Making Bikepacking Bags During COVID-19
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With small businesses in various states of flux and turmoil during the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to reach out to the people who are the lifeblood of our community. We asked eight different bag makers how the lockdown is affecting their businesses, and if there’s a silver lining to it all…
What would bikepacking be without the bag makers of the world? Behind them are the people who build our community, support our events, outfit our bikes for grand adventures, and keep the stoke alive. Over the last month, I’ve reached out to many of these folks, some of whom I communicate with on a regular basis. I’ve heard snippets of the same stories on the national news—closures, layoffs, declines in sales, and business model u-turns to help make medical equipment to support our healthcare workers. To offer some behind the scenes perspective with you, our readers, I decided to formally pose the question to eight different bag makers and share their answers here.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business, and is there a silver lining?
I think the impact of the COVID-19 health crisis, in regards to Porcelain Rocket, is a tale of two weeks. The first two weeks of March, by all measures, were leading Porcelain Rocket to a very good month. Sales were up about 50% over 2019, we had a healthy inventory built from a winter of hard work, and the “spring rush” was looking like it was beginning early. I was also working hard towards a big transition plan for Porcelain Rocket, which I was extremely excited about. I believe there were about 15 confirmed cases in Alberta on March 12th, and to the average person (at least those in my close community), things seemed relatively okay in Canada.
On March 12th, we also began to hear of hotspots in the US, like New York City, Washington state, and my hometown of New Orleans. I think this is when most of us here in Calgary began to take things far more seriously. By March 15th, I was beginning to think about how this would impact our work environment, as our shop is very open concept and cozy, if you will. I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing, for the well-being of my crew and for everyone who comes into contact with Porcelain Rocket.
On March 16th, I texted my crew to not come to work at the shop until further notice. That was also the day when sales disappeared. The last two weeks of March marked the lowest revenue over a two-week period since 2015, and a period of time during which I made decisions that affected the livelihood of four others that mean a lot to me. Objectively, we are in the luxury goods business, so the sales decrease didn’t come as a surprise, while the entire continent focused on their families and attempted to make sense of this new reality for themselves. A bikepacking vacation suddenly seemed a selfish dream to most of us, I think.
April has been surprisingly good for sales. We are seeing an increase as each week passes, and I’m again thankful for our community that, in the hardest of times, is recognizing that small business matters. While sales may be slow, I’m hearing from other maker friends that notes of support are coming through with orders and folks are more engaged on social media. I’ve also noticed a shift in what folks are buying. We are selling far more Meanwhile basket bags, and Nigel handlebar bags, according to analytics. I think folks are thinking more locally with their riding, so gear that could be handy on a more day-to-day commuter basis is becoming the current trend for us. I’ve also been very grateful to see a much higher percentage of orders shipping to customers in Canada. Whether we’re headed for a more protectionist economy in the years to come, or be it simply that folks are worried about international shipping, I’m encouraged by our Canadian support.
Personally, it’s been a challenge to watch as this crisis unfolds, and know that we, Porcelain Rocket, are not in much of a position to help in a meaningful way. The Canadian health care system, and Alberta Health Services in particular, has not required nearly the public outcry for help that we’ve seen in the US. I’m continually inspired by those who have found ways to look beyond their own businesses and contribute in a truly impactful way. To be of help, and wanting to be of help so that we feel better about our own efforts, are different things entirely.
Bicycle touring will be something we do again. But for now, let’s stay home, pore over maps, do the research to be prepared, and buy something from a craftsperson in our own communities, if we’re able.
This unprecedented, but not entirely unexpected, crisis is so all-encompassing that it seems self-centered to worry about our business prospects. But, our business prospects are enmeshed with six people’s livelihoods, so we’re absolutely concerned. I’ll be forthright: we’ve been closed as a non-essential business since March, and our sales have cratered since COVID-19 became an emergency in the U.S. We’re still receiving orders, but we’re down about 65% compared to normal. Many customers have sent words of encouragement or told us they want Bedrock gear, no matter how long it takes! That’s wonderful to hear, of course.
So far, we have continued to pay all our employees. Our crew has partnered with a local non-profit effort to build PAPR (positive pressure) hoods for regional hospitals. More complex than the common face mask, these reusable, power-ventilated hoods provide protection for medical professionals who are caring for sick people. We’ve sewn every hood for the effort, and we’re up to about 400 hoods so far. Community donations are providing some compensation for our work and hopefully will keep our employees and business solvent through this uncertain time. Although the probable future looks precarious, we’re committed to fulfilling every pending order and to Bedrock being here, rock solid, when all this is over!
Silver lining… there isn’t really one from a business perspective. Personally, I would like to see recognition from world leaders of the obvious: We cannot afford mega-capitalism dictating the way we do everything. If the only selection pressure is for low cost and high profits, then things like preparedness, homegrown manufacturing capabilities, and national agency are eliminated. Capitalism is fine, but let’s combine the profit motive with awareness of other values we should hold simultaneously.
Six weeks ago, COVID-19 shook our business and forced us to completely reframe.
The foreign territory and complete unknown of what was around the corner was nothing shy of terrifying. One question haunted our every move, loomed over sleepless nights, and invited itself—spoken and unspoken—into every interaction: is this the end of 12 years of Swift Industries? I don’t need to wax poetic about all of the reasons I believe my company needs to exist in this world. I’ll stand on a soap box another day to talk about carving out space in the outdoor and cycling industries as a US-made gear company, much less one that’s female-led, and the work we’re doing (personally and thus through our brand) to change the face of the cycling and adventure community.
Instead, I’m gonna tell you what it felt like to fight like f*cking hell to keep our company afloat.
We’re all friends here, right? We’ve all been on expedition wilderness trips where you end up reporting ‘bout strange poops three days and six dehydrated meals in… ah, whatever, I’ll just get it out of the way:
When COVID hit Seattle, I didn’t shit solid for two weeks.
We laid our people off (just so you understand, these are the people with whom I’ve spent every day for the past eight years—people who have made their careers and built life paths at Swift), we spent at least 24 waking-hours of our life on the phone with the ESD, then L&I, and the DOR, called emergency meetings with our accountants and bankers; filled out, I kid you not, 11 loan and grant applications, asked for flexible terms from our suppliers who are also small, independent businesses; and made lists of everything we own (okay, so it was a short list) that we could sell to stay afloat. I scoured the corners of my mind for any forgotten resource or harebrained strategy we could put in place to save the day or just duct tape us in place a little longer. Like I said, my gut was in a bad way through all of that.
And then, when we had done everything we possibly could in order to fortify our company, once the lights were turned off and the doors were locked, I stopped and let it all sink in.
This pandemic has forced me to think hard and long about what it means to lead a company. It’s one thing to push a team through tailwinds and placid weather. It’s a whole other experience to lead during a crisis. I’ve never experienced the emotional depth demanded to make grounded decisions that affect ten people’s livelihoods and wellbeing as our reality comes apart at the seams. COVID-19 forced me to carefully hold other people’s fear in addition to my own and move purposefully forward, even though the entire world didn’t know what that meant.
Swift is built for the unknown, literally and figuratively. We design products that are thoughtfully designed to withstand the unpredictable. On a personal level, we believe in facing the unknown and spend our days making tools that we hope will inspire folks to push their boundaries and test their limits. In that way, the questions we ask and the position we assume when we’re at the design table are a rad parable for the questions we have for Swift in the face of COVID-19.
What are the weak points? Will it be around in 20 years? Make it out of the right material for the right adventure. Shit breaks. Can we design it with ease of repair in mind? Always design with the health of the stakeholders in mind. Have we built something reliable? Are we making the right tool for the right adventure? Is it built to last?
Swift Industries is in constant evolution and, as is in the DNA of any intrepid adventurer, our little company is relentlessly ambitious. This means that to come aboard our ship is enlisting on a voyage that’s explicitly searching for unknown territory, and as a little crew we’re in constant pursuit of the right skills and tools for, shall we call them, less-than-predictable endeavors. It’s in no small part because of this spirit that we’re finding ways to thrive in unmapped territory.
Lane & Monty Wilson
We were cruising through early March as per usual, busy filling spring orders for bike stores and everyone else gearing up for adventures in the impending warmer months. Then the virus hit, and as most of us experienced, things went from minimal threat to lockdown in the course of a couple weeks. Local and state regulations forced us to shut down the shop and send most of our sewing team home, leaving us with a skeleton crew to run shipping/fulfillment.
During the initial “oh shit, this is really happening” panic, crickets chirped for a few days and orders dropped off completely. Fortunately, we’ve experienced really great support from the cycling community since, and things have picked back up to a near normal level. I think a lot of folks are getting out on their bikes to combat the effects of quarantine. We ran a full staff through the lean months of winter in an effort to keep things in stock this summer, so we’re lucky to have a healthy amount of back stock, which is atypical for any time of year.
About a week into the pandemic, we were contacted by a number of individuals and entities looking for face masks. Initially, we made prototypes for the local hospital, but after battling through red tape we realized medical grade masks would be near impossible for us to manufacture. Soon after, the CDC released guidelines for sewn cotton masks to be utilized by the general public. Our local public health office was in contact and now we’re geared up and running production on cotton face masks. We put together a buy one give one program, so we’re able to donate masks to those in need that are funded by the masks people are able to buy at $14/piece. We’re currently making masks for the BLM, Forest Service, our local public health office, Alamosa homeless shelter, and quite a few individuals. Folks often ask how they can support us, our answer is to buy a bag, mask, or just support any local or small business that has been affected by the crisis if you can. While we hope it’s back to business as usual soon, most importantly we want everybody to stay healthy and sane. Get out and ride your bike safely!
First, we owe a huge thank you to our customers, our city, our families, and so many others who we are leaning on right now. We are feeling so grateful to be a part of this bikepacking community.
For context, Rockgeist is a three-person company specializing in custom gear. Right now we are still sewing orders, but only between myself and Greg Clemmer. North Carolina gave us permission to continue operations on the condition we work separately, in shifts. Projects are on pause, new hires have been delayed, and it’s been a lonely month. But we are healthy and grateful we can still work on these terms.
When cities first shut down, I made the announcement that we were getting materials to sew face masks for health care workers. Unfortunately, yesterday I made the decision to stop this effort. In part, because I couldn’t get approved materials for hospital use. We then switched to sewing pedestrian masks but it was digging our financial hole even deeper. We are still open to pursuing PPE, however, our contribution, if any, will have to fall within design, prototyping, or small batch work.
Right now, I’m trying to look forward. I’m trying to see what’s going to get our company through this. But at the same time there’s a bigger picture of helping our communities get through this. Balancing those efforts and finding ways to contribute has been challenging for me.
While we figure this out, I have a renewed sense of purpose for our customers and the work I love to do. I know I’m not alone in feeling that my bike keeps me grounded, calm, and optimistic. In no way is our business essential, but if we can contribute to people getting out and riding (safely) I’ll take that as a small win. And if we can make some smart, deliberate decisions in the next few months, Rockgeist can still be in a position to grow and hire when we get out of the woods.
As for the silver lining, I think it’s yet to be determined. Problems in my personal life, my business, and in my government are all emphasized now more than ever. Acknowledging problems and seeing opportunities are important, but it’s even more important to act and change. I think there will only be a silver lining if we can make changes for the better and continue to support and care for each other when this is over.
Coming into March we were experiencing strong sales in every category here in the US. Worldwide, too, Ortlieb was breaking sales records — especially in the core countries of Germany, Switzerland and Austria where e-bikes are booming. Growth was also strong all over Europe in the Adventure/Bikepacking category of products. But then the pandemic hit and everything slowed to a crawl.
Our US headquarters is located just outside of Seattle and we were made aware of the impact very early on. We had started to change our office behavior in February. By the 15th of March, we shifted all work to remote except for two colleagues working the warehouse. Thankfully, none of our staff has been diagnosed or fallen ill although all of us know someone who has been.
We are fortunate because we make all our ORTLIEB products in our own factory in Germany, while many of our competitors had deliveries held up coming out of Asia due to the pandemic. As of today’s writing, we are still producing albeit with reduced personnel and following proper health guidelines. We’re still supplying bike shops and eager bike riders globally — both essential workers who need transportation, as well as those using the bike for temporary relief from being cooped up inside the house.
Make no mistake though, business is a fraction of what it normally is during this time of year. Where will this all lead? We are hopeful that riding bikes will continue to increase coming out of this crisis. We know in cities many folks will be reluctant to use public transportation for a while. Short adventures away from crowds will also continue to be alluring as people long for fresh air and open spaces. We find ourselves among those people and are reminded of what John Muir once wrote: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
Wherever future adventures and jaunts may take folks, we at ORTLIEB are here to ensure that your belongings stay safe, dry and protected.
The Covid-19 outbreak has had a big impact on things at Revelate. From shuttering our Anchorage office because of a municipal order to uncertainty in retail as we move into our busiest season, the impacts have been widespread throughout all aspects of our business.
We transitioned to working from home and are lucky that we have been able to continue to ship orders since our warehouse was deemed essential. However, we had to hit the brakes on production to avoid tying up all our cash flow with inventory, uncertain if we had any outlets for sales as most of our retail partners closed their storefronts. On the upside, It’s been inspiring to see local bike shops still serving their communities. We have a lot of respect for the creative hustle.
From a production standpoint, with retailers and distributors freezing their orders and our main sewing partner in Oregon shut down due to local ordinance, things were at a halt. In some ways that made it easier to take the time to reassess due to the decreased demand, but ultimately these some of our skilled sewers were laid off and went on unemployment until ordinances allowed the sewing shop to reopen just a few days ago.
If there is something good to come of this I hope that the cycling and bikepacking community embraces the travel restrictions and keeps people exploring and bikepacking close to home. Leaving from your door and going on an overnighter has always been a fantastic way to unplug and is accessible to people new to bikepacking. Personally, the stay at home mandates have kept me busy with homeschooling and since I just moved – tons of house projects!
We’re optimistic! bikepacking’s main perk is social distancing so we think as the situation eases up we’re going to come out of this ok.
Rogue Panda Designs
We’ve seen a drop in sales due to COVID, but I really can’t complain given how much worse off other businesses are right now. The biggest impact to us is the partial shutdown of our production for safety. But that worked out better than expected, since a local non-profit has hired our furloughed staff to make masks and gowns for the hospital. I’d rather they be doing essential work anyway.
Speaking of the hospital, Flagstaff has a large mountain bike community and I’ve gotten to know a lot of the people who work there through bag-making and riding over the years. More than anything, I’m concerned for all of my friends putting their lives on the line for us. I can’t wait till I can go for a ride with them again.
As to a silver lining, the patience and support of the bikepacking community has been awesome. Our customers have been very understanding about delays, and orders have continued to come in. I’m sure we still have some hard times ahead, but it gives me hope that our community of bag makers is gonna come out of this stronger than ever.