The Majority

Rob Langstaff, RYZ, Portland, Oregon, USA

 
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PHOTO BY LEE EMMERT

A SELF-PROCLAIMED “SNEAKER GEEK,” Rob Langstaff founded RYZ on the principle that unlike “the fashionista elite who dictate style from on high,” his company would invite anyone to design the perfect pair of shoes.

Launched in June 2008, the site boasts more than 3,500 people who have signed on as members. And it's those members who design and vet each proposed project concept. Users select one of the company's footwear “silhouettes” to create their own custom designs, which are then uploaded to the site. RYZ then transforms the files into 3-D models that community members vote on. Winners take home US$500, shoe designer immortality and a US$1 royalty for every pair sold. Each project development cycle runs about two months.

It's quite a change for Mr. Langstaff. A former captain in the U.S. Air Force, he speaks English, German and Japanese. A 16-year veteran of Adidas, he was promoted to president of Adidas Japan in 2003, where he led the brand from the number-three spot to market leader in just 18 months. In 2006, he was named president of Adidas America. But a year later, following disagreements over autonomy for the North American operations of the German brand, Mr. Langstaff resigned, walking away from the world's second-biggest athletic footwear company to start his own business. With sublime irony, he realized to break from the past, and the pack, he had to run with the crowd.

“The idea of crowdsourcing actually came to me before I knew what the word meant,” says Mr. Langstaff. “When I was running Adidas Japan, we had our own design group in Tokyo. I noticed they were much more likely to design product for the Japanese market that would [succeed] than the Germans were who were eight time zones and several thousand kilometers away. I started to think about how you could cast a wide net to get all the talent that wants to give you input to the brand, and be able to do market research before you actually make shoes. Then you'd know which ones you should make. I thought if we could create this closeness of a designer and a consumer through the Internet, they can be in the same virtual room.”

Like many projects, though, the site launch encountered some glitches along the way. “We did critical path analysis and everyone had a task list, and then we used a collaboration tool where everyone could log on and see where every task was and what the interdependencies were,” says Mr. Langstaff. “We took a pretty professional project management approach to this.”

But there were pitfalls along the way. “Out of the five projects that were 90 percent right, something went wrong in all of them that you just never would have imagined would go wrong. Our outsource supplier didn't want to ship us outsoles anymore,” he says, so the company scrambled to find another vendor in short order.

“There are a lot of examples like that,” Mr. Langstaff says. “You have a project plan laid out and it's important to appreciate that it's a plan and reality is always going to be different.”

The greatest unexpected project delays came from formulating the new firm's brand name. The team started with the working name of Prosumer Design. That then morphed into the Italian word, ascolto, which means to listen. But when even his mother couldn't remember the name, he figured “I'd better change it. So we definitely slipped on that timeline. We thought we would spend about a month or so on the name and it ended up being four months.”

The company settled on RYZ (pronounced rise) as a “text-friendly call to action” for people to come and contribute their ideas. —Chauncey Hollingsworth

“The idea of crowdsourcing actually came to me before I knew what the word meant.”

Leadership 2009 www.pmi.org
Leadership 2009

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