Jeff Ng was a sneakerhead before they called them sneakerheads. Better known by his handle @jeffstaple — named after his creative agency and his clothing line — Jeff has designed some of the most famous collectible streetwear and worked with clients like HBO, Kangol, Converse, Kid Robot, Cole Haan, Google, Sony, and Housing Works. We talked to him about how he makes time to design while running three businesses, how he runs his life with Reminders and Evernote, and how to run a hype-based business for over two decades.
Location: New York &, Los Angeles
Current computer: 2018 MacBook Air 13"
Current mobile device: iPhone XS Space Grey 512gb
One word that best describes how you work: Driven
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
You might’ve read recently about people collecting sneakers and reselling them for thousands of dollars over retail price? Or kids sleeping outside a skate shop for days hoping to purchase a limited edition t-shirt? I might be the person responsible for all of that.
I started STAPLE in 1997 — before the terms “street culture” or “sneakerhead” were coined. And 23 years in this industry makes you a certified OG.
In 2005, I collaborated with Nike to release a sneaker with my Pigeon logo on it. It’s now known as the Nike Pigeon Dunk. The original price of the shoe was $US72 ($107). Today, you’d be lucky to find someone willing to part with it for $US20,000 ($29,645).
Fast forward to today, Staple Design helps clients navigate this fickle world, and we work with them to understand what young people want today. Whether that’s product design, marketing, or strategic collaborations, we do whatever it takes.
Staple Pigeon is one the biggest streetwear brands out now. We have over 1200 points of distribution globally and offer an entire head-to-toe assortment for the fashion forward crowd.
I also founded one of the world’s first “lifestyle boutiques,” Reed Space, in 2001. We were the pioneers in a retail environment that carried everything from music to fashion to art to sneakers to ANYTHING! This carried over into creative direction for other retailers such as Extra Butter and now Hypebeast’s retail arm HBX.
In addition, I started a podcast called The Business of Hype on Hypebeast Radio. Each episode, I sit down with a creative entrepreneur and discuss the realities of how they operate their business and the stories behind the dreams they’ve built.
What are your job responsibilities?
I lead a team of over fifty people covering all different aspects of the various businesses I mentioned. Each business acts as a completely separate entity. Sometimes there’s overlap and commonalities, but 95 per cent of time, it’s separate. So my job is making sure each company is running at its smoothest, most efficient and most creative. It is a constant challenge to maintain that perfect balance.
Take us through a recent workday.
I have devised a system that allows me to not go completely crazy, while allowing my team to get access to me as much as possible. Mondays and Wednesdays are dedicated to the clothing collection (in Midtown Manhattan). Tuesdays and Fridays are dedicated to the creative agency business (which is located in Soho NYC.) Thursdays are for the podcast, retail and flex.
It’s not so strict that I can’t work on a t-shirt design on Tuesday. But the system helps particularly in scheduling meetings so I’m not running around from downtown to midtown multiple times a day. Nothing is worse than losing valuable minutes commuting. I live in Greenwich Village: 12 mins to Midtown. 7 mins to Soho. That is not by coincidence. That is by design.
I’m usually in the office around 10am I leave at a reasonable hour like 5pm so that I can have a real dinner with my wife, family or friends. Then I usually pull a “third shift” at around 9 or 10pm that can easily go till 1 or 2am We do a lot of business in Asia, which necessitates late night conference calls. There’s no such thing as weekends, holidays or vacations. I’m always on. I haven’t sent an OOO auto-reply email in over 20 years.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
One of the most game changing, mission critical apps in my life is Reminders. I use the time and GPS location function ALL THE TIME. At least 20 times per day.
The Notes app is also pretty key. I have three folders — one for each business — and keep notes organised accordingly.
My email inbox is a disaster and Slack has basically become a second version of my email inbox.
WhatsApp is where the real work gets done. I love the ability to reply to specific questions (why can’t iMessage do this?!?) and WhatsApp handles groups smoothly. File Transfers on WhatsApp also just feel zippier than anything else.
And finally, I still use a Moleskine. Maybe I’m old school, but my pet peeve is seeing people take notes in a meeting using their phone. In the rare times I use the phone and forget my Moleskine, I feel compelled to announce “I am using the phone for taking notes only.” lol…
Pens have to be from Muji. 0.5mm tip.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I am constantly on the move. I’m actually only in NYC about 45-50 percent of the year. But I do have two main offices in the city.
My Midtown office at the Staple Pigeon clothing headquarters is like a physical representation of my brain if it exploded. Every single thing that inspires me is on display and accessible. I might not even be using it for anything, but I like to have it near me. I feel like creativity is absorbed through osmosis. Everything radiates energy and I want to absorb it all.
My office at the Staple Design studio in Soho is more laid back and like a lounge. While Midtown is like a shrine to the Pigeon, I want to allow the Design Studio office to be influenced by many other things. So there’s lots of art from other people, and of course some of the projects we’ve worked on as well.
Both office desks offer the ability to convert to a standing desk. I got really into that notion a few years back… but nowadays, I’m rarely in the same seated position for more than an hour anyway. So regardless of sitting or standing, I’m always headed somewhere or coming from somewhere.
Chargers, cables and dongles are everywhere. I used to try and be frugal and own only one charging adaptor and cable for my laptop and phone. But one day of forgetting that and you’ll soon realise the cost of the accessory is much cheaper than the cost of being out off from your team or files.
What’s your favourite shortcut or hack?
The Reminders feature that pings you when you’ve arrived somewhere is so clutch. Its a simple feature that I don’t see that many people actually using whereas I use it dozens of time a day.
I have keyboard shortcuts for often-typed messages like my address + shoe size (seriously — size 10). And I sadly have a shortcut for “Apologies for the delay in my reply” — it’s “SRY”.
Also, I actually have a waterproof notepad in my bathroom from AquaNotes because I seem to always come up with amazing ideas while showering for some reason.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
My assistant Kim has full access to my email inboxes. So she is the first line of defence in screening emails. Since allowing her access to this, I have given up on the idea of Inbox Zero. Although in the way back of my head, I secretly still yearn to achieve it.
So Kim screens emails first. Relevant work ones are put in Slack in the appropriate channel. Urgent ones get WhatsApp’ed to me. And then I either take care of it directly, or give her next steps on how to handle. I still see all my emails, but I need that help to filter through everything.
I do try and get back to everyone. But sometimes, emails get replies 6 or more months later. It’s sad I know.
BUT, there are so many other ways I communicate with people. Some people I only have a Instagram DM relationship with. Some it’s Twitter @’s. Some it’s Line (Japan usually). Or WeChat (China). WhatsApp (everyone else and work mates). Slack public channels. Slack DMs. Text message. Etc. And it’s interesting because each person has their own preference on which platform they like to communicate on. My pet peeve though? Is when I’m on a fully texting back and forth type relationship with someone… and then all of a sudden they send me an email! Like, “BRO! You might as well send me smoke signals!”
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
I have over fifty people that help to make everything tick. Without them all, this ship would not float. But there are some key people that I confer with on an almost always-on, 24-hour a day, no weekends, no holidays conversation.
On the Staple Design creative agency side: Matt is the COO and his addition has been immeasurable. My problem before him was conversion. Opportunities were abundant and thankfully they still are. Matt can convert these opportunities and my visions and then translate them into realities (and dollars).
Kim is the only person that oversees pretty much everything. She’s the only person who works across the various companies. I see her as the last line of defence before getting to me. Like I mentioned before, she has the keys to my entire inbox which is saying a lot. Kim is the gatekeeper.
On the Staple Pigeon apparel side: Nico, Matt, Evan are my team leaders on Sales, Marketing and Merchandising/Production, respectively. Apparel is a very complicated and fickle business. One of the things I’m most proud of with Staple? In 22+ years, we have never skipped or missed a season. This is unheard of. Particularly in streetwear. If consistency is the key to success, these are the guys who make that a reality.
On the podcasting front: Christina is my right hand and makes it possible for you to hear new episodes each and every week. Also the team at Bright Young Things collaborates with me on the content and flow.
Finally, none of this would be possible without my wife Liz and our crazy Schnauzer, Prius!
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made at work, and how did you deal with it?
The biggest mistake I’ve made is a doozy.
I once discussed the desire to fire someone over email... with THAT PERSON CC’ed!
It was terrible. It actually led to some legal issues as I was EXTREMELY forthright with my reasons and not being particularly polite about it. Thankfully the lawyers dealt with it but even though this happened years ago, I still have PTSD whenever I send an email out.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
There’s an organised method to the madness. I should probably have a more streamlined way. But I use the Reminders app for time-sensitive work related things that are near term i.e., “Reply to Ken’s email.” Or “Call credit card to dispute a charge.” I also use Reminders for recurring things like “Change camera battery” and I’ll set that to repeat monthly. Or “Weigh In” which repeats every Friday.
I use Evernote for sensitive information. And for some reason I also use Evernote for my grocery and pharmacy shopping needs like “Pick up toilet paper and sunscreen.” I actually have one Evernote for Duane Reade and another one for Whole Foods. And I have sections on the note for NY and LA. Because sometimes I’ll need toothpaste at one home but not the other.
I use Google Calendar for scheduled appointments. I used to use Apple iCal along with Fantastical, but I realised Apple’s calendar syncing is nowhere nearly as reliable as Google’s. Trust me, I did a TON of testing. It’s just not reliable. Google wins hands down.
Slack and WeChat both have reminder features that I love. They can re-ping you on an old message that was sent to you. I wish WhatsApp and iMessage offered that feature as well.
For some of my team members, I only get to have weekly, bi-weekly or even monthly touch-bases with them. So for that, I keep a note for each person in Apple’s Notes app. Why do I use Evernote, Reminders, and Notes? I have no idea. I should probably consolidate at some point in my life.
How do you recharge or take a break?
Travel is my number one muse. I get so inspired when I meet new people and see new sights in foreign lands. Mind you, “foreign lands” can be as far as Kyoto or as close as Brooklyn. Just getting out of my regular comfort zone is key.
I also find that working out gets my mind off work for a few minutes. The amount of work I was doing took a toll on my fitness and health. Recently, my wife and I have made a conscious effort to carve out time for health and it’s quite regimented. We’re currently “intermittent fasting” along with a Keto Diet. We’re also working out 3 times a week using the 5x5 Method and alternating days with high intensity cardio. It sounds horrible. Because IT IS HORRIBLE.
What’s your favourite side project?
My side projects quickly become main projects. I once started a zine that turned into a real print publication, complete with advertisers. A dabble into podcasting has turned into me becoming the executive producer of Hypebeast’s entire podcast platform with my own show The Business of Hype, which is now in its 6th season and 50th guest!
We recently purchased our first home, so a nice slow and steady side project has been renovating it room by room. That’s been fun because it incorporates skills I’ve learned as a project manager, but also allows me to get my hands dirty with design, and it’s something my wife Liz and I can collaborate on.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
My streetwear peer, Bobby Hundreds, has recently released a great book called This Is Not A T-Shirt. I’m proud that someone from our subculture is crossing over and doing things that reach the masses to teach them what we’re all about.
Can you share a music playlist you’ve made?
I recently collaborated with one of my favourite record labels, Big Crown from Brooklyn to create a collaborative shirt and a mixtape. It’s 45 mins of soul, funk and classic hip-hop. Give it a listen on Soundcloud!
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Would love to hear from Virgil Abloh. He has a clothing line called Off-White, which is one of the most lusted after labels in the world now. He is also serving as the artistic director for Louis Vuitton. He is truly representative of how high our culture can go.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“I don’t know what the secret to success is. But I do know what the secret to failure is — trying to please everyone.”
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
When a creative individual gets older and gains more experience, it’s inevitable their passion wanes, their drive subsides and other things take priority. But the knowledge and wisdom they’ve gained is priceless. Conversely, a young creative has all the energy and drive in the world. Passion abounds. But they have a shortage in knowledge, wisdom and experience.
I’m continuously trying to bridge this gap. Whether it’s through my talks, my Skillshare classes, my podcast, or just putting out products that catch the attention of young people, that is my mission and challenge: Reinvigorate the veterans while empowering the next generation.