Federico Negro: CEO, Canoa


A Designer and Product come together

This week, Bobby and Andrew are live from NeoCon with a guest who’s lived the majority of last two decades at the intersection of design and technology, Canoa CEO and Co-founder, Federico Negro.  A world-class storyteller, Fed takes the guys through his early startup ethos of “buildings equal data”, his time leading design through the explosive growth of WeWork and how a chair sitting beside a freeway changed everything and eventually led to the creation of Canoa.

Connect with our hosts on LinkedIn: 

Bobby Bonett

Andrew Lane

Follow Federico Negro on Linkedin

References and resources:


Canoa Circle Student Cohort


Related and referred BTE Episodes:

Amanda Schneider, President of ThinkLab, on the impacts of technology on the design industry looking forward

Greg Lindsay, Urban Tech Fellow at Cornell University on the intersections of technology with urban design

Get in touch with us with your questions on emerging technology, innovation and more at [email protected] or drop us a voicemail at the BTE Hotline at 1-917-934-2812.

Discover more shows from SURROUND at surroundpodcasts.com.

This episode of Barriers to Entry was produced by Rob Schulte.

This transcript was made in part by an automated service. In some cases there may be errors. 


Federico: [00:00:00] That space has been completely ignored, um, by design technology. And so more so than I think other scales of design, the interior designer is constantly dependent upon all of this product data exists out in the world. And it’s a really difficult thing to do at scale.

Bobby: Welcome to Barriers to Entry, a design innovation podcast on the Surround podcast network.

This is the show where we obsess over the not too. Distant future of the architecture design and creative industries and the ideas, tools, technologies, and talent that will take us there. I’m Bobby Bonet, chief growth officer at Sandow design group. And as always, I’m joined by Digby co founder Andrew lane.

We’re in the neocon podcast studio presented by surround sponsored by snapcab and it’s day. Day two of Neocon?

Andrew: Day two going on day nine. Oh my goodness, goodness, goodness. Exactly. It’s, uh, it’s, we’re right in the thick of Neocon. The activity around the booth is, uh It’s vibrant, popping as ever. And, uh, yeah, the, the floors, uh, you, you’ve been upstairs today, Bobby.

Bobby: I think we’ve, we’ve spent time, uh, traversing three, seven, 10, 11 on the elevators up and down, up and down. Um, have you had a chance to reflect now that we’re on day two? What are you feeling, Andrew?

Andrew: I’m feeling that there’s a lot of people, uh, who are in Chicago to look at furniture. Um, that’s a hot take.

Yeah, there’s, it’s

Bobby: bold of you. It’s crowded

Andrew: up there. We did say this is

Bobby: an innovation podcast. Yeah,

Andrew: I know, right? People are, people are excited. I think, um, you know, on the innovation tip and we talked about this, uh, on one of our other pods that sequentially probably comes out after this one, but we talked about recycling yesterday, and that’s definitely a theme that we’re seeing a lot of.

And I think we’re going to get into themes like that. Yeah. Uh, once again today with our esteemed guest who’s patiently waiting for us to intro him here in the pod studio as we’re all locked in. So today in the pod studio, uh, presented by snap cab, uh, we are thrilled to welcome a guest who’s been living at the intersection of the design industry and the startup world for a while now.

Uh, from his first foray into startups with his own firm, Case Design, uh, to leading the design function through the growth of a little business called WeWork, uh, to his current role as the co founder and CEO of design focus tech startup, Kanoa. Federico Negro has always had innovation in his blood. Given our ongoing obsession with the future design industry on this pod, we couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome a disruptor and innovator with a track record as long as feds.

Welcome to the pod. Thank you.

Federico: Uh, was that a good intro? Did I get that? That was wonderful. I, I, um, I didn’t know innovation came. Intervenously. So yeah, I

Bobby: like that. We work ever heard of it. That’s good. I

Andrew: like that. It’s Yeah, people have been them.

Bobby: Yeah, but we’ll get to we work fed where you met some of your co founders.

But start by telling us a little bit about case design on your first foray into the startup world and maybe what predated your time in case design and your design credentials.

Federico: You know, I grew up, um, well, I’d like to start way back, um, but I, I’m from Latin America. Originally, I grew up in Uruguay. That’s where my family’s from.

Um, family of engineers, um, got to college. I actually went to Illinois for undergrad, um, here in fighting a lot of fighting a lot. Now that’s right. Um, Um, and then I, you know, did a bunch of stuff with history, but I always loved technology. I did a lot of gaming when I was young and I was, um, you know, building computers literally with my brother to like sell them as like little gaming machines and, um, got to grad school.

I went to Parsons in New York. That’s when I moved there. Um, and it was a really cool time in the city. Um, that school specifically, um, had, um, This program called the design workshop where you didn’t just sort of do a studio and design something. You had to build it as well. Um, and so the idea of craft and technology and all of these things coming together really attracted me to that school.

Um, and so I think very early on, I was, I didn’t really know what to call it yet, but I was really attracted to this idea of how things get done. Was almost more interesting than what was getting done. Um, and so, and eventually I think we sort of graduated that or evolved that into this concept of tooling and workflows and process.

Really everything that has to do with craft when we, when we like use that term in its sort of widest possible sense. Um, and I met a couple of architects there who were just starting their practice, uh, from shop architects. So two of the partners, two of the founders were, were, um, were my professors. They were like, hey, we need somebody to build some desks for us in the office.

And so I like jumped at that opportunity and got into, um, you know, this New York scene where, you know, early on, all these sort of topics of mass customization, sort of early robotics in architecture and CNC and all these kinds of things. And so it felt really at home. With people who are really interested in how technology would enable us to do more in design.

Long story short, after [00:05:00] a few years, met a couple of, of other colleagues of mine, we’re good friends, um, uh, We’re Time Now, Dave Fano and Steve Sanderson, with them we broke off in 2008. Like the whole economy was collapsing. We had no idea. Everyone, we were literally also like, we, we were in, we were living in the South street, seaport, the office shops office was like a few blocks over and, you know, and like the banking industry was like, all this stuff was happening around us and we’re just getting a coffee.

We had no clue. Um, so part of innovation I think is being a little bit, um, I think obtuse and yeah, ignorance is bliss, right? Um, but we started case with this idea. We had done all this stuff internally, um, you know, to, to help also, you know, shop grow and all of this sort of organic stuff and case became, um, uh, a graduation of, of all of those centers where we said, look, let’s do this.

There’s a wave of technology coming into this industry with like BIM and DFMA stuff and all this stuff. Um, and we think we can build a, like a really fun business around this. So we started doing that. Um, you know, we did that for a few years. Lo and behold, it did really well. Um, we grew to about 60, um, or 65 people, um, sort of mix of like software developers.

Architects, engineers, sort of product managers, helping people like either develop or implement new technology in their practices. And we got to work with all kinds of people. Super fun. We met everybody. Yeah, but it was an agency model, right? We were selling at the end of the day. We’re still selling time.

We’re selling and so, but we started to build a bunch of technology and over the arc of time of 67 years, we got to the point where we actually had like. We, we, we got pretty good at building some things and so like we, you know, became obsessive with like UX and UI and all of these kinds of things and we, and we, you know, that’s where we’re getting our creative kicks in a way because we weren’t really like building buildings anymore.

We were, we were working for the people who built buildings, but we were doing that tooling. We were, we were working on the tools that they were using every day. Um, and you know, one of the, one of the customers that sort of was like growing up, uh, alongside us was these like crazy guys that we were, who were like running around with like, and you know, it was like early startup world in New York city as well.

And, uh, my wife had, uh, actually had, had a space in the first, we work on the first floor that we weren’t opened. Um, and so we, like, you know, we were there, we go into a bunch of their events. And I got to meet some of those, some of those folks. We knew that they were growing, that they were raising money.

All this stuff was happening. And we kept looking over like, what is this? Like what is happening? Um, so. Over time, we, we started doing a lot of work for them, the outside, and then by 2015, they ended up, um, acquiring us. We were their first acquisition. Um, 2014, um, and they were still, you know, by their measures, they were still small.

Um, we had, um, You know, maybe like, I don’t know, a handful of locations, maybe a couple of hundred people. Um, and so then I came on to effectively run the design group. One, one of their founders was a chief creative officer. And so my job was really to try to help them scale, uh, that product. They say, look, we, we sort of know what this looks like.

We know what it feels like. How do we build a hundred of these? How do we build 300 of these? And so that became my, my responsibility.

Bobby: That’s it. An insane job leading design for, for we work in that stage of growth and that stage of development. So what did you see and what did you learn and how did that start to kind of like develop the, the bedrock for, for how you’re, Your design philosophy would emerge and inform your approach to this space, you know, over the next 10 years.

Federico: Yeah, look, that’s a, it’s a really good question. There’s a, um, I think one of the reasons why, why we ended up doing it. Um, it wasn’t the first time that somebody had offered to acquire us and, but it was the most interesting offer we ever got because the

Andrew: pot is fully NDA, by the way, say whatever you need.

Federico: So we’ll get into some of that stuff, but there’s a, but the reason why it was so interesting is because, um, you know, when, when you’re running a design technology agency, you, at some points you feel like you’re, You’re, you know, like, you’re like, you’re not even a sidecar, you’re like a sidecar to the sidecar, like, all the real work is happening over here, and, and you don’t get the full picture sometimes.

Um, and, and so, when, when the opportunity came up to say, hey, we have this really difficult problem, and we had been touting how, you know, Technology could make things, you know, like more, more effective, more efficient, all these kinds of things. And now it’s like, well, now prove it, right? It was like, now here’s the keys, get in the driver’s seat and do it.

And so that was like really exciting. We’re like, okay, it wasn’t about, you know, having an exit, all those kinds of things. It was like, okay, now you have, you’re, you’re fully budgeted. You know what the task is. It’s an execution problem. Um, and we love execution problems because it was just like optimization, [00:10:00] optimization, you know?

So we naively kind of. Jumped into it with all of the things that that would entail. Um, and it was nuts and it was, and it was of course, you know, super fun and it was really difficult. Um, but at the core of it, you know, at, at case we had this line that said, um, buildings equals data. Um, and that was kind of our, our thing.

Um, and that’s, I think really what really resonated with WeWork leadership and their investors was that this idea that we could. You know, design and deploy physical architecture at a speed that was, that was not the norm in the market. Um, and, and, you know, and, and, and that is true without a lot of the, you know, the processes that we built up, it would have been really difficult to do

Bobby: some of the numbers.

I’m going to read some of them. Launched into 30 countries, 500 plus locations, 1000 person design team. Um, and the number that stuck out to me most was managing 250 million in FF& E design and procurement. And like you said, at a pretty yearly insane speed yearly, thank you. Important distinction and a mind blowing distinction.

What is it like doing that at that speed? I mean, obviously like you pointed to that data based mindset and something that resonated with WeWork leadership. In the moment and then looking back like What was it

Federico: like? You know when you’re, I call it the fog of war. When you’re in the fog of war, it’s sort of hard to describe.

It’s like, there’s like a little ringing that’s happening in your ear. Um, I don’t know. It’s, it’s, um, I laugh about it now, but it was really hard. Um, it was really exciting. Um, all of those things together we would, um, You know, we had such procurement power because we were, um, basically what ended up happening was that we went from a design group to a design and procurement group because Our product was incredibly FF& E heavy, right, like 60%, um, at least of the product was all of, you know, finishes, materials, paint, lighting.

We got to a point where the biggest risk to us opening locations was our supply chain. Right. Of all of the products that needed to go into those locations. Like, you know, leases were getting signed, all of these things were happening. And if we didn’t open, we didn’t make money, right? It was a big risk.

Traditional retail model from that perspective or hoteling models like you got to open these things. That’s how you make money And so and so opening days were incredibly important and you just had to move, you know um and so whether it was, you know jumping on an airplane to fly to india to go see a vendor or Or having to fly a bunch of people to new york to close a really big deal.

That was you know 12 months in advance or those kinds of things. These are all things we kind of had to learn on the fly. And of course we had some amazing people from procurement that had been coming to help us. But as a designers, we were the ones saying this is what I want to buy and now help me do the procurement bit of it.

And we want to buy a lot of these and we need to buy a lot of these because the other thing about WeWork is that We had this sort of 80 20 split where 20 percent of the product could be, you know, local and all of that. But from a product quality perspective, um, there were some things that we just, we just were, if we bought at scale, we would be able to get tremendous quality for a lot lower cost.

And so, like, You know, like door, door hardware, for example, we’re buying that, you know, globally. Um, and then, and then, you know, redistributing it and that would save us tremendous amount of money. So, it was, it was nuts. Um, yeah. So,

Bobby: Fog of War, nuts. Within the Fog of War, I know I’m like picturing like,

Andrew: like Dunkirk or something like that, you know.

Um, in all of that, Kanoa emerges. Right. Um, can you talk about what were some of the things that you were reacting to and some of the ideas that were percolating that kind of led you to pivot into, um, you know, the venture that you’re leading today?

Federico: Yeah. Um, you know, I’ll be a little bit critical of, of myself.

We had, um, as we were, my, my role there, my official title was side of design as we were growing. Um, and you’re growing at that speed. Inevitably, there’s going to be waste in the system and all kinds of the definitions of waste. We had all of them. Um, and, and so, you know, you, you, um, You’re consuming that much.

It means you have like responsibly. It means you have to keep track of it. You have to know where it is. You have to maintain it. You have to do all of these kinds of things, which became incredibly difficult over a global footprint. You know, we’re at some point by the time I left, I think something like 20 million square feet of space.

Um, and 60 percent of that have been just built in the last year and a half. So it was just like, where did, you know, where did it come from? Like no system could keep up. Yeah. And so I like to tell this anecdote that I was visiting, I was in LA. We were coming off our off ramp, um, with some of the, some of our development team and I saw one of our chairs on the side of the road.

And we could recognize them because we got to the point where we were designing a lot of our own product because it was cheaper and it was exactly what we wanted it to be. And it’s like, that’s one of our [00:15:00] chairs. Um, and it was on the side of the road and it was a plastic chair. And I, and I hated it.

Like everything about it. It’s like, this is horrible. Like, I was like, I did that. There’s no more. Tangible connection between something that I like I brought into this world. I was like, I did that. I bought that chair six months ago or something and somehow or another is now on the side of the road in L.

A. And it immediately got me to think about, you know, where else was that happening? And you know other countries or other locations or where it was and really what what the obvious thing was is that the system was Was losing control, right? There was enough and so You know, I got to look around and, um, you know, not very long after I was already getting super burnt out and all of that, and my job had really changed from being, you know, super creative and trying to figure out all these processes and technology to do this, to, to mostly just running budgets and things.

And so I was also kind of getting disenamored with the idea. So I ended up leaving. Um, and the problem that I kept sort of coming back to was that for all of the technology we have for architecture, We have almost no technology at the FFNE scale. And it’s a fundamentally different design process. Like I would say it’s like, I would equate it to say like, I don’t know, like.

If you’re doing web design versus, um, you know, versus like print or publishing. Like it’s, they’re both types of design, but they’re different. They have different outputs, they have different deliverables, they have different, all of these different kinds of things. And so for all of this time that I spent in design technology, most of it was on ground, you know, most of it was focused on tools that really are built, are meant for ground up construction.

And the vast majority of the work that we were doing at WeWork was interior retrofit, and the vast majority of the work that I’ve been doing most of my life and that we will probably keep doing for the next 50 years is mostly into a retrofit and there’s just no good tech for it. And so a lot of the waste came from us growing too quickly and all of the nuttiness around we work, which is completely true.

A lot of the waste also just came up with the fact that like our system sucked in every way. And if they were terrible for us who were doing this. And we’re supposed to be the best at it. Um, but you know, like, the, the thread of data, if this building SQL’s data thing, the thing, the thread of data from a specification into procurement was broken two or three times.

Um, and, and in each of those times, it meant, you know, us losing things, like, real things, physical things out in the world. Um, and so I was like, there’s a, there’s a moment here In the fit and finish of a space where you know what what turns this space into a podcast booth or what turns a blank room into a baby’s room or whatever it is, that space has has been completely ignored by design technology.

And so and we and then we said, What does that mean? It’s like, well, a designer and a product come together at one point, and then a designer and one product and maybe two products come together at that point. And that’s, that’s really I was like, Okay. This is, this is where Kanoa wants to live because more so than I think other scales of design, the interior designer, the fit and finish design is constantly, you know, dependent upon all of this product data that exists out in the world.

And it’s a really difficult thing to do at scale.

Bobby: So tell us about the platform. And some of the different features and value propositions that, and the audiences that Kanoa serves, um, and where it stands today.

Federico: Yeah. So I’ll start with the audience. Um, so it’s a tool for, um, interior designers, spatial designers. That’s who we build for. That’s who we are.

That’s who we care about. That’s who we like to talk to, uh, day in and day out. And the architecture of the tool is really simple. There’s, um, first and foremost, it’s 2024 now. And so. Much of the workflow of the interior designer still lives on a desktop and file based systems. And so first decision was like, we have to bring everything up into the web.

Um, so, so it’s a, a browser based tool. Um, and that’s hard. Right. Like having proper vectors in a browser and images and editing, all that kind of stuff. It’s, it’s not trivial. It takes, you know, there’s a reason why even tools like Figma still require you to download something. And so, and so performance was a huge undertaking for us.

Um, and, um, so we have a online editor that is supposed to be as free and as unencumbered as possible. I’d say like this is, I’d say like ethos number two or goal number two of the tool was to say that much of the technology that exists is hyperstructured. It’s like, Oh, don’t move this because you’ll get an error.

Don’t move this because you know, it’ll make it angry. Um, and we as designers don’t work that way. Like we just like. Wow, like we want to do what we want to do. We want to play around with it. And we don’t want to be told constantly by a piece of software that we’re wrong at something. It’s like, well, actually you’re wrong.

Um, and so, and so, um, so it has to be, you know, it has to be sort of unencumbered from that perspective. Um, [00:20:00] um, but it also has to be really smart. And this is where the data play comes into it. Is that there’s a fundamental. Um, you know, I don’t know if you guys know sort of about like the whole Revit thing, but like there’s a fundamental thing that happens when you take buildings and make them equal data.

When you have a database behind your drawings, you have a database behind your models, there’s a lot of things you can do, um, to improve the quality, to improve the speed, all those kinds of things. So we, so basically, You have a tool that allows you to design to put together layouts and presentations and all these kinds of things, but it’s backed by a real database of product data that you can you can build your your building as you’re going and and it’s also enriching as you go.

And that’s where a little bit the like the machine learning work and all that stuff is that that we that we bring into it. But We, we fundamentally believe that today the tool should make you smarter. Um, it shouldn’t replace you. It shouldn’t ask you to click 73 buttons to get something done, right? It’s like, you should kind of, you know, work with me and alongside me and make me better and, and, and not get in my way.

Um, which is where I think a lot of the nineties technology is. Um, you know, that’s the architecture of the tool. That’s what we like to say. And so in really simple terms, there’s a canvas for design, there’s a catalog, it’s your database, and it’s, you know, powered by, by the automation there.

Bobby: Um, when you’re, when you’re chatting with designers about, um, The platform, the interface, when, when, when does the light bulb go off?

Like whether you’re giving a demo or you’re, or you’re talking with them about, um, the inspiration for Kanoa or you’re, you’re explaining it to a designer, like you’re explaining it to Andrew and I, when are they like, shit, like you got something and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into this.

Federico: Yeah, there’s this moment.

Um, we actually just released something that drastically improves this, but there’s this moment when. When an image on a screen when the user realizes that that image has a ton of metadata associated with it, and you’re like, Oh, like, it’s not just an image. There’s a bunch of information that we can learn from this.

And we so we’ve been working on that on that again, that moment where the designer meets the product. And sometimes when we meet a product that could just be an image of a scene of Um, You know, of a photo of a setting of marketing, something that something put together and we might not even know what it is, you know, so we often start with this idea is like, okay, well, let’s just go to Pinterest.

You might, you’d like some, everybody has a Pinterest board or something. You copy paste the link from Pinterest and you drop it onto and you just literally control V onto the canvas. And, uh, that motion alone, which everybody knows how to do is, you know, copy paste, uh, creates your first smart element, smart object and in the tool.

And it, so it’s brought the link. It’s brought the image, and it’s brought all of the available metadata from that page, from that link. And so you, and, and it’s, and it creates a connection that is persistent. Which means if that link were ever to change, it’s changing in your canvas forever. You don’t, like, there’s no staleness to the data anymore.

And so you’re like, oh, wait a minute. So as I’m, you know, taking pictures of things, I’m collecting links on Pinterest, I can just bring those and begin to, Um, you know, collect them into the canvas. So we have the, we’ve created, we’ve, we’ve sort of organized around this rubric. We call collect, combine, and then share.

So we’re, we’re as designers every day, we collect, we collect things like we’re around here, we’re taking photos of things. There’s a moment when two things come together, they’re combined. And for us, this is where design begins. Like you’re, you’re beginning to say it was like, there’s something about these two things that works or three things or 10 things or whatever.

And, and so in a way, Every website out there is used to showing us things in catalog form and then somehow, and then we end up screenshotting everything and like, and then bring it into like mirror or something. It’s like that action of combining them is gold. It’s everything. And so that’s where canoas at its best.

It’s like. You know, you want all this stuff. You want to be able to come on and you want to bring all the data. So at the end of the day, you have, you’re able to say, Hey, we, I’ve made this design. I’ve made this mood board or concept board or whatever it is, but you know what everything is and you and it has a link back to what it was.

And so that richness I think is, you know, that’s where people are like, Oh, I totally get this. Like it’s, it’s a, it’s a fundamentally different tool and workflow that what I do today.

Andrew: I tend to refer to these things as hand to hand combat where you’re actually like there with the designer showing them these sorts of things and helping them to come to these aha moments.

Um, you’ve got, we’ve got the whole team kind of hanging out outside and you guys are doing great work. How is it that you’re kind of, Turning these philosophies into realities for people because, you know, people might just see it and go, Oh, it’s a mood board, right? Like, what are some of the things that you’re doing to help people recognize the degree to which you’ve built a tool for them and, you know, all the capabilities around it?

Federico: It’s hard to go to market. Um, you know, what startup world calls to go to market. It’s a fancy term for meaning. How do you sell your stuff? Uh, is, uh, that part is, is. it’s obvious, but it’s really hard to execute. Of course, we, we, we [00:25:00] exist in an industry where, um, and rightly so I’m one of them. Designers are, uh, have a super high bar for the tooling that they use really high.

Um, and rightly so, because mostly for the last 30 or 40 years, they have been kind of, Having to adjust to whatever the large vendors tell them that they can do. Um, and so things are getting better now. Um, but you know, they come to the table with a certain amount of sort of apprehension, if you will. And we are going after unapologetically, we’re going after being one of those tools of the interior designers tech stack that you have open all day, every day.

Um, you know, so you got to do the hard work. You got to sit with them. You have to show you have to earn that trust. And a lot of times that trust is not just like, you know, putting up an ad on Google, like you have to go there, you have to show them, you have to walk them through it. And hopefully, you know, you find those early adopters who then become, you know, they actually help you grow.

They help you develop, they help you find the mistakes, find the errors, the bugs or whatever. And that’s how the tool gets better. Um, and so from, you know, I give the team a ton of credit. Like we went out and started talking to people like. Way early, like the tool, it’s like horrible. Like the concepts were there, but like a super buggy and all these kinds of, but like, if you don’t do that, like, you know, you could very easily stray in a direction that, um, you know, for months that may end up costing you a ton of money and, and even, and even, you know, May end up costing you the company because if you don’t, if you can’t get there, it’s, it’s tough.

So you, you gotta have a thick skin.

Andrew: So it’s interesting because, you know, we talked about the, the scale that happened at, at WeWork, right. And how that was, you know, lather wrench with Pete in a lot of ways, a lot about timing and supply chain, but you had a lot of control when you’re doing this, where you have such an intimate relationship.

How are you thinking about scale differently, um, as you grow Kanoa?

Federico: Well, there’s a there’s a concept. Um, you know, so I like to look at my career as a as a series of experiments in different business models. So,

Bobby: you

Federico: know, shop was sort of typical professional services. Um, then, um, at case we were doing, it was like what we call like productized services where the services were still services, but there was only like four of them that we always did over and over again.

Then we jumped to WeWork where we’re selling a physical product with a subscription. It was actually more like selling cable in a way. It’s like, Hey, like, you know, we’ve built this infrastructure and if you need it, here you go, you got, you got put in your token. Um, and now we’ve graduated all the way to, you know, to SaaS, a software as a service company where, you know, we’re, we’re really, um, you know, the, the method that we use is, is what’s called product led, um, which is that.

Your product just has to be incredibly good. And at some point you hit this, you hit this, um, inflection point where, um, you get to what’s called negative churn, which is that your, your tool is organically growing faster than dropping, then, then, then you’re dropping. And so, and so like the system just works and it’s, and it’s growing usually because one user is inviting another user and, and that, that, Acquisition costs for you just dilutes the original one.

And so if you could say that, you know, acquiring one user over their lifetime ends up being three users or four users, five users, because they’ve invented the mean people, that’s the kind of holy grail. We’re not there yet. Um, but that’s, you know, that’s where, um, you know, if we, we fundamentally believe that if all of our investment is in product and engineering and making the product that good.

That, you know, eventually you, you, you, you have to hit that inflection point.

Bobby: Um, and Andrew talked about the, we work scale and, and, and applying that and thinking about skill at Kanoa, I want to go back to the, we work that the moment you had driving in LA and seeing the chair on the side of the road. And I think you were thinking about sustainability, where are you looking to make an impact on, on the sustainability side at Kanoa and, and what are some of the efforts you’re, you’re undertaking, um, at the company right now?

Federico: Yeah. So that’s really. Yeah, it’s really important to us. I think that this is another place where technology really needs to play a big role. I think that most designers we speak to want to do better, but doing better is hard. Yeah, right. And so how do you end up with? I mean, maybe I’m like a cartoon of myself in a way because I end up with a chair on the side of the road.

But But the reality is that for as much of people like to claim Um, or disassociate themselves from the problem. And there’s a real core issue, uh, with the design and it’s just like, Oh, you know, we, we didn’t build it or we’re not the, you know, we’re not the client. They asked, it’s like, The reality is we are the ones who specify.

We are the ones who make the shopping list of the things that end up in all of these buildings. And so we have to take responsibility. And so, um, we tried, um, all kinds of different things. Um, with Kanoa, we use it as a vehicle to experiment to see how we get into these things. And so, um, We, we, but, but at the end of it, we [00:30:00] all come back to this idea of data.

Um, and so when a designer meets a product, what they can learn about that product is everything. And designers at that moment have real questions. What is this made from? What, where does it come from? You know, how long is it going to last? Um, you know, all of these things, they’re responsible. And if they don’t have that information, which today often they don’t, then it’s really hard for them to make the decisions.

And because of time or budgets or whatever it is, they end up making a decision anyway. And so they’re kind of put between a rock and a hard place and they end up getting squeezed out into the decision. So all of our investment goes into making decisions. Trying to bring this, you know, this information up to the surface as much as we can.

And there’s companies out there, there’s sort of data providers out there that do a wonderful job. And so we want to integrate with them and like whatever we can do to surface that information at the right moment is important because right now the product to designer or the designer to product relationship is designer must go out into the world to fetch all of this information, right?

And we want to turn the tide on that. It’s like, no, I need the information now. And this is where things like AI do. I think change, change the world. It’s like, bring that information to me. Don’t make me go out and fish.

Andrew: We definitely wanted to ask where AI is playing a role and how, you know, AI kind of came out of the box about 10 months ago now, um, obviously people have been working in it for much longer than that, but you know, where’s that playing a role? In how you’re developing the product and how it’s contributing to the scale, to the, to the, you know, to the moment where the designer and the product meet to all of these different theories and ideas that you’ve been talking about.

Federico: Yeah. So, um, we had a, an all day, uh, offsite on, on Monday with our team. And we were, we’re talking about the future of this with our CTO and our head of product. Um, so it’s all fresh, it’s all fresh in my mind. We, we had a pretty wonderful breakthrough about a year ago. Um, In the world of design automation, there’s, there’s been what we call sort of rule based automation for, uh, a few decades.

Um, it’s gone, you know, it’s, it’s sort of the basis for, um, things like parametric design and a bunch of other things. And, and, and so, um, the, the premise of it is that there’s a certain amount of rules. That are input into a system and those rules output certain variants or variations of what a system could be.

We had always, like, oh, we, you know, we, we, we want to do, we want to help the designer, we want to help the designer, we want to help the designer. But at the end of the day, we, we kept coming back to this idea that like the hardest problem to solve for us is, How does a designer find the right product at the right time?

Right? Like, that’s it. Like, you know, don’t make my layout for me. Like, just help me find the right products for the right price. Is it used second hand? Is it not? Like, all of these kinds of questions that are fundamental. You know, where are they going to go that’s easy? Like, I’m a designer. I know I’m, like, human brain is incredibly well suited to do those kinds of things.

It’s much less well suited to do is to go through 10, 000 product specs and find the right one. Like, there’s a lot of things there that we can do. A while ago. We, we made the decision that because of the architecture where we have vectors, images and data together, we’re, we’re the only, we designed it that way on purpose because we’re the only platform that could say, Hey, if product and designer is important, then actually the tether between those two things is what is, is what we begin to record.

And then if a designer puts a second product together, there’s now a tether between those two products. And so we look up to companies like Spotify. Where if I can begin to develop a taste profile or I can begin to, um, you know, distinguish certain certain decisions based on brands, colors, all of these kinds of things, then we can expand your design space, your research space and say, and begin to bring some of that data to you.

Um, and so what we decided instead of taking a rule based approach, we decided to take an emergent approach, a bottom up approach using, um, you know, using machine learning that says, We’re going to, we don’t know what the output is going to be. The output is going to emerge from the system. But what we can begin to track is, um, what products, uh, tend to be mostly used with what, some other products.

And so there’s no human data, there’s no person data. It’s all product to product data and product combinations. And how do the product combinations begin to make things. And so, and then brands, Love that because they don’t want to not just know who’s specifying the product or how their product is being used, but what is it being used with and what conjunction and all of those kinds of things.

And so, you know, we’ve surpassed, I think, 1 billion of these connections a few months ago, like this thing, like this thing is, but it’s growing exponentially, like one design could easily have hundreds of thousands of these connections because it’s, you know, imagine there’s 100 products on a layout. Yeah.

But every one of those products has a relationship to every other product. And it’s a spatial relationship as well. And because we have X, Y coordinates, we understand like the distance and [00:35:00] the vectors or how far they are. So there’s a wealth of information that we can begin to the end. That all comes back to how we then bring that back to the, to the designer is through a recommendations engine.

Bobby: The model you just laid out, Fed’s amazing. Um, We usually save this question for the end of the episode, but because of the startups you’ve launched and because of what you’ve done with Kanoa and, and, and you just kind of laying out right there, that the machine learning breakthrough that you and your head of product and your CTO came, came forward with about a year ago and been developing since.

I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about the challenges that you’ve seen, you’ve overcome when it comes to bringing a disruptive in a good way, product like this forward in our industry and, and maybe. Some learnings you could share, um, that you’ve, uh, you know, you’ve tackled along the way.

Federico: Well, let me start by saying designers are wonderful and like, they know what they like.

They know what they want. And, and it’s really up to us to be good enough to earn their trust. The industry as like a, an amorphous beast is, yeah, it’s a whole other thing. Um, and unfortunately the industry is, is, is not one that is very much known for innovation. I think they look at all this stuff and they, it feels a little scary.

Um, but frankly, you know, to be critical, you walk around the building today and, you know, the, the, the most, like, Um, so innovative thing that somebody maybe, maybe pushing other than some changing colors or form factors or whatever might be some, you know, some recyclability or something like that, like, like it’s, it’s, it’s, it feels all very, um, shy in a way.

Um, and so I’d say that, um, maybe the hardest thing for us is that we, we tend to be viewed as like, Maybe a little scary in a way. And so sometimes it’s, it’s harder to get into, into rooms that we, you know, we know that we could help a lot and, um, but we, you know, but it’ll come in time. We, you know, our ethos is we buy designers for designers.

We, we want to, we’re here to celebrate design. We believe fundamentally design is a good thing for the world. And it’s that ingenuity that hopefully gets us to where we like many of our problems today are environmental by nature. And so spatial design is a huge part to play in that. Um, so we, I like to say there’s no future where I, we’re tooling like canoas doesn’t exist in this industry.

So really our only job is to make sure it’s us, uh, as opposed to whatever the next guys.

Andrew: I remember we wrote the mission statement for this podcast and I think that we kind of just captured it right there. It’s like that, that, that trepidation, uh, you know, is something that, um, that you do see a lot of.

Um, so, um, another thing that we. Wanted to check in with you for just a hot take on when we saw each other at ICFF in New York, a couple of weeks ago here in Chicago. Now we love talking about the idea of the future of trade shows and, you know, trade shows are such an inspiration point. And your product is also, uh, that, but in a very different digital way.

Um, just love your kind of perspective on the role that the trade show is going to continue to play as we move forward and kind of where that intersects with technology.

Federico: That’s a really good question. I, I probably not my area of expertise. I’d tell you what I’d like trade shows to be. That’s, that is a great

Andrew: take.

We will, we will take that take.

Federico: Sometimes trade shows forget that it’s all about design. Um, and you know, and so, Um, you know, in a way, the fabric, the chair, the wall, the system, the space, whatever it is, it’s all about sort of these physical experiences or physical solutions for, for people. Let’s say call them social objectives or business objectives or whatever they may be.

And in a, in a time when like workplace is changing completely and retail is changing completely and all of these things where technology is having a very real effect on all of how we consume our cities, how we traverse through them, how do we use them? Um, I think that trade shows would do well to tap into that.

It feels like for me, it feels like the biggest. Tailwinds that this industry should have had in a hundred years. And I’m not sure people are seeing it that way. Like it was like, Oh, we lost a lot of business. Like, yeah, but like it’s a whole huge amount of, you know, things happening. Here’s a huge wave here that all you have to do is surf it, right?

Like you just got to get on it and go with it. Um, and so I like. How, you know, some of these trade shows are beginning to go on to cities. I like what’s happening in LA or what we just happened in San Francisco. We’re like, you just engage more with the city, make it more about those experiences, make it more about design.

And I think that like that, that side of it is a lot of them. Well, demographically also like younger designers are like. That optimism is wonderful. Um, and that’s what, you know, those trade shows really need to tap into. Otherwise it just feels stale.

Bobby: Love that. I think you’ve got good optimism to fit. You know,

Andrew: right.

You’re doing all right, Bobby. It’s, it’s your, it’s your moment.

Bobby: Yeah. Fed. We’ve talked a lot about Kanoa today. Um, love to hear if you’ve got anything else to plug about the brand things up coming on the development roadmap, or, um, I know you’ve had, uh, some exciting events, um, that you’ve been partnering.

You just came back from San Francisco Design Week, for example, but anything you’d like to talk [00:40:00] about, um, on the on the promotional side?

Federico: Yeah, actually, um, we’re gonna give something away. Um, so, so, no, but so we have a couple of things, a couple of big features coming up, which we’d love to talk to you guys about in a couple of months, but we we have this this thing called Kanoa Circle.

Uh, which is a small group of early adopters, designers who help us develop. Now that the tool is, is pretty mature, we wanted to expand that to, uh, a student cohort. So we’re looking for three students, we’ll pay them, um, to Um, use it for their day to day work, um, as they’re going through school and interior design school and give us feedback and we will bring them into it.

It, it’s really cool because that cohort has designers, like really well known designers. Right. All that kind of thing, and they’ll be a part of it, but we want to make sure that we’re not missing something from the early stages as well. And so, um, encourage people to reach out to us. Um, it’s small for now.

We’ll open it up more later. Um, and all of that is to test some new features and integrations that are coming up in the next few months.

Andrew: That’s exciting. Yeah. I love, I love how much you guys are like, just again, that hand to hand combat, like really engaging with people and one to one level and getting the, getting the feedback loop going.

And I think that, I think that that’s something that it’s hard to do well as a startup, and I think it’s something that, you know, we work with a lot of startups and one of the biggest things that, you know, people in the leadership positions. I’ve always found it’s the degree to which they can understand that their original thesis isn’t going to necessarily remain correct throughout all the changes that the market’s going to throw at them.

And it seems like, you know, you’ve obviously had a couple of runs at this sort of an experience. So, um, I’m glad those lessons are really well learned and that you’re, you’re actively rolling with punches.

Federico: Oh, yeah. And, and I, you know, and Kanoa’s original go to market wasn’t right either. Um smartest thing that another founder told me was, um, you know, being a founder is all about just getting enough at bats.

Like you just have to iterate enough times and make sure you, you know, if, if for you, it takes 50, then make sure you don’t die at 48 because it’s right there. Um, it’s, it’s a, it’s a hall, but it’s, but that’s why it’s a design. It’s a creative endeavor because it is cyclical and it’s, and you have to, you know, like, move forward and learn and maybe sometimes you have to come back and, um, uh, but it’s, that’s why it’s also fun because you’re trying to find that perfect solution.

So. Some good advice.

Andrew: Love it. Did you learn anything today, Bob? Yeah, I feel like, I feel like you’re reeling a little bit.

Bobby: Uh, well my head was spinning on calculating the, uh, vectorial combinations. Fed is, by the way, a world class storyteller. hair, hair was raised hearing you driving along the, uh, I don’t know if it’s a freeway or, or, or an avenue or whatever in LA, but, but, um, great job fed.

We really appreciate you coming on the podcast today.

Andrew: Yeah. Thanks so much for joining us. It’s always great, uh, chatting and hopeful chat again, uh, in the future as you guys continue to grow, wishing you all the best. Um, but for now, um, Should I take us home please? Um, as always, we want to thank our, uh, Paris to entry production team, our producer, Rob Schulte, who is not here and our guest

Bobby: producer, Carly colonies.

Andrew: Yeah. Thanks for pinch hitting, uh, today. Carly is Rob prepares to teach everyone at Neocon how to podcast. Uh, and then we don’t think everyone else back at the studio by Sando pod cave, uh, barriers to entry is a part of the surround podcast network. Make sure you go to surroundpodcasts. com. That’s podcast with an S.

Smash the follow button. Join us next time as we continue to break down the barriers to entry.

I’m just thinking about, uh, the, the canoe at year end wrapped. Yeah. It’s like you specified 287 yellow chairs. Yeah, absolutely. Good to do that. People get a kick out of that.

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Andrew Lane

Andrew Lane is Co-founder of digby, co-founder of Interior Design Magazine’s (MAD) Awards and co-host of the podcast Barriers to Entry.

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Bobby Bonett

Bobby Bonett is Chief Growth Officer and EVP Strategy at SANDOW DESIGN GROUP and co-host of the podcast Barriers to Entry.

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