Do you still play? This question is actually at the center of a business model that has not only rapidly scaled and expanded, but is also proving that innovation and imagination are here to stay. From their design approach, to their community engagement - there was plenty to talk about with Ryan Ringholz, Founder/Chief Designer and Jonathan Spier, CEO of PLAE. As this team puts it, "Play is fundamental, a hard-wired universal concept. We come into the world knowing how to eat, breathe, sleep... and play. These human essentials cut across cultures, politics, ethnicities and gender."

Reinventing the Processes

For the team at PLAE, the innovative reinvention of design, delivery, and sales is the core of their B2C business model, an online only approach, that relies on heavy engagement of their buying community. The question of "do you still play?" is a concept often forgotten in design and development work, especially in uber-competitive markets like kids shoes, casual shoes, and now adult shoes. Ringholz, once a Lead Designer at Puma, knew when they began this journey into childrens footwear that they would have to adopt the mindset of a child in so many ways. For PLAE, this childlike approach meant leading with a problem solving mindset without boundaries, one that left room for playfulness, sometimes extreme responses, and most of all: the best possible solutions. Including ideation, creativity, playfulness, and exploration in their process. Sound counterintuitive to building a successful business, right?

Pushing Through Challenges

While the challenges were evident from the very beginning, the duo- more than anything- were so inspired by what they were building in their business model and their product line, they pushed forward. So many brands in the shoe category, very early on, are these mega brands who go in with the mindset to fight, compete, and win. For PLAE, they knew they were a lifestyle brand, and they were not going to adopt the same cut-throat approach everyone was so used to. Even in marketing, it used to all be push marketing, but not for PLAE. They wanted their marketing to be community based, so they started that line of communication very early on- focusing on listening, and understanding exactly what their community was telling them they wanted and needed. "We set out to become the best listeners in the world. We wanted to hear what they were saying, what they weren't saying, and what was resting in the space between the words." 

Engagement + Transparency

The focus on community changes the sales conversation entirely. We've witnessed this with the rise of influencers and even social good brands, who tap into the exact language of their online communities and rely on that platform to bring products to market and to sell commodities. This kind of partnership and heightened level of engagement allows PLAE to build with and for their community. 

The Secret Sauce

In order to achieve balance in product creation and design there are two ingredients to the secret sauce at PLAE. The first ingredient is to bring something new and innovative to the product and the consumer, and then to also make it familiar in some way. I couldn't agree more with this idea of blending innovation with what's familiar, because launching based on potential extremes or outliers is not sustainable, measurable, or scalable. The balance of these two objectives creates a new pull, and momentum to survive the inevitable pain points of scaling. A few other survival tips:

  • Your brand has to stand for something and that something needs to be conveyed with absolutely clarity. "Standing for play has created great perception around who we are, how we work, and even how we design."

  • Approach product design deliberately. This on-purpose design approach allows design to be targeted at a specific problem, market gap, and for a specific solution. "Thoughtful design solutions to challenges our community didn't even realize they had is what we thrive on."

  • Build responsibility into your brand. Own your process from start to end. If you make and sell something, you're leaving a footprint so the ideal is to create with durability and the end-of-life cycle in mind. Brands that are responsible for their creation place themselves in their own category. 

  • Get really good at listening. The answers are always between the words, in the gaps, and in the next best thing you can undoubtedly create, if you are tuned in. The best way to give the people what they want- is to know what they want, and the best way to know what they want is to let them tell you, and to be actively listening and engaging to retrieve the information. 

The Trifecta of Balance

It can't always be about the product. It can't always be about the consumer. It can't always be about the market. This trifecta, with balance of the three- product market fit, sustainable and durable design that's innovative, and solutions the community needs - this is where we see brands at the top of their game and scaling as rapid as the market is changing and expanding. 

Published on: Oct 1, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.