Concrete startup blends high design with eco-friendly material
Designed in Argentina, printed in 3D in Belgium and produced outside of Chicago, Ill., the Corvi Wine Cooler is not your average chardonnay chiller.
Founder Mario Guagnelli ’15 (EMP 96) knows a good product, and he isn’t afraid to extend his reach far to source the absolute best talent.
A student on the Evanston campus, Guagnelli used his diverse background in IT and manufacturing, passion for Scandinavian design and Kellogg connections to his advantage when starting IntoConcrete. Founded on the concept that products can be beautiful, innovative and sustainable, IntoConcrete brings timeless contemporary concrete designs to market. The Corvi Wine Cooler is just one of many of their concrete-based products to receive critical acclaim from the media and fashion industry.
Guagnelli shared more about his business venture.
How did you come up with the idea for IntoConcrete?
I was born and raised in Mexico in a family with Italian and artistic heritage, so I grew up with an appreciation for classic sculpture. Throughout my career, I have tried to start a company, but it was never the right moment or the right business.
A few years ago, I was working at a company that manufactured gypsum and concrete products. While I was in Denmark for a summer vacation, I saw a variety of contemporary concrete products made by well-known Scandinavian designers. I took pictures and sent them to our CEO, thinking it was an exciting new market for concrete, but they didn’t want to jump into the luxury market. I realized that it was a great opportunity for me to launch a business. Since I had worked in the industry, I already had the network to bring these products to life. I had an “a-ha moment.” I knew it was now or never.
You quit your full-time job last year in order to focus all your attention on IntoConcrete, just two months into starting the EMBA Program. What made you decide it was time?
I launched a business several years ago. Ultimately, one of the reasons it wasn’t successful long-term was because I never committed to it full-time. Having the first experience, I realized that if I wanted to do this, I needed to commit. It was very risky. However, one of the things that made me feel more confident was the resources available to me as a Kellogg student.
How did being in the EMBA Program encourage you to launch IntoConcrete?
Kellogg has been a blessing at this stage of my life. I was part of an executive team, so I knew the basics about finance, marketing and strategy, but I lacked the tried-and-true schooling. I was able to take many of my projects as an opportunity to work on my business and apply feedback directly to my company. It’s given me a new perspective and has mitigated my risk.
I feel confident that the network I’m building will continue to help my business. For instance, two members of my board of advisors, Brian Koehr and Kevin Rasch are in my cohort. The executive MBA environment is rich with opportunities to network and gain knowledge from peers. Tona Kunz, who specializes in communications, helped me with advice on public relations. Thanks to her candid advice and observations, I was able to get placement in Forbes, Bloomberg and Food & Wine. Vanessa Isaar, also a recent entrepreneur has great connections in the architectural community and helped us get featured in Dwell. Felipe Echeverri, a student from EMP 95, shared my interest in product design, which has led to collaboration on a uniquely designed lamp. Felipe and I took the idea from concept to prototype, including refining the design, 3D printing, ordering parts, assembling the lamp and managing the photoshoot.
I also haven’t had a class that hasn’t had an impact in improving my bottom line or reducing my risk. My marketing professor reviewed what I was doing with IntoConcrete and helped me position the products. This year, I had to go to Sweden, and my alliances professor reviewed my presentation to a technology partner.
Finally the EMBA staff and in particular Dean Hanifee have been really involved and supportive throughout this exciting adventure.
Concrete is the most widely used material on earth. In the last few years, there have been huge advances in concrete technology. Right now, there is a trend in contemporary architecture to use raw, uncolored concrete that has begun to expand into the design world. I knew that this material would be a big investment, but I would have good margins.
Secondly, when you compare concrete to ceramics, it is a significantly more sustainable and eco-friendly options. You don’t have to fire concrete pieces, but enjoy a similar durability. So while we use energy making cement and concrete, we’ve reduced the impact of our plant and made it extremely efficient to create pieces.
Another reason is that there is a trend toward small batch, artisanal products. Plastic products can be made in batches of thousands in one day. With concrete, it needs time to set. Every piece is unique.
How did you team up with the right people and find the right products?
I’ve been building a network of people around the world. Sometimes, it starts with an idea I have, and sometimes it begins with the designer. For the Corvi Wine Cooler, I found the Argentinian designer, Fran Corvi, online. We worked on the rough concept, he mocked up some ideas and we agreed on the shape. Then we sent it to a shop in Belgium for 3D printing, where I found the best value and quality. With that model, we created a mold and ran tests.
How do you manage an almost completely off-site, global team?
I worked in leadership positions in different industries and countries. What I learned from that experience is that first and foremost to a good working relationship is trust. Secondly, you need to be able to communicate expectations to a variety of culturally diverse teams. We use a variety of products to stay in touch, including Hangouts, that mimic the in-person experience.
Mario Guagnelli launched IntoConcrete in Chicago in 2014. It has grown into an influential global firm whose products are shipped worldwide and whose reach stretches across four continents – with principals in Argentina, Italy, France, UK, Romania, Shanghai, Sweden, Germany and the U.S. Guagnelli will graduate with EMP 96 in Spring 2015.
To learn more about IntoConcrete or any of their products, visit IntoConcrete.com.