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Tapping into a burgeoning design scene in Hong Kong

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Native Union launched from a creative coworking space in Hong Kong set up by its CEO and co-founder John Brunner, so how did it help his startup?

“The spirit of [Native Union] lies within the entrepreneurial lifestyle…traditional lines between work and play breaking down: a less rigid uniform; unusual hours; and more flexibility.”

John Brunner, CEO and co-founder of Native Union, a design and electronic accessories brand, describes how he and his co-founder Igor Duc came to to their eureka moment operating in a creative coworking space.

Rather than having a specific product or service in mind, they first thought about how how technology has changed the way we work and interact with our devices – and how they could design a product to reflect that change.

“The product had to transition between work and play life – better design, better made, interesting materials attention to detail and a “hard to make” sense of individuality.”

That individuality is translated into Native Union’s unique and award winning designs which include minimalist docking stations, wireless speakers and the world’s first marble phone case.

“We don’t follow trends generally because we don’t have that commercial direction…” is how Brunner explains Native Union’s model.

Both Brunner and Duc come from a (luxury) design background which makes Native Union rare in the electronics industry; the driving force of the company lies in the design team, not in sales and marketing.

“That’s why our products are thought through and well executed; we sometimes delay the launch because some part of the product may not feel right.”

Indeed, this isn’t a hypothetical situation. Native Unions most successful product to date is their bluetooth speaker which was feted with design and innovation awards. However the launch of the the speaker was set back 6 months…because the “volume knob, how it turned and cranked, did’t feel right.”

They lost the opportunity to reap any Christmas sales, but 3 years down the line and they have what they describe as a “design classic” selling at major international design stores, like Harrods and the Goodhood store in Shoreditch, London.

This clear focus on design as a core element to their working model is not accidental. As stated earlier, both co-founders have a history of design and it was the way in which they met which has led them to their current success.

“Igor and I met in a creative coworking space in Hong Kong, which I set up in 2006, so we could have direct contact with creatives in other businesses.”

It’s now a popular method for like-minded entrepreneurs to be able to work alongside each other in a creative coworking space, however Brunner’s idea was the first of its kind in Hong Kong at the time.

He ended up sitting opposite Duc and they became co-partners since the conception of Native Union in 2009 – but this wasn’t Brunner’s first venture, nor was Duc his first partner.

Over the past 20 years Brunner has nearly always had a partner when setting up a business – who also happened to be a close friend too.

“People say never work with friends but I have the opposite view: starting a business requires so much dedication, commitment, perseverance and tenacity and with a mate you know that person and you have much better chance of knowing whether that person has the same level of commitment…”

He added, “…randoms have a habit of letting you down.”

He’s right though. A lot of entrepreneurs advise you to find a colleague who shares your passion for the product but isn’t necessarily someone you were close with beforehand, whilst others think going solo is the only way to guarantee control of your venture.

“Going solo, a one man band, is a very different business: it requires self discipline, keeping up your own morale and it can be soul destroying.”

Which is why Brunner advocates the idea of a creative coworking space for new entrepreneurs.

“Co-working spaces are great: there is this cross pollination of skills, it’s a laugh and a great environment. I really do believe in this space.”

The concept seems to have worked for Native Union at least.

“We went from a $200, 000 turnover early on to a $24 million turnover…in 12 months; it was astonishing really.”

Some credit is due however for where they’re based too: Hong Kong.

It’s not the first place one would think of to set up a creative coworking space or a smart, upmarket design business that works so closely with the electronics industry – mass produced manufacturing is only a hop, skip and a jump away after all – and there are advantages and disadvantages working there.

“There is a different dynamic in Hong Kong and we’re lucky that a lot of talent navigates here.”

Brunner explains that this is because Hong Kong is experiencing a burgeoning design scene, or at least, more focus on the state and future of design on the island. With close links to the manufacturing world and several international trade shows, Native Union can “benefit from a range of clients from all over the place that would be rare to collect anywhere else.”

However Brunner also admits that some people just can’t make sense of the Native Union, smart design, Hong Kong triangle.

“We believe being here adds a premium to our brand which doesn’t always get translated across to people.”

When the translation works however, Brunner’s creative coworking space and Native Unions focus on design as the driver of their operations, helps align their design team with what customers want from their products and focuses first on making the product intuitive and aesthetic to continue their presence in leading design stores.

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