At Speck, fighting the iPhone case wars inch by inch
For Speck head of design Bryan Hynecek, the job is not just about creating the next iPhone or iPad case. It can also be about getting ready to meet with a major retailer about shelf space. CNET was on hand to see it all.
PALO ALTO, Calif.--If you work in Silicon Valley and have a big meeting in a flyover state with a potential partner, the extent of your wardrobe may well be challenged.
For Bryan Hynecek, the director of design and "what's next" at case maker, that was the situation he faced recently as he readied to jet off to a meeting with a giant national retailer. He'd spent hours preparing, but now, he had just one question.
"So we really have to wear a suit tomorrow?" Hynecek asked.
"You don't have to," cracked Chris Lee, Speck's director of national accounts, who would also be at the meeting. "You can do anything you want."
"What would you like me to do?"
"Considering I'd like to get some more business with [the retailer], I'd like you to wear a suit," Lee said. "You could probably get away with not wearing a tie, but you should wear a jacket."
"I don't have a lot of options," Hynecek admitted. "I only have one suit--it's the same one I wear to weddings and funerals."
At Speck, like most companies in Silicon Valley, the halls are teeming with casually dressed twenty-somethings. So, it's no surprise that the tall, goateed, 35-year-old Hynecek doesn't generally need a suit. Indeed, his current ensemble is jeans, sneakers, a blue Speck T-shirt, and an orange wrist fob for unlocking the office's doors. Dressed just a little more formally, I've come to Speck as part of my Day on the Job series to see how Hynecek and his team design the cases I see on iPhones everywhere.
Now seemed like a good time: Apple had just released the iPhone 4S, and I was sure that throughout Speck's jam-packed design offices here, I'd see prototypes of the next round of cases. The truth is, Hynecek and his people are continually developing products for all kinds of iPhones, iPads, Macs, and other mobile or portable devices. The iPhone 4S is just the latest flavor.
Hynecek's first task of the day is a frequent one: a meeting with a visiting materials vendor. Sitting in a rolling chair, he leaned forward, his hand on his chin, listening to the vendor talk. The topic was new materials that Speck might employee in future cases and how those materials are used in manufacturing. At one point, the subject was silicone versus injection molding, and Hynecek wanted to know about lead times to get a machine tooled for one of the methods.
The vendor replied that it would take about six weeks and then asked if Speck was in a hurry. After a long pause, Hynecek replied, "We're always in a hurry. That's our business."
The meeting was just one of many that Hynecek takes with different manufacturers, material science guys, and others in order to keep abreast of the latest developments and ensure that Speck's offerings are always "just a little more cutting edge [and] a little harder to copy."
One cutting edge system Hynecek is known for at Speck is the office layout he created. The design area is divided into several rows, each set off at a diagonal angle to the walls, and throughout the room, a designer or engineer always sits next to a project manager. There are no cubicles.
Hynecek devised the system as a way to manage efficiency through space design. "In cube form, an engineer can work all day, and report to a meeting the next day and find out he [or she] was going down a path that didn't align with what the designer needed or which jeopardized the schedule," Hynecek explained. "In this system...two designers can't talk without a project manager hearing it, and [finding out] what might happen to his schedule."
As a director, Hynecek manages three teams of designers and engineers: Gamera, which oversees handhelds, GPS devices, smart phones, and music players; Kraken, which is responsible for iPads, e-readers, and Macs; and Xenomorphs, which is a "special projects" team that handles "things that could be disruptive to the other two teams."
A recent addition to the office is a set of two large monitors on the west wall with Google Docs spreadsheets showing the upcoming schedules for the Gamera and Kraken teams. And on the north wall of the room is a long whiteboard bursting with hastily sketched designs of current and future case designs.
Hynecek's retailer meeting is tomorrow, and that means there's no time for lunch. Instead, he brings a Whole Foods salad and a Vitamin Water into a run-through of Speck's presentation. It'll be a multimedia show-and-tell, complete with Keynote slides, an 80-page spiral bound booklet, and a passel of Speck cases. As a result, several stacks of product samples have slowly been accumulating on Hynecek's desk.
The purpose of the presentation is to paint a picture for the retailer's decision makers of what an entire aisle of Speck products would look like in a store and why the retailer should choose Speck over its competitors. It's an inch-by-inch battle. "That's the name of our game," he told me later, "competing for shelf space. Every year, we're trying to come [up with better products] so we can have more peg hooks."
As the practice round begins, Hynecek looks tired. But that's probably because he's got a 7-week-old son and the attendant sleep deprivation.
The session was mainly about getting the team on the same page. But there were still unsettled issues, like how to explain to the retailer that Speck wants input on how its products are sold on the retailer's Web site and how they'll approach the delicate subject of products they'll offer exclusively to the retailer.
Soon, the run-through was over, and Hynecek headed to his next meeting, a gathering of the Gamera team to discuss prototype iPhone cases and different form factors and materials they might adopt. One option was a "gun" texture, but Hynecek demurred: "I kind of want to shy away from implying [our case] is a tool of violence."
As Gamera batted ideas around, Hynecek held a prototype with a cover that slides open, and again and again, he unconsciously opened and closed it.
The ultimate goal here is to design new cases to debut at CES in January, but the team is quite a ways away from that. Regardless, though, Gamera isn't ready to let these prototype go, especially since they're not sure they can mass-produce these designs. "Keep [them] on the down-low," Hynecek said, "so someone doesn't see it and get excited and you have to make it."
An all-new category
Before Hynecek's regular meeting with the Kraken team, he jumped on a conference call with an industrial design firm he's hiring to come up with concepts for an entirely new category of Speck cases.
What he was really after was someone outside Speck to tackle the issue so that he could see where others would go with it. But he also wanted to work with this design outfit because it was already well-versed in the field he was going after. "When picking a design firm, you can either pay [someone] to educate themselves and get up to speed," he told me, "or you can find a firm that already has expertise...and get that expertise for free.
The call finished, Hynecek went to meet with the Kraken team, which was gathered at their desks. He stood behind them as they video chatted with a team member who was visiting a manufacturer in China. The discussion was about how the manufacturer was handling the revision of an existing iPad 2 smart case. Hynecek was mostly silent during the meeting, speaking up only occasionally and mainly letting the Kraken team do the talking.
In order to make his flight, Hynecek had to leave around 4 p.m. That meant wrapping up his tasks quickly. One was a sit-down with his boss, director of product development Jarret Weis, about some of Hynecek's projects. Weis wanted to know if the outside design firm's work would help Speck launch its new category of cases by CES. Hynecek said he would need to wait to see what the firm came up with. For now, he said, the project was "essentially getting research in the form of design concepts."
After discussing a few more issues, and before bidding him good luck, Weis reminded Hynecek that he needed to wear his "PR cap" in the meeting with the retailer the next day.
It was almost time to leave, but before his ride arrived, Hynecek stopped in for one more look at the retailer presentation. Things were looking good (and went well: Hynecek would say later that Speck and the retailer agreed to head into a contract negotiation, with many things involved, including pricing, SKUs, quantities, and more). But Hynecek worried that there might still be too many product slides, he was also ready to go. So, grabbing a thumb drive with a Speck logo loaded with several versions of the presentation, he got up.
He went back to his desk to pack up all the samples he would be showing the retailer's team. Then he grabbed his backpack and his garment bag. "This is more than I take with me to China," he said. "I had to take a suit. There's dress shoes and everything."
If your company is interested in being featured in Day on the Job, please send a note to daniel-dot-terdiman-at-cbs-dot-com. Unless given specific permission, I will not reveal any proprietary information or forward-looking business plans I encounter during my time at the companies I visit.