Tom Stewart is a young entrepreneur and product designer currently based in Philadelphia, Pa. He graduated in 2009 from Columbia University with a B.A. in architecture. During that time, he spent six months living abroad in Rome, Italy, furthering his studies in Italian language and architecture.
Following college, he traveled to Zurich, Switzerland, to pursue a research fellowship in architecture at the ETH, Switzerland’s Polytechnic University. During his free time there, Tom began putting together the foundation for his current business, Stewart Charley Ventures, LLC, a product design company. Upon returning to the United States, Tom went full-time with his company where he partners with fellow Columbia grad, Michael Charley. The company is currently working on the marketing of its flagship product, the Salsabol.
Outside of work, Tom is first and foremost an avid jazz drummer. He spent three years behind the drums powering the Columbia University Big Band, while also playing in various other smaller ensembles. He continues to play and perform today. An equally passionate surfer, Tom managed to fit in a three-month surf trip to Australia somewhere after graduation and before going full-time with his company. He credits that trip for preserving his sanity.
Ultimately, living with good design, good business, music and the ocean is what it’s all about for this guy.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I am in the thick of the first marketing push of my company’s flagship product, the Salsabol. We worked for an entire year to get the product designed, sampled, tested, manufactured and delivered from our foreign factory. That felt like the hard part, but it most certainly takes a distant second to the effort and drive required to get the product into the consumer consciousness. Before going on, I should probably explain the Salsabol! Here it goes …
The Salsabol is a yellow ceramic bowl for dips and salsa with a unique design characteristic that prevents salsa from spilling over the side when you scoop. It has a patent-pending raised lip that curves over the top of the bowl so when you scoop up the side, it flips the salsa back onto the chip. It delivers the perfect scoop, every time! And that means no more spilled salsa. It’s a lot of fun, it’s not hard to understand, and it makes a great gift for anyone, not to mention a fantastic addition to any party or table setting. You can check it out at www.salsabol.com.
Right now we are now in the process of going out and getting a small injection of capital so we can scale the business up “one notch,” which will allow us to reach more market segments with the product and offer some color and size variations from our factory.
In the next quarter, we will completely automate our online sales and fulfillment services, allowing us to spend all of our time seeking out new business (and not packing boxes of Salsabols, which we’ve been doing in my basement). Built into that expansion will be moving the business to California, where we will take advantage of the substantially larger salsa market, year-round sun and closer proximity to China for shipping cost and timetable improvements. Did I mention we’ll be doing a lot more surfing, sailing and skiing as well? That might have something to do with it.
3 trends that excite you?
Well, I think the obvious one is the trend I’m riding right now. I don’t know exactly what you’d call it, but it’s whatever is letting me get away with running my own business that involves importing a new invention that I designed, from China, without taking out prohibitively large loans and without relying on the infrastructure of a huge company to do so.
I think it’s an amalgamation of a number of ingredients. We’ve taken huge advantage of technology’s ability to topple down the barrier of entry into both the supply and demand sides of our business. On the outside, it looks like we’re selling a fun, niche product (which is true), but on the inside, what that means for us is a foray into the absolutely wild world of global stoneware and ceramic production. Suffice to say, there are a LOT of players in this game already. Luckily, in 2010, that doesn’t mean you can’t play as well. I think even ten years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible.
I remember at one point I was in Zurich, my partner was in San Francisco, our American liason to the factory was in Philadelphia and our factory itself was in China. We managed to quarterback a sampling and production run from those locations for almost two months without any of the two of the parties ever sitting in the same room. Heck, there was a period where I didn’t even see my business partner for six months!
Of course, I had better mention the good ol’ interweb and its uncanny ability to provide both a backend infrastructure for small businesses while also providing the opportunity for inexpensive and creative marketing techniques. We did our Web design from scratch, and we also launched our product completely online for little-to-no money and got a great response.
Soon, we’ll be completely unattached to a physical address, with our product drop-shipping from a fulfillment house far, far away. We are hoping this is as liberating as we dream it to be.
And yes, we tweet, or rather, the Salsabol tweets. Though this still makes me very uncomfortable.
On a more serious note, what this first year has taught me is that there is a massive opportunity to take advantage of automation. We work a lot of hours now, but we realize that those hours are an investment in a future that involves a lot fewer hours doing even more than we do today. Automation does take a bit more money most of the time, but with the time saved comes more business and more freedom. In the end, it’s all about spending your
time doing what you do best and setting up a system where the rest takes care of itself. That’s how you can be the most valuable to your business, whether you own it or not, and I think it’s how you can be the happiest. It’s a great goal to strive for, it’s part of our plan, and I’m excited about it.
How do you bring ideas to life?
That’s a great question for us, because it was the first question we asked ourselves and had to answer before taking the leap of faith to make the Salsabol a reality. As it was our first idea/project, there was no business without the Salsabol, and when we started, the Salsabol was a mere dream. It didn’t exist, and neither did we. So we had to have a plan to bring it to life, especially because it was going to take up all of our free time and a lot of our money.
The Salsabol counts as one of those big ideas. Bringing that to life was a year’s worth of work that continues today and a tough process to explain in a few sentences. Your mindset for those big ideas has to be in a good place, some kind of strange combination of insanity, productivity, commitment and foresight, if that makes any sense. By that I mean, yes, you’d have to be insane to devote your life to producing a Salsabol. Because “Whats’s a Salsabol?” And you have to be productive, committed, and you have to take one step at a time while having some idea of the steps you’re going to take tomorrow, next week and in two months. On top of all of that, you have to find a way to enjoy each step of the process, even the more tedious bits, because that’s ultimately why we play the game — to enjoy it.
On a more day-to-day level, bringing ideas to life can be as simple as me saying, “Hey Michael, maybe we should add ____ to the website, and then we should add _____ to the packaging,” and him responding with, “Cool, Let’s do it.” Which then I have to do, if I want that idea to come to life. In some instances, an idea is only as good as the finished product that comes from it. That’s when you can implement the idea and put it to work. For us, by necessity, that rule applies pretty much 100 percent of the time.
As we are just two guys, we are the “manual labor” behind every idea that comes to the table. There is no transferring responsibility, because there’s no one to transfer it to. I find that makes for a really fruitful creative environment, because it gives us the freedom to pursue whatever we want but also limits us to pursue things that make the most sense for the company at that moment. To me there is nothing more frustrating than theorizing something that could be made under a certain set of utopian and unrealistic conditions. Luckily, our circumstances prohibit anything like that. It keeps us on course, it keeps us productive, and it makes sure the good ideas are the one that do, in fact, come to life.
What is one mistake that you’ve made that our readers can learn from?
Waiting. Patience is good, but waiting is trouble. Waiting to me means that you’re actively pursuing not moving forward. I know this because in the past year, I did a lot of waiting, and now I’m not as far along as I would like to be. I waited because I was either scared, not 100 percent sure of what the outcome of a certain decision would be or just plain lazy.
To remedy this, I am trying to adopt the following advice passed on to me by a good friend: It’s better to act now and ask for forgiveness later than to pause and wait for permission.
What is one book and one tool that helps you bring ideas to life?
The book has to be the “Four Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss. A “must read” makes you want to get out of bed every day and do extraordinary things with your time.
The tool has to be Adobe Creative Suite. When an idea comes up, some part of it inevitably involves at least a pit stop with Creative Suite.
What is one idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I don’t know if this qualifies as an idea quite yet, but the other night I went out to dinner with about 10 people and when the bill came no one had cash — everyone wanted to pay with cards. So we went around and collected 10 credit cards and handed them all to the waitress with separate amounts to be paid for each.
This, I think, is a classic opportunity for an improvement. I just have no idea what it is! Somehow, people should be able to pay with cards without the hassle of tallying amounts and giving them all to the waiter or waitress.
Does that count as an idea? Or just a problem? I don’t know, but it needs a solution! This might have been a terrible cop-out.
Do you really think it’s a great idea to start your own business at such a young age?
I have no idea if it’s a great idea! I have a lot of friends who are working great jobs, making a lot more money than I am and they’re definitely having a good time. Is that grass greener? Maybe. What if what I’m doing now is a total flop? Then what? Again, I have no idea.
For whatever reason, what I’m doing now feels right. It may prove financially fruitless or maybe there’s a pile of gold at the end of the rainbow. In the end, maybe no one wants a Salsabol. There are a lot of maybes between now and the then, but until that day, which might never come, it’s my full time job to make sure that I give the Salsabol and whatever comes with it the best chance at success. I’ll stay the course, stick to the plan (which sometimes doesn’t feel like plan at all), and see what happens. The idea that every day, I get to be the author of my own success or failure is too enticing to abandon.
If money was no object, what would you do with your time?
First and foremost, I would devote as much time as needed to learning how to build a house. This could come in the form of being an apprentice or even attending trade school. I want to know how everything comes together in a working home. Yes, even the plumbing. I want to add this to my existing devotion to architecture, which has an innocent attachment to fantasy but lacks the realistic grasp of physical skills to build complete things. I know a fair amount, but I want to know more and more and more. Eventually, I want to use that knowledge to design and build my first home.
If I do a good job on that, which I would of course strive to do, I would then try to sidestep my way into being a professional architect. I’m not sure that taking Main St. to becoming an architect is going to work for me. Eventually, I’ll have to be certified, which means graduate school. But something tells me not every architect goes straight to work for three years in a big city making no money, goes back to graduate school, incurs a massive debt for said graduate school and then spends the rest of his life scraping by as an architect. I might be exaggerating (a lot), but part of that is true. This fantasy plan of mine sounds better! I’ll give it a shot, I think.
Hooray! Connect with me. I’m 23, and as you can tell from the excruciating length of my previous responses, I talk a lot. You can find me any number of ways!
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