This interview is part of our Entrepreneur Interview series.
Who would’ve ever thought that a smoker and a non-smoker would come together to change the tobacco industry forever? The founders of Ploom, who met at Standford, started out like many entrepreneurs before them… in a tiny room in Palo Alto. Today, they’re selling products all across North America. We had the chance to sit down with James, co-founder and CEO, to talk about cigarettes, entrepreneurship and Silicon Valley.
Recognizing Big Opportunities
Every entrepreneur needs a great origin story. Why did you first start Ploom? How has it or how is it going to disrupt the industry?
My friend Adam and I first started Ploom as part of our graduate thesis at Stanford. When I would bum cigarettes off of Adam, we’d talk about what was missing and wrong for us with these products we weren’t in full alignment with, and we became fascinated with how big the tobacco industry was and how small the innovation rate was relative to the market size. We saw it as a significant opportunity to work on something that would have an impact on such a large audience.
Disruption is not just about fundamentally changing an old industry – it’s about identifying a real pain point, applying a technical solution, and creating a seamless customer-focused experience around an old product or service. Products within the tobacco industry have changed very little to accommodate consumer needs. We created Ploom to answer the challenge of creating a disruptive product in a stagnant industry and forge a new direction in the tobacco space by meeting the incredible swell of consumer demand that had gone unaddressed.
Ploom is pioneering a cultural shift by understanding what people like about smoking and delivering solutions that refresh the magic and luxury of the tobacco category. We think there’s a huge opportunity for products that speak directly to those consumers who aren’t perfectly aligned with traditional tobacco products.
Entrepreneurship Takes Courage
What’s the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurship by definition means taking risks, and early on a lot of those risks will weigh on you alone. Defining and constantly reminding yourself of the reason that you’ve taken these risks can be exhausting, but ultimately it’s that mental fortitude that will enable you to succeed.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work (Yes, Really)
Who has been your greatest inspiration and why?
The group of people working at Ploom – we’ve been really selective about the people we’ve hired, and I learn from all of them on a daily basis.
Create, Test, Refine, Repeat
You started Ploom in a tiny room on an apple orchard in Palo Alto and now you’re selling models all across North America. What was the most difficult part, from start to present, of bringing Ploom to life (ideation, development, marketing, hiring, etc.)?
Really the first step for us was to build a company around the idea of the perpetual gathering of consumer insights and the need-finding process, challenging accepted norms and boldly abandoning tradition to introduce a truly unique and consumer-centric product system.
Because nothing like our pods system exists on the market today, we underwent tens of thousands of hours of product testing. Equipment had to be custom built and procedures were developed from the ground up. Hundreds of prototypes were developed, tested and refined with the advice and feedback of key stakeholders, including scientific advisors, a world-class in-house customer service department, tobacco blending experts, industrial designers, supply chain partners, specialty materials vendors, process manufacturers and – most importantly – tobacco consumers.
Know What You Know
You and your co-founder, Adam, started Ploom as part of your graduate thesis at Stanford. Do you think having gone to Stanford has helped you as an entrepreneur? What advice would you give to your freshman self?
I can’t speak for all the programs at Stanford but the graduate product design program is potentially the best place to study and explore entrepreneurship in the world. More so, I had the privilege of staying on as a fellow at the d.school the year following my graduation, and through interaction with people more universally across the University, it’s clear the spirit of entrepreneurship is strong across the entire campus.
To be honest I don’t think Ploom would exist had Adam and I not attended Stanford. Not that we were lacking the confidence or competence to start our own business before, but learning how to apply the need-finding process to create real empathy with consumers was the lynchpin in creating the view for how Ploom should exist as a company and what purpose it really serves for consumers. To be honest I got lucky stumbling into a program that isn’t simply exceptional but is really exceptionally suited to my interests and skillset.
If I were to go back and give myself advice I would aim to teach myself to do exactly that on purpose, to really look inside myself and understand what it is I’m passionate about, what it is I’m really good at, and steer myself in directions that open up opportunities for growth in those areas. One of the keys to being a successful entrepreneur is being really passionate about what you’re doing.
Down by the Bay
You grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. Why’d you choose to startup in Silicon Valley? How has living in the startup capital of the world helped (or hindered) Ploom?
I grew up in St. Louis but I went to college in Ohio and grad school at Stanford so fortuitously I was already in the area. The entrepreneurial spirit is more alive and well in the Bay Area than anywhere else on earth, and though we tend to focus more now on software and service technologies, the Bay Area is probably the only place on the planet where a company like Ploom can really be born and thrive. The diversity of talent and creative confidence that are needed to do something truly different can really most easily be found here.
Start Your Own Revolution
Interestingly enough, Ploom was brought to life by a smoker and a non-smoker. Can you tell us that story? How have those two perspectives helped shape the products?
By respecting both the perspective of those that enjoy tobacco with those that are conflicted tobacco users, we were better positioned to preserve those things that people love about smoking while removing the things that they don’t. We are uniquely able to meet the needs of people who want to enjoy tobacco but don’t self-identify with — or don’t necessarily want to be associated with — cigarettes.
We aim to recreate the ritual and elegance that smoking once exemplified while removing tobacco’s social stigma and public adversity. We discovered that we could better preserve what was beautiful about the traditional tobacco experience by actually using real tobacco in our product, and we discovered that we could better set consumer expectations for the product experience by breaking from the traditional iconography and language of cigarettes and utilizing a fresh perspective and approach to the design of the product.
PR Changes Everything
In understanding what Onboardly does and what our readers are interested in (PR and content marketing), how have you used either (or both) to grow Ploom?
One of the biggest challenges in disrupting the status quo is consumer education, and PR is one of the most effective, honest and direct ways to educate the consumer. When you’re trying to use innovation to shift public perception, PR is a fundamental tool in educating the consumer on why the paradigm should shift and how your solution best addresses their needs.
James Monsees has been developing consumer products for over a dozen years. In addition to Metaphase Design Group, K2 Sports and a wide variety of other projects, James was a founding fellow at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. Starting the company in 2007, James saw an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent the smoking experience with Adam Bowen and Ploom was born. James holds an MFA in Product Design from Stanford University and a BA in Physics and Studio Art from Kenyon College.