Creating a work of art and building a company may seem like radically dissimilar endeavors, but both require vision, creativity, passion, and a lot of hard work. Just ask John Roscoe Swartz.
Ever since his student days at Wooster, Swartz has combined a love of art and design with a restless entrepreneurial spirit. He created and sold silver jewelry during a year spent studying in Europe. Back in Wooster, he and a partner opened a café just off campus, where art exhibits and performances were as much a part of the mix as the coffee and the thrift store furnishings.
After graduating from Wooster, further studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art, and an apprenticeship with furniture maker Jim Cooper, Swartz opened his own furniture design and manufacturing studio, producing one of a kind and limited production pieces for clients including Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg.
“It was very fulfilling, but I really wanted to reach a broader audience,” Swartz says. “I wanted to build a great company and a brand on the belief that great design makes everyday life better.”
In 2002, he and Aaron Lown, a friend and collaborator since grad school, designed a leather satchel for another friend who was a wine importer: something that could be used to tote bottles of wine on sales calls. The result was beautiful, functional — and very expensive. So they set out to discover whether they could make one “for $20, not $500.”
They experimented with different materials, and found that neoprene had many of the qualities they needed. “It insulates both thermally and against shock. It seals great, takes wonderful colors, and can be treated more sculpturally,” Swartz says.
“When we got the prototype, we both thought ‘this is it, the product we’ve been trying to create.’ We borrowed some money, Google searched and found a factory in China, and ordered a container-full.”
Swartz and Lown debuted their one-bottle and two-bottle totes at the New York International Gift Fair in 2004 and booked more than $100,000 in orders in two days. BUILT was on its way.
Each year since then, the company has brought new products to market, from neoprene lunch totes and camera bags to laptop portfolios and iPhone sleeves. They have garnered design awards — including two IDEA Gold awards from Business Week — and sold more than seven million units. BUILT products are available in more than 10,000 retail outlets in more than 60 countries. A new line of products will hit stores next spring.
“We’ve gone about our product selection very organically,” Swartz says. “It’s all about meeting needs. We all have all these electronic gadgets, we’re travelling more, and we have to carry all these things with us. So that’s our focus: coming up with on-the-go solutions.”
Swartz says his day-to-day responsibilities as CEO are “a little bit of everything, but my major focus is on design and the products. Everything else falls into place if the product is great.”
Like any successful entrepreneur, Swartz has a knack for spotting the next opportunity. And he gives Wooster credit for helping hone some of the skills underpinning his success.
“As an entrepreneur and a creative professional, Wooster was fundamental in establishing that foundation. Most programs are very formulaic and prescriptive, and Wooster was not. It fostered creativity and exploration and an attitude of continual learning that has served me very, very well.”
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