Disrupting staid retail industries has fast become a trend in the e-commerce world, and Made In is no exception. Born from a life-long friendship, a love of cooking, and experience from a multi-generational family business, co-founders Chip Malt and Jake Kalick are flipping the traditional cookware industry on its head. This is the story of Made In.
A Recipe for Success
Bradford “Chip” Malt knew the e-commerce marketing world well. As the VP of Marketing and Analytics, and early employee at Rhone Apparel, he’d spent over three years honing his abilities. The company was growing and Chip was growing with it. But like every entrepreneur I’ve ever met, Chip yearned for something that was his own.
The idea for Made In came to Chip in 2016, toward the end of his time at Rhone. In recent years, Chip had witnessed the births of direct-to-consumer home goods behemoths like Casper, Brooklinen, and Parachute Home. Needless to say, he was more than intrigued by their success in bringing bland industries back to life.
“All these other kinds of direct to consumer home brands had popped up in almost all verticals,” Chip told me, “but kitchen just hadn't had been touched. I knew nothing about that industry at all, but one of my best friends that I grew up with did, so I called him up and explained the concept.”
That phone call was to none other than Jake Kalick, the third-generation operator of a family kitchen supply business, and lifelong friend of Chip Malt.
The idea piqued Jake’s interest. He explained to Chip that he constantly received calls from confused friends, asking for his advice about which cookware to buy, be they for wedding gifts or for outfitting their new homes. To Jake, that meant there was an opportunity for a new brand to stand out in a boring and crowded market. Jake was in.
“People were telling Jake all this stuff that gave us confidence that the model would work,” Chip said. “So really, from day one, we jumped in and did nights and weekends for about a year. Then we launched Made In a year later, in September 2017.”
Chip’s recounting of the Made In story seems so simple and painless, as if two friends sat down at the kitchen table one evening and pushed the success button. Of course, that isn’t the case. Made In, much like every other business, has had its share of trials. However, I’d venture to guess that it’s had far less upsets than the average venture due to one crucial attribute: Made In’s founders are lifelong pals.
Most of the entrepreneurs we know would offer the forthcoming piece of wisdom: know with whom you’re going into business. In other words: know your co-founder intimately before you sign on the dotted line. That said, few who follow that advice can claim to have known their business partner for a quarter of a century; few but Chip and Jake.
“We've known each other since we were five,“ Chip told me. “Actually, our high school group of friends is still our closest group of friends. Jake and I have had a tight relationship for over 25 years.”
Undoubtedly, Chip and Jake’s close and long-standing friendship has its advantages. Trust, for one, is an inevitable product of such relationships. What’s more, there’s a certain level of tolerance that one must develop for another’s idiosyncrasies over that amount of time, lest one person or the other be driven apart by annoying habits or personality conflicts.
That said, while having a long-standing friendship with your co-founder has its advantages, some might question the move. There is a real possibility that the business could destroy what would otherwise be a lifelong friendship. After all, the archives of entrepreneurial history are filled with tales of relationships torn apart by businesses gone awry.
Rather than being the miraculous exception to the rule, it just so happens that Chip and Jake may have stumbled into a very practical antidote to such business relationship calamities.
“We get these questions a lot,” Chip said. “People say, ‘You’re friends. When conflicts come up, how do you handle it? Who solves it? You're the CEO, he's the president. Who overrules the other?” Stuff like that. For us, we’re fortunate in the fact that we have very different skill sets. My background is in computer science, e-commerce, and analytics. Jake is as far from that as possible. He grew up in the product space. Plus, he has decades of experience and access to three generations of relationships in the kitchen supply industry. And so, in terms of our roles, there’s an equilibrium that makes it work.”
In other words, because Chip and Jake’s skills complement one another and are balanced, they avoid much of the conflict that plagues other friendship-based co-founders.
It’s important to note here that, while many new co-founders claim to have such a balance of skill sets, it rarely exists in reality. More often than not, what new co-founders really have is a distribution of responsibilities, not a distribution of skills. That leads to one or both co-founders overseeing crucial segments of their business without the prerequisite abilities.
“I oversee the whole marketing team everything underneath that side of things,” Chip added. “So that means acquisition, daily analytics, social media, conversion rate optimization, and stuff like that. Jake deals with product development and supplier relationships. Also, in the last year or so, we’ve built out a really strong commercial business as well. Some of the top restaurants in the US are now using Made In. Four Seasons Hotels, Equinox Hotels, and about 12 Michelin-starred restaurants. Jake manages those relationships as well.”
In short, Chip and Jake didn’t start Made In together because they were friends. Instead, it was because each of them had valuable and complementary experience spelled out a recipe for success. The existing friendship was merely a pleasant bonus.
The Secret Sauce in a Stellar Brand
What is a brand?
One might answer that a brand is a logo, a catchy slogan, or the entire design aesthetic surrounding the brand’s products. Furthermore, one might offer up the idea that a brand is best represented by the general thoughts and feelings which consumers have toward it. Certainly, these things are involved in what we call branding, but none of them are the definition of a brand.
In truth, a brand is comprised of two things: a story and a fulfilled promise. And unless you’re building a gimmick, you can’t have one without the other.
Every brand you or I care about offers both components. Apple tells the story of innovation and creativity, which is built on their promise of sophistication and quality. Patagonia, via their their promise of life-long comfort and durability, is able to tell a tale of ecological sustainability, so much so that they famously created the Don’t Buy This Jacket Black Friday ad in 2011. In the ad, Patagonia actively discouraged customers from buying new products from them, instead citing their product’s longevity, complete with offers to repair damaged gear.
The genesises of these powerful brands have nothing to do with their marketing departments. Instead, they come down to one simple truth: you are what you do. And Made In, for their part, puts the doing front and forward.
“The way we approached the actual brand process was the opposite to what most people do,” Chip told me. “We wanted to have a focus on supply chain first. We actually didn't even start thinking about names or color palettes or any of those things that go into a brand until we had locked down the supply chain. A lot of these really old school manufacturers and craftsmen are rough around the edges. They still use traditional techniques like 2000 pound hammers that crush the knife into becoming flat, sharp, and durable.”
In an era where fun, funny, and cute branding are often utilized to cover up at-best mediocre quality products, Made In’s “old school” dedication to and celebration of their high quality, human-first manufacturing process is incredibly effective. And it’s something on which Chip and his marketing team have capitalized.
“You go into an average Chinese factory and it's all high tech machinery,” Chip added. “Nobody’s touching anything. Everything's automated. People know that, and it's a totally different experience from what we wanted. We wanted something more raw and humanizing to be reflected in the brand. We do care about the brand, but the products and the way the products are created dictate the brand. We're not using the brand to try and pass off anything on the supply side. Instead, the way we make our products is the brand.”
Of course, to accomplish their robust supply-chain focused goals, Chip and Jake would need to develop an incredible network of suppliers that shared their values. Fortunately, Jake’s family business had spent the last near-100 years doing just that.
Jake’s grandfather had started their family’s kitchen supply business in 1929 out of Boston. Essentially, if a new restaurant or hotel was opening up, Jake’s grandfather would design the kitchens and outfit them with everything from refrigerators and burners to cookware. Jake took over that business two generations later. That meant that Made In had a access to intimate knowledge of cookware supply chains and products.
“That first year is typically a kind of ground and pound year when you're knocking on everyone's door and trying to figure things out,” Chip said. “Jake was able to open up a lot of doors through people that his family had been working with for a hundred years. We go and we spend time with all our manufacturers. We spend time with their families and in their homes. They're all mostly family-owned, multi-generational factories, and I they really appreciate that Jake shares the same background.”
Some Quick Bites
Before letting Chip go, I just had to know a couple of quick things that didn’t really fit into the article. So I’ll just drop them below.
What’s Next for Made In
While the Made In team is hard at work for the holiday season, they’re still looking toward the future. In 2020, Chip says they’re planning to launch some new stainless steel products as well an all-new line of soft goods for the kitchen.
Chip’s Favorite Thing to Cook
Any kind of spicy rubbed chicken, specifically Peri Peri Chicken.
Favorite Ridiculous Kitchen Gadget
Immersion circulator (for sous vide cooking)
“I don't know,” Chip said. “We use the, um, what do you call those things? Immersion circulator! I think it's pretty useless, but it's kind of fun to use so we use it every once in a while.”
Chip’s Staple Kitchen Product
“I think our butcher block is something that gets overlooked a lot,” Chip told me. “I don't know if you know Boos Block, but it's an American-made, reclaimed wood, thick cutting board. Until we made one, I didn't realize how basically awesome they were. And how cutting on low-quality plastic cutting boards was dangerous and awful experience.”
Big thanks to Chip Malt for taking the time to tell us his story. You can find out more about Made In at madeincookware.com.