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This episode features: Anker Innovations CEO Steven Yang and Steelcase Vice President of Global Design & Engineering James Ludwig
James Ludwig: Fundamentally, we saw work had changed and was changing all around us. There was this move from the corporate office towards the creative studio, and as that started to happen then it was a different kind of planning, a different kind of work. And so we noticed that these great spaces weren’t being planned, but they were being unloved and unused. There were these beautiful lounge settings that no one was sitting in or the mobile furniture that was still plugged into the wall, tethered to the wall. All looked great for Instagram, but when it came down to work, there was something missing. And that was what we started to call Power Deserts.
Host Katie Pace: Welcome to What Workers Want, the new 360 real time, a Steelcase 360 podcast about how the places we work, learn, and heal are changing to help people thrive and ideas flourish at work. I’m your host Katie Pace. So we’re here today with two men whose companies have worked together to create a first of its kind enterprise level mobile power solution for the office. Steven Yang is founder and CEO of Anker Innovations. Welcome Steven.
Steven Yang: Hi Katie, thanks for having us.
Katie: Anker is the global market leader in charging solutions and based in China. Anker makes charging devices for Cars, Smart Homes, Consumer Devices and now they’ve partnered with Steelcase to enter the workplace. And next to me beside Steven is James Ludwig, Vice President of Global Design and Engineering for Steelcase. Welcome back James.
James: It’s great to be here, thanks Katie.
Katie: Thanks. So Steven, I want to start with you because I was talking to a colleague and said “Oh, I’m going to talk to Steven Yang from Anker and she said “Oh like I didn’t know that, but then I started looking at everything that charges all of my devices and it says Anker.”
James: It’s pretty remarkable right? When you start to look at what he’s done.
Steven: Thank you.
Katie: Right. So, talk a little bit about how you went from being this engineer at Google and now everything that I and my colleagues own says Anker on it.
Steven: Cool. So, for example, if you remember six, seven years ago, the USB Chargers used to be marked as “I enjoyed for iPad”, “for iPhone”, right? So you have to plug into the right charger to get the fast charging speed, otherwise it’d be darn slow. And so, it’s because each of the different device speaks a different protocol, so you have to get the protocol right to actually unlock the fast charging. And so, realizing that, we build one of the first chips actually. That’s kind of like a universal sort of charging decoder or a handshaker, so it’ll have all the protocols and then to unlock all the fast charging for these devices. And that’s really well received, and so…
Katie: And appreciated…
James: I think once you start looking at what these products are doing that you really start to understand they have some, like there’s some, it’s not magic obviously because there’s science behind it and really, really hard engineering work, but they’re different, right? I mean if you really compare it, that’s what’s been, that’s really one of the reasons why we were excited about partnering with Steven and his company.
Katie: So let’s talk a little bit about that. You’re over here working on charging advances and charging technology, looking at consumer behavior and we are, of course, furniture manufacturer, we have been in Grand Rapids, Michigan for 107 years. This seems like a really interesting partnership. How did that come to be?
James: So for us, we started to look at the future of power. As we started to look at the future of mobility, there was a deficit. There were these power deserts there, and we can talk about that later. But I think the funny story is then as our consumer lives start to intersect with our personal lives, we start to see possibilities. There was a funny story about how we met, but kind of, that’s how it all began.
Katie: Do you want to tell that story?
James: I’d love to. My son who’s now in engineering school out East, he wanted to get his sister who graduating in a couple of years before him a gift before she went away to college. And so he wanted to get her a portable charger for her iPhone, so that she wouldn’t be like many people out in class and her phone wouldn’t be charged, they wouldn’t be able to reach each other. So being the guy he is, he did a ton of research, reviews.
Katie: This sounds like your son…
James: He looked at the reviews, he had a cost benefit analysis in terms of, sort of rates and how many charges per charge, et cetera. And then he bought her a gift and it was the first time I’d been exposed to Anker. So, that lodged in my mind, and so then clearly when I wanted to get a charger for myself, I bought the same one. And so then I found as I was traveling around, like many things, it’s like if you buy a car, suddenly you notice everyone’s driving the same car you bought. In the same way I found everyone in my studios were carrying Anker batteries. So, when we decided to do this project, it just was a natural fit.
Katie: Yeah, so Steven, you…
Steven: Immediately responded. Cause I mean we’ve built all these Port Chargers, Car Chargers and Desktop Chargers, which people buy sort of on their own. Right? But what if that capability is no longer aftermarket, but it’s like a building. I think that will benefit people more and even more naturally and more conveniently as well.
James: And I called you, he agreed to meet and have dinner in China, immediately it was, I forget how quickly it happened. It was blazing. And I think it was 10 days later or something, you had a team a here and it was just even weeks later after that we had concepts and then we were able to even show a functioning product, four or five months after that…
Katie: Yeah. It was really fast. So I want to back up a little bit, you hinted at some of these trends that were going on that caused the need for mobile power. Talk about some of the drivers and what’s going on that made you create this product.
James: So yeah, fundamentally we saw work had changed and was changing all around us. We saw many of our global clients, whether it’s in Shanghai or New York or San Francisco, Munich, we saw it everywhere. There was this move from the corporate office towards the creative studio, and as that started to happen, then it was a different kind of planning, a different kind of work. People were moving from one Desk, one Chair, one person to these hyper collaborative teams. And the spaces weren’t responding, people were still left tethered to the wall or the floor box and so we noticed that these great spaces weren’t being planned, but they were being unloved and unused. And in a sense you could find them, it was pretty easy to spot. They were these beautiful lounge settings that no one was sitting in, or the mobile furniture that was still plugged into the wall, tethered to the wall, all looked great for Instagram.
Katie: Yeah. Beautiful pictures.
James: But when it came down to work, there was something missing, and that was what we started to call power deserts. And as we sort of crystallized that as a massive opportunity, not just from a business sense, but unlocking people’s potential.
Katie: And what about for you, Steven, talk a little bit about some of the trends that you saw in the workplace that attracted you to this partnership.
Steven: Sure. One of the most complicated things in the workspace is power, right? And then, so it used to be on the AC power, but now if you look around, actually most of electronics we use in the office could be just powered directly from a DC power. So, to further on that, the USB-C sort of standard, which is the rectangle the small one. Yeah. And that one really is uniting a lot of devices that we have, or we’ll have in the future. Right. So which means I think we could actually have the same set of chargers on Desktops, Couches or whatever, and then people would just leverage for many years to come. So, but how do we really get them in there? That’s kind of the challenge.
Katie: So one thing that I think is really incredible about the project is the speed at which we developed it. I mean, talk about how that came to be because it was just in, it was just like a year ago.
James: That was less than a year ago?
Katie: Less than a year ago? When you first met?
James: We talked about… We had dinner, it was last February, which was, it was like seven, eight months ago.
Katie: So how did that happen?
James: It was kind of like an amplification effect in a strange kind of way. But it was clear we had expertise in the world of work and they had expertise in the world of power and bringing those things together, it was really like there was, I mean it sounds silly, but there was like clearly a spark and that really was true.
Steven: So I think it’s a project, or it is a project that our team has long been wanting to get onto, which is to really just get into the environment. Right. And we’re so glad that we got the opportunity to work on that. And so, I think the team is just, they are spontaneous, right? They are passionate and the speed is just amazing.
James: Yeah, it was like, it was like a clock speed for a team that I had not ever really experienced. And I think that really is something that we really learned as well. In this space, right? It moves at a way different clock speed that the furniture industry is not, it’s not typically known. And I think that’s what’s necessary. And the closer you get to the user and you see that things are changing so fast around us, every industry needs to take note that the cycles of innovation are shortening.
Katie: So let’s talk about what it is. We haven’t talked about the device itself yet. We mentioned it’s USB-C, can charge three laptops all day. Talk a little bit more about what it is and what it does.
James: I think charging has always been an issue, right? And it’s really about the user interface and the user interaction. And if you drive an electric car, you also know about range anxiety and you know how to plan trips, et cetera. So it was one of those missing pieces for me in how this would work in the office space. How DC power and USB-C would work in the workplace. And it was a very simple thing. It was literally a 10 second clip where some guy rides up, he flips his seat open, pulls two batteries out of his scooter, walks over to what looks like a Vending Machine kind of thing, puts his batteries in, takes two batteries, puts them back in his scooter and takes off. And in my mind it clicked, actually, it’s not just the battery, it’s this notion of almost like the offices in urban plan.
And if you put resource centers like these charging places or these battery depots in the right places, then the traffic network will flow. And then it was kind of an aha for me that said, maybe it’s time for something like flex mobile power in the office, and if we plan it like that, people get their Coffee, people get their power and then they move through the city, move through the office, and then there’s places to deposit them again. Then people don’t have to worry. So in essence, I mean we call it flex mobile power. It’s like a fountain or a lantern you carry around, someone described that in New York when we were there this week. It has built in a lot of these intelligent charging features that Stevens company’s been known for pioneering, and one of them is it decides which laptop is the lowest and directs more power there, so there is no negotiation. The human experience is seamless because the technology is smart. Right. And you think that’s a big deal?
Katie: Yeah, it is a big deal. And you put it back on a charging tray at night and then it charges in it so it’ll last you all day. So you can go anywhere, go outside, go anywhere where there’s no power.
James: Wherever there is power, this is relevant, and we think… I mean it’s really expensive to move an outlet in an office. It’s thousands and thousands of dollars and very disruptive. So we see this could be really core to companies’ real estate strategies.
Katie: Yeah, and unsafe to have long Extension Cords running through that. That’s great. Steven, is there any of the technology on the inside, do you want to talk about any of the…
Steven: Well it’s definitely one of the biggest sort of power banks.
Katie: Yeah. I mean that’s a lot, three laptops all day.
Steven: It packs a whole lot of power in there, and as James mentioned, so the intelligence sort of power splitting mechanism in there is one of the, I think it’s probably the first actually in this market as well ’cause it automatically detects different devices being plugged in and then shifts the power around. So, it’s just, I mean, the result of that is just convenience, peace of mind, right?
Katie: And what I love about this device is it’s very practical, it removes friction, but it’s a little unexpected, right?
Steven: It’s beautiful.
Katie: It’s beautiful, and I remember the first time I saw it when I saw the white and I was like “Oh, this is…”, you know, when you say “Oh, it’s a charger, it’s a charger”, like, “Oh, it’s a utilitarian”.
Steven: It doesn’t look any, you know, charger that we’ve ever built before. [laughs]
Katie: Well that’s a Testament to James’ team. So it has a great design story. Talk to us a little bit about that, James.
James: So we wanted to kind of create the anti device. We want to do something a little different, something that really made you want to own this, made you know it’s different, commanded your attention and in a way you respect it, so to treat it respectfully, ’cause we wanted to have a premium feel, but it’s a serious work tool. So as the concepts were being developed, an incredibly talented designer and I think we’ve done some filming of her talking about it too. She’s an incredibly talented artist in porcelain and ceramic, So I stare at her work every morning and evening, it’s all on my table. In fact, one day I brought in one of her pieces and then put it on the table and said that’s really that’s it. And we kind of made a little model off of that piece and it really set us off in a new direction.
Katie: Yeah. I love how, how have you described it? It’s something that you want to look at, right? Something that you want to desire, which is…
James: You want to touch it, I mean the soft touch makes you want to touch it, the handle flex has just enough. So then when you pick it up, it feels great. Again, it’s kind of the anti device in a way. It’s just enough math and just enough sculpture, really strikes a balance of compelling qualities that again, and that charges my laptop. I mean that’s kind of the fun thing.
Katie: What surprised you most about working together?
Steven: Anker has background of Engineering and just delivering a tool, but the way of work, the way of design here at Steelcase is really, it’s not just to create something that works, but create something that works elegantly and beautifully, that’s something I think which we’ve learned a whole lot working together on this project.
James: You say what surprised me, I don’t know if surprise is the word, but it does describe a little bit of that. So here’s this 107 year old company, that is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Okay, we have studios all over the world, so we really are a global company of course in this specific industry where we’re known and here’s this eight year old company that had been started and is based in Shenzhen and also has a presence that you guys are increasing your presence on the West coast now as well. But it felt sort of like we’re so similar in some ways and I think that’s especially not on just a company level, but on a personal level. The values that I’ve seen in the team and the organization that Steven’s built and created, it feels very harmonious with kind of what we’ve built in our values and the way we approach things here.
Katie: So, I feel like I have to ask you, since you’re here and we’ve just established that the dating relationship was really short, can you tell us about what’s next? Can you tell us about what the future…
Steven: We have so many, we’ve been talking this few days cause really we feel there’s a whole lot of things we can do together.
James: That opportunity. I mean it is the challenge, right? So, as innovators, as people who make things and people who think of things that will solve problems for the future, we’re thinking we’re living three years out, right? We can only speak of today in a way and the great thing is there’s a ton of stuff to be excited about in the launch of this first product together, but it would be silly to imagine it’s the end of the relationship and there’s more to come.
Katie: More to come, that is cool. Congratulations on a great product. I’m really excited when they come to our offices.
Steven: Thank you. Thank you. Yes, we are just all thrilled.
Katie: You’ve been listening to Steven Yang, founder and CEO of Anker Innovations and James Ludwig, Steelcase vice president of Global Design and Engineering. You can learn more about Steelcase Flex Mobile Power by going online to steelcase-dot-com-slash-mobile power. And, be sure to subscribe to What Workers Want to get all of our latest episodes. Plus, if you missed our recent five part series on the Open Office Truth, visit steelcase.com/openofficetruth. Thanks for joining us.