Up Close is Sourcing Journal’s regular check-in with industry executives to get their take on topics ranging from personal style to their company’s latest moves. In this Q&A, Dan Leahy, CEO of product decision platform MakerSights, discusses what the tech industry can teach apparel and how brands can develop greater agility to adapt to changing consumer trends.
Name: Dan Leahy
Which other industry has the best handle on the supply chain? What can apparel learn?
While it’s not a physical good, the evolution of the software industry over the past 20 years presents a great model from which apparel can learn.
Twenty years ago, all software companies developed new software versions to sell to consumers over the course of 24-36 months. This waterfall approach to development was the epitome of “command and control.” The all-knowing brand leadership would determine years in advance which software features would matter to consumers, and the build would make its way from one stakeholder to the next—effectively a drawn-out assembly line for digital products.
The dawn of agile development has transformed the industry. Instead of developing new products over the course of years, new features are developed, launched and iterated on in weeks. (MakerSights launches new software features every single week). By launching early, learning and tweaking, agile software has allowed the technology industry to be far more attuned to the needs of its actual consumers, and as a result create software that far better matches the needs of its consumers.
The results are hard to deny. Twenty-five years ago, tech stocks made up 5 percent of the market cap of the S&P 500. Today they make up over 32 percent.
How would you describe yourself as a consumer?
I tend to invest in fewer, better things that I can enjoy for years. Quality really matters, but value does too—whether that’s in a pair of sneakers, a road bike or a car.
I’m also someone who generally knows what I like and sticks with it. For example, I’ve purchased the same jeans in the same cut from the same two brands in different washes for the past 10 years.
As a consumer, what does it take to win your loyalty?
Quality of product, consistency in delivering on whatever it is I turn to that brand for, values alignment with what the brand stands for.
What’s your typical work or weekend uniform?
Between Covid and a newborn at home, these days the weeks and weekends all blend together.
Weekday or weekend, I’m often on the go. I like to take my meetings and calls while walking through streets and parks of San Francisco, and even during non-work time, my wife and I are often out and about.
My go-to is a high quality T-shirt, a pair of well fitted jeans, and sneakers.
Which fashion era is your favorite?
It’s funny—growing up in a small town in Maine in the ’90s, a common label for guys that cared about what they dressed like was “metrosexual.” Looking back on it, that was a pretty loaded term, suggesting that caring about what you dressed in was tied to some combination of your sexuality and city-dwelling-ness.
So, particularly as far as men’s style goes, I think the current era is pretty cool. I think the normalization of guys caring about how they look and using how they dress as a part of their self-expression is a healthy shift. And as the millennial generation increasingly values health and wellness, you’ve seen a shift to better-fitted clothing and more stretch in materializations, both of which I think are great.
All that said, there’s an ease and realness to the style of my mother and father’s generation (born in ’40s and ’50s, came of age in the ’70s) that’s refreshing. Seemingly without trying as hard, people gravitated toward styles that felt really comfortable to them, including many items that I’m now on the hunt for anytime I’m home.
Who’s your style icon?
Celebrity culture doesn’t do much for me—though I’ll admit that the NBA’s bus to locker room “catwalk” can give me some serious sneaker envy. Mostly, I get inspiration from everyday people I know or come across who’re leaning into what’s authentic to them. That can be a friend who takes pride in dressing up a bit, that can a barista in the neighborhood, that’s very often the designers and merchants at the brands we work with, and oftentimes it’s a coworker. The MakerSights crowd doesn’t mess around when it comes to style.
What’s the best decision your company has made in the last year?
In late February/early March, we made a call that Covid was going to dramatically accelerate some long-discussed changes in how products are brought to market, and the industry would need tools and expertise to help it adapt to that change. And so we went heads down with our entire engineering team to develop a solution that allowed brands to not only continue to work effectively in a remote world, but also to adapt their processes to become far more responsive to today’s consumer. It’s been amazing to see how quickly our brands have adopted this new approach and the impact it’s had, and we’re really excited to see the impact that more informed, more efficient decision making can have on the industry.
How would you describe your corporate culture?
We’ve got an extremely passionate, intelligent group that’a really driven to make a positive impact on an industry we all care about. We believe that the best way to be successful is to hire exceptional talent and give them room to run, so we really strive to empower great folks to take on more than they might elsewhere.
We’ve also got a really curious crowd—and it keeps walls down between different teams. We do lunch and learns where individuals on the team get up and share something they know a lot about with the team. This has ranged from proper kitchen knife care techniques, to a Black Holes 101 session taught by a particle physicist Ph.D. on our data science team.
People are ambitious and work really hard, but we also keep things light. Big wins from the sales team often lead to morning Champagne toasts, and our offsites to wine country and to great ski mountains have created memories that are frequently retold, and every Friday the team engages in a Friday dance party over Slack where everyone shares a dance-themed GIF.
But at the end of the day, our values and our traditions are really just a reflection of our people, and I feel incredibly fortunate to work alongside such high-caliber folks.
What can companies learn from Covid-19?
One of the biggest takeaways is the value of agility. With the traditional retail product-to-market process that stretches from 12-24 months, brands are locked into decisions that were made months prior, and we’ve seen this year how quickly conditions change. Transitioning to nimble, iterative processes that allow for in-flight adjustments is critical for brands going forward. Even beyond Covid, the same concept applies to changing consumer trends, preferences, and spending habits. Brands need to be in a position to be executive for tomorrow’s consumer, not their consumer of six to 12 months ago.
What should be the apparel industry’s top priority now?
Dramatically increasing the efficiency of its decision-making process in order to harness the degree of consumer-responsiveness demanded by today’s market.
What keeps you up at night?
It’s all about people. Is everyone on our team feeling motivated and bought into our direction? Are we finding the right balance of pushing the accelerator to help our brands in their time of need while also recognizing that everyone on our team is in the midst of a pandemic that’s uprooted their lives and sense of normalcy? Are the brand leaders with whom we’ve developed deep personal relationships going to be okay in a period of major turmoil in the industry?
What makes you most optimistic?
For the greater part of the past 10 years, the retail industry has said the right things about how it needs to evolve. But change is hard, and until Covid-19, much of this talk about change was just that—talk. The silver lining—if you can even say that—of this crisis is that it’s forcing long-overdue change upon industries like retail, and I’m really optimistic that coming out of this will be a retail model that is less wasteful and more sustainable in terms of its financials, the jobs it supports and its environmental impact.
Tell us about your company’s latest product introduction:
We just announced our new product, Digital Line Review. When asked how we could support our brand partners through Covid-19, we overwhelmingly heard that transitioning line review meetings to a remote-friendly format was a critical challenge.
Digital Line Review addresses exactly that—it’s a virtual workspace where teams can visually explore assortments (including 3D renderings), synthesize feedback from internal teams and consumers, and make more efficient, informed decisions. Even before Covid, line reviews were inefficient and contentious, so we’re excited to be part of improving this process even once we’re all back in the office.