Between the lines: Interview with Matteo Volani from Savant Ecommerce

Our CEO Christian Möhring had the opportunity to talk with Matteo Volani from the European conference series Savant Ecommerce about the madeone concept and our perspective on digital business models.

MV: From helmade to madeone. Tell us your story!

CM: I founded helmade in October 2015 with the vision in mind to make helmet design more accessible for many people. We started our business by focusing on helmets as our first customizable products, a combination resulting from my professional experience of working with Nike iD, the mass customization service of Nike, and my passion for motorsports. Helmet design is something recognizable, something people are used to. Many people, even non-motorsports enthusiasts, have an idea of Ayrton Senna’s or Michael Schumacher’s helmet. On top comes that in motorsports you can only buy plain helmets without graphics. The high complexity of the product, combined with the safety aspects of it, made it the perfect product to start with. Enabling customization for such a product was a thrilling challenge for me and my team. Through or own customization business we have gathered lots of experiences and insights over the last years when it comes to digital frontend solutions of customization experiences, 3D product visualization and the end-to-end process including the production side of things. Right after launch we started receiving several requests for making use of our concept from outside the helmet industry and we realized we were onto something interesting. As I witnessed by working in large corporations and consultancy projects, there’s a significantly growing demand for more personalized product and service experiences. But when you look at these big companies and even for SMEs, it’s very difficult for them to disrupt their efficient production lines and build such a complex business dimension on their own, hence our platform business model of madeone. From running our own B2C customization business, which will of course remain as the source for everything we do, to madeone, offering our clients customization as a service.

MV: What’s your advice to someone who wants to start an eCommerce Business?

CM: First of all: Find your field of play! If you want to start an eCommerce business today, you need to find creative ways on how to outrun all the challenges created by the various eCommerce giants, f.e. lowest price points, consumer expectations towards same day delivery and the ease of returns etc.. Differentiation is probably the most crucial aspect to take into consideration. From a profitability standpoint price points are key. If you build an eCommerce business and your assortment is not unique, you are immediately challenged by not being able to stick to recommended retail prices from day one. In the case of customizable products people are willing to pay a premium of more than 20%. Profitability of a mass customization business starts with the right product pricing and goes hand-in-hand with taking out complexity throughout the end-to-end process. For example you have to make sure that you are not overwhelming people by too many customization options, without harming the customer experience and choices of customizable products and configurable designs. For building a successful customization business as well as starting any digital business model, complexity has a big impact on profitability.

Let’s face it: Most of the time companies like Amazon dictate where to go, how to price and to set up delivery times etc.. They are putting a lot of pressure on almost anyone in eCommerce. Adding a mass customization business dimension to your existing product line, set up and operated in the right way, can without any doubt represents the most profitable part of your business. Beside that customers don’t want to buy exactly the same product as everyone else and that people want something more unique, customer expectations are completely different: People are willing to wait for a customized product. This waiting time even adds value to the overall experience and allows to interact with customers during the process of production. Nobody will ever question a recommended retail price of a customized product. That’s why I find it so interesting. A customization dimension can be a game changer for eCommerce businesses. I don’t see customization not only as a unique brand experience or powerful marketing tool, it’s about unlocking business potential and profitability.

MV: Could you tell us a real life example you’ve been working on recently?

CM: The integration of the helmade service on the global Bell Helmets website was definitely a great achievement on our journey, making it our blue-print and first proof on how to enable customization for a manufacturer. The madeone concept enables companies and brands to add a scalable mass customization dimension to their running business models, without harming profitability and being forced to take too much risks in investing in frontend technologies as well as stepping into their, in most cases, highly efficient industrial production processes. Bell did not want to invest in building this specialized business on their own, from a front-end to a production standpoint, as I mentioned with customization comes a higher level of complexity. Also one of the biggest barriers is that most helmet manufacturers are not B2C eCommerce focussed. As an entrepreneur, managing my own customization business, it’s not about monetizing a 3D product configurator but to talk about business potential of customization, trying to understand the best way to produce and deep-dive in each product with our clients. As madeone we are able to offer full-service which incorporates all needed production capacities. Our aim is to setup the best fitting solution to operate custom orders as an integrative part of our clients’ business.

MV: And what about in-store and event integration?

CM: Customization can be used in-store to create a unique experience for your customers also in a physical store, not only online. When I was working at Nike I was involved in the strategic development of Nike iD, setting up Nike iD studios and creating many retail and event experiences where customers can touch and feel the materials of the different customization options, providing them with a guided experience by an expert: Definitely something that can be a rich addition to your existing retail experience. Something I did more recently is the integration of helmade into Triumph Motorcycles’ flagship store in New York. We launched our partnership in April 2019 by integrating a customization service including prototypes and sample materials in the centre of Triumph’s Brooklyn based store. Visitor are getting a highly personalized product based upon very traditional Triumph colors and designs, the option to choose a unique Triumph Brooklyn logo that goes on the helmet you can only get by ordering at that specific store: a cool retail integration with customization at the heart of it!

MV: Do you see the “only digital” approach as a barrier to full customization?

CM: I think that with 3D we’re getting closer and closer to showcasing the real product digitally. Of course there’s still a gap to close, but it’s important to be digitally creative. Technologies like AR or VR are providing more and more ways to experience products, although we are aware there is still a difference with the real-life, physical experience: the “touch and feel”. This gap though is getting smaller by the day. Relying only on digital tools will take a while, but the combination of digital experiences with retail destinations, experience stores like Ikea for instance, makes me think of this gap as almost closed. Ikea is moving to inner cities with completely new store formats from what we are used to, and one of the reasons is to close the gap between the digital experience and touching, feeling the product, making these stores a great combination of eCommerce and brick & mortar retail. On the other hand, we need to think about the new generations of digital natives: Maybe for them the physical experience is not relevant at all? Maybe for them there’s already no gap at all?