Designers are often the unsung heroes of the industry, quietly going about their work of making the coolest new products, while the marketers and riders showcase the CAD-crews’ work to the world. One designer who has not been so quiet as of late is Mike Tobia, who recently re-joined Dragon as its director of product, following a stint with Alex Water Bottles, a company he helped launch with Chris Hotell, Gretchen Bleiler, Marta Hotell and Dave Sweeney.
The new APX Goggle, Tobia’s first product to drop since returning to Dragon where his career began, is a revolutionary take on an established category and has been turning heads since its release at this winter’s trade shows. We caught up with Tobia to discuss design inspiration, transforming ideas into products, and Dragon’s future direction.
What's your design approach when looking at new products?
I try to keep an open mind and cut straight to what the consumer really wants. It's easier said then done, but most answers are usually just sitting there waiting to be realized. My design isn't in the actual drawings or CAD, but rather the vision and strategy needed to make it a reality. I then work closely with a pool of talented artists, CAD designers, and manufacturers to facilitate that vision the best way possible.
Tell us a little about your background, where you're from, and how you got into product design and the industry?
I grew up on the outskirts of Los Angeles in an affluent community called La Canada. It was great because I had the beach 45 minutes in front of me, the mountains 45 minutes behind me, and the heart of LA only 10 minutes away. Because of that, I naturally gravitated away from traditional sports at a young age and got heavy into skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing.
After graduating high school I started to get sponsored for snowboarding and decided to move out to Salt Lake City, Utah with my friends to try and really make something happen. We called ourselves the FSC crew, which consisted of myself, Nima Jalali, and the twins (Mike & Lance Hakker) who later started Ashbury and Videograss. That same year we all started filming for the first Technine team video and started to get ads and editorial in the magazines.
That all went on for a few years until I broke my back and blew out my ACL during spring of 2005 while filming for the Grenade video Smell the Glove. It was by far the most challenging experience I've ever endured and completely reshaped me as a person, both physically and psychologically. Its a very humbling experience when you're lying in a hospital bed not knowing if you'll ever be able to snowboard again, let alone walk. One surgery after the other, I started to rehab and slowly pull my life back together and eventually landed a job as Dragon's global snow team manager, who was one of my sponsors at the time.
Once working at Dragon, opportunities started opening up and eventually lead me to developing our snow goggles and overseeing the snow program as a whole. Opportunities kept opening up and I just continued to take them on and gain experience.
Who are some designers that you respect both in and out of the industry?
When I was a kid and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said I wanted to become an architect. Unfortunately I became quickly turned off when I realized the amount of math involved. My admiration for good architecture never went away though, in fact its evolved to become one of my key influences when looking for design inspiration. I'm a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright for his vision to integrate nature into the home. Mid-Century Modernism is my favorite though, and architects Richard Neutra and John Lautner are amongst the top of my list in addition to American furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames.
In terms of consumer products, Apple has no doubt been the most direct inspiration to me and probably every other designer today. I used to feel guilty, like I was cheating, when using them as design influence until I started doing research on Jonathon Ive (Apple's Senior VP of Industrial Design) who clearly takes the same approach. His influence is Dieter Rams, probably one of the most influential industrial designers of all time who lead Braun's design department from the 60's through the 90's. If you google "braun apple inspiration," you'd be amazed at the amount of design correlation between the two. You can tie almost every Apple product design to the influence of Dieter Rams and Braun. It made me realize that I shouldn't feel guilty about borrowing other designs as influence and that it's a fundamental process of design evolution.
Tobia getting some at the APX Cabin outside Silverton, Colorado
Where did the idea for Alex Water Bottles come form and how did you wind up partnering with Gretchen Bleiler and Chris Hotell on this endeavor?
Chris Hotell invented the concept, and an indstrial design firm called Anvil Studios designed it. Once the product was developed, I was involved with the team on aspects of manufacturing, marketing, and sales.
Chris and I became good friends over the years when he was managing the snow team at Oakley and I was doing the same at Dragon. My wife and Gretchen clicked instantly as well and eventually we were invited to all of the family events including being a groomsman and bridesmaid in their wedding. Early in 2009, Chris approached me to partner with him and his family on a new project they were working on. When he explained the concept of a bottle opening in the middle for easy cleaning, storage and customization, I knew instantly it was a game changer and had to jump on board.
You guys have been getting some really good response to Alex from what I hear. Give us some shameless self promotion on where you're at and your approach to getting in front of accounts like Whole Foods?
Considering the launch strategy was built around a bootstrapped PR and social media campaign, I'd say things are going really well. Within two weeks of unveiling Alex to our friends and family, it spread virally and we had enough pre-orders to place our first major PO with our factory and officially be in business. Since then, we've been featured in mainstream magazines across all categories from ESPN and Women's Fitness, TransWorld Snowboarding and Snowboarder, fashion magazines Glamour and Instyle, to business journals Fast Company and Inc. Magazine. It's crazy, you can check out all of the coverage here- http://www.alexbottle.com/buzz/
Every time we'd open up a new account or get new PR coverage more accounts would hit us up. That's how we got into The Container Store (our first national account) and how we'll probably continue to grow as we increase our sales force and open up distribution.
Why does the world need another water bottle company?
Three key reasons. First, disposable bottles suck both for your health and the environment (Google it). Second, traditional reusable water bottles are a pain in the ass to clean, eventually start to smell and get thrown away, whereas ALEX has three distinct competitive advantages that traditional water bottles don't have- it's cleanable, compact for storage and customizable for options. Third, when you combine these features with a fun and intelligent brand, you have the opportunity to turn the everyday boring water bottle into a fashionable lifestyle accessory that's no different than watches, sunglasses, or headphones.
Switching gears, you recently returned to the Dragon fold. Tell us a little about your history with the company, why you left, and returned.
Dragon and I go way back. They were the first pair of goggles and sunglasses I ever bought, my first and only eyewear sponsor, and the first and only company I've worked for, besides Alex, in my professional career.
When I was presented the opportunity to work on Alex, I had always fantasized with the idea of starting a company and knew I would never forgive myself if I passed it up. Fortunately, I have a great relationship with Will Howard (Founder & CEO of Dragon) who's been a mentor to me in my career and we worked out a consulting arrangement so I could do both.
Shortly after I started working on Alex my wife became pregnant, which wasn't exactly in the business plan, and forced me to analyze what I was willing to risk and put my family through. I was working long days and longer nights juggling both jobs and decided that Dragon was the best thing for me to focus on. Now I'm stoked to be back and get cracking on the projects at hand.
Your first big product launch in your new role is the APX with Infinity Lens Technology. Talk a little about how you came up with the design?
I had been toying around with the idea of a completely frameless goggle for a while, but never really tried to pursue it until I started working on Alex. It just opened my eyes to the power of technical innovation and it's ability to exponentially take your brand and revenue to the next level. Now with Infinity Lens Technology, your field of vision dramatically increases without having to increase the overall size of the goggle and sacrifice helmet compatibility. It's also twice as fast and easy to interchange lenses versus traditional goggle frames.
Going back to your Apple inspiration, APX is going to feature innovative packaging with a nod to Apple. How important is packaging in this day and age and how does that tie in with Dragon's focus on eco-friendly products?
It's extremely important. I wanted the philosophy and essence of APX to transcend beyond the goggle itself and anything associated with it. Dragon's ECO collection has a similar objective but different execution. Most people don't know this, but Dragon was the first to launch an ECO friendly sunglass made from renewable plant origins vs. petroleum and still is I believe the first and only company to offer goggles from recycled injected polyurethane out of left over scrap materials. ECO (Environmentally Conscious Optics) is an initiative to reduce our environmental footprint by exploring sustainable materials and manufacturing methods which includes packaging, ink, glue organic cotton, bamboo, etc, but is exclusive to the ECO collection and not part of a company wide objective.
I understand you're going to be focusing your efforts on Dragon apparel going forward. What are your goals in that category and what are your plans to realize them?
I can't go too much into detail or I'll be tipping off our competitors, but I can say that our go forward program will be purposefully designed with exceptional quality and fit that reinforces the brand DNA of Dragon. The rest is a secret for now…
It seems like a renaissance of innovative designs is unfolding in the industry right now. What do you think has spawned that and where do you see this going in 10 years? I read an article with the director of sports innovation at MIT and she's predicting skis and boards whose profiles and shapes will be physically morphed by onboard computers depending on snow conditions. Crazy shit.
I think the recession has forced brands to truly provide features that benefit the consumer and justify the purchase. The days of just throwing a graphic or logo on something are winding down… Innovation is the future.
What are you most excited about with your new position and being a part of this industry in general at this moment?
I've been really into designing products with technical stories lately and look forward to implementing that into Dragon's go forward product strategy. The cool thing about technical products is that they need R&D in the conditions they're built to perform in. That's why I love my job.
Any other big projects in the works you can share?
The biggest and most important project is raising my son Clive and loving my beautiful wife Brooke.
Anything else you want to throw out there?
I'd like to thank all of my family, friends, and colleagues for the love and support, including the crew at TransWorld for always having my back.