Manufacturing Lessons from a Nike Veteran

Kristina Kurcinka spent over 10 years working at Nike in everything from design, all the way to manufacturing, and has seen the whole process firsthand.

She shares the lessons she learned there, particularly in manufacturing where she was responsible for some of Nike’s production in Asia. And yes, she’s rubbed elbows with Kobe Bryant before!

You’ll learn:

  • How a loss in racquet ball lead her to Nike
  • Mistakes to avoid when working closely with Asian manufacturers
  • Best practices for communicating your design to a team overseas

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(With your host Andrew Youderian of eCommerceFuel.com and Kristina Kurcinka of CinkaConcepts.com)

Andrew: Welcome to “The eCommerceFuel Podcast,” the show dedicated to helping seven-figure-plus store owners build incredible stores and amazing lives. I’m your host, Andrew Youderian, and today in the show, joined by a friend of mine, Kristina Kurcinka, who is a consultant at cinkaconcepts.com, and has spent more than 10 years, over a decade, working at Nike. Yes, the, you know, the enormous shoe company.

Everyone’s heard of Nike, in a bunch of different roles, everything from design, all the way to manufacturing, has seen the whole process.

And we talk about some of the lessons she learned there, particularly, some of the manufacturing lessons she learned from being on the ground in Asia as a lot of the famous footwear that you undoubtedly have seen has, you know, came off the launch. She is responsible for a lot of their production in Asia.

So, some really cool stories from her. And hopefully, if you’ve got a manufacturing facility, if you’re doing your own manufacturing, or even if you thinking, you know, about getting into it soon, some of her lessons will be able to help you avoid some mistakes and save money.

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All right, let’s go ahead and jump in to my discussion today with Kristina, about some of the cool experiences and lessons she learned with over a decade of experience in Nike. Kristina, I think you are the first college friend/good buddy coming on the podcast. Welcome to the show.

Kristina: Thank you. I’m so excited. Thanks for having me, Andrew.

How a Game of Racquet Ball Can Lead to a Nike Design Gig

Andrew: Yeah, of course. So, I wanna get into how you actually got to Nike. You must have had like, you know, super smart woman, a lot of options coming out of school. Like, what was your thought process? I’m sure you had a super logical, well thought out process for picking this job, how did you pick between all your good options?

Kristina: Wow, that’s a great question. I believe it pretty much came down to a game of racquetball. I’m pretty sure as playing racquetball with you, and I couldn’t decide between moving to Oregon to take an engineering job or go be a camp counselor in the mountains. And frankly, I think you got sick of listening to me talk about it, and you just said, “I’ll play you for it.” You won in extra points, and that was it. I walked out of the gym and made the call and moved to Oregon, and that was that. That I was 11 years ago, I think.

Andrew: Yeah, and thankfully, the game turned out the way it did, otherwise, you’d probably be uni-bummer style somewhere in the woods at a camp somewhere.

Kristina: Yeah.

Andrew: I’m disappointed too, you took a new job recently, you didn’t call me for the racquetball game to help you decide. I was gonna stand by that all day.

Kristina: I know, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Kristina’s Experience as a Nike Designer

Andrew: Yeah, I’m sorry. Maybe next time. So, I’ll to spare everyone listening some of the glory day college stories. Maybe I’ll put those in later at some point, but try to make it applicable then. But can you give people a sense like, maybe a 30 to 90 second, or 60 to 90 second overview of what you have done at Nike over the last, you know, 10-ish years or so?

Kristina: Yeah, so I’ve spent the last 11 years between what footwear development and engineering. And basically, as a developer and engineer, it’s your job to make sure the shoe fits properly, functions properly, is on time and on budget. So, my specialty is in, what I’ve spent most of my career is performance basketball.

So, I spent a lot of time working on the Kobe Bryant shoes, Kevin Durant’s. Those are my two main guys.

And then I worked in Brand Jordan, so you do kids product, do sandals, do cross-training products, and worked in Nike ID, I worked overseas for a couple of years in Taiwan getting a chance to be closer with innovation and our factory partners.

But basically if you think of the whole process as a wheel, I’m kind of the center of the wheel. All the communication comes through us as developers and in engineers.

Andrew: So, you have a pretty good perspective on the manufacturing side, that’s what you were doing in Taiwan, we came over and saw you. And then from the design side, you really see the whole process.

Kristina: Yeah, absolutely.

Hanging Out With Kobe. No Big Deal!

Andrew: That’s cool. Total basketball geek question here, did you get a chance to hang out with Kobe or Kevin, working on the shoes with them at all?

Kristina: Yeah, I was fortunate enough to get to meet both of those guys. And, you know, I mean any time you work with an athlete of that caliber, it’s pretty fun because they know what they want, they know what they need in order to be the best in the world. And it’s just our job to execute and make that happen.

The True Cost of a $200 Shoe

Andrew: That’s cool. So, a lot of times, people, Nike, you know, a good pair of Nike sneakers can be $150, $200. Some people are like, you know, the cost on that when you look at the raw materials is like five dollars, you’re 98% paying for the branding. I mean, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, because I know, I mean, obviously you’re gonna be a little biased having, you know, played an integral part of the process for a lot of these shoes, but you’re an athlete too, like you’re great athlete, racquetball wasn’t your game, but incredible golf player right? Sound I like a really good athlete. What are your thoughts when…like, what would you say to someone who’s like, “You know, $200 or whatever, that’s a five dollar shoe”?

Kristina: That’s a fair question, and a good one at that. Definitely, I’m a strong believer that you get what you pay for. So, when you’re spending $150, $200 on a pair of shoes, you’re paying for more premium materials, you’re paying for some of the research and development that goes into that. But more importantly, you know, Nike works with the best manufacturers in the world, and any time you make a pair of shoes you’ve got between 100 and 150 people that are touching that shoe to make it come to life.

And if you wanna have quality products, you need to have people that are experienced and people that are good at what they do, and you need to pay for that. So, you know, it comes at a cost.

And then there’s a lot of other costs that people don’t necessarily realize, like making molds for the cushioning systems or for the rubber. Those are not cheap, and it’s not like you can just make one mold that satisfies all the different sizes. You have different molds for every size. And then based on how many pairs you’re making, there’s multiple numbers of molds, so it adds up. The cost adds up pretty quickly.

Andrew: Yeah, and I didn’t realize this until this last week or two, some of those molds are like 1,000 or 2,000 pounds, aren’t they? Aren’t they huge? I guess it depends on what you’re making a mold for, but they can be pretty beefy, right?

Kristina: Yeah, they’re pretty beefy. I mean, every mold shop you go into has got forklifts, basically, that will move the mold around and put them into the machinery and things of that nature, so yeah.

Best Parts About Working for Nike

Andrew: And last question before I get into some of the supply chain and manufacturing stuff, what was your favorite part…like, you were in a lot of different roles, saw a lot of different parts of the process at Nike, what was your favorite aspect of, you know, your 11 years there, the part that you either thought was most fascinating or had the most fun doing?

Kristina: Two pieces, number one, the people. I was lucky enough to work with really, really great people, and to learn from guys that had grown up in footwear factories and been working in shoes their entire life. And so that alone is pretty fun. I’ve met some of my best friends through Nike, but I got a real kick off out of doing things that people said we couldn’t do, and then, you know, getting together with a few people and actually making it happen. So, that’s what I like. I like a good challenge, as you know.

Andrew: So, we can’t leave it there, that’s too much of a teaser. Like, what was one of the things that people are like, “Nah, you can’t do it Christine,” and you pulled off?

Kristina: One in particular was this project I worked on in Nike ID, and they wanted this cast polyurethane over the top of a reflective material, on the toe area of the shoe. And everybody said it can’t be done because nothing sticks to reflective material, it’s got that slippery surface. And I said, “I’m pretty sure that we can figure out how to do this,” and we did. We basically took the cast, we call it CPU, but we put the CPU on to open hold mesh, and then we were able to attach the mesh to the reflective material and make it happen.

So, that’s something very small, but it’s just, you know, marketing wanted it and they said, “No, it can’t be done,” and we figured it out.

Biggest Inefficiencies for Manufacturing Processes

Andrew: So, maybe transition over that now, let’s move into…your expertise is in making the manufacturing process more efficient. That’s something you spent, you know, a ton of time at Nike doing, and, you know, is a real strong suit of yours. So, if you can maybe frame up for us like maybe the three or the four biggest inefficiencies or problems that you see a lot of supply chains or manufacturing processes have.

So, maybe just, you know, single sentence, the top four, and then we can focus on the biggest one, spend some time on that and tackle the others as we need to.

Kristina: Yeah, so I think the four things would be understanding what the people or process on each side of what your specific role is and what they do. I think that’s probably the most important one. I think late design changes lead to a lot of inefficiencies. Repeating work, obviously, is not the most efficient. And then not understanding your lead times can also affect your process pretty big.

Andrew: So, let’s do that first one, the not knowing the people or the process on either side. So, can you just talk about that a little bit, kind of unpack that for me?

Kristina: Yeah, so, I think it’s important to understand how what the role is of what’s happening before you get a particular product, and then what is happening once you hand it off to the next person. And I think a really good example of that is, for instance, if a designer comes and says, “Hey, I wanna change the design line on this mid sole, the cushioning area, and I wanna drop it by two millimeters.” Maybe it takes them five minutes in Photoshop to make that adjustment, right?

Well, if they don’t understand that what took them five minutes then comes to me, and I work with Asia and then it goes to the mold shop, and actually, it takes half a day to adjust the mold, or maybe it takes three hours to change the 3D, and you need a new mold, which is another three weeks.

So, if you don’t understand that, what you think is a five-minute change all of a sudden just turned into a up to maybe a three-week delay. And that’s what I’m talking about. But if you understand what is happening as things come to you and what is happening once you pass those things off, you can work with that a little bit easier. You might be able to say, “This is what I’m after. This is the change I’m after, how can we use the existing mold and modify it?” So, maybe it becomes a half a day versus three weeks, or something like that.

Andrew: And does the biggest problem usually come between the designer and the actual manufacturer, or there are other relationships that also if you don’t understand how the interplay works that can be really problematic?

Understanding The Processes From Every Side

Kristina: I think that’s definitely a big one, for sure. But, you know, I think every piece of the equation has its own thing. So, if you need a particular sample by, say it’s the first of the month and you need a sample by the end of the month, and you don’t understand that it takes 30 days to get material and then a week for the factory to make that sample when you’re spec’ing in that material, then now you’re angry because your sample is rushed and it doesn’t look good, or frankly, it just missed the date, right?

But if you understand that, you know, this material is gonna be…”This is what the vendor has on hand, we can get it to you in five days,” versus, “I want this new specific material and it’s gonna take 30 days so I need to start a month earlier than I would have to account for that.”

Designed Need Exposure to Manufacturing

Andrew: So, what’s the best way to fix that? I mean, did you guys do something at Nike specifically, obviously just having designers that are super…I mean, if you could have somebody who was a designer that had worked in the manufacturing side of things for years, that’s ideal, right? But that’s not gonna be the case for every situation, so how do you prevent that, is it trying to cross train or just having conversations with people? How did you guys do it at Nike?

Kristina: It’s a combination of both. I think the most important piece is giving people exposure to the process, right? So, that means from a footwear perspective, having designers and marketing people who are, typically, the ones asking for last-minute adjustments and changes to go spend some time at the factory, walk down the line to understand what you’re asking and how long it takes for those things to happen, or how difficult or easy it is to make that happen.

So, I think giving people exposure. I think it’s also important from a communications standpoint, to have a team that can be focused and say, you know, going back to the “I wanna change this line by a couple of millimeters,” if you have a developer who just says, “Okay, that’s what needs to happen,” and then I ask the factory to make that adjustment and it goes on from there, again, maybe you’re looking at a new mold, maybe you’re looking at several weeks delay, versus going back to the designer and saying, “What are you trying to do? What’s the ultimate goal and how can I help you get there more quickly?”

So, being able to have that open and honest conversation with people and helping people, sort of understanding what’s the ultimate goal? Because there may be more than one way to get there.

The Importance of Communicating With a Manufacturer Directly

Andrew: A lot of the people listening are gonna be store owners in a seven-figure range, and some of them might have full-time designers or contract designers, but a lot of times, they are the designer, right? Like, they’ll get a sample from a factory, or they’ll sketch something up on a notebook and they’ll be working with, a lot of times, just a factory direct in China.

I mean, in that case, does it just make sense to when you’re running a design by someone to instead of being real particular about saying, “Here’s exactly how it needs to be implemented,” to chat with a factory and say, “Hey here’s what I’m trying to achieve, what’s the best way to do that?” and be open to their ideas? Is that probably a better work around that?

Kristina: Absolutely. And literally, saying exactly what you just said. Because it’s part of the culture, but for the most part, a lot of the manufacturers are there to execute, so they will do exactly what you ask. But if you ask them for ideas, then they’ll give you ideas.

But if you don’t ask them for ideas, especially if maybe it’s newer relationship and you haven’t been working together for that many years, they oftentimes, even if they have an idea, they won’t present that back to you.

Nuances of Working With an Asian Factory

Andrew: Yeah, along those same lines, this is maybe getting out of our three or four things to talk about here, but when you were working with the factory in Taiwan, what were some of the nuances to working with an Asian factory that you didn’t expect? Things that were harder than you thought, or communication issues, or, you know, hard lessons that you learned being in the trenches over there in terms of things that you do differently in the future.

Kristina: The very first lesson, and I learned this on real quickly, is not to disagree with someone who is older than you in front of a group of people. It’s that whole sort of saving face thing. So, it’s fine to question what they wanna do, or question their ideas, but you need to do it one-on-one. You can’t do it in front of a group of people, quite offensive to them. But then…

Andrew: So, before you go any further, I’ve got to ask, the first time you did that, I’m guessing, fairly blatantly, not knowing, what happened? Like could you paint us a picture there?

Kristina: It was more of one of those things where I got just a little bit of a dirty look and then it sort of came back to me, actually, through the back door, where it was like, “Hey, so and so didn’t take this very well. That’s not a very respectful thing to do.” And I was like, “Oh? Okay, I’m sorry, I thought we were having an open discussion. Noted, I’ll have that one-on-one.”

Andrew: Cool, thanks. Anyway, sorry, back into the lessons from manufacturing. I sort of played off track there.

Don’t Know Mandarin? Draw Out Your Ideas

Kristina: Yeah, the other thing is a picture is worth a thousand words. So, I had a…one of my favorite projects I ever worked on was the 2012 hyper dunk. It was the Olympic basketball shoe for the London Olympics. And there was an engineer, one of the factory engineers I worked with, she did not speak a lick of English. I had just moved to Taiwan, so I knew about four words of Mandarin.

And we would sit at the white board and she would speak in Chinese and draw pictures, and I would speak in English and draw pictures, and we would have a 20-minute discussion and we would leave the room, and we knew exactly what the plan was.

I don’t know, it’s just…we weren’t even speaking the same language. We didn’t even understand, necessarily, what the other one was saying, but we were talking point, and drawing, talking, point and draw. And it worked every single time, you know? I think the people in the factories are the ones doing the work. You know, they’re the ones that are doing it day in and day out. Ask their suggestions, they have so many suggestions. And I think a lot of times we’re not, as Westerners, we’re not very good about doing that.

Andrew: Did you spend a lot of time…because you went over to Taiwan to really, you know, be more focused on the floor manufacturing, what was it? How many years into your career at Nike was it?

Kristina: I think I was at Nike about five years, and then I went over to Taiwan and I was there for two years.

Andrew: And what was…if you’re willing to be vulnerable with us, what was the biggest mistake you made while working at Nike? Like, the biggest botch up that even now thinking about it, it makes you feel a little bit bad inside?

Kristina’s Biggest Blunder

Kristina: I don’t know if this is necessarily the biggest, but this is certainly the most embarrassing, and it was a big deal as well. I was working on a project in Nike ID, and we had a collaboration of four different shoes, and we had this particular denim material. And so I was working on one shoe and then three other developers on my team were each working on a shoe.

And we had these two different denim materials, and I was kind of leading the charge on it. And we ended up going with one that was like a little more obscure, so you had to put in a particular color code and a particular comment into the bill of materials. And I was very specific. I sent out all these emails to everybody about, “This is the color code. This is the material. These are the comments.”

And then the shoes started coming back from production and everyone’s shoes were correct except for mine. And I had spent so much time telling everyone else what to do that I messed it up myself.

Kristina’s Consulting Business

Andrew: That’s awesome. Kristina, you’ve got…so, you recently wrapped up your role at Nike, and you’ve got a consulting business now where you do what you’re great at. You help people with existing manufacturing processes really streamline those and take the inefficiencies out of them to make them as, you know, seamless and inefficient as possible.

It’s called Cinka Concepts, C-I-N-K-A concepts.com. Can you talk a little bit about it, and especially, you know, apart from the additional nutshell thing that I just gave there, what you can help with and who you’re a good fit for?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, there’s three different pieces to it, one is…four rather, one is product development, one is product engineering, and then I also do project management and the process efficiency. So, the products development and engineering is a little bit more focused predominantly on sports equipment, just because that’s where my expertise is, not to say I couldn’t dip my toes in other areas.

But the project management and the process efficiency is something that goes across a variety of different business types and functions and areas, and I think that those particular skills are helpful too to everybody. So, if you’ve got a business where you need somebody to come in and do some project management, or you’ve got a process that you what some outside eyes to come in and take a look and figure out how you can save some time and money, that’s what I can do for you.

And the process piece is kind of, that’s what I geek out on a little bit, and that is my specialty as well.

The Lightning Round!

Andrew: Awesome. Kristina, before we wrap up, I wanna do a quick lightening round with you. So, if you’re out for it, we’ll jump in and you can just hit me with super-fast answers, sound good?

Kristina: Okay.

Andrew: What’s something you’ve changed your mind about recently?

Kristina: Oh, I just rebuilt my kitchen galley in my van this morning, because I didn’t just…I decided yesterday I didn’t like it. I took it apart and rebuilt it today.

Andrew: Nice. What are you currently spending too much money on?

Kristina: My van.

Andrew: Wow. What’s something you’re not spending enough money on?

Kristina: Airplane tickets.

Andrew: Airplane tickets, for travel?

Kristina: Yeah. Although you’re going to Norway for a running trip, you said, right?

Kristina: I am. I am. But I should be flying all over the globe right now. I’ve got a little bit of a flexible schedule at the moment.

Andrew: You’re not taking the boat over there? You’re flying to Norway.

Kristina: Yeah, we’re gonna take a plane.

Andrew: Okay.

Kristina: Gonna take the plane.

Andrew: Nice. You’ve done a lot of cool stuff, but what’s one or two of the top things on your bucket list, something you wanna do before you die?

Kristina: Oh, top two? One is go climb Mt. Vinson down in Antarctica, and number two, and maybe I could convince you as one of my former collegiate ski buddies to come on this one, is to do a sailing trip. It’s in Small Bard, where you sail around and then you get off, and you go back country skiing, and then you come back. But I want to stay on the sailboat because there’s a lot of polar bears. I don’t wanna camp with the polar bears.

Andrew: Kristina, so normally, I asked people if they had a tattoo on their arm that people would see every day, what would it be or would it say, but that is not to be hypothetical because you do have a couple. You’ve got on each arm. What are they? What did you decide to put on there?

Kristina: So, on one arm is an ode to my grandmother’s. So, my dad’s mom was this feisty, Irish woman, so I have a clover. And then my mom’s mom was the most positive woman I’ve ever met in my entire life. She never said a bad word about anyone, literally. And so the best word I could come up with in regards to positivity is the word smile, and that’s also what I used to write on all my golf balls in college.

So, it’s a clover, and then across the clover it says “Smile” and the smile is written in my grandmother’s handwriting. So, that was cool, actually. The tattoo artist was able to pull the letters off of a letter that my grandmother had written to me before she passed away.

And then the other one says “Go to seek a great perhaps.” And I believe that comes from a French philosopher who said, “And I go to seek a great perhaps.” So, basically, it just means go for it. Go see what you can find out there.

Andrew: Kristina, thanks a ton for coming on. I mean, we joke around a lot, but it’s fun to dive in and learn a bit more about like the cool stuff you did at Nike. If you are listening to this and you could use some help on the manufacturing front, especially on the process front, give Kristina…give her a call, drop her a line at cinkaconcepts.com, is her company. That’s cinka with a c, C-I-N-K-A.concepts.com. Kristina, thanks so much for coming on. This has been fun.

Kristina: Yeah, thank you. And you can also send me an e-mail it’s cinkaconcepts@gmail.com.

Andrew: Perfect. Thanks so much.

Kristina: Thank you, Andrew.

Andrew: That’s gonna do it for this week, but a few important things to know about, especially if you’re a store owner before you go. First, if you’re looking to hire for your ecommerce business, make sure to check out the eCommerceFuel job boards. We’ll get your job in front of thousands of qualified job seekers to find you the perfect candidate.

And if you’re looking for work, you should check out the dozens of hand-picked opportunities along with lots of other roles that pop up every week at ecommercefuel.com/jobs.

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And a big, big, “Thank you” to the two sponsors who make the show possible. First, to Klaviyo who makes email marketing automation incredibly easy and powerful. If you’re not using them for your store, you’re leaving money on the table. You can get started for free at ecommercefuel.com/klaviyo.

And then secondly, to Liquid Web, the absolute best place to host your WooCommerce store anywhere online. If you want a rock solid store that can scale with you when you need it to, check them out at ecommercefuel.com/liquidweb. Thanks so much for listening, I’m looking forward to seeing you again next Friday.

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