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Q+A: Jon Lucca

The co-founder of Twig Case Co. in Waseca talks about his venture's eco-friendly iPhone cases -- and strong sales to Russia and Japan


Twig

Paper probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a durable material, but for Twig Case Co. of Waseca, paper is a perfect protective solution. Using a layered-paper material called Richlite, Twig's gadget cases, sold online, are strong, stylish, and eco-friendly -- and they've attracted a global following.

Minnesota Business caught up with Jon Lucca, the co-founder of Twig, to ask him about the company and its development. (We also feature the cases in the Made in Minnesota section of our April 2013 issue.)

Where did you first get the idea for selling paper cases?

My business partner, [guitar designer] John Woodland had the idea while designing a signature Martin guitar for Jeff Tweedy of Wilco in 2011. Martin uses Richlite for some of their guitar bridges and fingerboards, as it's far more sustainable than ebony or rosewood, more consistent, and easily machined. John had just purchased an iPhone 4S and wanted a wood or bamboo case. He purchased a few from some well-known case makers, and they destroyed themselves in under a week, with regular use. He thought Richlite would make for a durable case, so he called me up and said, "I have a great idea." I agreed, so we knew it was a good one!

What happened between having the idea and selling the first case?

A lot of things took place between the idea and when we went live with our store on July 4, 2012. A flurry of sketches, a ton of 3D drawings, prototyping, and endless number crunching to find out if this was a viable business. We found the process daunting at times, and ran into skeptics of the idea, but we stuck with it because we believed in the product. It's the best feeling, seeing it in use. Design is nothing until someone is using it. For us, our first customer was Jeff Tweedy and his family, and they're still using their cases today.

How many cases do you sell in a year? What is your revenue?

We've been selling cases less than a year, so I don't really have an answer for that yet. It has certainly eclipsed what we thought we'd sell -- I guess that's what happens when you have a great, unique product.

Your cases receieved certification from the FSC and Rainforest Alliance. Why is that important? What was the process like? 

John had experience working with the FSC in the past with guitar construction. Tweedy's Signature Martin he designed was the very first fully FSC Certified Artist model guitar ever produced. Each of the many woods used in the construction of that guitar needed to be sourced from responsible sources, and the development process took over a year. Compared to a guitar, where a lot of different wood species are used, we only need to source the Richlite and bamboo for our cases, so comparatively it was a much easier process.

There's hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPhone cases in use right now, and eventually a majority of both will wind up in landfills. I think responsible manufacturing should be the gold standard, and it's surprising how many designers and manufacturers only focus on the user experience and not what will eventually happen to the product and its packaging after that experience is over. Our certification is one of many things that set us apart from other accessory companies -- a lot of them say "our material is sustainable," but without independent certification like ours, that really holds no water as their wood or bamboo could be from anywhere.

How is Twig distributed. Internet sales? In stores? 

We are primarily web-based but are always looking for stores or distributors that would be a proper fit. We're doing really well in Russia and Japan right now, and it feels good knowing we're shipping USA-made cases outside of the states. International sales count for about 60 percent of our orders right now.

In your FAQ you mention that everything that goes into a Twig case is produced locally. Are any of your business partners also from Minnesota?

Literally everything we can source in Minnesota comes from here, and what we can't have made here, it's purchased as locally as possible, preferably in Waseca. We're starting to work with a local letterpress house that has 100-year-old letterpress machines for some of our packaging. We like knowing that the dollar we spend stays in our town and helps put people to work in our community, and the smiles at the local hardware store make us feel good about what we do.

How did you originally get the word out about your product?

Our business model is based on attraction and not necessarily promotion. We want the quality of the product to build the brand image, and not really the other way around. You won't see us doing photo shoots with models that have fans blowing up into their hair, but we're aware of the impact of social media and do our best to stay on top of it. Certain blogs like Boing-Boing have done a lot for us, as well as a lot of artists like Norah Jones and her band that have got our cases and raved about them, and certain magazines like yours who've recognized what we're doing have helped as well.

What kind of marketing/promotion have you used that's been effective for you?

There is nothing like having your product in the hands of users for word-of-mouth. Early on, we had a few giveaways and that really snowballed. When people can see the detail in our engraving, and touch the case and feel its unique texture, it truly sells itself. A few stories from sustainable design blogs who liked what we're doing, a couple tweets from people who just loved the designs -- all that turned into traffic from people who probably wouldn't have responded to some of the over-the-top ads we've seen from other accessory makers.

Our choice in art has really helped get the word out as well. Jim Woodring was one of our first artists. I've loved his surreal detail since I first discovered him 20 years ago in Microsoft's Comic Chat, a program for which he did a vast amount of illustration. He's still somewhat underground but has many fans, who were really excited about his art on our cases.

Many of our other artists are local to Minnesota; Jason Knudson, Tom Kolter, Kelly Bunde, and Adam Turman, and I consider it an honor to be able to work with such talented people.

How has being based in Minnesota shaped your business? 

Honestly, I have no idea. Before we started this in 2011, we didn't know what we know now about case production. Minnesota has a robust manufacturing sector, and John Woodland's other company, Mastery Bridge, has been based in Minnesota for the last five years and has been very successful. After researching some of our future product plans, I can't think of anything that couldn't be fabricated here.

Since our emphasis has been on sourcing things locally, I suppose it's actually an advantage. I can visit any of our suppliers on a moments notice, and that face-to-face time builds trust and ensures quality that you just don't have with a supplier you've never met on the other side of the world. In addition, we usually can get needed supplies far faster and cheaper.

The Minnesota attitude seems to be, "We're in this together, let's help each other out." I think that's pretty great.

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