This is a rate of Starting year one, a special series of interviews with Founders on key lessons learned immediately after their company’s first year of operation.
The pandemic has fueled a home industry with various products that never seemed necessary in everyday life, but nothing has come closer (or perhaps become more necessary) than the face mask.
Anyone can easily make their own face mask or cover, but there is no shortage of the sheer number of options on the market. Yet few, if any, have the instantly recognizable presence as Develop together. The New York City-based brand makes the only FDA-cleared consumer medical masks on the market today, and has sold 10 million masks in the few months since it was launched last year.
An Asian-American jewelry designer with no prior experience in the field, Cynthia Sakai quickly switched to the face mask business after realizing the demand for accessible medical masks for the general public. While most other brands made options out of fabric, Sakai felt these weren’t the most hygienic, so they wanted a factory and process that would ensure Evolvetogether masks were sterile from start to finish. In just one month, Sakai founded the privately financed company for medical masks with just 11 employees.
After some of the most popular and well-known celebrities (including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Katie Holmes, and Jennifer Lopez) were photographed wearing the masks, Evolvetogether had more than 40,000 people on a waiting list at one point, with the masks sold out in less than a week after filling up.
Evolvetogether mainly relies on direct sales to consumers, while at least 30% is dedicated to wholesale. NordstromFor example, the brand tested online and after a quick sell-out, picked up the masks for all stores. Evolvetogether has ramped up production and is currently producing between 450,000 and 500,000 masks per week. More than 16 million are to be produced each year.
Sakai recently spoke to capital about the inspiration and development process behind Evolvetogether and what it was like to scale the hugely popular brand in just a few months.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
Capital: What inspired you to launch a face mask brand? When did you switch from jewelry to face masks?
Sakai: I’m from New York City and have seen firsthand the tragic effects of the first wave of COVID-19. It was a real moment of crisis and everyone was either in shock or found a way to help. We knew that wearing masks was very important, but there have been a lot of counterfeit masks, misinformation and price drops. Affordable, tested medical masks simply weren’t available for consumers. Cloth masks didn’t offer the same level of protection, and medical masks looked very clinical. There was a real need for affordable, easy-to-wear, and elegant masks that actually worked.
I didn’t know how to make masks, but I knew about Vita Fede, my existing jewelry business, how to make high quality products that people were proud of. It was surprisingly easy to apply the same aesthetic and design principles to masks – and bring the first medical mask for consumers in a crisis to market that arose SGS tested Protection with greater than 98% bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE) and 95% particle filtration efficiency (PFE).
Evolvetogether is touted to offer the only FDA approved disposable medical face mask for consumers on the market. What does this certification require? What went into the development process?
Since day one, our focus has been on performance-tested quality, as people’s health is at stake. The first thing we did was find a manufacturing partner who would pass our litmus tests to make true medical masks, be socially responsible, and make masks on a large scale to ensure they were affordable. We were fortunate to find an FDA registered factory that has long specialized in producing high quality Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for governments and hospitals.
From there, we were able to develop masks designed for daily life – loosening the ear loops, softening the interior, and increasing breathability. And of course, the aesthetic details like making custom colors that blend seamlessly with a range of outfits and stamping global coordinates are a reminder that we are all connected regardless of race, religion, gender or location. And most importantly, we made the effort to use third-party tests from SGS [an inspection, verification, testing, and certification company] So customers could rest assured that our masks worked exactly as we said they would.
It’s amazing how quickly these masks started popping up everywhere, not just on celebrities in paparazzi shots, but also on people walking down the street. What was your social media strategy like? Did you work in any way with influencers and / or celebrities to promote the face masks?
It was amazing, especially considering how organic it was. So far, we’ve never run a single paid advertisement or even a paid social ad.
At its core, people who tried our medical masks really loved them, and word of mouth has fueled our growth. When we started, I sent masks to all of the stylists, editors, and celebrities I had close relationships with in my jewelry business and asked them to try the masks on, and off we went. I think people reacted not only to the aesthetics but also to the quality. They could see and feel the difference – and we had SGS testing and FDA registration to back up our claims.
In the social area, we repeatedly publish people who have tagged us while wearing their masks. They pride themselves on wearing an Evolvetogether mask and we pride ourselves on doing our part to keep them and their communities healthy.
That said, you’ve created an incredible waiting list. Where is the waiting list now? What was it like to scale a company so quickly? Have you expanded your workforce since last spring?
Oh God. Well, starting a business during a pandemic and lockdown (while managing unexpectedly rapid growth) has been challenging to say the least. Since we were fulfilling a time sensitive need, we had to act quickly and couldn’t afford to make many mistakes or think about ourselves.
Before COVID, I would go to the factory and do a hands-on review of both products and packaging. Now I spend hours making lists of everything that can go wrong and how we could solve it. We had to be ready to identify problems, respond, learn, and move on. I think this agile, forward-thinking mindset really helped us as we went from a few hundred orders a month to over 40,000 orders a month and had massive waiting lists. We had to figure out major infrastructure problems in real time – from ramping up production to securing a larger fulfillment house to expanding our customer care team. Our factory has a capacity of up to 7 million masks per week, which helps us keep up with the demand of our direct customer, wholesale and cooperation projects. And although we still have some styles sold out, we – finally – no longer have a waiting list.
It was tough, but we could do it because we have partners we trust and we could move quickly in a purely digital workplace. I’m really proud of the work we have done including hiring 15 people in New York City during a pandemic. It was a wild ride but I would do it again in a heartbeat.
At the peak in mid-September, around 40,000 people were on our waiting list, who pre-ordered around 1 million masks. We were sold out all autumn and finally caught up towards the end of October – although our new styles are still selling out pretty quickly. For example, when we recently “Tokyo, “Our new gray medical mask, both adult and child versions, sold out the same day and current inventory is now on a waiting list. Fortunately, thanks to the infrastructure investments we made this fall to avoid those long waits, our current waiting lists are much, much more reasonable!
Manufacturing consists of many parts and processes, so we knew that our solution had to be diverse. We have ramped up production for our core colors to ensure we are consistently meeting that demand regardless of sales increases for a particular style. We brought more machines to our line and tripled the workers. We have reviewed and contracted backup factories that meet our high criteria to clean up the backlog in the event of an overflow. We have also worked to secure more materials before and after production – both ordering more raw materials for the masks and switching to a new packaging supplier to secure larger quantities of packaging so we don’t have any production bottlenecks.
In fact, what we struggle most with is what is most difficult for us to control: fulfillment. When we started out we were shipping straight from our office which was fine while only filling a few hundred orders at a time but clearly not being sustainable as we grew. We then went on board [third-party logistics]However, we had to switch to another that could handle sudden bursts of orders – while there were nationwide delays in mail delivery.
Evolvetogether started out as privately funded; is that still the case
Yes, we remain privately financed.
What are you working on next? Are there new versions of the masks? What are your manufacturing and business plans when we are out of the pandemic?
From day one, we’ve viewed development as a bigger story, not just a single product or transaction. That way, we could really focus on what is most important to us: making well-designed everyday items of good quality that have a positive impact.
We recently conducted a survey of our customers asking them about new products and their interests. The response rate and commitment was incredible. We’re excited to use this feedback to introduce new products like sustainable clothing, practical travel items, more health and wellness items, and even new charity collaborations for our masks.
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