Seth Hill, founder and CEO of Swayy, shares how his experience with manufacturing in China helped him pivot his operations to supply health care facilities with medical PPE equipment.
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Ryan Dye (00:00):
So from CoLab Inc., it's there to here. A show about entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors and the impact they seek to make on the world. I'm Ryan Dye, Executive Director of CoLab. And on today's show, we talk with Seth Hill, founder of Swayy. A company focused on connecting us with the serenity of the outdoors. So before we begin today's episode, we're all following the news closely, as I'm sure you are. And we're definitely in the midst of uncharted territory with the global impact of coronavirus. It has forced many businesses to ask some tough questions and find new ways to try and weather the storm of uncertainty. As we record new interviews in the days and weeks ahead, I'll be asking our guests about how they're coping with everything that is happening right now, with the hope of hearing creative ideas that might help all of us as we make some sense of it. So Seth, welcome to today's show.
Seth Hill (00:53):
Hey, thank you so much. Appreciate you having me on here.
Ryan Dye (00:56):
Absolutely. So let's start with how you became interested in business and how you came up with the idea for Swayy.
Seth Hill (01:05):
Okay, great. Yeah. So business, before I could even define the word, let alone the word entrepreneurship, I was really young and I guess I always had a drive to try to create something to give it to other people and hopefully, for some exchange of value. So my earliest memory is my mom and dad used to run on this family care home in North Carolina. And while they were busy during the days, I would go outside and play in the backyard. And we had a row of, I think, it was six apple trees and they were not very good apple, like crab apple tree type of deal. I always kick them around, throw them at each other and play around. And then one day, I just decided I want to sell these apples and I can't tell you where the thought originated from or how it just came to me. But I was like, "I want to sell these apples."
Seth Hill (01:51):
So I got my Little Tikes pull behind cart and I threw a ton of apples that were probably already on the ground in there, pull them up to the water hose, washed them off, asked my mom for some packaging. So she gave me some paper bag, and a sharpie and a stapler, and I packaged these things up with two and four apples. It was like $1 for two apples or in 75 cents for three or something like that. And then, I put them on the corner and tried hustling these apples and turn them over and trying to sell them to our neighbors. I think only one neighbor ended up buying some apples and then my mom bought the rest. And then as you know, I felt really good about myself because I was like, "Man, I actually did this. I got to put in some work." The next day, we would throw our compost out and then she had all the apples that she'd bought for me in the compost pile.
Seth Hill (02:39):
So that was my real introduction into what business and stuff meant or what it was and just trying to get my hands around it. And then, when entrepreneurship really became a part of my life, I would say it started when I just turned 20 years old. In 2014, 13, 14, I went to go be a student missionary in the Philippines and I was just doing a lot of just not good lifestyle habits. I was dabbling into drugs in high school and up to that point I had dabbled even in witchcraft. I'm just trying to figure out what life was about. Yeah, I was just aimlessly wandering.
Seth Hill (03:17):
So I got to the Philippines and it was really awesome for a little while, but then we started realizing that there was a lot of corruption with the organization that we went through. Lots of money disappeared really quickly and the leaders that were there, they had to leave unexpectedly. So here we were, me and 10 other student missionaries from across the US, and we had to pick ourself up our bootstraps of sorts to make something happen. So I made really good friends with a guy. I mean, Grey Parnell, super great guy. And he was 18, I think at the time when we got there. He had just finished a summer, going and doing Harvard classes. He had his own small business selling bottled water and his dad was a prominent businessman. And that all really inspired me. And even up until that point, I couldn't have even defined entrepreneurship.
Seth Hill (04:03):
So coupled with that like the hard times, which I think we can really draw from today with the hard times we're going through, learning in the Philippines after all this started happening, I wanted to learn. One of my friends had an accounting textbook there because they were trying to study and I started reading an accounting textbook, which was completely far away from what I was ever going to think about doing before. I started this actually, a really small business where I made ice candies. We made absolutely no money, but it was my first real dive into what entrepreneurship was and could be.
Seth Hill (04:36):
So we came back to the US and again, my journey still moving forward and I figured out what a good idea for what entrepreneurship was by talking with Grey and hearing his experiences. And Grey's dad was coming down to visit. He was like, "Hey, I'd love to meet up with you and just get to know you a little bit." And it just so happened that I had an entrepreneurship class that I was taking and I was talking with Grey about starting a business and making a prototype for this insulated hammock idea. And insulated hammock idea came from actually right before the Philippines, I went hammock camping with some friends and I got what we call in the hammock world CBS or Cold Butt Syndrome, because I hung up my hammock on a lake on an island and even put a sleeping bag in it.
Seth Hill (05:21):
And now, this is Tennessee in August. It is hot and the wind going underneath me from off the water and the compressed insulation under my backside compromise the insulation integrity, we'll call it, and I got cold butt. So I had this idea of rolling around in my mind like, "Why doesn't someone insulate these? And if they do, why haven't we heard about it in the college scene?" Because at this time, back in 2015, hammocks were huge. The Eagle Nest Outfitters or the Grand Trunk or wherever you're from, there's some kind of a brand.
Seth Hill (05:47):
So I had this idea and when Grey's dad had visited, knowing that he was a prominent business guy, this pitch the idea, I was like, "Hey, I had this idea for an insulated hammock. I'm going to try and make a prototype in school. What do you think about this?" Because he had experience in manufacturing in Asia, in doing sunglasses and types of things like that in sportswear. And he'd actually gave me little to no feedback except said that was cool and then he left. And then about two weeks later, I think it was, he called me up. He's like, "Hey, I was talking to Grey, maybe you and him should partner together on this thing and try to make this thing a reality and make a prototype and I'll give you some money to be able to buy the materials." I was like, "Okay, fantastic."
Seth Hill (06:26):
So I ran up to the library after getting a phone call, started googling everything from textiles to sewing to how to make a hammock and bought some materials, which I ended up spending a ridiculous amount on materials that was like the absolute wrong materials to make. But it just so happened that I had a girl that I just started dating and her uncle had a commercial sewing machine and she invited me to her house over Thanksgiving break. So I said, "Okay, perfect. I'll buy these materials. I'll go to her house, lock myself in the attic over Thanksgiving break and I will sew myself a hammock."
Seth Hill (07:02):
And let me just tell you, sewing is probably one of the most difficult technical skills you can learn aside from maybe underwater arc welding. It is such a hard thing to do because he has a commercial sewing machine, which means it has this massive flywheel with a massive needle and it spins super fast so you can sew things very quickly. I forget how many yards can pull through in a minute, but it's something ridiculous.
Ryan Dye (07:28):
You can probably sew a lot of things wrong quickly.
Seth Hill (07:31):
Oh yeah. Yes, there were many frustrated words and lots of getting angry. And one lesson I learned from that time was, if you ever get angry or mad and you're trying to do something technical, don't. It just makes it 10 times worse and 10 times longer. So I took lots of breaks. But yeah, long story short, I did that over Thanksgiving break. I did that over Christmas break. I pitched it to the class. We had generated this buzz, started a website and social media and had some cool people helped me out there and making a logo. And one thing led to another.
Seth Hill (08:04):
And the next year, I got flown out by Grey's dad to meet some potential Chinese manufacturers in Washington state. I'm just really lucked out there. They made a prototype for us, the Chinese company, but then they wanted $15,000 to make another prototype, which was their way of saying, we're not interested.
Ryan Dye (08:23):
Seth Hill (08:23):
So we had finally found what we thought was a good manufacturer in the US and then that fell through literally the last minute after I'd already taken about 17 grand or like 70 some hammocks from people on Kickstarter. So I have people knocking on my door from China again, who had saw my website. So I was like, "You know what? We're going to buy and find tickets to China." I had already had my Chinese visa through a school trip. So I was like, "You know what? Let's go to China and I'll do a little factory touring." And then I started meeting just solid, solid people.
Seth Hill (08:52):
Now, when I first got there, the first time, I got into a car, a Volkswagen where one of my now close friends, we call him Ace, Chinese guy who owns the factory. He picked me up in his car for the first time and he's driving me out of this city Hefei and it's out in the country where this factory is. And I'm thinking to myself, well first of all, I'm car sick. He's not the greatest driver, bless his heart. And I'm thinking to myself, he could literally be driving me out to the sticks, pack me up and I'm trying to calm my thoughts in my mind. Like, "No, he's a good guy. It's going to be okay." But I got there and I just realized it's all about working with people.
Seth Hill (09:30):
He introduced me to his cousin who ran the factory and manage the production. His cousin's kids who are in the factory playing around with pieces of fabric. Just got to really get a feel for what it's like on the ground level. For more or less, they were somewhat of a startup, selling factory outfit. And it had that similar experience going to other factories. Some were more professional than others. And one thing led to another where we were able to fulfill those orders for Kickstarter.
Seth Hill (09:54):
And bringing it up to present day, the connections in China just grown and grown, but we've had to put a pause on things because of the coronavirus hitting China right on Chinese New Year. So production usually gets paused during all the Chinese New Year, which is a month long. But because of coronavirus, it was like two months long. And there were some other things where we lost a factory back in August, so that put us behind in production and cashflow just all messed up. So more or less, we had to press pause until up to a couple of weeks ago. And Now, we're dealing with the COVID-19 stuff. But I don't want to go too far. Now, it's been a real pivot to now we're working on this thing called Kinetik Sourcing and we can talk about that if you want.
Ryan Dye (10:32):
Yeah. So just to back up a little bit, one of the primary things that CoLab Inc. does is that we promote entrepreneurship on many levels. And one of the ways we do that is through pitch competitions where folks can pitch their business ideas to panel of judges similar to Shark Tank. You've had some experience in a couple of pitch competitions. Tell me a little bit about that and how it impacted your entrepreneurial endeavors.
Seth Hill (11:01):
Yeah, for sure. So in a big way, I think when it comes to being an entrepreneur, you have to be ready to be a leader. And I think anytime you're a leader, you've got to deal with public speaking. I'm trying to remember the first one I did. I'm pretty sure it was Downtown Chattanooga. I got involved with their entrepreneurship center. Can you still hear me?
Ryan Dye (11:18):
Seth Hill (11:18):
Ryan Dye (11:19):
Yep, go ahead.
Seth Hill (11:20):
Okay. So got connected with the Chattanooga innovation district and they have this competition called Wilderness Float, where they picked people from the local community who were involved in the entrepreneurship scene to come in one night and pitch their idea to a group of people who had more or less decide will this idea float. And we won. Did we win first place for that one? I pitched it twice. I'm trying to remember.
Seth Hill (11:47):
I think we won second place for that one. And then I had done another pitch competition soon there after in Germany and for another organization and then we won first on that one, and then we did Fruition Lab twice. We got first and second. And all of these were just really good experiences because it gave me an opportunity to one, practice on because no pitchers ever exactly the same. You have to play to the audience, especially in those types of scenarios because you want to be able to touch on the things that they might be interested in. And it became a really good experience for knowing how to do that, but also how to plan things financially or how you're going to bring your product to market. It helped me think through a lot of those different things.
Seth Hill (12:28):
But I think the greatest piece of value that comes from pitch competitions honestly is probably going to become from networking. Because if you're able to get up there and tell your story in the way that it inspires you, that in itself is usually very contagious and then it inspires people to want to help and give and add some value back, whether that's an investor or that's people you connect with. The greatest thing I would say is probably just the connections that you're able to gain and hopefully you can raise some money while doing it.
Ryan Dye (12:56):
Absolutely. Yeah. I think they can really be valuable in that networking experience, especially not only with maybe folks who are a bit farther down the road as professionals, but even your peers who might be starting out with another product or service. To be able to share stories and commiserate sometimes, can be very beneficial for sure.
Seth Hill (13:23):
Ryan Dye (13:24):
I was going to go back to as you were developing this product and looking for ways to get it produced, you talked about going to China and finding a manufacturer there. Would you say that experience started relatively smoothly and now obviously as we're in a challenging time with manufacturing so much of it happening in China, how has that had an effect on where you are right now?
Seth Hill (13:51):
Yeah, great question. So it's never been an easy road. The first time I went to China, I'm trying to remember, I think I visited two factories, two main factories to do specifically with hammocks. One of them, we ended up not working with just because they couldn't... The teamwork just really wasn't there and I still have really great contact with that factory actually. He's helping me with some stuff I'm doing now in the medical world for this pandemic. So you never know what connections will lead to where.
Seth Hill (14:19):
But the road was never super easy. There's a lot of work involved with obviously the language barrier of working with someone in a different country, in a different culture, but taking an idea that's in your mind and putting it on paper and then being able to communicate that through words, emails and experiences and different types of fabric, it's not an easy game and I don't think there's a super clean way to try to figure out how to do it in the beginning. Because it took us a long time to where I was able to pick up our product and be like, "I'm proud of this." Because I had the real expectation and thought that, "Okay, I'm going to go over there and get a factory. I give them the sample and they can make it and then boom, we're done."
Seth Hill (14:58):
But it's obviously been a much different journey because we went through... The two factories that I visited there in China, we dropped one, we picked up another one that I had met through a trade show and then they went bankrupt and now we picked up another one. So we've went through three or four different factories, but it's never super clean cut and dry. But I think that the more you push forward and try to educate yourself and learn from others, you can come up with a really fantastic thing.
Ryan Dye (15:27):
That's fantastic. Well, I understand right now you've maybe pivoted a little bit working as a sourcing consultant at Kinetik, maybe you can tell me a little bit about that and how that's addressing some of the current needs, particularly in the medical world.
Seth Hill (15:47):
Yeah. Wow. Where do I even begin? So on LinkedIn, I decided to list that, the Kinetic Consulting. And I wanted to try to leverage my relationships in China to hopefully help people, be able to make their stuff because I'd had more and more introductions from people just being sent to me based on the fact that I'd been to China and have some experience with manufacturing. And I know how to work with the Chinese, for I would say fairly well, from my four years experience and learning some of the nuances. And I was hoping to use that as a tool to hopefully fund Swayy some. And then this pandemic happened.
Seth Hill (16:22):
First starting in Wuhan, China and I had some people in China that I had worked with, specifically the guys that made our titanium for the different hammocks, the clips and stakes. And he reached out to me and he said, "Hey, we need masks and gloves and stuff here because of this issue. Do you know anybody?" And I just happened to have one friend who sources gloves and masks from Malaysia and sells them medical grade PPE or personal protective equipment, and I connect to them and sent over a couple thousand masks to this friend. And then as the tables turned with the US, he reached back out and he said, "Hey, we can help give you masks." He just literally texted me. He's like, "If you need masks or anything, let me know. I hear it's getting bad."
Seth Hill (17:02):
So I took that one sentence and I texted two of my friends, [inaudible 00:17:06] Myer and Mitchell Hagan, and they work for Abbott Health. And just ask them, "Hey, what need is there for this PPE stuff?" And they said, "There's a great need. We'll connect you with such and such." And then I asked one other person, they said, "There's a fantastic need. I'll connect you with X, Y and Z." And I had these texts coming in and then all of a sudden, like I started getting flooded with texts and calls and people saying like, "Hey, we heard you might have PPE, can you get it to us?"
Seth Hill (17:29):
So what I started to do was went to the Tennessee Secretary of State and filed by doing business as our assumed name, it's called Tennessee for Kinetik Sourcing. And I've made a little logo on Canva and set up some Gmail accounts with kinetiksourcing.com and bought a domain and just started reaching out to my Chinese contacts and being like, "Hey, I'm getting requests for X, Y and Z, this type of N95, this KN95, these gowns, these masks, here's everything. Can we do this? Do you know people? And it just so happens that they all know the people at the factory and some of them actually already work with the factories. One thing led to another, man, and I can't even... I wasn't looking for this. It just fell in my lap, but they were able to help a lot of people and it's kind of crazy.
Seth Hill (18:14):
We spun up a DHL account and told them like, "Look, we had the potential to move hundreds of thousands of units per month. What kind of rates can you give us?" We got connected with, again, it has to be providence because this lady that we're working with an agent, she gave us some of the best rates. She gave us medical priority shipping on all of our stuff as long as we can show all the certifications. And it's just sort of turned into this thing where we're talking with players as big as Abbott Health and working with assisted living centers across the US, different hospital networks, doctor's offices, and then we're doing small procurement order stuff where if a dentist wants to order a thousand and then we have a bunch of smaller people.
Seth Hill (18:55):
So we have the small order procurement stuff, but we're trying to get them to KN95, which the CDC lines is like a good source or a good alternative to the N95, NIOSH, if you guys know what that is, during these times of hard supply. So yeah, my head's spinning at a thousand miles a minute and we're taking a POs and placing them with factories and negotiating prices and terms. And the best way I know how to describe it, if you guys are familiar with the financial industry, it's kind of like trading orange juice futures during a hurricane. It's like prices are literally changing daily. Shipping estimates are up and down, changing daily. And I'm busier than I think I've ever been in my entire life. But I think there's a real need and we're able to speak to a need and hopefully continue to help a lot of people.
Seth Hill (19:42):
And full disclosure here, we didn't know if it was all going to work, but we started taking smaller orders to test it out. And we just had our first official package and PO completely finish. And I can't tell you the relief that fell off my shoulders when I saw this text come in from our shipping courier, "Hey, we just landed in US customs. Everything's passed. We're pushing forward to the end user, and we can get these thousands of mask to the right people."
Seth Hill (20:06):
Yeah, it's just super fast paced. There's a lot of risk management, but I'm still trying to process it. I haven't had an honestly a good hour and a half to sit down and think about what's happening because it's just been go, go, go. But we've made more revenue in the past week and a half than Swayy. In the next week, we'll make more revenue than Swayy has ever made, and it's just insane.
Ryan Dye (20:32):
Yeah, that was one of the things I was thinking. In spite of a tragic moment globally, I mean, there is still business to be had and you're feeling a very important need. But because you had this experience and connection with China and with manufacturing, it's encouraging to see how you can turn that tragic situation into at least a positive and opportunity, but it's really helping people as well. So I think that could be certainly providential.
Seth Hill (21:09):
Yeah. And if I can-
Ryan Dye (21:12):
[crosstalk 00:21:12] connections and how it can relate to this moment, I think that's a powerful testament to what business can do.
Seth Hill (21:19):
Yeah. And I just want to interject to make sure and be perfectly clear. Because about a week ago when this all started, it was very overwhelming during the discovery phase of figuring out what stuff we have access to at what for what price, the shipping details and can our shipping courier do it.
Seth Hill (21:34):
And as I'm doing all of this, I went on a walk because I was just so overwhelmed. When I go on my walks at home, I walk under this same tree and for some reason, it's always the same tree that I feel like I have these kind of God moments. And I walked under this tree and it just hit me where it's like, I felt like this impression, "Seth, you've been asking me for a long time. Why isn't Swayy successful and why are you have all this experience in China? You're meeting these people in the medical industry, but it doesn't all seem to be clicking." And I basically, and I'm getting chill bumps even talking about it, maybe it was all for such a time as this. For such a time as this was the phrase that kept touching me and I had several friends that reached out and share that same message.
Seth Hill (22:12):
And honestly man, it almost brought me to tears several times and it may even bring me to tears now because I've questioned for so long and I felt like we've been pushing so hard that I was like on the verge of giving up, really. It's so many times on this dream of trying to build Swayy and even for the past five years or however long, it was all for this moment to be able to hopefully help hundreds of thousands of people just to get that mask on their face. It's nothing huge, but it can potentially save lives. That's what it's worth. And no matter how much money we end up coming out in profit, I could honestly care less. Right now, it is just such a humbling experience to know that I can be put in a place where people can hopefully save lives by the stuff that we can deliver. And it's overwhelming, but in a good way.
Ryan Dye (23:01):
Well, I think this also is a good example of how governments, whether local municipalities or the federal government can only do so much so fast, even though there's an immense amount of resources that can be out there. Sometimes it's the small business owner that's on the front line that can make a greater impact quicker than what a big lumbering organization can do. And I think, again, regardless of whatever we're facing or what we're dealing with, that's probably my biggest takeaway is the power of the entrepreneur, the power of the small business. And look at the global reach that you're having. That's quite the testament.
Seth Hill (23:48):
Yeah. It's really awesome. And entrepreneurship, it's a God ordained institution. I really believe like it. I think God was an entrepreneur. He came down to earth and started prototyping obviously the perfect prototype, but he made a prototype of Adam and Eve and there was the story. So it's pretty amazing.
Ryan Dye (24:05):
Yeah, that's incredible. Well, I'm certainly encouraged by the fact that you basically whip something together here and that's on quite the trajectory at the moment. As you've touched on some of the challenges you've had, what do you think is probably been your biggest challenge and then what would you say is probably been your high point or your moment of success when you're gone? I think we've got something here to work with and you've touched on that, but maybe you can sum that up.
Seth Hill (24:37):
So the biggest challenges is going to be definitely communication, being able to communicate with every type of person and getting to know them to point to where you know how they will take encouragement, how they will take criticism, how they will be inspired the most. Learning that and still learning that has been the greatest challenge. But it's also been the greatest reward, I would again say is like the connections with people. And then, seeing those relationships be cultivated on the factory side to create something, to bring somebody else joy and comfort and security more than found nature, that's another huge piece of it.
Seth Hill (25:15):
There's so many successes and high points and the one piece of encouragement coupling these challenges and successes together for the listeners, when you're going through the hard times, go on a walk and physically hold your chin up and look forward and look up and as you're looking up physically, look up mentally and you'll see around you like this isn't the biggest issue in front of you. You're going to get through this. And there's beautiful things all around. And if you take back and step back and look at the big picture and balance the successes and the challenges, you get a really beautiful thing of a human experience that you're able to share with other people that has the power to give them value and inspire them to do great things as well. So I would say that's got to be the greatest thing is just being able to put it all into perspective and look and say like, "Wow, this is something and it can help a lot of people."
Ryan Dye (26:06):
Yeah, those are great points for sure. One of my last questions is, how important would you say is the support of your friends and family?
Seth Hill (26:16):
Oh, man. Yeah, so let's start with family first. I got to give a shout out to my wife Ashley. With Swayy and Kinetik, there have been times where I have been in tears and I cannot see the light. And she gets this look on her face that brings so much comfort to me. She just holds me by my shoulders. She's like, "Seth, it's going to be okay." She's oftentimes believed in Swayy when I have not, and I'm almost embarrassed to say that, but at the same time I'm proud to say that because she sees what it can be, so that's huge for me.
Seth Hill (26:48):
And then my friends, they're obviously very encouraging. Yeah, it's a huge, huge part. The network you have, just having someone to bounce ideas and issues off that have a larger perspective. Like I was saying, has that their head up and can look at the big picture. It's a huge, huge, huge plus.
Ryan Dye (27:07):
Yeah. Having solid family support helps you stay grounded for sure.
Seth Hill (27:14):
Ryan Dye (27:15):
Absolutely. Well Seth, this is really been a great conversation. We've enjoyed talking with you today and we certainly wish you well and all these exciting endeavors that are happening even in the midst of pandemic and we're just going to keep tabs on how things are going in the weeks to come for you. How can folks connect with you and find you?
Seth Hill (27:39):
Yeah, so you guys can find me on Instagram. It's at Seth underscore T underscore Hill, so it Seth E. Hill. You can follow me there. You can send me an email to Seth@swayyhammocks.com so that's S-W-A-Y-Y hammocks, H-A-M-M-O-C-K-S.com. Or you can email me on the Kinetik side. It's Seth@kinetiksourcing and Kinetik is K-I-N-E-T-I-K sourcing.com.
Ryan Dye (28:05):
Excellent. So thanks for listening to there to here. We invite you to check us out on all our social media platforms and visit our website at CoLabinc.org to sign up for more information on our many upcoming events and various ways. We can help promote the spirit of entrepreneurship. So thanks to our producer, Michael Weberley, and all the CoLab staff. Until next time, be well, and God bless.