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Alum founder aspires to create "one billion magical moments"

How did alum Wombi Rose go from building ships to co-founding a 3D paper art greeting card company?
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Wombi Rose with 3D cards from Lovepop

Wombi Rose (BOS, LON 11-13), is the co-founder of Lovepop, a Boston-based 3D paper art greeting card company. With an appearance on Shark Tank, a base of 2.5 million customers, and top-tier media coverage, Wombi has turned paper art into a successful business.

In this conversation, Wombi discusses how his background in naval architecture and marine engineering relates to creating intricate card designs; his business challenges; and his best only-at-McKinsey moment.

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You have a degree from the prestigious Webb Institute of Naval Architecture. Tell us a little bit about that.

The Webb Institute is a very small school on Long Island in New York for naval architecture and marine engineering. It's 130 years old and it has an incredibly rich history, starting with its founding in 1889 when William Webb closed his shipyard in Manhattan and housed his former workers for free.  The school has always offered full-tuition scholarships to every student. At Webb, you learn ship design, but really, it's multi-disciplinary engineering, because a ship is like a floating city. I spent four years there with a class of 18 people. Most importantly, you end up with a family. 

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Wombi Rose (left) and co-founder John Wise

My Lovepop co-founder John Wise is part of my family from Webb. We met in 2005, and spent four years together. We always knew we wanted to start a business together, and in 2013, we both got the chance to go to Harvard Business School. We decided to take the opportunity. 

Before I went to HBS, I was at McKinsey for two and a half years. I ended up all across the world working on projects ranging from technology and healthcare to energy and of course, the marine industry.  Everything was fast-paced, and I ended up focusing on crisis management projects, which was incredibly rewarding.

What got you interested in paper engineering?

I was introduced to sliceform kirigami paper art in Vietnam while on a Harvard Business School immersion trip to do a mini-consulting project. We came across this style of art on the way to dinner one evening and we were just blown away. They were little cards that when you opened them up, a sculpture would pop out. Immediately we realized, this is exactly like how you design a ship. We could design anything with this. We just fell in love with the concept.

Every Lovepop design, when you look at it from the top, is a grid structure. When you design a ship, you take a 3D shape, you slice it into planes, and then you draw lines where the shape of the hull intersects with those planes that you've sliced it up with. You do three different angles, and then you can get this really complex curvature defined on three separate drawings. We use the same software, still, to design Lovepop cards as we did in designing ships, which is also fascinating.

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Lovepop's Japanese maple design

How did you get Lovepop started? What was the initial reaction?

We started showing people the cards – we brought a few back with us from Vietnam to do some customer research. It was right before Valentine's Day when we showed them to our classmates, and people were just handing us money to buy them. And we were like, okay, this is super interesting. So we took them to fairs and markets around Boston.

All of my previous roles involved hard hats and steel toes or, of course, consulting, and my co-founder was building small boats. We had no retail experience. But what we did really feel was the pull and the excitement for this product, which was so tangible.

We did customer interviews, and we heard a number of really touching stories from people who talked about who they would give a card to, why they would give it to them, and what it would mean to them. And we realized that we were not just dealing with paper. People were talking about sending an emotion. And that's what the product is. It just happens to be that this beautiful piece of art also requires a bunch of engineering and is really interesting to create. 

So we decided at that point to make that our business following business school, and to build our own production facility in Vietnam. We launched out of the Harvard Innovation Lab in 2014.

What’s your ultimate goal for Lovepop?

Our mission is to create one billion magical moments. The way we count those is that we consider each card as two magical moments – one for the sender, and one for the receiver. We are just about to break the 50-million-magical-moment threshold, which will be very exciting. 

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Lovepop cards

Part of our goal is also to create a regional design hub in Da Nang, Vietnam – not just for Lovepop but for Southeast Asia. We have a 15-year view on how we want to keep building that talent and the community.  To date, we’ve built a fantastic team in Vietnam, over 300 people. The production facility is 45,000 square feet, with 300 people, ISO, ILS, Disney, and FSC certifications, and potentially the largest collection of industrial laser-cutters in the world.  The design team is up to 50 people and focused on 3D engineering. We continue to build capabilities in design, engineering, tech, and data along with our more traditional manufacturing expertise – all with a creative spin. We just started taking on contract manufacturing work and are excited about serving our European and Asian markets directly from Vietnam. 

Do you consider yourself to be mostly a creative person, a technical person, or a businessperson?

I'm just really enthusiastic about the product that we make and the impact that it has. I love the creative aspect of what we do -- it's so fun. What's more fun than colorful pieces of paper that you send as a gift?

I always wish I could be a designer for Lovepop. That would be my dream role, but I would be hopelessly underqualified.

The technical piece is really interesting because what we do is such a combination of art and science. It has to be beautiful, but you have to follow the rules, and it has to work every time you open it. There's a lot of materials engineering that goes into this.

Then there's obviously also the concepting. There’s so much consumer understanding that gets translated into what the right look and feel is for new cards for, say, a holiday.

You were on Shark Tank. How much do you think that played into the company's success?

Shark Tank was a really amazing experience. I think it's hard to overestimate the impact of Shark Tank on a business, especially consumer businesses so broadly applicable like Lovepop, because everyone can be a Lovepop customer. 

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Wombi and co-founder John on Shark Tank

When the first episode aired, 7.5 million people across the U.S. saw us in the most authentic way because we were literally put on the spot. Plus, we had to prepare a lot to be ready for our pitch. So that certainly helped us make sure that we had answered all the hard questions around the business, knew all the numbers, and understood what we were doing. And it really catalyzed a lot of product development. 

Click here to watch a video of a Shark Tank update.  

Shark Tank does such a good job of not only tapping into that ideal of creating a business but also helping raise the profile of so many people who are doing that. So, I think it's just a really special, incredibly rare, unique phenomenon that we feel extremely lucky to have been a part of.

What would you say are your biggest business challenges?

There are inherently some uncertainties in the direct-to-consumer model because you are having to do pretty substantial prediction exercises all the time. One is what is going to be the cost to acquire a customer in future periods. And to another extent, there's a lot of consumer demand behavior that is not 100% clear. As an example, it’s often difficult to know which designs will be the top designs in a given season. Trying to know ahead of time, going into a season, what the SKU distribution is going to look like has been challenging.

The other one, of course, is repeat purchase behavior, which is a little bit easier because there are more elements you have control over. But the forecasting challenge there is around understanding the different types of consumers that you have and how does their behavior change, and then with what proportion did different cohorts acquire those different segments of consumers, because that makes a big difference in what you should expect from your repeat, re-purchasing behavior, going forward.

What was your best only-at-McKinsey experience?

My most memorable experience is that once I was in a conference room and we were talking about some issue that was happening on a ship somewhere with a client. And, at some point, someone said, "Someone's got to go there." There were five of us in the room. Everyone looked at me and said, "You know ships."

Someone looked at their Blackberry and said, "Last flight out tonight leaves in 45 minutes. I booked you on it. Go to the airport." And there I was just in my office attire and with my office things. One of my teammates said, "We'll get your stuff from the hotel. Don't worry about it. We'll take care of it. Just go now and see if you can catch this flight."

I got on the plane – barely – arrived, went out and bought a hard hat and steel-toe boots at Walmart, and went to the ship the next morning. It was just a really fun, surreal experience.

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