As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Olivier Momma and Rick Scharnigg.
Olivier and Rick made their mark in the smart accessories industry when they started their first company, Ekster Wallets, in 2015. As early adopters of crowdfunding and one of the first brands to make trigger wallets, they were able to become the best-selling smart wallet in the world in less than 1 year. Their fast-access, trackable leather wallet, The Parliament, is the product that turned this tiny startup into an overnight success. Today, with over 1 million products sold and a collection of 14 different everyday essentials, Olivier and Rick are applying their intuitive design philosophy to add functionality to everyday life, one accessory at a time.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Sure! It all began when Rick and I met in 2012 while we were both attending Erasmum University Rotterdam. We immediately recognized a shared entrepreneurial spirit in each other and quickly became friends. At the time, we were both hopeful young entrepreneurs, trying to get our foot in the door and find that perfect unfilled niche. We would spend long nights up, going over products we thought were badly designed and brainstorming improvements on the spot. It’s easy to feel like everything has already been done already, but once we started putting our heads together more and more ideas began to pop up. One day, over a late-night WhatsApp session, we were interrogating the traditional bifold wallet design and realized quickly we were onto something.
We realized that the way we as a society pay has changed so much in the past 100 years, but the way our wallets look and perform has barely changed at all. And while some might say, “don’t fix what isn’t broken”, we saw an opportunity to transform the everyday wallet for the 21st century.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
For us, the major “Aha Moment” was what led to the defining feature of our wallets, fast-card access. As Rick and I were dissecting the design of our then wallets, one of the major issues we identified was the staggered card slots you find in a bifold. In order to make it easy to remove cards, the slots have to be staggered, but by staggering them, you make the wallet thicker than necessary and you need to use more materials for each tiny pocket.
We wanted to find a way to make it easy to get your cards out, reduce the amount of space to only what is necessary, and consolidate the design so the wallet can be as slim as possible. While playing around with different designs, we finally landed on the vertical stack model that we are so well-known for.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There were definitely times where we thought to ourselves, “oh no what have we done.” After working for more than a year on our startup and finishing a super-successful Kickstarter campaign we were finally ready to start putting everything into production. We received the first prototypes, so excited to finally embark on this journey, and, wha-wha, they looked terrible. The pop-up card button, one of our main selling points, wasn’t working properly and the wallets just looked ugly. Since we didn’t have time to remake them before our photoshoot, we had to MacGyver together some solution to get the wallets to work while hiding the ugly parts.
After we had dealt with that disaster and finally thought we were in the clear, we got sued 1 week before our official launch. A much larger wallet company thought we were infringing on their patents, which turned out not to be the case. Thankfully we persevered and they dropped their claim, but a lawsuit right before launching was certainly not what we had in mind.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We’re incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last 5 years. We’ve grown from just two college grads to an international team of 30 people. Sticking with a solid concept and investing a lot of resources into designing our products has helped build a good reputation, with customers coming back again and again. We’ve now sold just over one million products and thanks to our international expansions we’re available worldwide.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
For some reason, a lot of the things we carry and use every single day haven’t changed that much. We’re talking wallets, bags, keychains — these little things that we spend our whole lives using without really questioning how we use them. We wanted to take a step back and really look at how we currently interact with these items and see how these items can better serve us. Technology is constantly changing and this gives us an opportunity to upgrade our everyday necessities.
Beyond that, we both noticed as consumers that there are a lot of brands that cater to pure function — things that work really well, and there are many brands that cater to pure aesthetic — they look really good. But what’s rare is companies that can accomplish both. So I guess what sets us apart is that we use really innovative approaches to make products that are built for today’s needs while spending a lot of effort to make sure they look beautiful too.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
For the first couple (weeks, months?) we didn’t have an office or any space big enough to do our work, so we were mainly working out of University classrooms and almost always getting kicked out after some period of time. Weirdly, not having an office and working under the stress of potentially being kicked out at any moment really put us in bootstrap mode and we ended up getting more done in a smaller amount of time. But when we did finally get an office it was fantastic to really feel official. The only lesson you can take from that I suppose is if you’re working out of classrooms, try not to get caught!
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
The worst advice we ever received was unfortunately advice we also took (for a while). We started our company by investing a couple of hundred dollars into a Kickstarter campaign, and that worked incredibly well for us. During the process, we met loads of other entrepreneurs using crowdfunding and eventually got chatting with another campaign who contributed their success to a specific PR agency. They recommended this agency so much that we decided to hire them as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a great experience with them and eventually had to switch to a different agency. This obviously cost us time and money, but one PR agency is never going to work for everyone.
If we could go back, we definitely would have looked into vetting the agency before deciding and not taking the recommendation.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
For us, the most important thing is to be curious. Without curiosity, we wouldn’t have questioned the products around us, found interesting problems to solve, and then come up with intuitive solutions. Curiosity, ultimately, is the impetus behind every great invention and progression.
Tied for a second would be determination and adaptability, and these two go hand in hand. When you’re embarking on a start-up or any business venture really, there are going to be a lot of obstacles and unforeseen problems that block your way forward. In order to surpass these challenges, you have to be determined and keep your end goal in mind. But in order to navigate these problems, you need adaptability to come up with solutions, work around issues, and be flexible enough to know when to leave something behind. With determination and adaptability, you can bend without breaking.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It seems a big reason why people burn out is that they don’t love what they are doing to begin with. If you don’t love and believe in your project, of course it’s going to feel like a burden to fight for it. So the first major thing we would say is to make sure you have a passion for what you’re trying to sell. If you wouldn’t use it, you shouldn’t be selling it.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
One of the major mistakes we’ve seen from other businesses just starting out is trying to launch way more products than necessary. If you stretch yourself thin trying to tap into too many markets, you’re most likely going to end up with quantity, not quality. What has made us so successful is that we spent all our energy on perfecting our first wallet and this allowed us to win the trust of our customers. Since then we only released new products every couple of months and stick to our niche.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
When you’re starting a company I think everyone goes straight for marketing, product design, manufacturing, and supply. Don’t get me wrong, these are extremely important to the business, but for us, the most underestimated aspect is definitely operations. Modern businesses depend on software, tools, and apps that while seemingly intuitive, are super hard to navigate without a smart and experienced team. The back end of building websites and employing new software is vital to any modern business, especially an e-commerce company.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Don’t be married to an agency.
When you start working with a new agency or partner there are usually some growing pains and a small mistake here or there. But once you notice a couple of mistakes it’s crucial to be able to discern and decide quickly, whether to give the agency a little more time or cut the cord. When we first started out we were working with a fulfillment partner that was making a lot of mistakes and causing huge delays for our customers. Our focus became how to find solutions to get our orders out as quickly as possible. In hindsight, we should have gone for the root of the problem — the agency itself. Though staying consequent often feels like the best route, sometimes it’s better to cut your losses and go in another direction.
2. Build a network of fellow entrepreneurs as soon as possible to share growth tips.
We have found it extremely valuable to share insights with other companies in similar or slightly higher stages. Don’t be too afraid to share numbers and discuss growth tactics because the return on this can end up being huge. So many of the processes that have become our bread and butter are inspired and learned from other brands.
3. Get consultants on board.
Since consultants aren’t part of the daily operation, they can often see the bigger picture in a much clearer way. However, make sure when hiring consultants that they genuinely have more experience in the field than your own team so nobody starts reinventing the wheel. When it comes to finding good consultants, for us it was as easy as a simple LinkedIn message. We ended up meeting for coffee with one of our current consultants and discussed different ideas. Now we have weekly calls to go over marketing performance, discuss new strategies and channels, and in general get valuable insight into our performance as a brand.
4. Invest in personal management skills so you can set your team up for success.
As soon as you have a product-market fit, the thing that makes your company grow is its employees, so make sure to invest in them as well as yourself. In the beginning, everyone in our little team was focused on doing individual work, each person trying to put many fires out. After a while we slowly started to run regular meetings, keeping track of goals and objectives, and discussing company strategies. Once we started balancing the team and individual we noticed way more motivation and alignment. If you or your employees are feeling stagnant there’s nothing like a good discussion to get the ideas flowing.
5. Don’t neglect your product or customers.
Like many young founders, we’ve had to step in to fill roles at one time or another, a major one being customer support. While this can be a tedious and time-consuming job at times, having to play this role has given us valuable insight into the customers’ experience on a deeper level. As a result, we’ve been able to really improve our processes to make the customer experience as enjoyable as possible and enjoy a lot of positive feedback from our customers.
All founders have spent time in the beginning to do customer support. This has been extremely valuable as you can understand the customer’s wishes on a deeper level. We’ve spent a lot of time improving processes to make the customer experience as sm
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think like almost everyone living in 2021, the climate is something that weighs heavily on our minds. We feel a responsibility not only as humans but as business owners to find ways to minimize our environmental impact. It’s certainly no great revelation that the fashion industry has taken a huge toll on the global climate, especially with fast fashion being the current model for the entire industry. What we’ve been able to do, with the help of organizations like B-Corporation and Climate Neutral, is access intuitive ways to offset our carbon emissions and invest in green technology, like upcycled vegan leather and solar panels. So if we could create a movement it would be one aimed at creating a more sustainable and ethical economy.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Olivier Momma LinkedIn
Rick Scharnigg LinkedIn