Scot Herbst, a Silicon Valley star designer of tech products for a decade, has traded working on sleek HP desktop PCs for child’s play.
As the global economic meltdown sent shock waves across the valley, the product designer took the ultimate career leap of faith — he launched a one-man company, Kaiku Design, to make hand-built, eco-friendly and safe wood-based toys for children.
"I’ve been living the last year and a half of my life with a giant question hanging over me: Am I absolutely insane or completely brilliant for doing this?" joked Herbst, who played a key role in the creation of the HP Touchsmart computer.
Instead of tinkering with electronic gadgets full-time, he’s now crafting wooden wagons.
"Designers have a certain way of thinking about things — once you have that kind of methodology embedded in your psyche, you can apply it to anything, whether its’ an all-in-one computer or a wagon," said Dave Skinner, an HP senior product design manager who has worked with Herbst for about five years.
"Scot has a lot of natural ability as a designer," he added. "The actual implementation, the work of bringing a product to market — that takes an incredible amount of effort." Designing for lower-volume wood products, as opposed to mass-produced tech toys, gave him more wiggle room to incorporate "green" materials, Herbst said.
"Adding even a few dollars to a (tech) product can translate to millions of dollars in your total cost of goods," he said.
Herbst has left his position with Bay Area-based Lunar Design, where he handled top-shelf projects for Hewlett-Packard. The move was possible because evolving technology and the global supply chain ecosystem can enable a guy to design products in his San Jose home, have them built in China and be delivered to the United States on time. And this venture was launched with less than $100,000.
"I don’t have to sell one billion dollars in inventory to make a profit," he said. "I don’t have to have a mega officeplex in Cupertino. I don’t have to send a product manager to Asia one week out of every month to make sure everything is going smoothly." An agent helped him locate a reputable manufacturer and other partners in China. After a trip to Guangzhou last spring, Herbst worked with Chinese contractors over Web cams and by swapping digital photos across the Internet. Had he launched his venture just a few years ago, he would have had to make a half-dozen trips to China and spend weeks in factories.
"The fact that I’ve been to China on only one occasion and I’m launching my product is nothing short of a miracle," he said.
While Herbst relied on Alibaba.com to locate makers of such things as non-toxic rubber wheels in China, he needed a sourcing Sherpa to help him navigate the country’s sometimes perilous manufacturing landscape. Herbst’s exacting requirements made the process even more time-consuming.
"It’s a great product. The quality is great," said Eric Pfeiffer CEO of San Francisco-based Pfeiffer Lab, a design company with years of on-the-ground experience in China that worked with Herbst. "It’s an heirloom piece of furniture, which is not easy to do these days." China has many high-quality manufacturers, but also plenty of sub-par factories and those that will deliberately deceive clients and deliver shoddy products, he said.
"A lot of times you have to put so much trust in your manufacturer partner," he said. "You are putting money out there before you see anything and if you think you’ll get that money back (should things go wrong) — good luck. Quite frankly, I’ve had some disastrous experiences over there. You have to prove those people out." Herbst’s inspiration for Kaiku Design (www.kaikudesign.com) came from watching his children play — and wanting to give them toys that would be completely safe.
The Zen wagon, which sells for $319, has natural rubber air-filled wheels, a magnetic handle catch and ergonomic handle with a soft foam grip. All his products are formaldehyde-free, have non-toxic finishes and are built with weather and corrosion-resistant hardware.
"Our products utilize ‘real’ materials — wood, metal and natural rubber," he said. "We have almost zero reliance on plastics." Herbst will continue to work as a corporate design consultant with companies such as HP. Still, his dream of building wood toys is an unusual move in all-things-tech Silicon Valley.
"I walked away from Lunar Design — they are first-tier, one of the largest and oldest design consulting firms in the world," he said. "When I broke the news to those guys they said, ‘Wow. Huge risk.’" Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496.
Kaiku Design, at www.kaikudesign.com, is a San Jose-based maker of hand-built, eco-friendly wood toys for children.