This is Ground: Los Angeles
DTLA Start-Up Doubles Down on Local
By Megan Freshley
“The manufacturing energy in downtown LA is palpable right now,” says Mike Macadaan, founder of the fast-growing leather tech accessory brand This is Ground. “It’s a treasure trove of raw material and talented craftsmen.”
This is Ground has seen a remarkable ascent since its Etsy roots in 2013, going from a spontaneous side project to a serious brand so coveted by the tech crowd that it appeared in the online Apple store in under a year. And not only has product design been the key, the execution has also been implemented in with an innovative approach: reinventing the notion of local production.
By partnering with a new start-up factory owned by leather artisans in DTLA, they’ve remained remarkably nimble and exploratory while scaling the business. That means more room for experimentation and flexibility each step of the way, and faster time to market.
This reinvention has also happened fast. In just a little over two weeks, This is Ground’s lightbulb moment — facilitating a factory space to be owned and operated by local craftsmen just across the hall from their office — came to fruition. The Figueroas, a family of leatherworkers whose legacy of refined skill and creativity makes them the perfect fit for the company’s nuanced pieces, is now at the helm of production for This is Ground’s newest release: a compellingly customizable leather organizer called the Mod 2.
From One Taco to 55k Followers
This is Ground began when Mike was asked by a design friend for a creative solution to an all-too-common problem: cords, everywhere. Having just gotten tacos from nearby restaurant Loteria when the inquiry arrived, Mike had a moment of tortilla-induced brilliance: the Cord Taco. It’s a simple concept — a small, folding leather circle that snaps a roll of cords into place for easy travel or a beautifully organized workspace.
“I didn’t realize that it was going to spark this new business,” Mike says. “At the beginning, I was making things by hand. My nights and weekends became about teaching myself a new craft.” Eventually the Cord Taco begat the Cordlupa, the Cordito, and a host of other Instagram-worthy leather goods designed with both functional ease and aesthetic self-expression in mind. “It falls in the middle of functionality and fashion, of organization and technology.” This is Ground — a Bowie-inspired moniker from Mike’s early days as a blimp operator — truly took off.
As This is Ground gained traction it became a priority for both Mike and the company he co-founded, Science Inc. Mike’s background translates intuitively to this work — he’s been using the tech implements that This is Ground’s products house throughout his career, so he knows the nuances of the problems they can present. The company’s approach also gracefully addresses the aesthetic side of tech accessories, as most cases for laptops and tablets on the market aren’t known for being easy on the eyes. Mike says that, “it’s about beautifying what would normally be pretty boring.”
Local Production as We’ve Come to Know It
While This is Ground set out to create beautiful things that solve problems for creative consumers — they’ve ended up doing so on the production level, as well. As the company looked to scale their operation, they were encouraged to explore overseas production. What they found was a clunky process where prototypes are shipped abroad to distant factories divorced from both the designers and the primary customer base. Beyond the impacts of outsourcing on the domestic economy, this was simply an inelegant system that made products slow to market and led to ultimately inferior goods.
Instead, This is Ground doubled-down on local production, leveraging the heritage of expertise that’s been passed down through generations in support of their distinctly contemporary designs. In doing so, This is Ground joined forces with the movement of locality that’s become increasingly important to their customer base — that is photographers, designers, and other creative professionals who care about both personal style and functional utility.
And that’s where Gerardo Figueroa comes in. Gerardo started working with leather in Mexico over twenty years ago. Back home, he owned his own business. When he and his wife Patricia permanently moved to the US, he found himself working as an employee for numerous leather companies. As Gerardo trained his son Juan to be his apprentice, he became increasingly interested in opening a leather goods start-up of his own here in the US. In Gerardo, Mike saw an opportunity to put the means of production in the hands of an expert.
Local Production the This is Ground Way
As This is Ground looked to assist Gerardo and his family in starting their own business, Mike first got to know their needs as artisans. He says it became apparent that a few things would have to be in place for the project to feel right: “The craftsmen need to own their own business. They also need to be happy — to have it be sustainable for them. Their happiness correlates to the products they build.”
Another important factor, of course, is proximity. “When you’re close to your factory, everyone can be more intimately involved in design and development,” Mike says. “You must be able to sit down at a table together.”
Basically, the factory functions as a small startup embedded within a larger one. This is Ground has taken it upon themselves to facilitate all the nuts and bolts that it takes to make a great factory in a growing neighborhood like DTLA.
In collaborating with Gerardo, This is Ground saw an unorthodox way to invent a more personable system. What’s sleeker than a setup in which a designer can walk across the hall to the person actually making their product to discuss a detail? And, since Taco Tuesday is a major weekly event for the company, perhaps over actual tacos, to boot.
This light organizational structure has allowed This is Ground to control costs and increase efficiency, without taking on the inventory risks posed by large-scale overseas production. They also get a rapid turnaround ensuring they can rush new products to market. A recent collaboration with Taco Bell saw the company progress from first contact to full production run in less than a week.
“We’re excited to have everything up and running,” Gerardo says. “We already make a great team. We’re really helping each other out.” Gerardo’s son, Juan, is also deeply involved with the new factory. Juan says that, “lots of people are starting to want their leather products made in Downtown LA. If you walk down the street, you’ll see bags, jackets — all sorts of products being made and sold.” What sets this new space apart, though, is that here the artisans actually own the factory. They’re their own bosses, and that changes the game for them, This is Ground, and the people who ultimately incorporate these products into their lives.
On the Horizon
Last May, This is Ground debuted the Mod — a delicious spread of all-in one organizers for laptops, tablets, and phones. The Mod makes room for not only your tech, but your sunglasses, pen or stylus, cash, cards, notebook, and of course for all those tangles of cords. Shifting to a bigger and more complex product was a risk for their brand, and it turned out to be an extremely advantageous one. In the new factory, under the savvy supervision of Gerardo and his family, everyone on board is excited to start production on their newest large organizer, the Mod 2.
The future holds more partnerships with companies like Grado, whose headphones are featured in This is Ground’s product photography, which you can experience through their immaculately gorgeous Instagram. Through social platforms like Instagram, This is Ground is able to communicate directly with customers — a refreshingly transparent and modern alternative to the more impersonal feedback channels companies have used in the past.
The use of embedded technology is in the works, too, which will help keep tablets and laptops both charged on-the-go and much safer from theft. “We’re looking into chips and beacons that, embedded in your Mod, can be tracked through IOS or Android. You’ll be able to monitor battery levels or sudden changes in motion. Of course there’s solar power, too,” Mike says. “We’re definitely on the path towards embedded technology.”
Plans are also in the works for an Apple Watch accessory. Response to new technology is fast due to the intimate proximity of design and production. Rather than getting in touch with a manufacturer thousands of miles — or even tens of miles — away, Mike only needs to head across the hall. “I watched the Apple Watch demo this morning,” Mike said. “I was able to extrapolate all the specs we need for an organizer, and gave those to the designer. She’s at the factory right now. By the end of the day she’ll have sketches, and by tomorrow a prototype.”
This is Ground’s startup-within-a-startup model shows the benefits of taking local production one step further. “For us, it’s about tapping into generations of makers and craftsmen,” says Mike, “It’s inspiring just to look around your neighborhood just to see what’s possible within a ten mile radius of where you live. You’ll find there are some incredible skills, that people are capable of so much.”
Megan Freshley is a writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. More at http://meganfresh.com.