Removing the Middleman of Manufacturing, with Jeremy Cai, CEO at Italic

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The 10,000 hour rule, popularized by author Malcom Gladwell, states that it takes about that many hours of dedication in order to achieve mastery in a given task. Thinking innovatively about creating new business opportunities is helped by understanding as much as you can about that industry, the players, the way they interact, who has the power and what people want. With that kind of foundational knowledge, it’s much easier to see where and how you can completely flip an industry on its head. For Jeremy Cai, the founder of Italic, disrupting the traditional, set-in-stone manufacturing industry took some guts, creativity, and a deep knowledge gleaned through generational experience. Because of his mastery of the industry, he zeroed in on one key element of the supply chain that he was eager to eliminate.

“What if we could actually remove the biggest middleman by far in the supply chain (which is the brand)?” Cai states. “Brand offers a lot. I don’t think there’s going to be a world where we live without brands, but I do think there’s a lot that they add that [is] just fluff and you’re actually paying for a story versus the actual product.”

Italic says goodbye to the biggest middleman, the brand name. But that’s easier said than done. To achieve his goal of bringing high-quality goods directly to consumers, Jeremy had to tap into his insider’s knowledge about the way that the manufacturing business is structured in China and then get those traditional companies to take a leap of faith with him. They say you have to jump and grow wings on the way down when you take that leap. Jeremy’s wings are still growing, and each new lesson is just another feather helping him soar a little higher. Hear how he’s earning those feathers right here on The Journey.

Main Takeaways:

  • No Pain No Gain: When you hear successful founders talk about their struggles, it is often with a smile that they recall these difficult times. Why is that? There seems to be something about the need to work hard and experience some level of suffering in order to fully reap the benefits of success. The passionate entrepreneur enjoys a bit of the blood, sweat, and tears involved in building their business.
  • Finding Your Natural Habitat: The sign of someone with an entrepreneurial spirt could be their difficulty falling in line working for someone else. Some people are more naturally bent toward being entrepreneurs. This said, even if you’re not a natural, it is possible to cultivate entrepreneurial traits and empower yourself to make great business decisions.
  • What Excited You?: Maybe you can technically run a company without passion but you won’t do as well as someone who has that fire. Being passionate about the work that you do is a prerequisite for the most meaningful kind of success. It’s okay to bow out of something that’s not feeding your soul anymore in order to pursue something that really matters to you.

Key Quotes:

“There’s a weird enjoyment or thrill you get out of the early days that are super painful. I’m sure many people can relate with the grind; it sucks, but it’s also what you do you live for.” 

“Not a lot of kids drop out of college to work on HR software. Probably the biggest lesson to me [was], you can try as hard as you can, but it’s really hard to fake your passion for a mission that you don’t really align with.” 

“What if we could actually remove the biggest middleman in the supply chain, which is the brand? Brand offers a lot. I don’t think there’s going to be a world where we live without brands, but, I do think there’s a lot of things that they add that are just fluff and you’re actually paying for the story versus the actual product.”

“Oftentimes founders will just hire people because of a resume…The earlier you dictate very distinctly, this is a trait that I do not want to work with, or at least, ‘I don’t want in this company. And this is a trait that I really want to look for and protect in this company,’ as it goes forward, really does set a precedent. Once you put it in stone and reinforce it on a frequent basis, that’s when it really becomes cultural. It might not even be like a written value, but it’s instilled into the culture.”


Jeremy Cai is the founder of Italic, an online retailer that sells luxury goods without the brand names — or the corresponding markup. Instead, the company designs its own products and then taps the same manufacturers used by high-end labels like Alexander Wang, Burberry and Prada to spin out brandless versions. The manufacturer sets the price and splits the profits with Italic. Italic sells 100 products, ranging from cashmere sweaters to leather wallets to 400 thread-count sheets, with plans to double its assortment by 2020. It raised $13 million in funding in November 2018.

This season of the Journey is produced by Mission.org and brought to you by UPS. To learn how UPS can help your small business, go to UPS.com/pivot.


Episode 105