An Interview with Nick and Laura Udall, Founders of ZUCA: Putting the Fun in Function

Recently, at a seminar at Stanford University, I had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by Nick and Laura Udall about how they developed their product, the ZUCA, and got it to market.  Of course, I couldn’t help but approach them afterwards and remark that they have the same last name as I do.  I haven’t run into another Udall outside of my family in California.  As it turns out, we’re probably connected from many hundreds of years ago in England. 

But to be honest, far more fascinating for me, is their story of how, as a husband and wife team with three kids, they started from scratch with an idea for a product and built it into a company that now produces what is going to become a world class branded product.  The ZUCA.  You’ve got to see it and experience it to really understand all that the product is and does.   As their first venture into consumer products, Nick and Laura Udall have put in all the hard work, taken the chances, learned from the challenges, and created a product that is truly unique and a company that really stands for something. They graciously sat with me and chatted about it all in their office in Campbell, California.  I’ve broken up the interview into a few parts.  In this first section, Laura and Nick describe how they came up with the idea for the product, the power behind a meaningful brand, and begin to get into the thinking behind the features of the product. 

AU: ZUCA.  What is it? Zuca_chili_4

ZUCA (Nick):  We’re a consumer products manufacturing and distribution company that produces a product that is an all-purpose gear carrier with an integrated seat.  It’s hard to talk to because usually when you explain something, you compare it to something else–"it’s similar to this".  We could try by saying, "well, it’s kind of like an all-purpose carry-on bag, configured so that you can sit on it, and had a protective frame that kept all your things inside it safe…", and pretty soon you are several paragraphs down in the description and people are still shaking their heads.  We’ve tried all kinds of elevator pitches, but our product is so unique that none of them do it justice.

AU: Right.  So what do you do?

ZUCA (Nick):  So, people just need to see and experience it for themselves to really understand what the concept is.  We take them to tradeshows…in fact I was just at a tradeshow for manufacturers the other day, and someone walked by, saw it and came right over to me to ask me about it.  We went through the dialogue and he says "so, you can sit on this?  I don’t think so!"  And he looked like a tool and die maker of some sort.  I said "Well, what do you weigh?"  He replied "240lbs".  I asked him to not just sit down on it, but sit down on it with a lot of force.  He did.  And, he looked around with a look of surprise and satisfaction on his face.  So until people really experience it, they don’t know everything that it can really do.

AU:  So it provides a solution for people.

ZUCA (Laura):  Well, my vision started out as "Let’s lighten the load of the world one bag at a time".  I originally got the idea when I watched my daughter, Rachel (who is now a fantastic professional Jazz singer), develop some back problems when she was in elementary school because she would carry so many books around in her backpack.  And that’s where we started.  We introduced it on the market as a bookbag.  But our customers came back to us and started saying "wait a minute, I can do this with it, or that with it…".  So it has blossomed from there into the most versatile bag out there on the market.  Now we’re moving into the luggage and travel space, and other spaces. 

AU:  So the market is leading you down the path of further product development and line extensions?

ZUCA (Laura):  It has.  The market has come to us which is really interesting.  It’s great, because there are so many possibilities and so much potential.  But it is also a challenge, because we’re a small company, so we need to really hunker down, decide, and focus on which directions present the best opportunities and proactively work to realize them.  The other areas will still come–because our customers have become our best marketers–they are a tremendous asset to us because they tell other people about our product.  In fact, just carrying or rolling ZUCA bags around, people will stop you and ask you "where did you get that?", "what can it do?". 

AU:  I can say for myself, I’ve never seen anything like the ZUCA until I saw the ZUCA.

ZUCA (Nick):  One of the things we needed to do was build a brand.  In consumer products, you are either cheap or you’re branded.  And we didn’t want to be in the cheap market and in the big box market.  We wanted to build something that was substantial.  So we made our branding on the products large.  We made it recognizable and easy to remember.  And our customers tote the bag and brand around to help us spread the message. 

AU:  You chose a name that had no previous meaning, and you could give meaning to it.  If my espanol still serves me, Zuca doesn’t mean anything in Spanish. 

ZUCA (Laura):  We say that it stands for "Z Ultimate Carry-All".  Our core design principles all stem from functionality in the product.  We build something that starts with meeting needs of function, and from that comes design and fashion.  Because of this, we need to give extreme attention to detail and quality. We put the fun in function.  It’s always interesting to see people experience our product.  They become passionate about it.  They’ve helped us protect our brand and our name.  For example, a few weeks ago, we experienced our first incidence of someone violating our patent.

AU:  Wow.  Congratulations.  It’s as if you have graduated to the level of admiration through intellectual property theft!  (I’m joking of course)

ZUCA (Laura):  Interestingly, the violator was a woman from Utah who promotes a very wholesome image of her company.  They contacted me and wanted to do a custom insert based on their product with us. But basically, she just took our product and created a cheap knock-off.  So we’re putting an end to it.  But it was one of our customers who tipped us off and called us and told us that "someone is ripping you off at Costco".  The customer who called us was from Seattle, and she was so helpful.  She said, "I got ZUCA’s for everyone in my family.  My son has two and uses them for different functions.  I bought one for my Mom and she uses it for travel and her teaching job to haul all her supplies.  My sister, me…  We love your product and appreciate it’s quality and I was so angry when I saw the knock-off in Costco". 

AU:  So tell me about some of the features that make people such ardent supporters and users.

ZUCA (Laura):  Take this for example, it’s a great product for anyone who has health issues or is health compromised conscious, because it’s so easy to roll.  It doesn’t take a lot of strength to pull it even if it’s filled with heavy items.  They can sit on it when they get tired.  We’re working with a group that runs a camp for kids with cancer.  And not only will it be a fun bag for them, but they can store their stuff in it and sit down on it when their tired, etc.Wheels_detail_lg

AU:  Right.  In developing a product, it can be difficult sometimes to identify those latent needs that users may have–needs that they didn’t know they had, but when alerted to them, they are very happy to see a solution.  So for instance, the second set of wheels just up on the back of the bag, which allows for easy traveling up stairs.  On other bags, the bottom wheels become useless in this scenario and you have to lug your bag up the stairs.  You guys saw that, and designed in the extra wheels so the bag just glides up the stairs. 

ZUCA (Laura):  Right!  The engineering types see that and get it right away.  But many people ask us "why do you have another set of wheels like that?"  And then you tell them or they try it and we get "Ohhh, that’s great"!

More to come…