Podcast Episode 202: Kevin Harwood, VP Technology Outdoor Voices | Don't Be Scared Of A Crisis
Bob interviews Kevin Harwood of Outdoor Voices who explains the brand's AR service that encourages shoppers to venture outdoors, how he jumped from agency work to OV and how investing his time early on paid big dividends.
Tell me something good about retail
Kevin Harwood, VP Technology Outdoor Voices: Don't Be Scared Of A Crisis
Bob: So tell our audience, who are you, and what do you have to do with retail.
Kevin: My name is Kevin Harwood. I am the VP of technology at Outdoor Voices. And we're an activewear brand that is on a mission to get the world moving. Our company slogan, "Doing Things." We believe in getting people out, moving, having fun with trends, and just enjoying life. And going to make some great apparel to encourage people to do that.
Bob: Now, did I see that you guys just moved to Austin?
Kevin: So, we moved quarters from New York City to Austin, Texas. It's been about 12 months now since we made that official, and most of our teams have been moving down over the course of the last year. And now we operate essentially an entire block now over in East Austin. We keep expanding into more and more buildings, so we're slowly taking over part of the city here in East Austin.
Bob: Wow. Well, so how did you get started in retail?
Kevin: Most of my life, I've been a software engineer.I worked at an agency and ended up doing a lot of work for Nike and Under Armour and did both some consumer-facing applications for Nike and Under Armour, as well as, some enterprise applications for the retail associates in those brick and mortar stores and ended up meeting Ty, who's the founder of Outdoor Voices. Tyler Haney, I met her probably about two, two and a half years ago, and she asked me to stop working for an agency and come do this for her brand. So, I left the agency world and transitioned over to OV full time and have been running, you know, the technology and engineering team for the last two years here now.
Bob: Listeners, I found Kevin on a panel with Tony Drokton, who was my first podcast guest, about a year ago. And I didn't realize that Kevin was standing in front of me this last week, like, "Wait a minute. You're the guy." You had this unbelievable promotion that you had come up with that because you are an activewear brand, you didn't release your catalog in a traditional way. Can you explain how that played out?
Kevin: My background is in mobile technology. So, I'm always looking for ways to, you know, maybe build a cool app or just build a cool experience for our customers, and we had a running collection launch last year, where we wanted to launch it in a different way. Try to make a splash with the product. The product was great but also wanted to come up with some sort of, you know, technology approach to encompass the "Doing Things" brand and release the product in a big splashy way. And so what we did, was we created an augmented reality. We called it the Trail Shop. And it's essentially a geo-fence kind of Pokemon go type of approach where you have to go to a specific part of the city. And when you get there, and augmented reality store has been presented to you and you can walk around. And you can view the products. You can interact with them. It's a really cool experience. We launched that in 50 cities across the country in known active places in those cities to encourage people to get out on the trail, get out to a soccer field, and just go somewhere. We can get out and be active and we exclusively launched the collection for 72 hours in that experience. So, it was a great way to blend technology and customer experience with the brand all in one.
Bob: Well, I love the way that you guys just come for a run with this.
Kevin: That's exactly right, you know. We're low touch. You know, we're not trying to, you know, run a marathon in record time, we're just trying to get out, be active, and have fun, and just kind of free performance from fitness. And, you know, try and build some technology solutions to help enable that.
Bob: Now, have you ever built an AR app before? That just sounds like shooting to the moon with NASA and this Berry project whatever is the Saturn, right?
Kevin: Yeah. And I actually have built some AR apps before and in fact, my mobile career now dates back 10 years, which is all the way back to the original iPhone. And one of my very first projects was actually from the National Parks Service, and we created an augmented reality application where you could walk around a national park and pull your phone up and then it would have directional markers all in front of you, in terms of what are the things you are actually looking at, at the national park, so. We definitely dusted off some of my old AR skills and you know, really started to push that forward. And that's really coming back over the last two years both Apple and Android are, you know, significantly invested in AR technology and trying to, you know, bring that forward for the consumer.
Bob: I was so impressed, I downloaded the app, and I still have the app and so whenever I land in New York, like the first thing it does it comes up, "Hey, you're near an OV store." And I was like, "Kevin's at it again."
Kevin: And honestly, those types of experiences are pretty easy to build now with the tools that Apple and Google provide. You know, we're not doing any, you know, server-side location tracking or anything like that. That's just built into the device, and you're able to set up some geo-fences for local notifications when you enter some of those markets. So, you know, those platforms make it easy to start to build some of those experiences.
Bob: That's amazing. So, you're the technology guy, so what's been your biggest challenge in the last three years and how did you overcome it?
Kevin: That is a great question. When I first started, OV was a couple of years into their journey from when they first started. And the tools that we had in place that we were running the business on were extremely basic and extremely simple. All of our operational logistics platform that we were running on just it wasn't great. So, from the day I started, we immediately knew that we needed to get to something more enterprise driven for just the growth and where the company was going. And so, I had this period of time for at least probably six months where we were having to almost, you know, firefight daily the existing system and keep it together and don't fall over, while also, planning and you know, starting to create the integrations for the systems that we were moving to and you know, supporting both of those initiatives and parallels. So, that was definitely a challenging time, but we are well past that now. And we've got some great foundational systems in place that have really allowed us to grow over the last 24 months.
Bob: Well, I think, if you could just unpack that for a minute for our listeners. You know, not that uncommon that you are pushing the old system and knowing, like, you know, something out of Star Trek, the wounded Enterprise, it's gotta keep going, right? But there's that new Excelsior that's just waiting to go, and you're like, "Yeah, but we can't go there." Are there any tips that you could share. I mean, how do you prioritize them? Do you just let things fall off of the first version and say, "You know, it's going to get worse before it gets better" to the crew? Or, do you say, "No, it has to keep operating."Anything along those lines would be helpful.
Kevin: I think where we started was let's try and not let it get worse before it gets better. Can we just, like, keep it bolted together and keep going until the new systems are there. But even then, we had to take a kind of bigger look at the business and there's plenty of things that you can do from a technology point, your ERP, your commerce platform, your pin tools, your PLM tools, your PLS system. You know, there's all kinds of different things out there that can, you know, be upgraded or just worked on. And so we had to take kind of a holistic look at our business and say, "Okay. Where are we going to fail first from a technology perspective?" And you know, rated those systems, identified the one that was without a doubt the biggest problem, and that's what we focused on first. And then, once that was in place and up and running, we went to number two on the list. And now, we're essentially, you know, two and a half years in. We're at number five on that list. So, we're working our way down slowly but surely. But you know, you definitely have to take a kind of gut check moment and say, you know, where we going to fall down first let's focus on getting that fixed.
Bob: Yeah. I would think that's going to be on your website, wouldn't it be some on your server that's not able for the traffic? Is that typically it or?
Kevin: Well, that totally depends. An actually, you know, our website runs off of Shopify. And Shopify has a fantastic infrastructure. You know, they are a massive business, and, you know, our business is certainly not a large portion of their business. They do tens of billions of dollars a year on that platform. And so, we really don't have, like, a traffic problem with Shopify. Now, we're certainly one of Shopify's bigger customers, so our problems are more on just the number of skews we have and how we manage our actual product match in the system and just finding ways to push that system in different ways. But overall, that's not really one of our weakest points. Our biggest problem when I first started was in our ERP system. And the tools that we had there were just not ready and not capable of supporting a business of our size or even a business of the size where we were going. And so that's the big thing that kept me up at night when I first started. But since then, we definitely cleared that hurdle.
Bob: So now you're sleeping? That's good to know.
Kevin: That's great, yep. Now I'm sleeping. And my kids are older, it's great. Am actually sleeping, sleeping. So, that's fantastic.
Bob: Nice. So, what's the best advice you've ever gotten? It could be about anything.
Kevin: You know, there's a phrase we have here which is, "Don't waste a good crisis." Which is, you know, things are going to happen. Things are going to go sideways. You're going to need to pull a rabbit out of your hat sometimes and make magic happen. But also don't be scared of a crisis and make sure when it's all said and done you've learned from it, you've been proved, and you set a plan in place so that not to happen again. And you can really have some great growth moments, you know, personally and just from an infrastructure perspective during those crises, and embracing those and bouncing off of them is a way to keep everything moving forward.
Bob: Nice. What's one of the best or maybe worthwhile investments you've ever made, you personally?
Kevin: I guess it was probably 11 or 12 years ago now where I was an engineer for a company here in town. The iPhone had actually just been released by Apple, and I was all about it. I was so stoked. I was so excited about it, you know, I was spending my nights and weekends just pouring into what's possible rather than just learning how to program for it. And really just thinking about it nonstop and just investing all of my personal time in trying to be an expert on that platform. And the company I was working for didn't really share my vision that iPhone and mobile, in general, was going to be a big thing. This was still back when everyone thought the iPhone was too expensive, no one will have it, there's no physical keyboard, you know, an edge connection phone is too slow. LIke, every excuse in the book for why this was never going to be a big thing. But I just felt differently. And just continued to invest my time in becoming an expert on that platform, and shortly after, maybe a year after the iPhone came out, I actually decided to leave my job and go work for a small agency that was just starting to do mobile consulting. And, you know, the choice I made there to invest my time, really put me the right time at the right spot, at the right technology, at the right platform and just, you know, really get an opportunity to work with some of the biggest companies in the world on their mobile strategy. And that just, you know, slungshot me to where I'm at today. So, making that decision to just pour all my personal time into those projects really paid off dividends over the course of my entire career.
Bob: Nice. So how did you get your civil to soothsayer moment there, man? Because I was the first adopter of an iPhone too, and of course had the 10, and money's no object so keep throwing it at this damn instrument. But what was it that you saw? Did you see that the game changer really became that we held it in our hand instead of having to go physically to a laptop or something?
Kevin: Even that, I like to tell the story so my degree is even crazy. My degree was in wireless software engineering, which is, like, extremely, like, niche degree. And this was back in 2003, 2004, you know the early 2000s. And I was doing things like working on Blackberry and Palm and J2ME. And, you know, I was always excited about mobile technology, but none of those were ever, like, really mainstream. Those were all enterprise. You know, business people would use it to check their email. You know, they really hadn't crossed over into the customer segment yet. And then when Jobs unveiled the iPhone, it was just a light bulb. Like, this is, obviously, the future. Like, this is where it's going to be. And just the fact, that I already spent a lot of time in that industry and just seeing how customer focused that iPhone was it was, I mean, a no brainer for literally the second he pulled it out of his pocket, from my perspective. So, I had just been positioning these right moments along the way to see that coming.
Bob: How is the way that you thought about retail chains in the past few years? I mean, certainly, the technology has changed. Where are we going? Or, what do you think the changes have become?
Kevin: That's a great question. And mobile is such an important part of that. You've got brands that are, you know, making mobile commerce experiences for all of our commerce channels. And, you know, I sometimes really struggle if the question is just, "Hey, I'm going to make a mobile shopping app that's like my mobile website," I don't think there's a lot of value necessarily for the customer to, you know, download that app and actually spend the time keeping that on their phone. And so you've really got to carve out a strategy for what other value are you going to provide to the customer besides just shopping. And, you know, my time at Under Armour, we spent a lot of time really thinking about personalization. We're doing that here at OV, as well. And we're also thinking about just for "Doing Things" commuting in general. How can we leverage the fact that we're right there in somebody's pocket to encourage them to get out and be active and you know, live life and enjoy it? So, you've got to think more than just some. You've got to actually be thinking about the overall community and customer experience that they're having with your brand. And it's got to be an actual value proposition. It can't just be a transactional relationship, and that's, you know, the type of strategy that I'm really excited about.
Bob: That's a good point, too, because just a few years ago it was about we were going to build an app, right? Just build an app and they'll all download it. And then it was like, "I don't need any more apps."
Kevin: You're exactly right. You've got to crack the value nut. And that's a hard thing to actually understand. How am I going to provide value to this customer outside of just getting them, you know, something great to wear? And you know, it's different per brand, and I think luckily it'll be. We've got really a strong overall brand mission that translates that really nicely in something like Charles Shop just makes sense, in terms of, you know, encouraging activity.
Bob: That's funny. When I was reading about Outdoor Voices when I got home when I first met you and was reading about the move and everything. And I got a follow up about how when you moved to Austin, the CEO was like, "Once you all are moved in, okay let's go for a run." How many other brands do that?
Kevin: Literally, my first day at OV, we had, like, and executive onsite and the following morning at 6 a.m. We were all expected to meet up for a quick jog around the park, here in Austin. So, it was definitely jumped right into the deep end from a brand perspective right from my first day.
Bob: And that's not exactly the way we think of most of the technology guys embracing, I don't think.
Kevin: I held my own, I didn't finish last. So, that's what I was shooting for.
Bob: You didn't embarrass yourself. That's always a good thing. Well, I know we're coming to the end of our time here of when you feel overwhelmed or something or maybe you've lost your focus. Because I imagine you are so deep into the weeds of all of this. What do you do to kind of bring back...I mean, and just don't say you go for a run because of OV. But I mean, what do you do because it's such minutiae that you're working into, right? And you're so analytical in looking at this goes in here and looking at cause and effect. But at some point, you just have to pull out of that. I would think.
Kevin: And you know, luckily, we've built a really strong team here at OV. And I've got some really solid, you know, technical engineers on my team that allow me to delegate and get into the problem deeply with them and get them moving. Then I can hope out and get onto the next problem. And so, like, building a strong team, having confidence in that team, and then also, I think I saw this recently, hire smart people, don't tell them what to do that's why you hired them because they're smart. And just relying on just solid people on your team to get the job done has really prevented me from I think getting stuck in some of those ruts. I can't stress enough the value of having a great tight-knit team right around you.
Bob: I couldn't say it better. And tell me something good about retail since that's the name of my podcast?
Kevin: You know, I was thinking about this. Retail has like just ingrained so deeply into just everyday consumer lives now. You think about, obviously, Amazon and how easy it is to get anything you want within, you know, two days or sometimes even the same day now in some markets. And they really set the bar for all the other retail companies out there. We're chasing them. We're expected to be able to match the same level of convenience, the same level of, like omnichannel. It doesn't matter where it's coming from. It's going to get to them. Just, like, how easy retail has made it to be a consumer in today's age. I think it doesn't get talked about enough, but no one can live without it. And it's really just over the last decade, it has completely transformed how consumers expect to obtain things now. I think it's been a positive overall, in terms of ease of convenience in your life.
Bob: Excellent. Well, I really like that, so how can they find out more OV and which we are saying it's Outdoor Voices just because of this lingo, I don't want anyone to miss this. But how would they find out more about your brand?
Kevin: So, obviously, outdoorvoices.com is our website. We've also got nine stores now, I think, out of the last count, we're in Austin, Dallas, New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, D.C., and Nashville and at least, you know, probably eight or nine more stores coming later this year. So, we're rapidly growing in our retail footprint as well.
Bob: Perfect. And I was going to ask if they downloaded your app, is there any of the virtual reality still turned on or is that only if the product launches.
Kevin: So, we don't have anything turned on at the moment, but definitely stay tuned. We have more product launches planned this year and other things that we're planning on that front. So, more to come.
Bob: Cool. So, that's very fun. Thanks for your time today, Kevin. I really appreciate it.
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