Listen to consumers. Give them the opportunity to influence what they want and need in a product, and then determine what will make their lives more satisfying.
James Monsees is the co-founder and CEO of Ploom, a tobacco company that reimagines the smoking paradigm. He has developed consumer products for over 12 years. In addition to his work with Metaphase Design Group, K2 Sports, and a wide variety of other projects, James was a Founding Fellow at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. He holds an MFA in product design from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree in physics and studio art from Kenyon College.
Where did the idea for Ploom come from?
My friend, Adam, and I started Ploom as part of a graduate thesis at Stanford. Adam was smoking cigarettes pretty regularly and — against my better judgment — I couldn’t help but bum some of those cigarettes off him from time to time. It became a natural conversation between the two of us because we were looking at ourselves as need-finding cases. Why are we using these products that we’re not in full alignment with?
We talked about what was missing and what was wrong for us. We then started investigating what that means for other people. We’d pull people aside on campus when we saw them smoking cigarettes and ask what they loved or hated about it. We’d shadow people for a while to study their habits and concerns.
We did a ton of research on why the industry had evolved to where it was at that time. We became fascinated with how big the industry was and how small the innovation rate seemed to be relative to that market size. It seemed like a standout opportunity in product design to work on something that would have an impact on these people.
At the time, we thought it would just be a thesis project, but ultimately, we received encouragement from professors and others to expand beyond that. That’s how the idea for Ploom was born.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
No two days are ever alike, which can be an issue when it comes to being productive. I get around that thanks to the group of highly trustworthy people working at Ploom, who are hyper-focused on their roles. Having regular reviews with those teams to discuss major action items and goals is crucial to productivity. In a way, I’d like to think I’d sacrifice my own sanity to enable others to focus on their core competencies.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Our goal at Ploom is to create products we ourselves would want to use. Our products are for people who want to enjoy tobacco but don’t self-identify with — or don’t necessarily want to be associated with — cigarettes. We aim to recreate the ritual and elegance that smoking once exemplified. We want to remove tobacco’s social stigma and public adversity while bringing personal tobacco use to a new level of accessibility.
Reinventing the general smoking paradigm takes engineering talent and the formation of a company with an entire ethos built around challenging accepted norms and boldly abandoning tradition to introduce a truly unique and consumer-centric product system.
To bring our products to life, we’ve initiated thousands of hours of product testing. Hundreds of prototypes were developed, tested, and refined with the advice and feedback of key stakeholders, scientific advisors, a world-class in-house customer service department, tobacco blending experts, industrial designers, supply chain partners, specialty materials vendors, process manufacturers, and — most importantly — tobacco consumers.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
There’s a renaissance in the tobacco space. Vaporizers and e-cigarettes are beginning to address the true needs of smokers. New products are being introduced into an industry that has been selling the same product for well over a century.
We have the experimental basis now. The methodology is beginning to be applied to shift one of the largest industries in the world toward products that can improve the lives of a billion people.
We’re in the infancy of this renaissance. So much more is coming, and we can expect new icons to emerge, new brands that have lasting meaning, and new experiences that preserve the wonder and elegance of smoking in entirely new ways. These great new offerings in the tobacco space will seem antiquated in a few years, and that’s beautiful.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I consume a lot of nicotine and drink a lot of coffee. This enables me to sleep less and work more.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
After I graduated from college, I thought it would be fun to work in a bike shop. That lasted about two weeks. The guys I worked with didn’t ride bikes — they put together children’s bikes all day with power tools while watching NASCAR and reruns of “MacGyver.” I realized during this experience that your working environment is sometimes more important than the tasks you want to perform.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
There’s not much I would do differently. I have a strong appreciation every day for how lucky I am to be doing something I really love and believe in with people who share those beliefs and are fun to spend time with. I truly couldn’t ask for much more than that.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Listen to consumers. Give them the opportunity to influence what they want and need in a product, and then determine what will make their lives more satisfying. Their desires should impact the direction of the industry you work in. All entrepreneurs have the opportunity to help facilitate that for their consumers.
At Ploom, we take this advice to heart. Our products are luxury goods that exude elegance and should give consumers visceral satisfaction while using them. The consumer point of view is crucial to the development of our products.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
One strategy that has helped me grow Ploom is embracing the inevitability of failure. When you understand that failure is a necessary part of getting things right, you can create a structure around building solutions that are disposable. At every turn, you’ll learn something. Eventually, working through this process with others, you’ll arrive at a solution that’s much greater than the sum of its parts.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
We had an initial fascination with using butane as an energy source for portable vaporization devices. We were convinced we could create a product that would stand out in performance. What we overlooked was that the use of butane heavily dictated the consumer experience. Although we solved some very challenging engineering problems, our failure was our preoccupied fascination with this technology. We should have taken a step back earlier to assess the approach and to focus on a more adaptable platform.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
One business idea is a mobile app to crowdsource bus stops. The app would guide people toward each other when they’re in the general vicinity so the bus would only stop where necessary. This would optimize transit time and pick-up/drop-off locations.
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
I grew up in St. Louis, Mo., where everyone starts driving the moment they turn 16. For the past six months, I haven’t had a car and, in a way, it’s kind of freeing. But it’s only possible because of my overuse of Uber.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
I started learning SolidWorks CAD at Metaphase Design Group, so now I often think in parametric modeling. I like to look at consumer products and think about the feature tree that created them.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“Creative Confidence” by David and Tom Kelley is about unleashing the creativity that is inside each of us. Kelley discusses how people can apply structure to creativity to encourage themselves to think creatively. He suggests that confidence itself is freeing, but the confidence that comes with the ability to creatively solve problems on the fly is one of the strongest tools to help steer your life in the direction you want to go.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Listen to the commencement speech that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. He addresses how to live a compassionate life. It took me years to learn empathetic thinking, and Wallace gets across most of that in 22 minutes.
For inspiration, check out Arthur Ganson’s website, and start with the Machine with Wishbone video.
For fun, watch some Survival Research Laboratories videos. They’ll scare you a little bit but inspire you a lot.
For awe, go to the Burning Man Festival. It’s the best place to see art for art’s sake.
Ploom on Twitter: @ploom
James Monsees on Twitter: @james_monsees
Ploom on Instagram: @ploomroom
Ploom on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ploomroom
Ploom on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/company/ploom
James Monsees on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/jamesmonsees
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.