Product Underground nets above-ground collaboration

A networking event for product designers at Outdoor Retailer continues to grow collaborative spirit.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2015 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 5 – 8. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

 Photo by Andrew Bydlon.

Photo by Andrew Bydlon.

We revere sitting around a fire-pit with friends, commemorating and toasting brews or marshmallows. Or it might be a Saturday night backyard barbecue or a used sweater holiday party with spiked eggnog. These experiences all stir a similar sentiment: connectedness, belly bending laughter and some of the best conversations of the month or year.

Harnessing that same community vibe, Tae Kim — founder and creative director of Alite Designs and Boreas Gear — and Jam Media Collective founder Julie Atherton co-organized Product Underground, a networking event for product design professionals that marries laidback, open conversation with hardcore business ethic. At Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, the Thursday evening show’s queue wrapped out the door at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Sold out three days earlier, 350 product designers, creators, CEOs, testers and reviewers convened in the theater, and another 100 eager bystanders awaited entrance with names on the waiting list.

This year marked the fifth gathering, but its first-ever above-the-ground showcase. In year’s past, Product Underground has been hosted in nondescript basements scattered around Salt Lake City. For the inauguration, 75 attendees crowded together in an art gallery’s basement downtown: The night “was loud, tequila drenched, sweaty and awesome,” recounted Atherton in the opening address, while raising a celebratory tequila shot next to Kim on stage. Product Underground is all about breaking down barriers: The show floor can be a challenging space for product designers to connect and share ideas, pressure-free and unrestricted. Most Outdoor Retailer booths have private sections sanctioned for product design meetings; new products are undisclosed to passersby; and often, designers aren’t allowed to go into other company booths.

“Outdoor Retailer is a really tough place to come as designers. The layout makes it a sales and marketing event — it’s not an art design event, and I’m not saying it should be a shift. It’s just the nature of the thing,” Kim said.

Product Underground is a platform for product designers (and anyone related to product design like gear testers, writers or CEOs) and has evolved grassroots style by word of mouth, a newsletter (which now has about 250 subscribers) and social media posts. Attendance has grown each year and for 2016, Kim expects it to nearly double to 600 members. “This event focuses on what the challenges are for designers and it’s a lot nicer than corporate orders on the floor. I’m excited to be here,” said Josh Buller, a Brooklyn-based independent designer for bags, luggage and accessories. Buller last attended Outdoor Retailer seven years ago, before Product Underground existed, but saw Kim’s Instagram post announcing the event and put it on his calendar. “It’s hard to find events like this. As a freelancer, I don’t have a team, so I need to find a peer group with like-minded designers,” he said.

The event is also a great networking opportunity for meeting contract hires, even if the company has set or in-house product designers, pointed out Ned Hobson, Patagonia product line manager for packs and equipment.

With canned beers, whiskey and tequila shots sans chasers, and pretzels in hand, the group gathered in the auditorium to hear six
speakers, nominated by Kim and Atherton, from a variety of entrepreneurial backgrounds. Each offered personal anecdotes for this year’s topic: giving up.

“I have two small companies and by the definition of success I would say both are a success …but it’s hard on people. I worked at The North Face [before] and it was also hard. Going through those moments, you realize amazing things about yourself. Hardship conjures and brings up the best in us. Entrepreneurs and CEOs have all faced these hurdles and we’re curious to hear those stories,” Kim said.

Sally McCoy, President and CEO of CamelBak, presented a satirical (albeit true) top 10 reasons why you should give up, rules for how you can decide to move forward, and said, “If everyone thinks it’s a good idea, it’s probably too late.”

Following, Sunski Co-Founder Tom Stewart humorously and genuinely shared the company’s tough story of the failed Salsabol — a bowl with a higher lip to save the dip — a previous venture. Cotopaxi Founder and CEO Davis Smith, Levi’s President James Curleigh, and Alyssa Ravasio, co-founder and CEO of Hipcamp shared their own vulnerable stories of business lows. One message was clearly reiterated: There are product and business ideas that can and will fail, and the negative stigma surrounding that turnover needs to change. Failure can also present new opportunity.

“The give-up moments spawned big moves for us — it’s not always a bad thing to say this isn’t working, let’s try something else,” said Stewart.

Looking ahead, Kim is weighing out event sponsorship which could be used to fund a book: “The audience would vote on the book’s concept, then the books would be available the following year,” he said. “With the community that gets a little bit lost and scattered at O.R., we are hoping to use Product Underground as a forum to create a very positive design community.”

--Morgan Tilton 

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