Christian Paul Kägi

QWSTION

By focusing on design, functionality and sustainability, Swiss backpack company QWSTION encourages customers to consume less but better goods. Hear how Christian Paul Kägi, co-founder and creative director, built a global lifestyle brand that keeps lifting the standard in sustainable production.

A decade into the journey, Christian stands for a new generation of entrepreneurs showing what’s possible by asking the right questions. In this episode, we talk about a key ingredient in hiring, the power of trial and error and the story behind Bananatex®; a fully biodegradable fabric made from banana plants.

Simon: “Every day, we question the norm.” That’s the credo of Swiss backpack company QWSTION. The studio has built a global reputation, for functional, timeless design and especially for their endeavours to produce the most sustainable goods possible. Over a decade ago, back in 2008, five friends started the company on a simple premise. Make products that are functional enough for your daily bike commute and still go well in a business meeting. Since then, QWSTION strives not to follow fashion trends but continually improves the original design. Their first backpack is still in the collection – which, you could say, is a testament to their evolutionary approach to building their products. With their latest announcement, they literally went bananas; Announcing a bag that leaves exactly zero waste at the end of its lifecycle. Three years went into developing an entirely biodegradable fabric – made out of banana plants. Projects like these contribute to QWSTION’s worldwide recognition. In addition to their four stores in Zurich, Vienna, Lausanne and Copenhagen, they are present in hundreds of concept stores from Berlin to Tokyo. You’re listening to “The Idealists” with me, Simon, and my co-host Silja.

Silja: For today’s episode, we sat down with Christian at their headquarters in Zurich. Christian Kägi is QWSTION’s co-founder and creative director refining not only the look and feel of the products but having the bigger picture in mind. What do we really need? How do we consume in the future? And what is sustainable? He represents a new generation of entrepreneurs using their business as a force for something bigger. We began by asking if QWSTION is a bag company having an impact. Or (the other way around) an impact company making bags?

Christian: I would probably put the impact first. I mean it could have been other products in the end that we make. We discovered a niche for ourselves in what we do now; in this type of bag that is kind of a hybrid between fashion and function but also in between backpack and classic bag. But the purpose comes first, I would say. We really were trying different things as well. We tried different categories of products; we founded different businesses before pursuing QWSTION to what it is today.

Silja: As we know from the name QWSTION already, you ask a lot of questions. Can you elaborate a little bit more about how you use questions in your business and day-to-day decision making as well?

Christian: It's fairly straightforward, I would say. I mean asking questions in that sense is really part of our culture in our company. We ask questions and try to find good answers to them. So we recently defined kind of a manifesto for ourselves that is made of six questions, and those are kind of the essential questions of what makes us tick the way we do. And there, for instance, one of them is: "What do we really need?" And that's probably the most fundamental question of the six that we have on there. But it's ultimately really essential to what we do. And the first question we ask before we start designing a new product.

Simon: It also sounds a little bit familiar to the minimalist movement.
What do we really need? If that's the first question, you ask …

Christian: Yes, definitely. I mean we can relate to a lot of things they are doing, you know, and I would say, in a certain way, we are minimalists as well.

Simon: And does this also apply for … because you just said you put the purpose first, say that you're a little bit more an impact company than you are a bag company in that sense. Which is kind of idealistic in a way, I would say, right?

Christian: Yes.

Simon: And you cannot live off just idealism I think. But how do you balance that need for economic or yeah growth and sustainability?

Christian: It's as you say, you know. It's about balancing it. And you have to figure out how to prioritize what in order to get that right balance. And you know we're not alone in this world. There's a whole context in which, you know, we are based in. So that, obviously, plays a big role in the decisions we make, you know. And we can go step by step, and I think ultimately it's really about the journey more than it is about the goal, you know. We do have goals, but we try to go step by step and improving along the way with every step we make.

Silja: You probably decide some decisions differently than maybe other businesses. Can you share some takeaways? What are the main challenges or also the payoffs from growing slowly?

Christian: I think the biggest advantage of the way we've been doing things in our company now over the last ten years is that we had the possibility to learn along the way. So we didn't write down a concept and then make a business plan and pursue that for five years. It was really it started with an idea, and we started getting into it and learning just along the way. We didn't have any pressure, you know. We started as a side business for all of us founders and then slowly grew and at one point we were big enough to be able to decide whether we wanted to focus fully on this or continue with the other things we were doing. So it was a very organic way of growing, and that left a lot of room for trial and error.

Simon: And I can imagine that part of this slow growth or organic growth as you say is getting the right people on board, right? You started as five people; you're now infinitely a few more …

Christian: I mean the first five were also already very important and crucial in the whole process. I mean just getting the right group of people together who wanted to pursue this journey. That was the first step, and then it took a few years before we started hiring people to join us and now in the last few years it's been a bunch of people who joined us, and the process remains the same. That is really as you said it's really important to find the right people with the right skill set to compliment everyone else.

Simon: And it's this kind of a formalized process you follow when hiring and when getting new people on board or how much gut feeling vs. formalized process is this?

Christian: I think with every new hire the amount of gut feeling grows.

Simon: Yeah, alright.

Christian: I mean that as well, you know, learning the hard way sometimes. I mean sometimes you just kind of feel that maybe something's not quite fitting but then you think it's going to change, or it's going to improve, and you only want to give someone a chance which you know might really like on the first impression. And then, yeah, that's definitely been one of our learnings that the gut feel really helps in these situations and it's important to listen to your gut.

Silja: Let's say that not everyone has the same gut feeling in a certain situation. How do you align in the founding team?

Christian: Obviously, with five founders, there is always going to be discussions, and that's part of our culture as well that we discuss different opinions until we find a conclusion. And mostly we do I'd say and then sometimes I mean in hiring, it's the team lead in which the person is coming in. He definitely has priority on that decision. But if someone wants to have a veto, then we'll listen to it because it's for a reason.

Simon: It's probably part of the organizational philosophy, I would say, that you try to keep things not straight hierarchical but also listen to the single individual. And if we think about it… you put purpose first, right? You have a very strong position in that sense, and that has to be transported by every individual person that works for you. Is this the way it works? Does everyone kind of has to have this the same core to it?

Christian: I think it really helps, you know if we all have a common vision on what we want to achieve. It's sometimes you know you might have some time pressure on a new position that you need to fill. So then it's really hard to balance because you have this element of pressure, and maybe you don't have the candidate yet, but still you need to fill that position in order to keep up with the planned projects or whatever and that can make it really difficult and sometimes, in retrospect, you might not make the right decision at that moment. But this is part of the process.

Simon: And do you think it's healthy to reverse this decision in a quick way or how do you deal with that? Because miscalculations happen, right?

Christian: Yeah.

Simon: Gut feeling is probably most of the time right but not all the time. How do you reverse such decisions? Who's responsible?

Christian: It's also about the options you have in the end you know, and sometimes in the given time frame you just don't find the 100% option. So you have to settle for a little bit less, and you have to prioritize certain aspects and ultimately make the best decision in the interests of the whole. But then if you feel that it's just not working then yeah it's important also to take on the consequences and split ways or part ways sometimes.

Silja: You are well known, I guess, for building up your own supply chain.
So if we talk about choosing or bringing people on board inside the company, we should also talk about the partners and manufacturers that you have. You invest in long term relationships not only inside the business with employees but also partners. Can you share some insights on the journey of building up a supply chain on your own?

Christian: It's very much the same there. It's really important to find the right people with an aligned vision of where we want to go. So it's probably the overall hardest thing, I would say, of building companies is to find the right people.

Simon: So you wouldn't differentiate if it's the supplier you talked to or if it's a new hire, to our new store manager or something like that? So it's more sharing that common goal or vision? We're talking about the same vision a lot. Can you make it a little bit more grippy? What's with that vision?

Christian: Our vision, very pragmatically put, is to make the most sustainable products we can. And ultimately that will be fully circular, biodegradable products made from natural fibres and materials.

Silja: And was this part of your founding spirit from the beginning to make the most sustainable product? Or did it evolve over time?

Christian: It evolved, and we like to promote an evolutionary process as a company as well. You know we have an evolutionary approach to design which is contrary to the fashion system in a way. We don't create collections that are old as soon as they're out there you know we want to create products with a long term value that can be helpful every day over a long period of time. And then with everything we learn, we add that into the equation. So we improve little details on the product. Sometimes it's bigger steps but mostly small steps in the evolution of a product. Our original first product, the backpack, is probably in its seventh or eighth generation now. And if you see all the versions next to each other, you will clearly see that the basic concept is still the same. But it's evolved from what it originally was, and it's evolved in terms of materials. It's more sustainable now than it was then. It's stronger. It's more durable just because of the things we learned along the way. And that kind of evolution I think is really important to our way of working.

Simon: We talked a lot about the organization and how it's structured inside the organization. You touched a little bit upon the customer perspective — or the people buying your bags. When everyone in the organization has such a shared common goal or vision, how does this transport to the people out there? How do you shape or actively have an impact on that shared purpose between you and your customers?

Christian: It's important to communicate precisely, and that's also something we've been learning a lot along the way. How do we need to word things to make it understandable? Sustainability as a whole is such a complex topic. So it's important to break it down in ways that people can understand it and ultimately relate to it as well. That's not only externally but also internally that we need to communicate our vision as well clearly.

Simon: How do you do that?

Christian: We're still a fairly small team you know. So we are around 25 people now. We have a bi-annual gathering of the whole team. That's a really important meeting for everyone, you know.

Simon: And that's everyone like from all the places in Vienna and from abroad?

Christian: Exactly. I mean we keep the stores open during that week. So there are a few people who are staying in the store making sure that everything's running. But there are always people from all the different stores coming. Everyone comes together there. We share ideas. We discuss ideas. We discuss developments. We review and we preview. The design team may prepare a new direction we are working on you know and then at a quite an early stage the whole team gets the chance to say what they think of it, and that again goes back into the evolution of the product. But then we also discuss the vision and what steps it will take along the way to get to where we want to be in five years, for instance.

Silja: And more on a day to day level … How do you keep the people working in different places aligned?

Christian: We have a bi-weekly meeting with the whole team. I mean that's via Skype where we all join together for an hour and each group of people… I mean we're totally decentralized in that sense. We have a team in Zurich, the team in Seefeld (Austria) which is close to Innsbruck. Then we have the team in Vienna, a team in Copenhagen, and we all join for this one hour call in which all the teams update everyone else on the running projects. What's been going on. That's really important. And also very helpful to stay up to date on the general atmosphere, but also the things that are making people think you know… What's on their minds, what's going on.

Simon: Sounds like a collective approach to finding or making decisions — like a consensus-based approach to making decisions. Is it like this that you gather and then you talk about like reshaping the vision or sharpening the vision? Is it like this that everyone sits in a room and then you get input from everyone because I was thinking … Is there some kind of leadership level, or is this just very flat and holacratic organization form?

Christian: There is a certain level of leadership in the team. Basically, we have a communications team, a 2D design team, a 3D design team, the sales-focused team to which we count all the three channels we are working. So it's wholesale, own physical stores and online store. Then there's the operations team which includes finance to a certain degree. So on that level, we have a team lead, and the team leads are part of the management board, and that's where we ultimately make the decisions. But we discuss a lot with the whole team. And that can be kind of vertically in each of the teams, but it can also be horizontally with the whole team. And there's not a lot of hierarchy in there. But in the end, some people – also the founders – are in roles that have a bit more responsibility for the long term decision making.

Silja: And how much is the customer involved in new developments? Do you implement customer feedback into new developments, or is it more the team itself?

Christian: It's more the team itself. I mean, we have our team very close to the store in this building here where we are now. It's the store, but it's also the development studio. That really helps. And that was important while we were looking for a potential store space. We were looking for that where we could combine everything and be close to the customer. So we get a lot of direct feedback from customers. And that definitely flows into the development, but it's not that we have an open discussion with our customers about the direction we are taking, you know. It's good to listen, but the decision has to be made by us where we want to go and what it takes to get there.

Silja: So I think it would make sense to go back to the supply chain and maybe you can share some insights into Bananatex® as well? You started with organic cotton and now …

Christian: Well, we started with cotton and back then, as I mentioned before, it was really a learning curve we went through. So we started out deciding to work with natural fibre. We knew that it was going to be more expensive to do that and to go that direction in manufacturing. So that was the first decision. From then on, we pursued that direction of going towards 100% sustainability. There were certain steps along the way. The first big one was to create our own organic cotton canvas, which is now implemented on pretty much all the collections before we released Bananatex®. And in between, we had steps like 100% hemp fabric made in Europe. We also pursued a concept which we called the Swiss-made collection where the idea was to prove that nowadays it's still possible to produce bags in a larger quantity in Switzerland from A to Z. So the goal was to use Swiss, raw material. Make the yarn in Switzerland. Do the weaving, the buckles, the leather, … everything. But ultimately, what was that about three years ago, we had to bury the whole project because we just figured out the hard way that it's actually not possible anymore.

Simon: What was the limiting factor there?

Christian: Well, during the process, it was about a four-year project researching and finding suppliers and developing together with them. And during that time one after the other closed down. It was really, you know, we just found the last company the last weaving mill that could still make really heavyweight canvases in Switzerland with special weaving machines and special looms. Shortly after we started working and developing with them, they closed down. The last tanning company closed down. The last … whatever, you know. One after the other was closing down and the knowhow was ultimately being moved to other countries and regions. I mean it also had to do with the shift in the valuation of the Swiss Franc versus the €. It probably put the last nail in the coffin of the possibilities that Swiss manufacturing has in certain ways, and now it's kind of down to super high tech, highly efficient processes or then really small scale high-quality manufacturing. But making textile products is still a lot of handcraft up to today. So handcraft in Switzerland has become too expensive for bigger scale productions. You know, it's really a commitment of customers that are willing to pay a lot for a product that is made in Switzerland. In some areas that still works: Watchmaking is one of them. But in terms of backpacks, we ended up with a product that didn't deliver the high quality. It didn't deliver better function, not even more sustainability. So ultimately, it was just clear that this wasn't the right path to pursue. In that sense, we concluded that you have to respect what globalization brought to us as a society. There were a lot of advantages that came from it. There were also a lot of downsides. And I think the future is really in balancing the advantages with disadvantages and finding ways to accommodate that while prioritizing sustainability to the maximum.

Silja: And I can imagine that… I mean if I hear or if people hear the word sustainability, you ultimately think about where it's produced. And the global or local discussion is probably big. Do you get this question a lot: Why don't you do produce in Switzerland?

Christian: Of course, we do! We've done a lot of research into these areas, and I think our ultimate goal would be and probably the ideal scenario would be that we produce where the know-how is. That's maybe the first thing and then use local materials … or let's say regional because it's not so much about local in the sense of the word. It doesn't make sense anymore to produce a cotton canvas in Zurich; for instance. That just doesn't make sense. That's not where the know-how is. So the knowledge is usually concentrated in certain areas, and then the available resources define the scope or the spectrum of materials that make sense to work within a specific region. So the ideal scenario I think would be to produce in Europe for the European market and in Asia for the Asian market and let's say in America for the American market. And then you could break it down to smaller areas, and that's probably the ideal scenario. But it's a long way to get there just because the know-how is spread out all over the globe. For our type of product, I would say we have a very efficient setup now. We have the whole supply chain in Asia with short trucking distances and longer shipping distances. And that has to do with the fact that trucking causes around 20 times more emissions per kilometre per weight compared to shipping, you know. So basically we can ship 20 times the distance with the same output of emissions versus trucking. So what we tried to do is keep trucking distances short. Work close to ports and then ship the longer distances. And we've done a lot of math regarding that. We discovered that right now with our supply chain based in Asia we're more efficient than if we produced in Portugal let's say and then trucked from Portugal two thousand kilometres to a warehouse and Seefeld, Austria.

Simon: We just talked about the ideal scenario. Or you talked about it which maybe leads us to the question: What's next for QWSTION? What's next for your products?

Christian: I think now with Bananatex®, I mean it's been a four-year process. We talked about evolution before. And where we came from and what sustainability means. And that this Swiss-made project was kind of a step in between. We learned a lot and implemented what we learned then in further development, which was Bananatex®. So after that hard learning that we can't work against globalisation, we have to try to work with it and use these new realities in the best way possible. That's when we decided to pursue the Bananatex® project full-on. We just had discovered the potential of the fibre back then. The fibre itself is more tear-resistant than cotton, which was a good base to start with. And then also the way the plant grows is a lot more efficient and a lot more natural. It's basically a very … how do you say, self-sufficient plant. It doesn't need any additional water or pesticides or fertilisers whatsoever. So that was a great base to start. Over the last four years, we developed a textile from that fibre in Asia. All the processing takes place there. The level of sustainability we have now on this material is higher than on our organic cotton. Organic cotton versus standard cotton is already a huge difference. Not to be underestimated really but this is the next step in our evolution. The next step in our portfolio evolution is that we are going to implement our new material development and the thinking that lies behind the new designs to the whole collection step by step.

Silja: Do you have any plans to sell the material itself to other companies and to make… ?

Christian: Absolutely yes. In the process … you know, it was was a long process to get to where it is now, and we want to be sure that it actually delivers the qualities we were looking for. And then we started thinking about what this really means for us and what potential it might have you know. We decided to create a brand for it, which is Bananatex®. Together with the development partners, we had on board for the development. We decided to position it in kind of an open-source way. We didn't want to restrict the potential of it. The goal was to create an alternative to all the plastics that are commonly used — for outdoor applications and functional reasons. We've already felt that the demand on the market side is really high for something like this. You know everyone's talking about the issues of plastic pollution, and there as well, our thinking was really to say it's a more significant issue we are talking about. It wasn't just about us having an advantage in the market. It was really about creating a true alternative to tackle some big issues we are having as a society nowadays.

Simon: You just briefly touched on the topic of open-source. So you open-sourced the recipe of how to produce Bananatex®?

Christian: Not not in that sense. I mean maybe it's not the right word for what we're doing with Bananatex®, but we wanted to make it accessible to everyone versus keeping it exclusive to ourselves and making it kind of or market advantage. That would have been one way to go. But it was really important for us to keep the bigger picture in mind, you know. And the issues we are going through with climate change. And the impact we as a human race are having on this planet. And then at the same time realising there is no planet B. We have to figure it out. It wouldn't make sense to prioritise our own profit over the general situation. And we truly believe that we can do both. We can profit from the pioneering work we've done with creating this material. But also we can profit from more companies and more brands working with the material. We can all keep that evolution going and direct the know-how we gain through bigger quantities into the development.

Simon: Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to know more, head over to www.theidealists.co! As always there is one more thing we ask our guests and that is: Who should we talk to next?

Christian: Yeah, there is actually an interesting company that started quite recently, maybe one or two years ago. They are called Banana, and they make ice cream from food waste basically. So they collect the banana that is not sold in the supermarket because it's too brown, too small or whatever and use that to make their ice cream.

“We can’t work against globalisation; we have to try to work with it.”

— Christian Paul Kägi [00:27:59]

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