This installment of our Customer Spotlight Series highlights the founder of the popular brand, Wild and Woolly. Nina Cheng didn’t always plan on running a high-end accessories business. The first phone case she made was designed not as a marketable product, but as a personal solution: why wasn’t there a case that not only looked good, but also kept cold hands warm while texting outside during a New York City winter? When she couldn’t find a suitable fur phone case already on the market, she decided to make her own using a combination of 3D printing and hand-worked materials. Nina’s prototype received so many compliments that she realized she had a viable business on her hands. In September of 2016 she left her job in finance to launch her brand, Wild and Woolly.
We sat down with Nina to learn more about her design and manufacturing process, her experience working with us at Voodoo Manufacturing, and what’s in store for Wild and Woolly this season. The first half of our conversation follows.
Were you experienced in 3D modeling or 3D printing at all when you set out to make your first phone case?
I had no experience with 3D printing, I was just aware that it existed. At the time, I was researching various possibilities within tech for another startup, so I understood the value of a lean business with low commitment in terms of inventory, cost, and time. With that in mind, I decided to look into 3D printing as my first option because it was so cost-effective.
I wound up outsourcing the task of 3D modeling, which made things easier. I received the first model within a week, and sent it off to get printed. It was clear that this was the perfect production process for me: I bought fur online, I printed the case out, and I sold that case within a day [laughs].
That’s amazing. People often assume that there’s a massive barrier for entry with 3D printing, but it’s never been easier to get started.
Exactly! Even when I started working with you guys at Voodoo, I knew there had to be changes to the file’s orientation to optimize the final print quality. At first I was kind of intimidated by that, but Voodoo took care of it for me and the whole thing went very smoothly. These days, there really is no barrier to entry.
Did you ever consider any other traditional forms of manufacturing?
I considered injection molding and C&C tooling. C&C tooling was extremely expensive, almost a hundred dollars per unit according to a quote I received, which was way too much for what I was looking to do. Injection molding is a method I might use in the future, but my volumes weren’t high enough to justify it yet–most moldmakers don’t even respond unless you’re doing hundreds of thousands of units. For me, it was a question of opportunity cost for my initial business investment. It wasn’t worthwhile to risk tying up my all of my capital just to have my product cost a little bit less over time.
So what were the factors that ultimately led you to choose 3D printing?
Not only is 3D printing more affordable, but it allows you to incrementally test the product, which significantly reduces your risk. Plus it makes more sense for something like phone cases because the dimensions and specifications change every time a new phone is released. You have to use a manufacturing method that can easily adapt to new developments, so it makes sense to 3D print tech accessories rather than pay a premium for a new mold every time a phone hits the market.
Could you describe your prototyping process for integrating other materials with the printed phone case? Were there multiple design iterations, and did we help you with that at Voodoo?
It did take a few rounds of iteration to get something that would work with my post processing materials and everything else that we needed to do to it. I showed the first iteration of the product to a very high-end retailer, and they had some feedback about the quality and the finish of the case. I brought the concern to Voodoo and you guys made some more changes to the printing process and it ended up looking even better. Through all these different tests and rounds of tweaking, we were able to get a product that could actually be sold in some of the highest-end stores next to other luxury items.
Your stockists are on the cutting edge of fashion. Were they excited to hear that 3D printing played a role in your brand?
When I tell them it’s 3D printed, I usually get some oohs and aahs. A representative from a prestigious fashion organization was excited that I’m using 3D printing technology to create a product for the technology space. That really helped enhance the brand story of something that’s made in New York, using the best of New York’s resources.
Stay tuned for part two of our conversation with Nina, where we discuss what’s in store for Wild and Woolly this season, how an organic endorsement from the Kardashians catapulted her brand to international success, and her sage wisdom for budding entrepreneurs.