Friday Notes | The Bamboo Master – James Wolf

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Granger: Hey everybody, happy Friday. It’s Granger Whitelaw here with Friday talks and today I have a friend and very interesting man joining us. James Wolf from, well you’re from New York originally, right.

James: Yeah. Manhattan.

Granger:  Manhattan.

James: Yeah. Real New Yorker.

Granger: Man you are like, not what I would say, look, it’s James Manhattan guy. It’s more like the Asian guy.

James:  I know. Well, I’ve been out of the States since 92.

Granger: 92 so that puts you here. What 27 seven years now 28 years.

James: Yeah.

Granger:  Almost 28 years.

James: Yeah.

Granger: Wow. Did you come to Saigon at first?

James:  No, I spent three and a half years in Tokyo and then I came here.

Granger: Oh really

James: Yeah.

Granger: How was Tokyo back then?

James: I loved it. It was awesome.

Granger: God, Tokyo in 92.

James: Yeah.

Granger: Beautiful women. Great food.

James: It was post bubble, so people were a little bummed out,

Granger: What bubble? Oh, the 90 level, the finance bubble.

James: Yeah.

Granger: Oh yeah.

James: So some people were a little bummed out, but in general, you know, it was still amazing.

Granger: That’s awesome man. I would’ve loved to been there. And that was after the Kuwait, Iraq war, right

James: Yeah.

Granger: Yeah, I remember seeing that on TV. I was in Vail skiing and that whole thing went down. I can’t remember what Bush said. It was like thousand bombs or lights or something. I don’t remember. Created    history. Anyway, so you are in the bamboo business really. Right, you make beautiful things.

James: Yeah. I’m an industrial designer is my career, but I chose bamboo 25 years ago as something to apply my talents to.

Granger: So I noticed something when I was doing some research on you.

James: Yeah.

Granger: That you went to “RISD” Did you like “RISD”?

James:  I loved “RISD” it was great.

Granger: That’s great. So my ex-wife’s family founded, “RISD”

James: No kidding.

Granger:  Yep. Swear. Crazy. Right Rhode Island school of design.

James: It’s a great place.

Granger:  The Metcalf’s.

James: Oh yeah. Terrific.

Granger:  So some great stories there, but what a great school and it must’ve been a wonderful time to study there.

James: Yeah, it was. I mean everybody who gets in there is amazingly talented and the professors really push you and,  really create some great creative thinkers.

Granger: Did you go from “RISD” to Asia then?

James: Yeah, I did. I worked for about a year and then I moved to Japan. You know, when I grew up, Japan was always the fountain head of everything technology and you know, the Walkman and everything electronic

Granger:  Yeah right, discman or the Walkman.

James: Everything, you know, it’s like at the time Japan was the fountain head of technology.

Granger: Now we have the iPhones and the Androids and everything. But back then we carry these big things on our hips for those who are listening. You could put a     CD in, right.

James: But it was small for them. Walk around with a cassette tape.

Granger: We were cool. Yeah man, we’re getting old.

James: What was the first cassette you had on your first Walkman?

Granger: I don’t know probably KISS love gun or something. So anyway, I’ve seen your stuff. It’s great. We’re   having this Green Trail race coming up in December and you and I were chatting about bikes and you designed Boo Bicycles. You are a phenomenal designer. I know you had a shop in Thao Dien for a long time and then the Bike and Bagel Cafe here.

James: Yeah, well, my main thing is designing and making things for export. But over, you know, years in the bike industry, and cycling with people in Saigon, everyone was like, this town needs a good bike shop, James do it. So my good friend Brad and I said, okay, let’s do it. You know, we created a bike shop but a.

Granger: Very popular bike shop too. I mean, you guys do a big service for the community.

James: It was about community, you know, it’s biking’s about health and community and yeah, it was fun. But I’ve kind of pivoted back to my design and export business.

Granger: Now you export homes. Is that right you make homes?

James: I’ve made homes, I’ve made pre fed bamboo homes.

Granger: Wow, that’s cool.

James: Yeah. But I mean I made a lot of stuff. Yeah. So mostly now I’m making home and garden and decor and, furniture and bicycles.

Granger: And exporting. Yes.

James: Yeah.

Granger: So if you look at your business in Asia or into U.S. etcetera, outside of Asia, what’s the, what’s the breakout 50/ 50, 80/ 20

James: I’d say 95% export.

Granger: Really?

James: Yeah. I export to the U.S. Europe, the Middle East, South America.

Granger: Okay. So what’s the biggest territory for you to export to

James: Well, I’d say there currently it’s Europe.

Granger: Europe.

James: Yeah. Europe’s usually a few years ahead of America in trends.

Granger: Oh, is that right?

James:  Yeah.

Granger: Interesting. For furniture?

James: For, yeah. For decor trends.

Granger:  Well and cars like Lamborghini and Ferrari and Porsche, and fashion maybe.

James: Yeah. It’s   definitely a fashion, the fashion trends. Europe leads America.

Granger: Don’t say that to the guys in Manhattan right where you grew up, they’d be like, what are you talking about we’re the leaders of fashion art. Yeah. No, it’s interesting, yeah. So what are you making now? What’s your number one product that you make?

James: Mostly   I’m making furniture, but, I’m also, you know,

Granger: Like chairs or tables.

James:    Chairs and sofa sets and things like that. Yeah. And that’s B2B. So I’m producing for other people that, you know, it’s their stuff to deal with. They do the marketing and the distribution.

Granger: So you make it for like, you know, Crate and Barrel, I don’t even know, like the stores.

James: That type of, yeah. Like catalog businesses where you can order it in the morning and get it delivered the same day.

Granger: Amazon delivery.

James: That kind of thing. Yeah, yeah.

Granger: Yeah. That’s amazing. Delivery it, how it changed the market. Right. Has that increased your production do you think?

James: Well, I started my own Amazon business two years ago,

Granger: Oh you did?

James: And so I have my own brand that only I carry and I’m selling it on Amazon.

Granger: Okay. And what’s that brand

James: That brand is called Boo Hugger.

Granger: Oh, the Boo Hugger brand. Yeah. Yeah. I know that.

James:  Yeah, that’s my, you know, that’s my shtick. And, I do Amazon fulfillment, so I produce everything. I fund everything. I send it over to America, it goes to the warehouse and I, I sit here, you know, or anywhere on my phone managing marketing and customers relations and, all the fulfillment they deal with.

Granger: Isn’t that amazing?

James: Of course, they take their cuts.

Granger: Yeah, I don’t know what the cut is, but the amazing thing to me is that you can sit here and Saigon or well, you actually live about an hour and a half out of town. Yeah. This a beautiful area.

James: Yeah. I live in the country. I’ve been here quite a long time. You know, I had a good run in my twenties and my thirties and my forties in Saigon and now I’m in my fifties and I’m like, you know, like it’s typical for Asian people. Like, alright, you know, I’m going to have a country house on a farm and a garden and I’m there and I’m loving it, you know, especially with the traffic and pollution when I’m out in the country with the blue sky and lots of green.

Granger: Well I see you riding your bikes all over the place, through the country, through the mountains. You’re on the beach, you know, I’m very jealous because James is always somewhere really cool. And I’m sitting here in Saigon, working my butt off and I’m envious, but I live vicariously through you.

James: That’s what I try to do. I try to, you know, present a lifestyle to be jealous of.

Granger: Well, you don’t have to try. You do.

James:  I present.

Granger: So now tell me about sustainability and renewable energy and the environment.

James: Yes.

Granger: Just try to stay on this cause we’ll just talk forever. You and I, the home you’ve built there is pretty interesting. Right you don’t live in a normal home. You built it out of shipping containers.

James: Shipping containers, yeah.

Granger: Which are recyclable.

James: Well, yes. There’s a little bit of, untruth in some of the sustainability claims with containers as there is with a lot of sustainability. And I could go on, you know, as this spearheading all the false eco claims that are out there, shipping containers are not really, you know, more sustainable. It’s more energy to make one.

Granger: Shipping container that’s been used for years, shipped back and forth, and then taking it and making it home out of it for, for yourself or for hotels or other people, that’s recycling.

James: I always wanted to do that. I always wanted to build a container home. And, there was a factory right next to my factory a few years ago and they’re moving out. And I went over and I said, Hey, you know, you’re moving out, are you selling anything? And he said, well, we sold the two of the three containers, but there’s one more. And I’m like, man, can I just buy all three and you just leave them here and I’ll take care of it? And he said, yeah. So I got three containers and I’d always wanted to build a container house. And then I like now 40 foot high cube. So they’re nine foot ceilings. Yeah. Which is cool. So I built the house and   a lot of, you know, bamboo flooring, bamboo Wayne Scotting, bamboo trim, bamboo ceilings and then a huge bamboo structure over the thing to shade it. And its placed kind of right in the middle of my bamboo plantation, which is, you know.

Granger: And you can kind of see that on bamboo Right. On your website.

James: I don’t think there’s pictures of my house on any of my business websites.

Granger: Okay, so the structure I’ve seen on there is your office? Your warehouse I should say where you’re manufacturing.

James:  Yeah, there we have bamboo construction in lots of buildings, outbuildings and things like that. And but no, I don’t think my container house is there.

Granger: So all your construction   for your manufacturing, you build your buildings as well out of bamboo.

James:   When it needs to be quick and cheap. Yeah.

Granger: That’s great. Now I’m looking at this picture right now. What is that? That is bamboo?

James: That was a festival that Rod Quinten put on a few years ago called Sound Fest. It was the biggest concert in Vietnam, ever. 35,000 people. And he asked me to build a few things there and shade and structures.

Granger: So that’s also shady. And the past, like six months ago or so there’s one of the beach.

James: Yeah. Coracle. Coracle’s coming up November.

Granger: Was that last November?

James: Last weekend of this month. November is the next Coracle, the second one I’ll be involved with bamboo and decoration.

Granger: Okay. So The Green Trail starts on December 1st in Hanoi.

James: Great. Great.

Granger: And ends up on December 8th in Ho Chi Minh.

James: I would have built a racing motorcycle out of bamboo for that. So next time let me know.

Granger: I think you should.

James: Yeah.

Granger: Now your Boo Bikes, I’m looking at one right now. They’re so beautiful, really.

James: Thank you.

Granger: And that’s a solid bamboo frame with the Alloy spokes and gearing.

James: Let me help you out here. Yeah the frame is bamboo and carbon fiber.

Granger: And carbon fiber.

James: Yeah. The bamboo. The frame is just carbon fiber and bamboo. And I make the frames. Components you know, are made by companies like SRAM and Shimano.

Granger: Sure.

James: And so, the frames that I make are super high performance, they’re custom designed to fit the one customer that’s going to ride it. It’s going to fit this person perfectly. It’s going to be designed the geometry just for the way they ride, you know, whatever the way you ride, you’ll get the bike that matches that. And I make every kind of bike

Granger: Interesting.

James: And they’ve won races.

Granger: So all are custom. So my measurements, my height, my weight. You take into account like how I like to ride.

James: Yeah.

Granger: Throw it on road and then you customize the bike.

James: Then we design the bike.

Granger: Oh, that’s beautiful.

James: Yeah.

Granger: Wow. And what’s a Boo Bike cost in general?

James: Well, complete with the parts and stuff. They kind of range, uh, usually between around seven to 10,000.

Granger: Oh wow.

James: This is top, top end. Components.

Granger: So this is the real deal?

James: This is the real deal. These things were raced by the United States cyclocross team. The national team was on my bikes.

Granger:  Really?

James: My bikes have won first place in, gravel championships in the national championships.

Granger: Wow. I had no idea.

James: In lots of categories. And actually in the marketing and all for my Boo Bikes. Nothing about sustainability. I don’t want to mix it up. I just say this is a great bike, is a really good high performance bike. The bamboo has viscoelastic properties, which means it absorbs vibrations, which means if you’re in a 14 hour race, you’re going to feel great.

Granger: Wow, that’s a good point.

James: Because   the frame material absorbed a ton of vibration and it didn’t fatigue y ou like other materials would.

Granger: See I don’t ride bikes like that. So I’m kind of like an idiot right now. I’m like, Oh wow. It’s cool. But if you think about that, that makes sense, right.

James: Yeah, reducing vibration.

Granger: Well that’s key in motorcycles right. And cars.

James: For anything. But also where you’re the motor. Yeah. You want to be a comfortable motor. Right You’ll be a better one.

Granger: I think the ones with the big seats. Not the little seats with a tight suits. Like, I want to be like in my shorts and on the beach, you know, kind of strolling on my bike.

James: That’s cool. I’d love to see you doing that, I’d love to see you on a bike. Let’s go riding.

Granger: As opposed to the back of a taxi or something. Right.  Wow, that’s exciting stuff. So I’m really happy and excited to talk to you about racing next year in the event, The Green Trail number two. That would be cool.

James:     I’m looking forward to it.

Granger:  You know we talked about a tricycle we talked about different type of bicycle designs.  So that would be cool. Would you do that next year?

James:  Build a bike for the competition? Absolutely.

Granger: I mean you could put electric battery on it.

James: Oh for sure.

Granger:  I have engines you can use so we can collaborate.

James: Yeah.

Granger: That would be cool.

James:   I’ve done those kinds of things before with a few manufacturers of interesting drive trains.

Granger:  Now what do you think about the future of renewable, sustainability really, just overview. I know you can go into great detail, but for Asia, the pollution is an issue, right now.

James: Yeah. You know, I mean,

Granger: What could people do?

James: I just have to be a little honest. I’m a little dark about humans and I think that we will continue to make unwise decisions until we make this planet such that it won’t support us. However, I think, and I will do everything that I can to be good.

Granger: Oh that’s good. What can I do? What can others do? What advice do you give to help contribute?

James: Buy less. Consume less. Use less, throw out less, you know.

Granger: Oh, I saw a story one time. I like how you can use less and almost have no waste. And this person did like a week test. I saw it like on YouTube or somewhere. It was amazing. Those you really focus, you can do it.

James: It’s really tough though, right.

Granger: Oh I couldn’t do it for an hour.

James:  And well I think, you know, things are, things are changing. You know, people are catching on. Businesses are catching on this, businesses getting pressured by customers don’t use the plastic. And, single use plastics and things like that, cars are getting more efficient. Bikes, electric bikes are getting any more popular or electric cars are getting more popular.

Granger: Yeah for sure.

James: And so if we, you know, I really think that we could use a lot less fossil fuels. We could pollute a lot less. And I think, you know, there’s some people that challenge this, they want to keep making money off of gas and things like that, but a lot of people can really see that the world’s getting messed up and we want to bring that to light and  encourage other people to, to be good as well.

Granger: Well everybody out there.  I want to thank James Wolf for coming today and if you want to learn more about James the bamboo master, you can go to bamboo and learn a bit about him, his products, the bikes and other things we’ve, we’ve touched upon.

James: It’s actually bamboo

Granger:  Sorry. Yeah, and see James’ stuff. So thank you so much for coming today.

James: Granger thanks for having me here, man. Great talking with you.

Granger: Peace.