Morning Person: Fabian Pfortmüller
Fabian Pfortmüller caught our attention when he first took the stage at our CreativeMornings/Zürich chapter in 2011, where he spoke on the importance of design with a conscience. (Editor’s Note: CreativeMornings/Zürich is looking for a new organizer!) At the time, the Swiss entrepreneur was in his third year as co-founder of Holstee, a home goods start-up that made big waves with their Manifesto, a testament to the beliefs of the company’s founders.
Two years later, Fabian is still growing Holstee and encouraging thoughtful living through their products and messaging. He now calls New York home. I met with Fabian in Holstee’s spacious sun-lit space in Brooklyn, New York to talk about the power of having people over for dinner, inspiring a mindful lifestyle, and sharing your passion.
For those who are unfamiliar with your CreativeMornings talk, can you give a little bit of the back story behind what you’re doing now?
It all started when I met these two brothers, Dave and Mike. I met Dave, the younger of the two, when we both were working in Germany. At some point, we all moved to New York City—independently from each other—and knew that we wanted to do something together, but weren’t exactly sure what it would be.
Together, we started a business called Incubaker, which was a platform for us to try out ideas that crossed our minds. Sometimes that was technology, sometimes web applications, mobile applications, all kinds of stuff. One day, Dave comes in and says, “Hey, I really want to make a t-shirt with a pocket on it.”
I think the most amazing thing about Dave is that when he has an idea he just acts upon it. He just does it. I think that is one of the best qualities because if we overthought it, we probably wouldn’t have done it and wouldn’t be here today.
He convinced his grandmother to make our prototypes. The very first prototype was made by Dave himself and it was well, let’s say not perfect, but his grandmother made the next couple shirts and they turned out really nice. From there, we showed them to people, who really liked them, and we started making more shirts with pockets. Suddenly, we were in the product business.
The original Holstee Pocket t-shirt, still sold in the Holstee Shop
That’s how where our current name, Holstee, came about. A t-shirt with a holster-positioned pocket on the side makes a Hols- tee.
We realized early on that, while the first impulse was making a shirt, what fascinated us more than making the shirt itself was the choices you have when you produce something. You can either make it how most people do it, which is find the cheapest, fastest way, or you can do it in a way that has the least impact. Inevitably, producing things generally creates waste and is not good for the world, but we have a choice of how we want to make things. We became very interested in producing things in a sustainable way and realized that was where our heart was.
From there, we ventured into our next product. Mike wanted a wallet, so we developed the wallet we had always wanted, which was very simplistic, very minimalistic. We found an organization in India, called Conserve India, that hires fairly paid women to pick up trash and plastic bags on the streets of India and, out of that material, they make these wallets. We thought that was a great way for us to combine sustainability with design to make the product that we really wanted. Around that time, the craziness with the manifesto happened.
When we started out, we wanted to define for ourselves, why we were doing this in the first place. We didn’t have a clear product vision, but we always knew why we wanted to do it: We wanted to work with friends, we wanted to have a positive impact, and we wanted to create a certain lifestyle for ourselves. All these things we summarized in the Holstee Manifesto and put it on our website. For over a year, no one looked at it, no one cared.
I think it was Tina Roth Eisenberg and Maria Popova, who made it blow up by blogging about the manifesto. People reacted very strongly. It’s been incredible to see the feedback that we’ve received. Since then, it has been shared over 100 million times.
There’s a section of our website called ‘My Life,’ where people share their stories on how they live the manifesto. Whenever I have a really bad day, I just go and look at those stories. I’m not always sure of the impact I’m actually having, but when I read those stories I can see and feel the impact of what we do.
To cut a very long story short, we realized that people were coming to us because we were really good at sharing and inspiring this mindful lifestyle. We started making cards and posters with art that promoted that way of life, and became a place where people go to find things that encourage that. We now exist to design and spread those messages. That’s where we are right now.
We’re currently standing in your studio space in Gowanus, Brooklyn, New York. How has being based in Brooklyn impacted your work and the direction Holstee has taken?
I feel like getting to where we are today had a lot to do with being surrounded by amazing people. Honestly, when we started, we were a total joke. Maybe we still are a bit today, but back then we had no idea what we were doing. Amazingly, there were people who were already doing amazing things and were willing to listen to us and give us a chance. That made a huge difference.
It might still be the three of us working out of a café in Union Square, but because people like Tina started taking us seriously and writing about our products, other people took us seriously. That had a huge impact for us. In New York City, the way that I look at it, the density of amazing people is so high that you are bound to bump into them and collaborate with them. For every ten people you meet, two will be amazing collaborators and allies.
Fabian standing in Holstee’s space in Gowanus.
For us, it made a lot of sense to move to Brooklyn. We feel really at home here. We always wanted to have, not an office space, but a maker space for creating stuff. Having space to host people has always been something very dear to our hearts and you can’t afford a space like that in Manhattan. Brooklyn just feels like a very natural thing.
Back to Tina, Maria, and other people you mentioned earlier—are there others who stood out as having helped you along the way?
Roni Kabessa of DCI has been an incredible supporter in the most uncomplicated form. He knows how to build a product business and has been so generous sharing his know-how. And he is also one of the kindest human beings we ever met.
Then Matias Corea, one of the co-founders of Behance. He has also been incredible. He and Tina, really those two and Maria Popova—even though we were a joke—they still somehow believed in us. Those are people who saw something in us before we saw it in ourselves. That is an incredibly gracious thing to do for another person.
If you had to give advice to someone in your shoes 10 or 20 years ago, trying to figure these same things out, what would you tell them?
There are a couple of things that go through my mind. In general for me, the biggest rule I found for myself in entrepreneurship is:
Make something people want. It’s as simple as that.
That’s the core of building a start-up. It’s not as obvious as it seems to create something that people really want and really love. It sounds super simple, but I think that’s one of the biggest issues that a lot of start-ups have. They make something that they want, but it’s not something necessarily that other people want.
In terms of entrepreneurship or making things, I think college is a great time to start. You have a stable environment, you have a home, you have structure throughout your day, you have access to something like an office space, or a partner and whatnot. It’s a great moment to take some risks.
Manifesto Cards, a set of greeting cards lettered by designer Dave Foster.
Another very small thing is that when we started out up until very recently, we always rented out our apartment through Airbnb. That allowed us to not pay much rent in New York City while starting a company. When starting a company, rent tends to be your biggest expense. To get rid of that is very liberating. That’s how we bootstrapped a lot of Holstee, through Airbnb.
What was the transition like from creating an apparel product to your current focus on paper goods?
We really fell right into it. I wish we had been more planned about it. If you make stuff, be very conscious of sizes and of SKUs. Apparel is a complete pain because you need to have a small for women, a small for men, and a medium for each and so on—ending up with 8 or 10 SKUs. Then when you start adding other colors to the mix, suddenly you have 20 SKUs, which adds up to a much higher cost from the start. Meanwhile, accessories are the same size for everyone.
People assume they have to produce in China to be competitive, but we found that to not be true. We can produce at competitive prices here in the U.S. with a faster turn around time. We can go and look at how our things are made and with fewer communication challenges. There are a lot of pros to that. For those considering getting into production, I would definitely have them consider domestic production.
What are three things you believe in?
I guess the easy answer would be everything that’s written in the Holstee Manifesto: Life is about the people you meet and the things you create with them—that’s one of my biggest beliefs right there. Working with people you really, really like and building something with them is one of the biggest joys in life. I’m extremely fortunate to work with Dave and Mike. Everyone we have here makes a difference.
Two, do what you love, do it often. If you don’t like something, change it. There’s something kind of simple about this, but I believe that we all create our own circumstances. I definitely believe that if you don’t love something, don’t do it. I’ve never really had a job. I’ve always just followed what I really wanted to do, even if it was as stupid as making t-shirts with pockets. If it’s with the right people and it’s something that I’m passionate about, it’s going to lead somewhere.
Another thing I believe is there’s nothing nicer than sharing food. Moving to New York City, I only knew one person, Dave. I hadn’t even met his brother at that point. All of my most meaningful relationships came through having people over for dinner and sharing food together—more than at any event or any other circumstances. Just sharing food.
Fabian’s talk at CreativeMornings/Zürich.
What was the last project you worked on?
Like I mentioned, we began making a lot of cards and paper goods when we decided to focus on creating products that share and inspire a mindful lifestyle. All of our cards are letter-pressed, out of 100% recycled cotton by a really nice family-run business here in the U.S.A. A lot of care and thought go into these cards. People buy them, maybe gift them to someone, but what ends up happening in many cases is they just go in a shoebox. What do you actually do with cards?
We wanted to re-frame the way we look at these cards by putting a frame around them. That was the starting point of the Reclaim Frame. We came across an organization in Detroit called Urban Ashes that uses reclaimed wood from torn down houses and hires people who wouldn’t find work otherwise, like ex-cons and people who have been out of work for a long time.
The Reclaim Frame and Food Rules Print.
That’s the perfect Holstee product for us. Like the wallet, it has a positive impact, not by how much money we’ll be donating to a charity, but by the act of making the product. And it’s a beautiful product.
You can either buy the frame by itself or there’s a subscription where you get a new piece of mindful art in the mail each month. Our hope is to bring a little piece of inspiration to your desk or home or wherever you place the frame.
What’s the most exciting thing for you moving forward with Holstee and the projects that you’re working on?
I think we’re very, very fortunate with our track record. We’re like a band who makes music and we’ve been making music for a while, but people only know about one of our songs. What we want to do is tell the world that we have more than one song and we make a variety of music. For us, the vision is we want to become place where people go to get inspired and think about their lifestyle.
Take this frame into their home, put it on their desks. We’re starting to lean more towards actual prints on really thick paper because we think that’s a beautiful way of sharing these ideas.
We have just one more question. It’s short, but it’s the most important question of all.. What did you have for breakfast this morning?
What did I have for breakfast this morning? Granola with milk.