How to Create Product Designs That Boost E-com Sales | With Ben Schwarz

Ben Shwartz Podcast Episode on WunderAds

Hello, e-commerce friends. I’m very excited to introduce you to Ben Schwarz. Ben Schwarz is the design director of Manta Sleep. Manta Sleep might sound familiar. In our very first episode, we already had Manta and we had already Mark Zhang, who is also the co-founder. 

Mark talked more about the marketing aspects of this brand and how they were able to scale it. 

And today, Ben will talk about product design and product development, primarily. To give you some context, Manta Sleep Mask started in 2017 with a crowdfunding campaign or two, so to speak, one on Kickstarter and one in the Indie Global. 

And together on both platforms, they were able to raise more than half a million dollars, which was, I guess, seed money to get that project started. 

And what really sticks out about this brand is the tremendous amount of customer reviews and video testimonials that people are dropping in for them. So, they have thousands and thousands of different customers. 

They’re all satisfied with this product. And now, I want to welcome Ben to the show. Great to have you here.

If you want to connect with Ben, we have a Facebook group. Ben will be also part of that group. And this is only for e-commerce owners so feel free to join us. 

Episode Highlights

We invested into a workshop in our studio, so that we can develop ideas very quickly in-house. We’re usually just hacking up a bunch of mock-ups to test with the team. These are the first steps. We also have a really good manufacturing partner, so we involve them very early in the process to make sure that products can actually be manufactured. (19:35)

In the end, to pitch your idea to a manufacturer is almost like you’re selling your product to a client; you got to convince them somehow to work together—because good manufacturers, they have a lot of options. And if your product’s not compelling or it’s too difficult for them, if they need to spend too much time without any return, it’s not going to work out. (25:31)

It has become a lot easier to design products as a startup through agencies, even just through Upwork, or just hiring designers in-house remotely. Or just part-time. So, tools are becoming a lot more accessible and cheaper. (34:49)th

Ben Shwartz Beginings: From Employee to Entrepreneur

My background is in industrial design. I have been designing products for pretty much 15 years, designing, developing products. 

That’s really where my passion is, what I’m good at. I guess it’s the one thing that I’m really good at and I really enjoy. And what else? I’ve been living in Asia for the past 11 years, which is handy when you are developing products.

Being in corporate was never the goal for me. 

There was an opportunity that I had after I graduated from school and it was exciting to work in Asus. But the goal was always to work for a couple of years and then go back to Europe and maybe do a Master’s degree or something. 

But then, in Singapore, I met my girlfriend, then I also met my business partner. Mark was already on your show, you were talking about it in the intro. So, we started working together on the project back in 2014. Mark is very much the entrepreneur.

He has all these ideas, but he can’t turn these ideas into products. And for me it’s pretty much the opposite. And so, we decided to join forces as business partners and that’s how it started. And I think we are really, really lucky that we found each other because it really allows us to focus on what we are really good at. I don’t have to worry about selling my ideas, basically, because I can just focus on designing and Mark is taking care of the business and the marketing. I feel very privileged to be in this situation. It’s been fun for the past seven, eight years that we’ve worked together.

Manta Sleep: Idea Inception and Vision

This really started as a passion project. We already did some other projects before. We actually had one moderately successful project on Kickstarter before, but were never really passionate about it.

And that product was heavy, it was expensive to ship, and for e-commerce it was just not ideal. And we’re looking at things that we are really excited about and sleep something that we are both really passionate about—and we are passionate about helping others to sleep better.

We realize that with this product category, we can really do something that is better than what is already on the market and where we can really have impact with the work that we are doing. And in the end, when you’re working on something for the seven years, you want to do something that you’re excited about every single day.

And that was just not the case with the projects that we worked on before.

We found something that we are excited about after all this time. And that’s really the reason why we stuck with it. Another reason, obviously, if we hadn’t been successful with it, it doesn’t really matter how excited or how passionate you are, it’s not going to work out.

But thankfully, sleep as a product category and as an industry has really taken off even more in the past, at least in the seven years that we have been in it. And we were really lucky with this category of products.

Manta Sleep USP

I could tell you a little bit more about the product itself, but to understand that better, I want to give you the background, the context, first. When we look at sleep, we see it more as a tool. We don’t really see sleep or good sleep as the goal that we want to achieve. Sleep is the tool that we give people to empower themselves to feel better. When you are buying a sleep mask, you don’t ask for a sleep mask where you want to feel better the next day. That is why you are buying the product in the end. It doesn’t really matter to people how they get there and sleep. And the products are just the tools that we’re giving people to feel better, to feel energized and to empower people.

I think this is the main difference between us and many of the other brands. You can also see that in how we present ourselves and how we display our brand. You can see there’s a lot of red on our website, which is something that you don’t see in other sleep brands. Usually, you see a lot of blue, green, muted colors. But again, we want to empower people and we want to show that in our branding, as well. This is why we are looking the way we do. And this is also where the products are the way they are because, again, the products are the tools that empower people to live better lives, basically.

In the best case scenario, people don’t even feel like they’re wearing a sleep mask. So, when you’re looking at our PRO mask, for example, or our most recent sleep mask, we wanted to create something that really blends in as much as possible when you wear it, so you really don’t feel it.

The Role Product Design Plays Within Ecommerce

For e-commerce or in general, I think when people buy products, good design is just expected because design is one of the main value ads to products. This is what you see the first time…

This is the first contact point that you have with the product. When you scroll through Amazon, all you have is pretty much thumbnails. So, designs need to stand out. Obviously, the design is also what the product feels like, what all the usability is about. And so, design is pretty much the product.

Poorly design products just have a really hard time to survive. And when you have three stars on Amazon, then people are just not going to bother. Because there’s so much choice, so much competition. Good design makes your job as a marketer infinitely easier because you have good product to sell than people will want to use it.

From Idea to Manufacturing: How Does it Happen

When we start with the project, a lot of the time the idea’s actually coming directly from customers. We have a survey set up, post-purchase, and we ask people what other products they’re looking for. So, the CS team also plays a hugely important role, because they’re like the eyes and the ears of the team and we talk to them all the time to find out about our customers want. We’re also doing brainstorming in the team, of course, and we look at what is out there and what we can improve, what problems we can solve.

And I think that’s the thing. We always start with the problem. We are looking for the problems that are not solved yet and we are asking people for what problems they have. Because if you’re trying to design things that don’t solve the problem, then maybe we do something that looks exciting, that gets people excited, but if it doesn’t solve the problem that they have, then maybe they use it once and after that they forget about it, and then they won’t come back. So, we always start with problems to solve and, usually, these come directly from our customers. This is the ideation part.

How to Get Customer Feedback

There are many different approaches that we are doing at the same time. We have this survey that we send out to people. Then we’re looking at our Amazon listings all the time. Thankfully, most of the reviews are positive, but they’re always things to improve. People are complaining about details, and we’re always looking at this to see what we can work on, and what other products people are asking for. And when we have a hunch, when we are thinking about an area that looks promising, then we actively reach out to people and we talk to them in detail. This is something that we have wanted to do for a very long time, but we wanted to be really sure how to do it.

We started this relatively recently and it’s quite exciting, because you can get so much more out of people when you talk to them and when you observe what they’re doing. It’s more than what you could ever get from Amazon reviews or from surveys. Many times people tell you exactly what they want, but then when you give them exactly that, they find out it doesn’t really fit their habit, their lifestyle. I think the challenge is really to look at what the problems are, and then translate it into what actually gets the job done.

There’s usually a lot of testing.

We invested into a workshop in our studio, so that we can develop ideas very quickly in-house. We're usually just hacking up a bunch of mock-ups to test with the team. These are the first steps. We also have a really good manufacturing partner, so we involve them very early in the process to make sure that products can actually be manufactured.

But a lot of the testing happens in-house first,  with our team.

Ben Schwartz Quote

Mock Ups and Customers

Ideally, we want to send it to customers. This is in the works right now. So far, it’s a little bit difficult logistically because it doesn’t really make sense to just send one prototype to one customer. So, you want to blanket it out a little bit. And for that to happen, you really need a pre-production batch of the products. This would happen a little bit later in the process.

Prototype Approved: Now What?

Yeah. So, we have a really good manufacturing partner and they’re really open minded when it comes to new ideas. Many times when you have a manufacturer, they have one category of products that they’re really good at, and they’re not really interested to develop other products because it takes them a lot of time and resources. I’ll give you an example. For the first product that we did with our manufacturing partner, that we are still working with after seven years right now—for the first two years, they pretty much didn’t make any money from us because we were just developing the product. They took a big risk because we were pretty much nobody. We didn’t even have our Kickstarter campaign up and running yet because we needed the product before we can actually go on Kickstarter.

We have been very lucky with this manufacturer. In the beginning, we developed the product very, very closely with the manufacturer. We are still talking to them right now when we are developing new products. But, what we did in the beginning is, we sent them sketches and 2D drawings, and then we asked them to build the prototype, and send them back. This just took a very, very long time. And sometimes we would fly to China to speed things up. We can’t do that anymore right now because of COVID. What we ended up doing is, we set up this workshop ourselves in-house. So, we are now able to build much better prototypes, do a lot of the testing in-house first.

All the designers that we hire, they know how to use the sewing machine. We are doing mostly soft good products, so you got to know how to sew. When we are sending the prototypes to our supplier in China, I would say, it’s like 80% done. And this really speeds up the process. This has made a huge difference. I mean, it’s difficult. It’s a lot easier to just send a sketch to the China and then let them figure out details, but it’s very time consuming. The way we’re doing it right now is a much better way and it’s efficient. Especially during COVID right now, it’s not just that we can’t go there, but shipping also takes longer if we have to send samples back and forth. It’s just not a very efficient way to develop products at the moment.

How to Find a Manufacturing Partner

This is a very good question. Actually, as you would expect it, we just found these guys from Alibaba. There’s no secrets to spill here. Yes, we found them and we were lucky that they were in this situation where they had an open mind and they were working with startups, and they were looking for a relationship to establish, as well. Again, they took a risk, but I feel like we convinced them with the ideas that we had.

To pitch your idea to a manufacturer's almost like you're selling your product to a client, you have to convince them somehow to work together; because good manufacturers, they have a lot of options. If your product's not compelling or it's too difficult for them, if they need to spend too much time without any return, it's not going to work out.

It’s got to be a win of both sides. I really can’t tell you how we convinced them because I would’ve done many things so much differently, looking back. We were pretty inexperienced. I think we were lucky that this supplier was also quite young at that time. They had been in business for a couple of years, but I think they were looking for something more. They had been doing pretty simple products and I think they were looking at just growing. And we have been growing for sure. We have been pushing each other hugely. Really, it’s a two way relationship. It’s not that we challenged our supplier, they have also been challenging us. And I wish I could give you the secrets why we made this work, but there is a lot of luck involved in finding the supplier.

So obviously, when you’re doing a very niche product, you got to get creative in what kind of categories the products you’re looking at. But we looked at backpack manufacturers, soft toy manufacturers. We looked at a bunch of categories and we limited it to, I think, it was probably at least five manufacturers that we worked with very closely in the beginning and that we asked to build samples. And this is still the same when we are looking for manufacturers right now. We have a couple of main manufacturers that we’re working with, but we always looking for new suppliers when we have new product categories

And there will be at least five suppliers that we look at very, very closely. It’s difficult right now because we can’t visit them obviously. China still has the zero COVID policy, they don’t let anybody in. But there’s a lot of calls involved for our main suppliers, we talk to them almost daily. And for new manufacturers, there’s always a sample that we ask them to do. And this tells you a lot. It doesn’t just tell you about the quality that they can achieve. It also tells you about how creative they are to solve problems, how the communication works, how trustworthy they are. You can tell a lot by just going through a few meetings with them. A lot of suppliers, they will tell you… I mean, they tell you they can do pretty much anything. But then when you get the first samples, you realize very quickly what they are actually capable of. And when you’re comparing the samples from different suppliers, you get a very good idea very, very quickly, which direction to go into.

Ben Schwartz Quote

Covid and Manufacturing

It’s scary for sure. When I would advise people to look for manufacturers, I would definitely recommend to look at options outside of China at the moment, because there’s a lot of uncertainty in China. It happens from time to time that even with our setup of suppliers, that they tell us, “Hey guys, we will probably be shut down for a week.” So, they don’t know. It can happen anytime that there’s an outbreak in the area and then the whole factory gets shut down.

Thankfully, it hasn’t really impacted our manufacturing, but we are absolutely looking at diversification because it’s risky. I mean, it’s not just COVID, it’s also the political risk of being just in one country, especially a country like China. So, it is advisable to look at other options. Vietnam is really growing. And there are other countries that we’re looking at. But at the same time, China is just the best option for developing products because you have everything in one place. You have everything, from the raw materials, you have all the fabric mills in China, all the way to the expertise and the knowledge that it takes to build high quality products.

When you go to China and you’re driving around with your suppliers, for me it’s always being in Legoland almost, because I find it really, really exciting to jump from one factory to the other. And when you’re driving around, you can be in the main assembling factory. And one hour later, you can be in a screen printing factory or whatever. Everything is really centralized. Suppliers have their network of suppliers and this is very, very unique in China. And this is probably going to take some time before you get something like this in countries like Vietnam.

Exploring Other Manufacturing Hubs

China is still our best bet. We really hoping that the COVID situation is getting better. Vietnam is an option. Other than that, there’s not too many options. There’s Cambodia, there’s Indonesia, to some degree. But again, it’s the infrastructure’s just not comparable to China or even Vietnam.

In-house or Outsourced Design Team

It has become a lot easier to design products as a startup through agencies or even just through Upwork, or just hiring designers in-house remotely, or just part-time. Tools are becoming a lot more accessible, it's getting cheaper.

In general, it has become a lot easier to design products as a startup through agencies or also even just through Upwork, or just hiring designers in-house remotely, or just part-time, or whatever. Tools are becoming a lot more accessible, it’s getting cheaper.

You don’t have to spend $10,000 on a CID license, for example. There are a lot of cheaper tools and options right now. But, that also means that when things are getting easier, of course, the competition is getting stronger. It really depends on where you are at and the type of products that you’re doing. In the beginning, it might be tempting and easy to work with an agency, but an agency will never know your customers as well as you do, and they will never be as dedicated to the product as you are. And I think a good balance would be if you can outsource design to remote team members, because it can save you money potentially. And there’s also just a lot of great talent that you have access to, when you look remotely.

It’s not always possible for us, our products are very hands on. We’re doing soft goods. There’s a lot of economics involved. You just got to touch it, you got to test it, you got to put it on people to see how it fits and how it works. But if we were to do the Bluetooth speaker, for example, I wouldn’t have to do this in Taiwan or in with my team. I could just send this to a designer in Serbia or wherever, and people design it. I can get the file, 3D print it, have a look, and then when everything’s confirmed, they can send it to China. I think technology is making things just infinitely easier. And so, it’s not always necessary to have a team in-house, it really depends on the product category, and what your needs are, and where you are in the journey in your business as well.

Especially if you consider the different aspects of design, there’s the technical aspect, which is building the CID, just doing the sketches, the drawings, all this kind of stuff. And this is something that is easier to outsource, but when you’re looking at the parts that generate most of the value, this is actually creating the concepts and talking to customers. And like I mentioned, translating customer needs into products. And this is just a lot easier to do when you are in direct contact with your customers, when you’re in direct contact with marketing. There’s just a lot of things that need to come together, there’s a ton of communication. It’s doable with an agency, but it is going to take a lot longer for sure. To me, at this stage, it’s a better way to design directly with our customers. And this is really where most of the values is coming from when we were talking about design.

Ben Schwartz Quote

Manta Sleep Vision

We keep doing what we are doing. I’m really excited to keep talking to our customers because, like I said, this is something that is really just starting for us and there’s just so much we are learning. That is really opening up our mind right now. And there’s still a lot for us to do. We just keep empowering people with our products. And you can expect a lot more of that in the future.

Learning Resources

Well, I would imagine that a lot of the listeners of this podcast actually are entrepreneurs rather than designers. I know that a lot of designers are actually looking into starting businesses, as well. I think this is a fantastic opportunity for entrepreneurs to partner up with designers, which is how we did that, Mark and me. And to me, just a great starting point is always LinkedIn. This is very obvious maybe, but… Yeah. I don’t really have any fantastic recommendations for design resources.

How to Connect With You

People can find me on LinkedIn, Ben Schwarz. And you can also shoot me an email at ben@mentalsleep.com.

The next thing that people have been saying is, some type of tech pack. A tech bag that you can organize all your tech stuff in. Either like a sling or one that you can just carry in your hand. We’re going to do some variation of that.

Check out our interview with the other co-founder of Manta Sleep Mask, Mark Zhang, here.

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