Powering on through the pandemic: 10 years of Urbanista
Image credit: Urbanista
What do you do when your company is poised to celebrate 10 years of global success in the consumer technology sphere, then a pandemic changes everything? According to Anders Andréen, CEO at Swedish audio firm Urbanista, you don't hit pause and you don't miss a beat.
Urbanista first set out on its quest "to glorify the urban lifestyle and create products that make life better for modern people in urban environments" (as the company's own description puts it) in Stockholm in 2010.
What that has translated to in the real world is consumer technology audio products bearing that globally recognisable and desirable 'Scandi style', with colour, form and function hooked into evolving and emerging technology and fashion trends, but only to keep in sync with consumers' desires, not at the expense of inherent quality in the product – look good, sound good.
From the beginning, to cement the symbiosis between Urbanista's stated company ethos and its target audience, all of its products – designed in Sweden; made in China – have been named after major metropolises of the world. Urbanista by name; urbanista by nature.
Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Stockholm, Sydney, Tokyo and London – each headphone/earbuds product offered a different feature set "inspired by" the city whose name it bore. E&T recently looked at the company's newest city-branded audio offering – 'London' – and our Swedish neighbours presumably consider the UK capital to be a noisy environment, 'London' being the first Urbanista product with active noise-cancelling.
Coming off the back of record growth for the company in 2019 – recording 70 per cent revenue growth, half a million ‘true wireless’ headphone sales, 1,000 per cent increase in online transactions, and global expansion in key US and EU markets – 2020 was set up to be a year of celebration for the company, marking a decade of sustained growth. Then came coronavirus.
The company had a number of campaigns lined up and ready to go throughout 2020, celebrating its products and the cities that inspired them. For example, working with celebrated influencers in each of the 10 cities, Urbanista commissioned capsule travel guides and bespoke photography from people who knew and loved their home towns.
With lockdowns in place in all 10 cities, at one time or another, and both air travel and ground movement heavily restricted throughout 2020, these travel guides gravitated from hip on-the-ground assistants in our pockets to more wishful armchair-travel thinking, made available online for anyone to download and enjoy.
A positive response to a negative situation, successfully flipping the script. 2020 might not have been quite what Urbanista was planning, but it – like the rest of us – persevered, stayed fleet-footed and made the best of an unparalleled situation.
We talked to CEO Anders Andréen about Urbanista's past, present and future; how the company maintains its presence in a highly competitive global marketplace, and how to roll with the pandemic punches and still come out smiling.
Andréen came to Urbanista having previously been CEO of the Neumeister Design agency, where he helped position brands for greater success in the Nordic countries. Before Neumeister, he worked at the OSM Group – a white-label manufacturer of retail-ready products – in both Stockholm and Singapore, supplying accessories for the major phone manufacturers, having initially begun his career at Flextronics as supply chain manager for SonyEricsson phone production.
E&T: How did the pandemic directly affect Urbanista's day-to-day life?
Anders Andréen: Well, a few of us are also too much social animals, so we try to get in at least to meet most of the days in the office. When you get that physical interaction, I think it helps. In the spring, when all this started, we had a few weeks where we all worked at home. I ended up feeling so depressed being at home because every bad thing in this company streams up to me, like every road goes to Rome, and if you don't have the coffee machine talks and all the jokes in between, you're just having 100 per cent crap, really. I hope we're not getting back into that, for my sake!
E&T: Urbanista celebrated 10 years as a company in 2020. What do you think as you look back now?
AA: The first 10 years have been very much an entrepreneurial chapter. We had some very rough years in the beginning, trying to take off. Once we set the focus right, once we put the strategy down to do what we do today, that worked. Then, we've managed to grow and develop at a fairly steady pace. A good pace forward, but also not too fast or too slow. For us as a company as such it's been very good, because we've been able to iterate on successes and been able to reduce the failures. You end up with some failures down the line, but if you keep with the pace, keep with the direction, we've been able to keep the successes bigger than the failures.
That's basically come from many different things, ways to work, but I think in the end the entrepreneurial part has been really sticking with us and everyone who has been here has been here for a reason. It's not only 'another gig'. Most people stay here for a very long time. Up until a year ago, no one had resigned from the company, so it's really a place where you want to make a difference, you want to be part of a journey and you want to hopefully make a difference. It's been a good first 10 years and now it's a good timing to do a milestone and look at what we have established and what took us here. It will help us in the next chapter, help take it to the next level.
E&T: As a small Swedish company (fewer than a dozen employees at the Stockholm HQ), are there any unique advantages you've found with location and culture?
AA: I think the one thing that is different, if I isolate it to Sweden, or Stockholm in particular, the Swedish custom has always been you work at one job, you do that for 25 years, then you get your golden watch and your retirement plan. For example, when I told my dad that I was going in this direction, going into smaller companies, I left a big corporation – Flextronics, one of the world's biggest contract manufacturers – basically I was going from big to smaller and smaller and smaller, and then to this trainwreck of Urbanista [laughs] and he was just getting more and more disappointed with every move I did, because that's basically where Swedish culture is coming from.
That's changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years. 20 years ago, when I came out of university, then the idea was to be a banker, to go to London and make the big dollars. That was the thrilling path. Whereas now, all the top students think: 'How can I start a company, how can I create my own foundations, how can I both get freedom and absurd wealth?' That's the path where most are looking these days, so that's changed. Then with that, both private equity and equity from Sweden, and elsewhere, are spending a whole lot more attention on Sweden. The foundation to grow, or start companies and then grow from there, has been healthy.
One more element, which I don't think is unimportant, is that it [Sweden] is a pretty good test market. We're pretty trendy, but we're slightly less fashionable. If you go to Italy, then you find 60 million different fashion styles. Here, you find one or two because everybody is swimming in the same direction a little bit more. So, if you get something that sticks, even though we're only 10 million people, you get a foundation, because most of those 10 million will like that, whereas in Italy you have to address so many different flavours. I think that could be one possible element that helps us nurture.
E&T: What have been the key products for Urbanista?
AA: A lot of the foundation was made when we launched a product called San Francisco, which is still in the range seven years later. It's a corded earbud with flat cable, many different colours, that was the trendiest thing we could do back then. That took the company into some sort of speed. From that, we could iterate essentially everything from that. The funny thing is that it's still selling in good volumes, so let's just say we paid off the tooling!
What you realise is that you work on projects and even if you get good feedback from journalists, from buyers, from partners, you don't know if it's going to be a hit or a miss until it hits the market. We've done several products which we are super proud of, before and after, but they just don't sell. This (SF) in particular we had the lucky fortune that it sold like mad, and still is, so we could continue the path.
E&T: 'Designed in Sweden; produced in China' – what is Urbanista's manufacturing and supply chain?
AA: We have been pretty solid in how we develop. We see how others do it, but for us speed is very important and also [to be] lean in development. We want to have several products launched every year. We normally have 4-5 products every year, which is more than most of our competitors, at least at similar size. And as I said, you do miss some and if you've invested too much, or spent too long, then a miss is very costly. But if you have the next one coming, then you can afford it. That has been a little bit the mentality, that we need to keep up the pace. We work very closely with China. We develop the concept and the design and the aesthetics here, then we do the engineering, all the construction files, all the electronics and the produceability in China together with our supplier partners. That's made us a little bit leaner and definitely faster.
E&T: 2020 didn't quite turn out like we all expected. How did the pandemic reshape Urbanista's plans?
AA: Of course, all the physical activities and events were changed dramatically. The idea with the 10-year anniversary was to manifest the development of products we've done and the foundation of us, which is a lot of urban lifestyle inspiration. So, here we had some really good content creators from the various cities and the idea was for them to make together this travel guide with great content. It came out really nicely, just being a package of different tips for travelling – and given that no one is travelling right now, it was more of a way to dream away for a while.
It hasn't been the celebration we were hoping for, in that sense. On the development, we haven't been hit too bad. Like London was maybe delayed 3-4 weeks due to Covid, but we were able to keep up the pace fairly well. But launches, retailers and a lot of other things have been badly hit. Especially the retailers. We've had a lot of retail partners where we would have launched well and now it's just standing still because either they're in lockdown or they're not taking stock.
E&T: High-street shops definitely took a battering in 2020. What could you do to mitigate the effect on Urbanista's bottom line?
AA: [In the UK] Currys PC World - that's one of the retailers where we expected a tremendous turnover and it didn't materialise, but it hopefully will. It's hard to manage it. What we tried to do is work together with them to get their e-comm [e-commerce] platforms working better. Because all of a sudden, they spend more attention on that. Before, they were only a retail partner; now they're a retail and online partner.
But then of course we spend a whole lot more attention to our own website. We want that to be the place where you as a consumer meet us, you get a little bit more depth in the branding, in what we are about, why we choose that product. I do believe that's a big advantage to branding creation and branding awareness, because now all of a sudden we manage it. It's difficult to get that with Amazon or with Currys. You can help it, but you can't create your own universe.
E&T: How did you react to this?
AA: We hoped we'd be selling more, but there's no fundamental thing that we pushed out. We've been very committed to keep up the pace and just see it as a hill in the marathon and soon the downhill starts. We just hoped that we were at the top of the hill by the summer, but as it turns out there was another hill behind the first one! But we haven't pushed anything out. We've even kept recruiting, we've kept developing in a lot of ways, so we think full steam forward is the way.
E&T: Has this experience changed how Urbanista might operate in future?
AA: A lot of it relates to our direct consumer business, partly because then we sell through that, but mainly because we want to get closer to our consumer, our community, as we try to build up. To try to understand what are the goods and bads with our products, what are the good and bads of other products, what you expect, what do you hope for, what are the trends. We want to be closer and closer to the community, so that we can develop more fantastic products.
Given our sort of entrepreneurial mindset, we will continue to develop products that have new interesting approaches and want to challenge the market. We don't challenge it necessarily only in engineering or technology and so on; we want to make products with technology that work, make it seamless and easy to use - that's the key. As new technologies become available, the three to four years we have ahead of us is so interesting. It was computers, then it was smartphones - all of a sudden the attention is going a whole lot more into hearables and audio. Maybe we won't see too much in 2021, but 2022, 2023 will be amazing, I think, in this segment.
E&T: You mention communities and wanting to get closer to your customers. Has the pandemic altered customer behaviour and nudged companies into behaving in a more 'human' way, in terms of relationships?
AA: I think it's cultural shift. I think that was going slowly, now with Covid all of a sudden it's going very fast because more e-comm platforms are working better, the investments there are paying off and that allows you to work faster. Not just faster, but closer to the consumer. Then also you can all of a sudden be more personal. And, I think, everyone is desiring, or expecting, more personality. If you can't meet, at least make your virtual message more personal. You have to find a way; we're still humans.
E&T: Looking ahead, what will drive future Urbanista products?
AA: I think we'll go into making products more helpful and adding more to your daily life. I think especially sensors in many different ways: sensing what kind of speed you want for your run, what kind of ANC [active noise control] you want because are you on an airplane, are you on a city walk, or are you next to a screaming kid, sensing that. Sensing how you move your head: if it's a headbangers' tournament or if you're just chugging your beers. We'll go into exciting times with sensors, with gyros, I think there's plenty to dive into. We'll go from the old phones into smart hearables and that will be interesting.
E&T: You talked about moving quickly with new products. What is your typical development time?
AA: It's normally around nine months. Depending on how advanced it is, it's around 8-9 months. Which is very fast. Of course, the complexity adds to it. If it's less complex, we can do it slightly faster and sometimes it needs another month, but that's the process. And I know a lot of our competitors need 18-24 months: then you're normally launching later than the faster ones. Already there you have a difference in the importance of the launch, but also you've invested more, so you need that hit.
You know how fast this industry is. Whatever spec you say today is definitely outdated in nine months, so you really need to aim for what's available in nine months or a year. If you spec it and you take 18 months to launch it, you'll definitely be out.
E&T: The hearables segment is definitely one of the fastest-moving and most competitive segments. How do you keep pace?
AA: You see the increase, especially in audio products, in the last few years. All of a sudden, the attention from Apple, they spend a tremendous effort to make Airpods and Airpods Pro fantastic products. The same with Samsung and the other big electronics brands. So now it's not a small company effort or something the bigger brands do only with their left hand. Now that's a big contributor to revenue and profit, so all of a sudden everything is double speed. It's harder to keep up.
Within this segment, Apple is still so strong you have to address it. Of course, you shouldn't be all snowed into it, but you need to address it. Every consumer will say 'Oh, does Apple have that or don't they have that?' Ideally, you have a similar spec, maybe one or two things better even, but definitely cheaper. That's our approach, because Apple is so incredibly strong in both branding and in user experience.
They were the challengers, right? Back when Steve Jobs created the whole foundation of the brand, people followed him because they were challengers, they wanted to do something different. Now they can't be the challengers because they are the biggest, so it's harder for them to keep it up that way. Therefore, the people who want a challenger, they will probably look elsewhere.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.