As travel—whether it be a commute for the office-bound or a flurry of passport stamps and layovers for the jetset—has rebounded, so too has interest in making a life lived in transit a little more effortless. Over the past year, Cadence’s endlessly refillable, recyclable, and leakproof modular Capsule System has been taking over the conversation around how to embark on life’s adventures with cherished beauty and wellness routines in tow, all while divesting from single-use plastics.
About six years ago, founder Steph Hon (then a documentary filmmaker and dancer) set out to find durable travel containers for her own beauty and wellness products that were easy to label and keep organized while on the go. What should have been easy enough to find didn’t then exist. Multiple patents, a custom manufacturing process, and a company-owned warehouse later, Hon debuted in 2020 the systems-based product she sought out all those years ago. The Cadence founder sat down with Surface to talk about overcoming “no”s from investors and engineers, why post-consumer plastic is the future, and finding the common ground between dance and engineering.
Tell me about your background before Cadence. Was there anything specific from your education or work in film that has served you well as a founder?
I came up with the vision for Cadence during my years in the documentary film and dance worlds. I was always on the go and I struggled to find a way to take my routine with me. I found myself buying things that didn’t align with my values—feeling organized, investing in products that are climate positive, and feeling like the product I purchased enhanced my experience of living in the moment. With that realization, I decided to create a brand that creates quality product systems that bring joy and thoughtfulness to every moment—on the go and at home.
I reference my film and dance history often. When working on your part of the documentary, you put time and effort into something that may eventually get cut from the final film. This is painful but necessary, and when we looked back we were glad we did it. This taught me not to let preciousness get in the way of crucial decisions. Dance pieces are all about pushing the limit and shattering expectations, which is how I approach Cadence every day, whether sending an email or designing a new product.
Conversely, can you tell me about how you overcame any knowledge gaps when it came to absorbing everything you needed to know to enter the R&D process?
The most difficult part is figuring out what your dream is. Once that becomes clear, believing that you will find a way to make it happen fills knowledge gaps. That part is 90 percent of the battle. When working on your own creation, the last 10 percent becomes much more exciting, even if it’s in an area you don’t historically love (for me, engineering). As a founder, you quickly learn to either do it yourself or find someone that can. It’s about continuously improvising, which my background in dance made me very confident in.
It sounds like you heard the word “no” a lot in the beginning: from engineers who believed your design was impossible to implement and from traditional investors who weren’t on board with your vision. What kept you going as a founder?
Telling me “no” is like throwing gasoline on my flame. I believed in the product wholeheartedly and found the discipline instilled in me through my years as a dancer and my passion for the design is what kept me hopeful and hungry. My personal mission is to reset people’s expectations of their products and it just happened that along the way I’ve reset people’s expectations of what’s even possible to create and their expectations of me.
You’ve said before, “If your secret sauce is your supplier, that’s your biggest problem.” I’m not asking you to give away Cadence’s secret sauce, but why did the product’s unique design, multiple patents, custom manufacturing process, and even owning your own warehouse all matter so much to you and your vision for Cadence?
I created Cadence because I was looking for something that didn’t exist. When I landed on exactly what that thing was and began my journey to create it, I kept finding potential partners that wanted to cut corners or didn’t want to attempt it at all. Cadence is the result of true innovation, so when we were constantly being told that things weren’t possible, we had to go out and make it possible.
Why was using post-consumer, ocean-bound plastic in the manufacturing process a priority for you? What percentage of plastic currently used in Cadence’s manufacturing is reclaimed from beaches?
Reusing materials that already exist is at the core of our philosophy. In our lifetime, roughly nine billion single-use plastic travel bottles and six billion silicone travel bottles will end up on beaches. Our goal is to make a dent in that number through thoughtful innovation. Our partner, Envision Plastics, collects plastic from beaches around the world by employing local communities—our recent batch of material was collected from the Yucatán and Baja Peninsulas. The ocean-bound plastic then gets processed in California and North Carolina, and currently makes up 20 percent of a finished Capsule.
You clearly care about the environment and the ways plastic waste compromises it; were you conflicted about using virgin plastics in the manufacturing process?
We weren’t conflicted as we knew that we were going to be making a product that people could use for life, and in turn would be taking a powerful step towards eliminating single-use plastics. In June, the equivalent of 90,502 single-use travel sized bottles were recycled and given new life in our Capsules. Our goal is that one day it is possible for our products to be made entirely out of reused materials. In the meantime, our duty is to innovate and be completely transparent. In addition to the ocean bound plastic, we’re reusing our own manufacturing scrap by re-grinding it and re-integrating it into our material mix. All of this reprocessed material makes up an additional 30 percent of a finished Capsule.
Do you think it’s possible to shift to using no virgin plastics in the manufacturing process while still being able to produce the colorways that resonate so strongly with buyers?
We are constantly growing, innovating, and creating processes that the manufacturing industry has not yet seen. Our product is incredibly technical and difficult to create, so while it may not be tomorrow, our end goal is to shift to no virgin plastics without sacrificing quality as soon as possible.
In addition to reusing your own scrap material, are there any other ways you’re optimizing the product lifecycle management or supply chain processes? Is there anything you’ve improved or optimized that you were initially told would not be possible?
We do not cut corners when it comes to this process. Every single component of our packaging can be placed in the recycling bin. Our box is made from 100 percent recyclable cardboard, our shipping labels are compostable and recyclable, and our seed paper is plantable (and grows wildflowers!). If you have nowhere to plant it, it can go in the recycling bin, too. Additionally, with Cadence, you buy once and use forever. By doing so, you can purchase more products in bulk and reduce your usage of hotel travel-sized products, eventually eliminating the need for them at all. If customers do end up wanting to return their old capsules, we send them a free shipping label to mail it back to us so we can use it to make new Capsules or we send it to a facility in Upstate New York to be turned into bricks.
You have an amazing group of founder and operator investors behind Cadence. Have you received any advice from them that has continued to propel you and the company forward?
The hiring process is one that we take extremely seriously at Cadence and fellow founders have been an important resource when building our process. Marc Randolph, the co-founder of Netflix, said “the first 10 early employees get their culture from the CEO and the next 90 get their culture from the first 10.” This is why we take the hiring process so seriously and make sure to take our time.
What’s your vision for the future of Cadence?
Continue building a brand that makes it possible to take any routine from home on the go, making us feel the most ourselves, through sustainable innovation.
Where was the last place you took your Cadence capsules? Was it local or far-flung? Is there a big trip coming up that you look forward to taking them on?
My partner and I are currently renovating a home and have been moving around a lot. Capsules live at my apartment, my parent’s home, and my partner’s new house. They also live in my car and my purse. They have truly brought peace of mind to an otherwise stressful time by allowing me to feel settled with my routine wherever I am. Additionally, I just got back from L.A. for an exciting partnership meeting and was able to take my entire routine with me, which feels especially important when wanting to feel my best self on a work trip.