Moreala, you might know her, she takes a whole different approach. And I didn’t ask any of these people how to interpret these things. You’re all designers so you can probably do it, but think I think the color or jumping over fences or the focus on you being you, was really good. And this is.

Michael Vanderbyle, and I love this logo. I think it’s terrific. But I think an interpretation here can go a number of, don’t be a sheep or this and that, or in fact any of us can get sheered at any time. Anyway, thank you very much.

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