#90. Material designs modern kitchen tools for the modern cook. We talk with co-founder Eunice Byun about Material’s quest to become the go-to, trusted brand in the kitchen, selling curated fundamentals to cooks of all calibers. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 90th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis, insights and events that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energizing and high-pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest analysis of the consumer economy from Loose Threads. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:35] Joining me today is Eunice Byun, a co-founder of Material, a brand designing modern kitchen tools for the modern cook. Eunice started the brand after seeking more simplicity and thoughtfulness in the tools she would frequently turn to while she was cooking at home.

Eunice: [00:00:48] We have the opportunity to be that real, go-to, trusted brand in the kitchen. We don’t want to all of a sudden start creating things for your home outside of what we think is really missing out there.

Richie: [00:01:02] What followed was a specific, yet focused collection of tools that are essential for cooks of all calibers. Here’s my talk with Eunice Byun.

Richie: [00:01:15] So why don’t we start. Just talk a bit about your background and then we can work our way up to this company existing.

Eunice: [00:01:20] I’m originally from San Diego, California. Spent most of my childhood there but decided that it was time to leave America’s finest city and move to probably one of the coldest places which is Evanston, Illinois. I went to Northwestern University and was actually in Chicago for two years after graduating. Was in finance at Goldman Sachs, realized that, as interesting of a place as it was, finance was not my thing and I’ve always been really attracted to the consumer space. So I decided not to move back West, but to move further East to New York where I’ve now been for 12 years. I started my career in, actually, intimate apparel. So I was at a company called Maidenform, leading some of their new business development and growth opportunities. Was there for about five and a half years and then really started to see the emergence of ecommerce, probably around 2009-2010, and decided that if I didn’t dive deeper into digital, I would just not really know the way of the world.

Eunice: [00:02:30] So I actually joined a couple of startups here in New York and it was during that period that I think I really realized that, for me—I always believed that there was an idea in me, it just had not surfaced yet. Loved everything about the entrepreneur space, but really wanted to be inspired by something that I was passionate about and that I would be willing to dedicate everything to. It wasn’t until I had accepted a job as the head of digital at Revlon that the idea for material really came to be. I had—at the time, I think my daughter was about six months old. My good friend Dave [Nguyen], who is now my co-founder, had come over. We had just been talking about life in general. Then we went to dinner at Russ & Daughters, which is such a classic New York scene, and we just started talking about how, as a new mom, I really wasn’t going out anymore and we were doing a lot more cooking at home. A lot of the things that we had gotten in our wedding registry we just never unboxed. There were things that were untouched and unused.

Richie: [00:03:33] Why do you think that was?

Eunice: [00:03:35] Honestly, I think that there are these trends that people tell you that you have to have when you get married, right? There are these things, these items that everyone recommends that you have, one of which is a stand-mixer. Everyone thinks: You get engaged, you start building out your registry and the first thing that goes on is a stand mixer, a 12-piece knife block set and a 22-piece kitchenware set. People just go and they tell you, “These are the things.” All the magazines would say, “Ten Things You Can’t Leave Off of Your Wedding Registry.” And so we followed that and, as we started to live life, we realized that we don’t need a lot of these things, nor do we have the space for a lot of these things.

Eunice: [00:04:17] And I think the huge kicker was I don’t even really like them. They’re just things that exist in my kitchen. And it’s a really unfortunate disconnect because a kitchen is a place where people should be super connected to what they’re doing. Food is a really common element that a lot of people share in across the globe, across cultures and to have tools and items in your kitchen that just don’t reflect the emotion and the sentiment that the kitchen and cooking should stir in someone was a huge disconnect for us.

Eunice: [00:04:49] And I think, for my co-founder Dave and I—when we were talking, back one evening in New York at Russ & Daughters, we were really just exploring this notion of how do you bring back a sense of joy and satisfaction in the kitchen? And, for us, that really came down to starting with the most basic items. So instead of going after some of these big categories—big showy things—what about the things that you reach for every day, for every meal? How do you start to reimagine and redesign some of those elements so that the second that you pick up your knife, it just feels right in your hand? For us, it was somewhat of an emotional journey too, as we were going through the product development because we wanted to make sure that people felt connected to their items again and that really culminated [in] good design. If you think about when iPhones came out on the market, people liked how they felt in their hands. There was something about having a really well-designed piece in your hand that just made you feel a little bit better. And so, for us, we really felt as though, by introducing great design, by really being mindful of people’s space—what is it that they really need? How do we create a movement towards ‘you can do more with less’ and not really go down this path of consumerism where it’s always about, “Hey, you have that particular tool. Well now you need a pizza cutter,” or ‘You need an avocado slicer.” You probably don’t. You just need a really sharp knife.

Eunice: [00:06:23] So Dave and I started putting the pieces of Material together very organically and started thinking about, if we could do a massive purge of our kitchens, what would that look like? What would we hold on to? What would we completely want to redesign? And that’s basically how we got started on Material and started building out a company.

Richie: [00:06:46] What [were] the first steps in terms of [saying], “We should actually take this further?”

Eunice: [00:06:51] Just talking to a lot of people. I think the most important thing for us was talking to people, hearing real life experiences around the kitchen, tools, pain points that they had, doing a lot of research and going in deeper into the food industry and understanding what were the cooking trends that were out there. What were some of the latest, hottest cookbooks that people were really responding to? Looking online, seeing where the action was or where there was just a groundswell of activity. At the time, it was a little bit after Marie Kondo’s book had come out all around the KonMari method and how do you really understand those items that bring you joy? We were very much inspired by that because, again, it just goes back to the idea that the kitchen is a place that a lot of people find as a bit of a haven in their home, a place that they can go [to] and create. And so, for us, we love the idea of connecting that sentiment with these objects that bring you joy.

Richie: [00:07:54] It’s an interesting transition because it would seem that the kitchen—and this is probably more driven by guys in the house—has become a gadget-haven basically. You have the Instant Pot and sous vide. If guys used to put stuff in a man cave where all their purchases went, it would seem a lot of that has actually shifted to the kitchen in some sense. I’m curious: One, why do you think that is? And then, two: What was it like seemingly advocating for going in the reverse direction of just continually buying these things on Amazon?

Eunice: [00:08:23] For sure. We are huge believers in you do what makes you happy. So if you’re cooking a lot more because an Instant Pot makes meal prep and meal cooking that much easier, have at it. Absolutely, you should be doing that. We’re not here to tell you what you absolutely should have and what you shouldn’t have. We just believe that there are a couple of core, fundamental items that everyone should have, regardless of skill level, regardless of how often you’re cooking, regardless of how many other gadgets you have in your kitchen. Why do I think more people are accumulating gadgets in their kitchen? I think a lot of the time, it comes down to just convenience. Everyone’s getting busier and busier and busier. You’re not unplugging as much in life. Therefore, the things that have come into the kitchen, like the Instant Pot, like this sous vide—

Richie: [00:09:17] AirFryer.

Eunice: [00:09:18] The AirFryer. Right. It’s almost helping people get the desired outcome that they want. That’s what a sous vide machine is really all about. It’s about making sure that when you cut into that steak, it’s going to come out super, super juicy and it’s almost foolproof every single time. So I think that there’s an element of people saying, “If I’m going to invest my time in the kitchen, I want to end up with a good meal. I don’t want to end up in a space where you’re experimenting and all of a sudden you’re like, “Well, that pan of whatever meal or dish that I just cooked goes straight into the garbage.” There’s this element of people just wanting to make sure that their time is well spent and that the experience of a great meal is outweighing, necessarily, the actions that went into that. And I think that’s totally fine. Again, I have an Instant Pot. I love it. I love cooking things in it for my daughter. We make things in it for family when they come over and we’re doing large-format meals. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

Eunice: [00:10:14] I think, for us, it’s just a matter of: How can we make sure that you’re being more thoughtful about the things that you’re putting into your kitchen? And, for us, that means, start with a couple of amazing core items that we’ve actually enhanced and made better so that they can be more multi-functional, so that you don’t have a junk drawer full of stuff that you never utilize. So I think, for us, again, it’s just about inspiring people to do more in their kitchen. And, again, if it includes other gadgets that they love and that they use, you’re doing more cooking which is fantastic.

Richie: [00:10:48] It’s an interesting trend, if you add in all the Blue Aprons and the meal-kits to that, of what is grocery shopping? You don’t need—just get the stuff that’s already portioned for you. It’s just an interesting paradox.

Eunice: [00:10:58] Yeah. Going through this process, I’ve talked a lot with, obviously, friends and family about, “Why do you cook?” So, yes, you need food. Yes, you have to create meals for maybe your children or for your significant other or your roommates or whatever it is. But it’s really interesting when you actually ask people, “Why do you love to cook?” And there’s a common theme that we hear and, granted, maybe this is just from more of the city-dwellers, the people who have hectic schedules, but a lot of the times what we hear is, “It allows me to start something and finish something. It allows me a sense of control that otherwise in the day I don’t have.” And so there’s almost a deeper connection that people are having to the act of cooking and what it symbolizes in their day.

Eunice: [00:11:44] And that’s why, again, I just think that these gadgets are super interesting because it is taking a bit of the guesswork out of it, but there is an element of, still, accomplishment. When you open that Instant Pot lid and you see this amazing—one of our favorite dishes is we make this Colombian chicken stew in it and turns out perfect every single time, great—there’s a sense of accomplishment. You did something. You created something. And in a world where things become more and more intangible and things become more and more hectic, we want to really make sure that people are getting that, almost, satisfaction. And so we always say and we’ve had customers say this, you pick up our knife, people are like, “I find things to cut.” And it’s just because there’s something rhythmic about chopping an onion. There’s something great about the feeling of a wood spoon scraping up the brown bits at the bottom of a pan. There’s something very satisfying about that.

Eunice: [00:12:41] And so, for us, it’s, “How do we reintroduce people to these moments of escape, give them that moment to just exhale in the kitchen?” And I think that’s a huge shift from where the food industry was maybe even five to eight years ago, where it was so much more performance-driven and everyone wanted to be the next Bobby Flay. Now you’ve got amazing folks like Samin Nosrat who teaches you about salt, fat, acid and heat. It’s less about recipes and it’s how do you experiment with these flavor profiles and how do you do more exploration in your own kitchen? Those are the types of things that we see as really a great movement that’s happening in the food world and we’re right there with everyone because we’re saying it doesn’t take much to get started.

Eunice: [00:13:27] You don’t need a 12-piece knife block set. That can cost you like a thousand dollars. You really just need two, maybe three amazing knives and that’s enough to really feel as though you can do something in the kitchen. And you can maybe have a little bit more confidence or swagger in the kitchen because you know that you’ve got really well-designed tools that make it easier for you. You don’t have a dull knife and you don’t have a thousand things all in a canister across your countertop that’s creating a lot of clutter. You actually have things that are more streamlined, that are really meant to give you that space, create that space for you so that you can actually be inspired by what you’re doing in the kitchen.

Richie: [00:14:09] So how do you actually approach the development process in terms of: Where did you start product-wise? How did it go? Had you developed products like this before?

Eunice: [00:14:18] I don’t have a product development background, but my co-founder Dave and I are obsessed with design and things that we love. I’d like to believe that if we are like, “Oh my god everyone, you should check this out,” people will take a look at it within our friend group because we just like well-designed things. So, I think, for us we said, “Hey, let’s approach it less from an industrial designer perspective or a professional chef’s perspective and what would we want as a home cook? What makes sense to us?” So, for example, our metal spoon—it holds exactly a quarter cup of liquid and so four scoops of that spoon is one cup. And so that means, as a home cook, I don’t need to pull out a measuring cup, dirty that up, add yet another thing to my sink that I have to clean up at the very end of this meal. We approached it from as real life and as human of an aspect as possible.

Eunice: [00:15:16] And then, again, we just went out and talked to people and said, “Hey, what are those items you can’t live without?” Talked to friends who are in the professional chef world and said, “When you’re approached by people saying, ‘Hey, I want to get into cooking. What do I need?’ [What do you say?]” We filtered in a lot of those insights and feedback that we had seen.

Eunice: [00:15:37] And then, again, we did a lot of research. I feel like every single cookbook has an intro section of, “Here are the tools that I love,” or, “Here are the things that I love.” And we started to calibrate that and started to rearrange and put together the things that felt right and also the things that we felt like had real longevity. So for us that meant really focusing in on, “you need things to cut,” and then, “you need things to mix, stir, flip”—again, those daily actions that someone is probably taking in the kitchen—which is how we ended up with this seven-piece set called “The Fundamentals.”

Richie: [00:16:10] What’s in the set?

Eunice: [00:16:12] Two knives, one big, one small—[they’re] called The 8″ Knife, The Almost 4″ Knife—and we want people to understand that you probably just need those two knives. There are some other things that you could add into your knife set but it really just depends on, again, usage—what it is that you’re cooking? A metal spoon, a wood spoon, a slotted spatula, a pair of tongs, which we call The Only Tongs, and then everything gets housed in what we call The Base. The Base is our version of a knife-block-meets-utensil holder. It has a really small footprint that can actually sit on your countertop. It looks great but, more than anything, it keeps all the tools that you’re going to need right in front of you. So there’s a little magnetic wall that actually holds your knives up so that every time you’re dropping it into a knife block, you’re not dulling the tip of your knife. And then there’s the vessel that holds the actual tools themselves. So that’s what we call The Fundamentals.

Eunice: [00:17:12] There are other tools that we think are also absolutely important but, again, it just goes back to, “How do you inform and help educate people around what it is that they’re probably gonna need and use regularly?” Because I think the kiss of death in the kitchen is when you end up tucked away in a drawer, you forget. There are so many items, I’m sure, in your own kitchen that you’re like, “Oh I forgot I had that,” or, “I’ve never used that.” You’re compensating and you’re always using what’s within reach. So that was really our north star for developing The Fundamentals.

Eunice: [00:17:45] We’re launching a few new products that are coming in the next couple of weeks. And, again, it just goes back to this notion of, if you have a whisk, what is probably that one whisk that’s going to help you get most of the stuff that you want done? And then a couple of additional tools that we actually got some direct feedback from our customers on saying, “Hey, can you develop this because I think I’d really like it?” And so we’ve been really engaging some of our early customers as we’re developing some of these new products so that we don’t end up with one-trick ponies, but [rather] that we’re really cognizant of, “How do you get these items to do as much as possible in your kitchen?”

Richie: [00:18:24] So how long did it take to develop all of those things? Did you know you wanted all seven of those for the launch and when did you know you were ready to launch and they were done?

Eunice: [00:18:32] When we had come up with the idea of Material in the fall of 2016, I’d say it probably took us a good year to develop most of the items and a lot of it just came down to ensuring that we were testing everything ourselves, that they were living in our own kitchens. I knew, personally, that we were onto some really good stuff when my husband, who also loves to cook, was like, “Oh my god, this knife is pretty incredible.” There’s something about having someone super close to you who also really loves to cook give you that, “Wow, I actually reach for that all the time now instead of the other knives that we had in our kitchen.” We also gave a number of the early samples to people around us just to try out.

Eunice: [00:19:23] I’d say the only item that crept its way in is actually the wood spoon and a lot of it came down to us, as we started to put the pieces of The Fundamentals together and actually put them into our daily use, we said, “Hey, we probably want to have something that you can use on multiple types of cooking surfaces.” A majority of our tools are stainless steel and the reason for that is it lasts a lot longer. You’re not going to have nylon tools that melt over time and we wanted to make sure that it was as high quality of a collection as possible. So I’d say maybe a few months before our launch we said, “You know what would be really, really essential that we just might have overlooked: a great wood spoon.” And that came together actually really nicely because we were able to source American Walnut, European Beachwood so that we could actually create these fantastic pieces. But that was the last and latest entrant into The Fundamentals.

Richie: [00:20:18] Gotcha. What was the easiest and hardest of them to develop?

Eunice: [00:20:22] Oh gosh. The knives are always challenging. There are different styles of knives so there are western style of knives, there are eastern style of knives. We wanted to have something that had the precision and, quite honestly, the sharpness of an Eastern knife with a little bit more weight in it. Sometimes people pick up a Japanese knife and they say, “Oh my gosh, it feels so light.” Because, if you think about what the Japanese culture is typically using a lot of the knives for, it’s in a lot more precise cuts than necessarily some other cultures. So we were really wanting to make sure that the balance of the knife was going to be perfect. We also wanted to make sure that the selection of the materials themselves were going to be dead on and for us that meant leveraging the benefits of a high carbon steel but without the upkeep of high carbon. Because a lot of the times, for all of your knife-head listeners, they probably understand that high carbon means the second that thing gets wet, you’ve got to wipe it down because it’ll oxidize fairly quickly. So, for us, we layered it with Japanese stainless steel on both sides and the inner core is high carbon so the part of the blade that is exposed where you cut has the high carbon components and then the outermost layers are going to be easier for daily upkeep purposes.

Eunice: [00:21:46] The knife is also, I think, sometimes hard to design because it comes down to how do you differentiate it from what’s out there? There are quite a few knives that exist. Our knife is great because, yes, while there is a value proposition—it is 40% to 50% I’d say more affordable than what’s out there on the market that’s comparable—for us, we said, “Okay, how do we ensure that the handle is going to be something that just, again, feels good, has a tactile nature to it? How do we rethink the colors?” I hope I don’t offend anyone, but bright red knives, to me, or knives that have watermelon seeds on the blade, that’s just not a great look, nor is it a good design. It’s almost like the kitchenware companies are stuck in this era of, “People want bright, they want neons, they want all the colors of the rainbow.” And we said, “What would it look like if we introduced more notes of the trends happening in broader home decor into this collection?” which is how we ended up with what is, I think, the coolest colorway that we’ve gotten and, quite honestly, it’s something that I think our customers love as well. It’s called “cool neutral” because it is a lighter shade handle and it’s something that is rare to find across the cutlery space because a lot of people just go towards what is easier, which is just make a dark handle and sell it and you’ll be fine.

Eunice: [00:23:17] I’d say the other tool that was harder for us to perfect were The Only Tongs and a lot of that came down to it’s the most mechanically advanced tool that we have in our sets. And, for us, it was just making sure that the locking mechanism would actually take place at the right angle. Did it feel right? Was the tension right for people in their hands? There are a lot of things because in the kitchen space, there’s still a lot of personal preferences. People will approach things and say, “Well, I want my knife to be heavier,” or “I want it to be lighter,” “I want my tools to be heftier,” “I want them to be super light.” And I think, for us, it was just making sure that we were prioritizing the right things that would create high-value, high-quality, great performing products over time. So that took a little bit of time for us to perfect.

Richie: [00:24:08] How did you know you were ready to launch and the products were done or ready to be in the public?

Eunice: [00:24:13] I don’t know if anyone is ever ready but you just go, right?

Richie: [00:24:17] Did you have a date that was like, “We’re just doing this?”

Eunice: [00:24:19] Yeah, I mean we were definitely marching towards a date of early spring of this year and we launched in March of 2018. I think for us, again, we just thought, seasonally, there’s a lot of stuff that happens in the spring whether if you celebrate Easter, you might be having people over, you’re starting to see a lot more great produce that’s coming especially as you’re getting closer to summer. There might be more fresh ingredients for you to actually play with and maybe be inspired by. I think a lot of it just came down to us saying, “Hey, we trust the people [whom] we’ve spoken to, gotten their tools into their hands.” We did do a private beta test early on and got some great feedback and that mainly was around, “Hey, I love the cool neutral handles but I want that with the walnut woods.” Because, in the beginning, we thought, “Let’s really simplify it for people and have a light collection and dark collection.” And we said, “Cool. If people want to mix and match depending on what their personal preferences are or maybe the design of their own home or what look they’re going for, absolutely have at it.” So we incorporated some of those changes pretty quickly and early on.

Eunice: [00:25:31] But we learn every day. We’re an early stage company [when] customer feedback is invaluable to us and we make sure that we’re reaching out to a number of customers on a weekly basis just to say, “Hey, how are The Fundamentals working for you? What else do you want to see come next? Are there things that you find that you’re not using? And, if so, tell us what that is and why.” So we’re still at a place where we’re doing a lot of listening. We’re doing a lot of testing still and I don’t think we’ll ever be at a place where we say we know it all and we know exactly the path we’re going down. We have a clear vision for what it is that we think is missing in the market and that we’re definitely filling that gap in. But, for the most part, we are students of what it is that our community is asking for and how we can help bring some of those items that they so desperately want to market.

Richie: [00:26:23] So how did the launch go?

Eunice: [00:26:23] It was great. I’d say the pinnacle for me was seeing Material in The New York Times, in the Food section, the month that we launched. As much as we are in, yes, a digital era, having some people that are close to us mail us the actual paper and put a little flag on it that said, “Here you guys are”, there’s something very special about that. Because every entrepreneur I think would attest to the fact that you put so much of yourself into these companies that you’re building that, to have people recognize even a portion of it, is something that can be very gratifying. And then I think, in the spirit of all entrepreneurs, then you start focusing on the next thing and you go. You’re not dwelling on it too long. But I think for us it was great to just see Material resonate with so many different people and be featured in a lot of different publications out there.

Eunice: [00:27:22] I would also say it’s when we started getting unsolicited customer emails coming into our inbox saying, “My god, these tongs are magical,” which, again—you would never think you would hear that statement. But to hear people speak with such satisfaction over these everyday items was a really cool thing to see. And we ended up selling out of The Fundamentals in our first month which is great because then we knew that we were definitely onto something and it was something that we could continue building upon and that we could really think about what else can we introduce through the material world to our customers and to potential new customers?

Richie: [00:28:04] Who is the customer or customers?

Eunice: [00:28:07] It’s a really good question because we definitely have a sense of how the brand lives and feels. So, for us, it is someone who maybe is in their late 20s, early 30s, transitioning through their life a little bit. They don’t have to be engaged. They don’t have to be moving. I think there’s this perception that people are only getting more into cooking or kitchenware when some of these life moments are happening. People are getting inspired just to cook a little bit more when they see maybe a great experience from some of the meal kits or maybe it’s easier to get access to groceries with online shopping. So I think there are just a lot of reasons for people to get more involved and interested in the kitchen. We find that it happens a little bit in that stage—late 20s early 30s—when they’re maybe investing a little bit more in the space so that it’s reflective of who they are, that they’re investing in the items that they have, that they’re maybe upgrading their basics and really thinking about, “How do I have high quality items and how do I get behind brands that I actually connect with?”

Eunice: [00:29:21] That being said, we’ve seen quite a bit of diversity in terms of where our customers either are from a geographic perspective or just from a demographic perspective. And I love nothing more [than], again, the phone rings and you’ll hear someone who’s like, “I’m trying to figure out how to use these tongs,” and it’s very clear in the conversation that maybe they’re someone who learned about us through the print version of The New York Times so maybe they’re a little bit older. But they’re like, “You know, I’ve never had things that felt this nice or that were this good and I’ve been around for a long time.” That brings such a smile to my face because we’re not creating a “millennial kitchenware brand.” We’re really about creating better-than-basics that everyone can enjoy regardless of age. We’ve also had a number of customers who were in a downsizing. So they were maybe in the suburbs and starting to move into apartments in the city and they recognized that they wanted to do away with all the excess stuff that they had accumulated over the years and The Fundamentals turned out to be perfect for them. So we’ve seen quite [a lot of] diversity across our customer base and we love that because it really just means that we’re providing people those everyday tools that are inspiring them. It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you live, for that matter. It’s something that people are clearly connecting to.

Richie: [00:30:51] So, if you look at the customer journey in a sense—I’ll speak for myself although I think this applies to a lot of people because the company is big. Effectively, in this category and [for] a lot of things in the home, I to The Wirecutter. I figure out what they need. I’ll read the reviews and I think they’ve established a significant amount of trust and then it often just kicks you back to Amazon. And there’s this loop where—I think this happens especially for a lot of kitchen stuff. You often need it quickly. As I think about it, The Wirecutter is almost the perfect thing because of Amazon because you have just no clue if anything is good and so they work very closely in tandem. From an audience and discovery perspective, how does a brand like yours either exist in parallel, try and work into that? How does that all happen because it would seem like just a routine, almost, that somehow has to get either broken or you have to become like a Wirecutter pick or somethin?

Eunice: [00:31:48] Sure.

Richie: [00:31:49] And The Times owns it, right, which is funny.

Eunice: [00:31:51] Sure. I think there is a specific segment of consumers that go through that discovery journey that you just spoke of. Let’s talk about Amazon for a second. You type in kitchen knives. You’re going to get over 12,000 results.

Richie: [00:32:07] Which is why you need something like The Wirecutter.

Eunice: [00:32:09] Correct. Or if it’s not The Wirecutter, you need some voice of authority or some voice that you trust that’s going to say, “Hey, this is the knife that I would wholeheartedly recommend.” We’re seeing a lot of that happen either from just early adopters and customers of ours who—I kid you not, it’s the weirdest thing to have someone say, “Oh, I heard about you from my friend.” And it’s like, “Okay, well, that’s great. You were talking about kitchenware? That’s interesting.” Or maybe a lot of the times, actually, what happens is people see The Fundamentals on someone’s countertop when they’re over at their place. But, that being said, I think there’s still an element of word-of-mouth that definitely has had a great impact on our business early on. And then a lot of it is just making sure that we’re connected with the right individuals. On Instagram, we always make sure that we’re authentically connecting with influencers who feel right for our brand and also aren’t going down the sponsored path. We do not pay any of our influencers. We make sure that, if people are utilizing our tools, that they’re doing it because they actually really do like the products. I think there are lots of forms of discovery that exist that are out there beyond The Wirecutters and the Amazons of the world.

Eunice: [00:33:30] And I think, quite honestly, being a brand that stands for a bit of curation is something that clearly resonates with the broader set of consumers today, making sure that you’re not going and creating everything under the moon and sun. I think that it all comes down to quality and we’ve had a lot of folks say, “Hey, I was going to buy the AmazonBasics knife set set,” or, “I almost did, but when I heard about Material and saw some of the great things and testimonials that people had, I realize I could spend maybe a tiny bit more and get something that’s definitely going to last me a lifetime.” So I think consumers are getting smarter, in all honesty, about what is true value and, at the end of the day, being believers in brands again. That’s something that continues to be this shift that’s happening probably over the last three years.

Richie: [00:34:26] Coming full circle, how important is the registry to the business?

Eunice: [00:34:30] I think that it’s a nice life stage to target. There’s definitely something that’s, perhaps, a little bit easier about identifying people at that time and in that space. The only place that we have established some form of a partnership with is Zola for that reason: Because we do recognize that there are a lot of highly engaged consumers that are going through the registry process and we love what they do and we love the way that they tell the story in the registry space. That being said, we do feel as though upgrading your kitchenware is something that a lot of people can actually connect with. Or, get rid of the junk, right? Purge, do better, upgrade. Expect more from your kitchenware. That’s something that resonates whether you’re a single bachelor living in your own space—maybe you’re a parent and you’re like, “Oh my god, there’s so much in my kitchen right now. I just need to restore some sense of sanity here. I just need to clutter some of this stuff.” So registries, yes. New homeowners or people who just recently moved, yes. Those are interesting audiences for us, but I do think the need for better kitchenware extends well beyond those two different audience groups.

Richie: [00:35:54] Where are you finding success from a marketing perspective at this life cycle of the company?

Eunice: [00:35:59] We’re doing a lot of testing still in the marketing space and I think, for us, it’s just ensuring that we’re, again, learning more as we reach more and more consumers. Digital, Facebook, Instagram—those tend to be good platforms for us because, at the same time, we also have great earned media. We’re big believers in the fact that digital will be that much more efficient if you’ve also got other offline tactics that are really working in tandem there. And so I think, for us, we are seeing that influencers still have a role here because food is something that a lot of people like to talk about and like to take pictures of and like to share about. We definitely believe that offline, again, is an important channel for us to play in so more in-person activations. Making sure that you know that that knife is really, really amazing because we can put a butternut squash in front of you and you can slice through that puppy like it’s butter. So there’s still an element to being able to experience things in real life that is important.

Richie: [00:37:11] Have you done a lot there or will do more?

Eunice: [00:37:13] Yeah. We’re doing some testing now and we’ll continue to do more. But I do think that having, really, that connection between online and offline activities is something that will be really important for us. Again, I think just being good storytellers. Really thinking about how can we help people understand this space that we’re creating? How can we connect people to other individuals [who] may not look and feel like them but, hey, guess what? The one thing you share is you both love to cook and you’re both home cooks. You’re not professional cooks. And so we’ve been developing a lot more content around that one dish that inspires you. Or what are the kitchen items that you can’t live without? And that will all soon be launched on our site.

Richie: [00:37:59] In the food media space, generally, you’ve seen things like Tasty explode from BuzzFeed. You’ve also seen a lot of more traditional magazines shut down, go online only and so forth. Often the product companies that were in the space were very different and separate from the ones creating the content and the media and so forth. That has started to slowly evaporate as Tasty has a whole line in Walmart now and you’re seeing that intersection. How do you look at the boundaries or the scope of what you do on the content/media side and then how that affects the focus of the company generally?

Eunice: [00:38:34] I think, for us, it’s recognizing and acknowledging the things that are out there in the content world today—[they] are great, so don’t try and replicate it. So don’t try and become another Food52. They’re doing an incredible job of what it is that they’re doing. And I think, for us, it’s: What do we think the Material community really cares about? And, for us, the two areas that we think are places that we can shed some more light on are just people—who are the people that actually hold these tools? I think the most exciting thing is hearing from jewelry designers who are incredible and they’re also obsessed with cooking at home.

Eunice: [00:39:18] The other thing is just really thinking about value even in the world of content. There are gazillions of recipes that exist online. We don’t see ourselves as recipe developers. We do see ourselves as recipe curators. What are the recipes that you can cook with from start to finish with just The Fundamentals? Because, I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing that, for some reason, irks me more than when I’m reading a recipe and it’s like, “Now pull down your eight-cup food processor,” and I’m like, “No, I don’t have the time for that nor do I really want to be doing all that clean up.”

Richie: [00:39:57] Or you don’t have the item.

Eunice: [00:39:58] Exactly.

Richie: [00:39:58] Right.

Eunice: [00:39:59] And so, for us, it’s how do you still create these amazing meals beyond just a grilled cheese sandwich with a couple of core tools? So when we launched, we actually had a partnership with Short Stack Editions and they helped curate for us about 26 recipes that you could cook from start to finish with just The Fundamentals. So, again, I think it just goes back to not creating content for content’s sake, but really thinking about what are the needs of our community and what’s unique to our community that we can really build upon?

Richie: [00:40:31] And so in terms of priorities for the back half of this year and then into early next year up to the one-year anniversary and so forth: How do you anticipate spending your time and focusing the company’s efforts?

Eunice: [00:40:42] Growth continues to be at the forefront of our minds because we’re seeing such great early signals that, as we continue to develop things, we know that there are new products that are coming, as I mentioned. We have two-limited edition colorways, which I’m really excited about, a few different partnerships that we’re working on and then new categories that we’re tackling as well. We’re pretty aggressive when it comes to bringing new products to market that we think will really resonate with our community. And then, again, like I said, we are very iterative. We want to hear from more people. We want to get out in front of more people, get tools into more people’s hands and actually have them be the judge of whether or not they love their Material items. So, for us, it’s just continuing to pound the pavement, be smart and savvy about where it is that we’re investing and how we’re investing our own time. But we’re very, very excited for the next couple of months and, quite honestly, I’m super excited for being able to do some pretty cool things when we hit our one-year anniversary mark.

Richie: [00:41:52] From a product development perspective, playing that forward—if you’re a brand founded on simplicity and curated items, how do you divvy up the focus between continuing to refine the existing products and continuing to add new products? Because, at a certain point, if it goes uncontrolled, you would start to end up with the product assortment that you wanted to eliminate in the first place.

Eunice: [00:42:15] Correct. Yeah. And it’s something that we are very, very meticulous about in our merchandising. Our philosophy is being very mindful of the core items that you need and there are multiple categories within the kitchen that, really, we feel like we can bring some innovation to but that does mean that we will have singular items and we won’t have five spatulas. We’re not going to have five whisks. We want to make sure that we’re developing the one whisk that you want to have or that we’re developing that one kitchen tool that you can’t live without. That looks and feels different for everyone and we recognize that so we started with The Fundamentals with the notion that that serves as a really good foundation for people but then, from that point on, your ability to build and layer on top of that the things that work for you. You might be someone who loves to create soups and sauces and I might be someone who loves pastas. The tools that you inherently might need at the end of the day could be slightly different.

Eunice: [00:43:17] We’re very mindful of, “How do we make sure that we’re providing people unique items against these different categories that we feel like we can bring some value to, but that we’re not going to a place of proliferation.” And that’s a real considered activity to go through each time and we challenge ourselves every time. And one of the questions we ask ourselves is, as we’re developing new products, are there other tools that we could reimagine that already exist in our current collection that could do the same thing as that one tool that we’re talking about? And, if so, don’t develop it.

Richie: [00:43:55] You don’t have a lot of sporks.

Eunice: [00:43:58] Right, right exactly. And I think it’s with that level of consideration that we have to approach our product development in order for us to be uniquely different than what exists out there in the marketplace today.

Richie: [00:44:12] So it would seem that the answer is, yes, there could be a point you actually have to stop with new stuff and you’re continually iterating on the existing tool but in ways that make it more adaptable or useful or so forth.

Eunice: [00:44:26] Yeah. And the other thing is, we get asked this a lot too: “Are you going to do things outside of the kitchen? Because you guys have great design. You seem to understand what it is that people might want from a product perspective. Are you going to do anything else?” And our answer is always, “no,” and that is very intentional because we feel like we have the opportunity to be that real, go-to trusted brand in the kitchen. We don’t want to go into your living room. We don’t want to go into your bathroom. We don’t want to all of a sudden start creating things for your home outside of what we think is really missing out there. So I think, with that, we know the sandbox that we’re going to be playing in and, for us, it’s just making sure that, to continue the analogy, we’re very mindful of the different tools that we’re going to have there, the different toys that you’re going to actually be able to play with. And for us it comes down to function. How do we have items that are highly functional in your kitchen, but how can we introduce form into them and unify those things that typically don’t really exist?

Richie: [00:45:30] What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned building the company?

Eunice: [00:45:34] Let me start first with the most expensive because it always seems to be probably the—

Richie: [00:45:38] Easier to identify.

Eunice: [00:45:39] Yes, absolutely. For us, packaging. I know it’s very specific, but I think, because one of the things that’s really important to us is being super considerate across the entire user experience, that we wanted to make sure that when you open up a box of kitchen tools, it either, a) doesn’t feel like you’re getting something from Amazon where just a bunch of tools are in a box.

Richie: [00:46:01] Where you have to cut the plastic with scissors, yeah.

Eunice: [00:46:04] Exactly. Or that it’s the box-within-a-box-within-a-box-experience. Because, again, going back to our philosophy of, “How do we really make sure that we’re maintaining this really edited and curated perspective?” we didn’t want to create a lot of excess even in terms the packaging. So we spent a lot of time on packaging and we’ve had a lot of trial runs of packaging that just didn’t do what we wanted it to do from, whether it’s a protective standpoint or whether it was just from a visual and experiential perspective. And it’s funny because we remember, early on, we were working with someone who said, “Don’t let packaging fall to the bottom of your list because it’s really easy to do—because you’re thinking about the product, you’re thinking about the brand, you’re thinking about the launch, you’re thinking about the site and all these things.” And we took his advice, but it just took a lot longer than we thought and it ended up being an expensive lesson for us to learn. But also helped, quite honestly, instill a lot of nimbleness in us because we had to figure out how to adapt when our packaging wasn’t ready and we were about to go live. So we really had to be mindful about what are we going to do and how are we going to still make sure that people understand the experience?

Eunice: [00:47:17] The cheapest lesson. Probably how simple some of our innovations can be and why I say cheapest is because it’s actually my three and a half year old daughter. She picked up the tongs after watching my husband and I just using them in the kitchen and she was like, “Down to open, up to lock. Down to open, up to lock.” And we’re like, “That’s so simple. Instead of all these intricate ways, let’s just explain it as that.” And it culminated into a rubber band that goes around our tongs that says, “Down to unlock. Up to lock.” And it was my daughter, in all honesty, playing with some of our items.

Richie: [00:47:53] I assume you’ll pay her a royalty.

Eunice: [00:47:54] I don’t. She’s a little bit of a performer so she would absolutely demand it.

Richie: [00:48:00] And then how’d you settle on the name and how much was the domain?

Eunice: [00:48:05] I don’t think the domain was that expensive. It’s Materialkitchen.com.

Richie: [00:48:10] You have to plug it.

Eunice: [00:48:12] Yes. In all honesty, I was actually walking. I do a lot of my best thinking [while walking], as I’m sure you can attest to as someone who is able to walk in and out of the office. I actually will walk into the office in the morning and be like, “Oh, I have three new ideas!” I remember I was walking right near Union Square and I was meeting Dave for a brainstorming session in the evening and I started thinking. I love words that can take on multiple meanings and it just creates a lot more depth for a brand. And, for us, as I started thinking, “Okay, well how do we connote and convey that these are the things that you can’t live without? How do we play upon the high quality and the intention behind the way that we design things and the things that we select?” And, quite honestly, the word material popped into my head and I was like, “Oh, I also like how there’s this play on you sometimes think material things are actually really bad.” There’s almost a negative, sometimes, perception of it because it’s like, “Oh, well, she’s so materialistic,” or, “She’s focused on so many material things.” And, for us, we liked the idea that, in one word, it can convey so much which is essential. It can convey things that you can’t, again, live without. It can convey the physicality of materials themselves, raw materials.

Eunice: [00:49:34] And then I think the last thing for us is believing that there is also such positivity to the word. And you think about how do you make a material impact on things? And that’s been something that’s been true to us from day one where we had no customers and we were just getting ready to launch and we said, “How do we help support organizations that are doing some pretty amazing things in the cooking space?” And we were able to partner up really early on with a couple of organizations here in the city that do some great things with teens and teaching them really how to cook and supplying them products. So, for us, having that material impact, having the material goods and then also being mindful about how do you make sure that we’re always creating under this umbrella of things that are needed? It just was the perfect word for us and we love it and we know that customers love it as well and it suits us.

Richie: [00:50:27] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Eunice: [00:50:30] Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Richie: [00:50:34] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to also leave a review on iTunes—we always appreciate it. And thanks to George Drake, Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including Sam Alston of Big Lives, Tom Patterson of Tommy John and Paul Hedrick of Tecovas. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.