Every now and then you come across a product or company that just gets you pumped. Something that resonates with you and makes you wish you had thought of it first (regardless of your ability to deliver).
For me, hearing about noho was one of those companies.
I caught up with Richard Shirtcliffe (formerly Icebreaker, Phil & Teds, Tuatara Brewing, Coffee Supreme to name a few) to discuss his new venture.
“noho is a digital direct-to-consumer brand, setting out to change the way people live in their homes,” Richard says.
“We’re creating life enriching furniture, that’s not just ‘a little less wasteful’, but is actually designed to improve the wellbeing of both the users and the planet.”
noho is launching in New York in April, followed by a pop-up in San Francisco. Their entire first product is made from upcycled plastic waste - not just ocean plastics but end of life carpet, and post-industrial waste.
Designed and manufactured in New Zealand, their flagship product is the noho Move Chair with five interchangeable toppers.
I asked Richard how they got started.
“noho came about through three key insights.
“For me the first was a personal epiphany - I wanted to do something about the waste plastic issue. I was with my family learning to surf in Indonesia, and saw my kids in the water surrounded by plastic. I saw that they weren’t bothered by it. It was the norm for them and I found that really upsetting.
“The second was a design insight from Formway Furniture. They had a long held desire to apply their expertise in dynamic comfort to create uniquely innovative and healthy home furniture.
“The third was the determination of Richard Cutfield – Formway director and well known Wellington businessman – to take furniture direct to customers online.
“The idea of ‘discomfort’ is what brought us together. Both a discomfort in how the environment was being trashed, a lack of comfort in traditional home furniture, and the expense of getting hold of well-designed product.”
I asked Richard what the motivation is behind the brand name.
“For us, it is more than a product idea, but a singular pride in coming from New Zealand.
“It says something powerful when four pakeha guys are so proud of our unique cultural heritage in Aotearoa, and our need to do something on the world stage is best expressed through Maori values like kaitiakitanga, manaakitanga and hiriritanga.
“noho as a brand came out of that singular pride and expression of our values.”
‘Noho’ in Te Reo Māori is commonly translated to English as ‘sit’. But as with many Māori words, there’s a deeper meaning there. The full meaning is ‘to sit, stay, settle, to dwell, inhabit, reside; to live’. So to simply say ‘sit’ in English doesn’t encapsulate all that ‘noho’ means.
Says Richard, “The brand is distinctly of Aotearoa New Zealand. We’re bringing the best of New Zealand values – kaitiakitanga, design sensibility, lifestyle, our way of looking at the world – right to the heart of the world’s biggest e-commerce market.”
Richard and his family have relocated to Boulder, Colorado, to launch the company in the US market.
“Basing ourselves in Boulder was around values alignment - Boulder as a city is pretty similar to New Zealand as regards how we see the world, it's the centre of the natural products movement in the US, it’s positioned well in relation to both coasts, it has great crossover with New Zealand’s time zone and it has some of the great outdoors that we can enjoy as a family.”
I asked Richard what some of the challenges in the product design process have been.
“Together with the design team at Formway, we worked hard to figure out how to make the furniture out of ocean plastic and sustainable materials. The Formway team connected with Italian innovators Aquafil, who are pioneering removing fishing nets from the ocean, and repolymerising them back to the core nylon 6 – branded ‘Econyl’ – a plastic compound which is infinitely recyclable. Down the track, our products will be able to be recycled in and of themselves, completing what we hope will be a ‘virtuous cycle’.
“The use of fishing nets was attractive as 46 percent of all ocean plastic is from nets and associated paraphernalia, but it hadn’t been used in furniture when we started the project so it has certainly provided the production team with some challenges!” Richard laughs.
“In our way of thinking, we want to see it become the norm that businesses strike out to be of net benefit to the planet. It’s very much our intent from the outset: we want to help change the world one chair at a time. That might sound like folly but anyone who thinks they’re too small to make a difference should try spending one night alone in a room with a mosquito!”
“Throughout the product development stage we’ve encountered challenges: where to source usable waste plastic; how to source recycled and recyclable packaging; how to eradicate plastic from packaging; how to package product securely without relying on any plastic buffer. But we needed to stay faithful to our mission and guiding principles as a company. It would’ve been easy to compromise but we needed to honour the foundations of why we’ve started the company.
“The noho Move Chair also has swappable upholstered ‘toppers’ - enabling the chairs to fit with changing decor styles for versatility and longevity, and to add an additional layer of comfort. But it was hard to find recycled upholstery material so we’ve gone with sustainable wool which is great but more expensive.
“More broadly, we’ve also come up against process challenges just establishing a company – and our residency – in the US. The visa process is complicated and I’ve spent hours travelling between banks and mobile phone providers just to get set up. You can take it for granted how easy it is to do those things in New Zealand when you have an established credit history! That said the new E visa that Kiwis can access is a phenomenal boon to NZ businesses wanting to expand into the US.
“It’s been vital to get close to market to make this work. We’ve made changes to both the brand and product proposition since we’ve been here because we’ve learnt we were critically off beam with a few things. We wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t moved here.”
There have been a number of exceptional eco-friendly products coming out of New Zealand lately, and I asked Richard what he thinks is behind eco-friendly products fast becoming a global niche for New Zealand.
“I think it’s a number of things. Obviously, being kind to the planet is very important to Kiwis. We also have the younger generation entering the workforce and consumer base - the products they’re demanding are kinder to the planet. They see prior generations as having failed them in creating environmental and health catastrophes, and they’re really exercised about turning the tide on that mess. I’m so heartened by that: it feels a little like the eco version of the ‘generation of political change’ in the 60’s.
“It’s very ‘now’ globally. We do very well on the NZ perception of being ‘clean green’ - we know there are some issues there and we have to be bold to resolve them, but it still resonates internationally.”
I asked Richard what obstacles he anticipates as the company grows.
“Oh, number one is getting noticed! What we’re doing will only matter if we get any traction. We are still honing how we ramp that up.
“We have to work really hard to overcome the volume of noise in the US market and get cut-through, especially in the e-commerce space. So much is happening and it’s happening very quickly.
“I mean, using the Econyl material was a unique feature of our product when we were first working on it, but even in that period they’ve become much more well-known – which we can benefit from in terms of their growing profile, but it’s a sign of how quickly things move.
“When you look at the tipping point of all successful businesses though, a key factor to their success is grit and tenacity. We’re looking for a transformational moment of magic but have to keep pushing to get to that point.
“Look at the Allbirds story. Tim Brown tells the story of how they had their website lined up, and their brand story was strong. They were doing a media round in New York and it was their last interview of the day with Time. They were tired and didn’t feel like the interview went very well but the next day the headline came out “Allbirds may very well be the World’s most comfortable shoe!” They had to change their website overnight to zero in on that single minded proposition, but after all of their hard work to get to that point, that was their moment of magic. As a brand Allbirds took off.
“You never know when or if that moment of magic will happen but you have to keep pushing until it does.
“In the meantime, we have to stay a bit obnoxious about calling people and knocking down doors and telling them our story.
“We’ve got a huge focus on storytelling and we’re obviously looking to translate that into sales. But it’s all about taking one bite at a time and slowly eating the elephant!”
For more info, and to purchase after launch, visit: https://noho.co