Finding a Need & Filling It: Balancing Innovation & Customer Requests

The Lab,  
Fred Perrotta

In my last post, I wrote about how we use customer surveys to learn about your travel and gear needs. Through surveying, interviewing, and reading reviews, we learn what you need to travel better.

These feedback loops help us to prioritize you, the customer, which is one of our core values. Another one of our values is to “Scratch Our Own Itch.” This means that we make products that we love and use. The explanation of that value reads:

Every product that we make must solve a problem for city travelers. We will never slap our logo on a “me too” product just for the cash.

Tortuga was started because Jeremy and I experienced a problem and set out to create a solution. Our original idea was to white label an existing product. White labeling means putting your own branding on a generic or pre-existing product. We couldn’t find a product that matched our vision to white label, so we created a backpack from scratch without any previous product design experience.

From Day 1, innovation has been baked into Tortuga. We always seek to identify problems that city travelers face and to create new and better solutions. We never want to duplicate what already exists.

The world has more than enough “stuff.” We want to solve problems, not make more stuff. Creating new solutions and helping our fellow travelers (and ourselves) is the fun part. Cranking out copycat products may result in more sales, but that’s not what we signed up for.

Why We Made Packing Cubes

Given this point of view, you may wonder why we make “commodity” products like packing cubes. Jeremy and I wrestled with this question too.

The Tortuga Packing Cubes were the fourth product that we ever made. The first three, the Tortuga, Tortuga Air, and Tortuga Daypack, were all “scratch our own itch” products that we needed but that didn’t yet exist.

I had tested Eagle Creek packing cubes but never found myself needing the additional organization. Occasionally, I would carry a two-sided packing cube but never considered it necessary.

Yet, customers kept asking us for packing cubes because they wanted more organization. For a while, we recommended generic packing cubes to customers who asked, but this solution didn’t feel right. Finally, we surveyed past customers to better understand if, and how, they used packing cubes. I was in the minority. Seventy percent of our customers used cubes. Lesson learned.

Tortuga customers wanted cubes. They used them. They were asking us for them. Despite our reservations, we decided to make our first packing cubes.

Given our product development history up to that point, we wanted to make something new and unique, not just another set of cubes. We needed to make something worthy of the Tortuga name.

From the survey results, we learned that people carried multiple cubes at a time. Two thirds of customers used 3 or more cubes per trip. So we decided to make a set of cubes, not just sell different sizes individually.

The survey also asked, “What would make you switch to a different brand of packing cubes?”

The top answer was price. This was to be expected for a commoditized product that most brands make mediocre versions of. Most companies, even travel companies, don’t care about their cubes. They design cheap, standardized cubes to make a few extra bucks on each customer who adds them to an order. The majority of packing cubes are completely interchangeable.

The next three answers were more interesting. People would switch brands of cubes for better quality, compatibility, and sizes. Here, we could add value. I had already seen the cheap fabric and shoddy zipper quality of most cubes. Companies were skimping on the details forcing customers to choose solely based on price. We knew that we could make a better quality cube.

Since we were designing primarily for past Tortuga buyers, we could design the set to be compatible with the Tortuga V2. Most cubes aren’t customized to fit into specific bags. We knew that this would be an advantage versus the market. Generic cubes are fine, but when space is at a premium, travelers will seek out the perfect fit.

With a focus on quality (durability) and compatibility, we designed the Tortuga Packing Cubes and, later, the Outbreaker Packing Cubes. In the spring, we will release the Setout Packing Cubes, which will fit perfectly in the Setout Backpack.

The same methodology that led us to building packing cubes also led us to designing rain covers compatible with Toruga backpacks.

How We Fund Innovation

Unlike the in the early days, I no longer use every Tortuga product. This was a hard adjustment to make as the company has grown and evolved. Not every product that we make will scratch my own itch. That’s okay. We also must listen to your needs and solve the problems you encounter.

Our product team is responsible for balancing your requests with Tortuga’s brand, capabilities, and strengths.

Ideally, the products that we make will be a mix of internally-driven innovations and meeting demand from the market.

Better packing cubes designed to perfectly fit in our travel backpacks might not seem world changing, but they can make your trip a little bit easier. Doing so is our job. These products may not be “home runs,” but singles and doubles become important means for funding our most innovative products. Increasing sales is not the end goal but the means by which we make travel easier and more enjoyable for you. We don’t solve problems to make money. We make money so that we can solve more problems.

Our most innovative products, like the award-winning Outbreaker Backpack, require time and money for R&D. We have to research, source, and test new materials and hardware. We have to sample lots of ideas, narrow them down, then test the finalists in real world travel situations. Most of these experiments will fail. A few will succeed. We have a storage locker full of the samples that didn’t make it into production. The successes are what you see on the site.

The less glamorous and headline-grabbing products are what allow us to develop new technologies like the first-ever height-adjustable suspension system on a travel backpack or ultralight fabrics that are tough enough to stand up to the rigors of the road.

Every product that we release should make your travels easier. Sometimes that improvement is incremental. Sometimes it’s a big step forward. Both are important.

 

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