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GrüneStrasse Backpacks Open for Business!

(Fairfax, VA) That was our triumphant and optimistic headline in July 2020.  After 20 months of designing, refining, testing, rebuilding, and re-thinking the Shellback backpack, we were ready to launch our direct-to-consumer e-commerce site and help ease the friction point of thousands of Bike to Work commuters.  We had a website, we had a campaign, we had a warehouse ready to distribute Shellbacks around the world.

Getting to that point had been an incredibly exciting time.  As I reported last month, It was only AFTER my wife and I agreed to start GrüneStrasse Backpacks that I learned that Vietnam was the world’s #1 producer of backpacks.  Even in a country with dozens of backpack manufacturers and countless backpack workshops, finding a manufacturer and a designer was extremely difficult.

Version F Shellback Bike to Work Backpack
Version F Shellback (testing Hi-Viz Reflective Fabric)

From Idea to Prototype

My prototype at the time was a cardboard model of what I wanted the backpack to do.  It was laughable in its crudeness, but I had an infinite supply of cardboard from moving boxes and the model really helped me determine sizes, dimensions, reinforcement areas, and folds.  It took a lot of Vietnamese coffee and dozens of conversations, but I finally found the man who believed in my project—Jay Lee from Timberline Backpacks.

After Jay and I got started, I began working directly with the An Hung Garment and Production Trading Company in Hanoi.  The factory owner, Ji Hyung Lee, is Jay’s son and we became colleagues and friends through this process.  Ji and I met regularly to review every aspect of the Shellback.  Strap widths, straps lengths, connectors, zippers, zipper pulls, fabric, trims, interior fabric, netting options. 

I went to the factory frequently to meet with the design team and then the production team and then be present during both production and shipping.  Building a product for the first time requires a LOT of face to face communication that cannot be replicated on Zoom or a phone call or email.  Remember, the factory is about producing the pack as quickly and cheaply as possible.  You as the designer are focused on functionality and appearance.  Most of the time those goals do not intersect and the designer needs to evaluate the trade-offs of cost and schedule against functionality and appearance.  That is something you cannot delegate.

Concept Sketch Shellback Dual Utility Hanger
Factory Workshop with Mom and Dad
Demonstrating an early version Shellback with Mom and Dad at the An Hung Garment Factory in Hanoi, Vietnam
Ji Hyung Lee and GrüneStrasse CEO Aaron Weis
An Hung Garment Factory Owner and my friend Ji Hyung Lee.
(Modeling the Timberline Running Harness)

Building the Business

Secondly, building a company to sell your product does not happen overnight.  Most designers are not necessarily businessmen, so building a company is not exactly second nature.  One of my mentors Terry Thomas said, “there’s the business, and there is the business of running the business.”  From my perspective, designing and building a new backpack from scratch has been the easy (and fun) part.  Designing and building a business has taken up most of my time, money, and energy.  I have had to learn web-design, e-commerce, shipping and supply, warehouse operations, e-commerce and warehouse systems interface, legal, duties, tariffs, VATs, accounting, and business strategy. 

Custom Zipper Pulls for the Shellback Bike to Work Backpack
Zipper Pull Concept Sketch
Shellback Hangtag Designs
Initial Hang tag Design

From Prototype to Production Model

To test the Shellback, I sent about 10 backpacks to cyclists and friends for their feedback while simultaneously conducting focus groups in Hanoi, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Holland, MI.  The focus groups and testers were invaluable and due to that interaction, I realized I had a design flaw.  My original idea was for a garment bag that was part of the backpack, and folded out when needed.  What the focus groups helped me realize was that many folks don’t need a garment bag every day and that it was a lot of weight to carry around unnecessarily.  I returned to Vietnam that fall and gave Ji the bad news—we were going back to the drawing board.  It took 3 months to get it right, but the Shellback model you see today is a result of all that product testing.



Hanoi Backpack Focus Group
Backpack Focus Group in Hanoi (from left: Chris Behr, Aaron Weiss, Miroslav Strinic, Reece Guihot, Poul Loundsby, Ignacio Sevilla Priestley)

The bridge venue between “idea” and a mature product was Kickstarter.  Kickstarter is a funding platform directed toward helping creative projects get off the ground. It’s entirely driven by crowdfunding, so donations from the general public fuel these dynamic new ideas.

It was anything close to easy.  First, making a high-quality Kickstarter website was about 10x harder and took 10x longer than I thought it would be.  Even though I had high-quality product photos and 80% of the content written before I started, the process was incredibly challenging and time-consuming.   I expected to spend 1 full day building the Kickstarter page—it took me over 10 days!  Secondly, getting the word out is easy—getting people to take action is difficult.  I had spent the past 15 months compiling a list of nearly 1,500 names to alert that the Shellback was now ready to order.  It took a tremendous amount of persistence.  In the end, we completed our funding goal with three days to go and then added another $5,000 of sales by the end. 

I am extremely pleased to report that in 19 days during January and February 2020, I was able to raise over $40,000 dollars toward producing the Shellback, which was almost $6,000 more than my goal! 

Original Kickstarter Video (aired Jan-Feb 2020)
Shellback Backpack by GrüneStrasse

Want to Bike to Work But No Place for Your Professional Attire?

Is your Bike to Work day confined to Casual Fridays?  Do you have two wardrobes—the Bike to Work wardrobe at the office and the rest at home? 

GrüneStrasse Backpack Co.  produces the Shellback Bike to Work backpack.  This hand-crafted backpack stores the entirety of your one-day work requirements to include:  crease-free professional attire (suit); laptop; shoes; toiletries; bike repair kit; accessories, and dozens of other bike-friendly features that Simplify, Organize, and Protect.

The Cycling Turtle is GrüneStrasse’s regular blog contribution to the Bike to Work and Alternative Transportation Movement. Comments, suggestions, and dissenting points of view welcome!