Whenever I tell someone that I run a backpack company, they ask two questions:
- What kind of backpacks?
- Where do you make them?
The answer to #1 is urban travel backpacks.
The second answer requires an explanation.
How We Got Here
The original Tortuga (V1) was made in Southern California.
We settled on a factory in California after searching for a factory, any factory, anywhere, to manufacture our first batch of bags.
On the advice of our original designer, we started in China. We didn’t have any connections there. We didn’t have anyone in-country to help. As you might expect, this approach was a disaster.
We spent months of time and thousands of dollars designing a bag then begging any factory that we could find to make a sample for us. After months and months of only having a sketch of a backpack, a factory in China finally agreed to make our bag.
Our dreams were about to come true. Fortune and fame were sure to follow. We did it! Right?
Below is the picture that the factory sent of the first sample. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I saw it.
We freaked out. In order to have some control over the process, we started frantically searching for factories in the US.
Most never returned our calls. The rest were at capacity or unwilling to take a chance on a new company placing a small first order. I get that.
But aren’t American factories desperate for business? Aren’t they being forced to close because everything is made in China now?
The media has led us to believe so, but it’s not entirely true.
US factories working in soft goods, like backpacks, do much of their business on government contracts. Just look at the work they cite on their websites. They are busy manufacturing for the military.
We’re happy to see these factories working, but their government contracts create a barrier to entry for new companies. Factories manufacturing for the government can charge bloated prices and be guaranteed a steady stream of work from multi-year contracts. They don’t want to sacrifice that business for a small order from first-time entrepreneurs like us.
They’re doing the right thing for their business. You can’t blame them for that.
In the days before Kickstarter, we couldn’t muster enough money or backers to convince factories to divert their production lines to our tiny order.
Made in the USA
After a demoralizing search, we found a factory willing to work with us. Even better, it was a short drive from LA where Jeremy already lived and where I moved during production. Hallelujah! Now, all of our problems are solved. Right?
Starting with the first sample, the factory (which shall remain nameless) was missing deadlines and ignoring phone calls and emails. The company made high-quality bags but was a nightmare to work with. We were desperate to launch our first product and didn’t have anyone else willing to work with us. We literally couldn’t afford to move to another factory.
After an arduous, 10-month process, we finally had our first order of bags in stock.
Our costs were way too high, especially relative to the Tortuga V1’s $199 price, but our first priority was to get the bags made, at any cost.
We didn’t make any money on this initial order. We spent 18 months selling through a mere 100 bags.
Tortuga V1 was a test. Now that I know the term, this was our minimum viable product. Would people buy a backpack specifically designed for urban travel? The answer was a loud YES.
Next we had to figure out how to proceed and turn this validated idea into a real business.
We created a re-design bag, the Tortuga V2, and moved production to China so that we could try to make a profit on the next round of bags and start building a business.
We’re aware of the controversy about offshoring, particularly in China. We know that re-shoring manufacturing back to the US is a growing trend. Many brands that I admire, like Outlier and Mission Workshop, are made partly, or primarily, in the US.
Since we’re asked so often about where we make the bags, we wanted to share both where we make the Tortuga and why we make it there.
China Has the Best Supply Chain
China is the best place in the world to manufacture soft goods. Period. What Detroit once was to cars, Southeastern China is to soft goods.
Chinese factories have access to every component imaginable in any size and color within driving distance.
The concentration of soft goods businesses in Southeastern China allows companies like us to draw from a huge ecosystem of factories and suppliers. These Chinese factories have better access to everything during the production cycle than American factories do.
We’ve experienced this first hand. On one visit to China, we met with our backpack supplier on Monday then drove to the Duraflex factory on Wednesday to choose our preferred buckles from their 100,000 SKUs on hand.
As we’ve grown and evolved our brand, we’ve branched out beyond Chinese suppliers for some specialty fabrics and hardware. Most common elements of our bags are easy to find in China. As we push the boundaries of product design, we’ve had to branch out to the US, Germany, Taiwan, and Singapore for the right components. Luckily, many foreign suppliers have a factory, distributor, or office in China or nearby in East Asia.
Additionally, Southern China has excellent transportation infrastructure, easy access to shipping ports in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and fast access to other East Asian suppliers.
China Can Make High-Quality Goods
Many people believe that “Made in China” means low quality. This is not true. Plenty of companies make shitty products, but that’s on them, not the factories.
Made in Japan once carried the same negative connotations. Then Sony showed the world what Japanese factories could do.
Chinese factories are perfectly capable of producing high-quality products. Premium luggage brands manufacture in China’s Guangdong province. Apple builds most of its products, including the iPhone in your pocket, in China. Most “smart” devices, including luggage, are made in Shenzhen, China.
“Made in China” only means low quality if you choose the wrong supplier or ignore your responsibilities as a brand. You are responsible for setting expectations and ensuring quality levels with your suppliers.
Companies looking to save money on labor when making bags are moving production to Southeast Asia. Vietnam is on the rise but not yet to China’s level.
How We Did It
Thanks to a referral from a design consultancy, we found a quality factory in China to manufacture Tortuga V2, the Tortuga Air, and the accessories we later released.
The V2 line helped us to grow as a company and team. In the second half of last year, Patrick and Giulia joined our product team. Patrick is the industrial designer behind the Outbreaker Collection. Giulia is our production manager working with our suppliers in China.
With the right team in place, we vetted another 22 factories then chose 6 finalists for sampling. We’ve now chosen a new factory partner for the Outbreaker Collection and beyond. We are working with fabric suppliers in the US and hardware suppliers in Germany and Taiwan.
Tortuga has an increasingly global team and supply chain. We are location agnostic. Today, China is the best place for us to make premium travel backpacks that are still affordable to most working age travelers. In the future, that may change. If it does, we’ll adapt and continue to share the journey with you.
Updated 03/01/17 with current information for the Outbreaker Collection and beyond.
Image Credit: Visual Hunt