BGBS 032: Chad Mellen & Keith Bristol | Knack | What Would We Give to a Friend?
Chad Mellen, co-Founder, and Keith Bristol, Chief Digital Officer, of Knack Bags join us to talk about how they took a pain point and frustration, turned it into an idea, and then developed an entire company around it. They share what they did, the steps they took, and the sheer determination it took to get the prototype made, and the final product flying off the shelf! This is the story of how two career executives broke ranks & built a product that no one else would.
If you like stories of trial & error, and ultimate success of the American dream, this is an episode you won’t want to miss!
What we’re talking about
- An Idea Is Born From the Security Line At the Airport
- From Childhood Admiration To Path Blazing Careers
- Testing, Testing. It’s Launch Time!
An Idea Is Born From the Security Line At the Airport
Chad Mellen spent most of his career in the branded luxury and premium accessory & retail industries. He has held roles such as CEO, president, CMO, VP Sales & Director across several high end brand name companies. Keith Bristol has previously been a creative director at an ad agency, and was instrumental in building the direct to consumer businesses throughout the US and globally. He has helped launch startups, scale, or progress to acquisition. He also holds the title of “household athletic director”. Both of these men travel extensively for work, and yet, even though they worked in the bag industry, traveling was still cumbersome and frustrating. They were searching for the perfect bag to help make traveling for business, or leisure, a lot easier.
From Childhood Admiration To Path Blazing Careers
At the end of 2016, when Chad was standing in line to get through security at the airport and trying to dig his ID out of his many bags, he had an idea. What if there was a bag that was multi-function? One bag to do it all! The idea was born, but far from production lines, even though Chad worked in the bag industry. As a child, Chad loved brands & was fascinated with how a logo, a symbol (equities) transmits so much about the product, but also who uses the product. Keith was the same way, but with advertising. He was obsessed with advertising, especially product advertising and branding, as a kid. All this passion and experience led to a business partnership that helped them to develop a product from a simple idea, to one that customers could use to make their lives a lot easier.
Testing, Testing. It’s Launch Time!
Chad and Keith partnered together to use their collective experience, and they formed Knack Bags. From their former jobs, they knew that it was vital to get input from the customers they were hoping to sell to. So they had prototypes made, tested them, got feedback, redesigned, and repeated the entire process again and again until they felt they had the perfect multi-functioning bag. They tested everything from the material the bag was made from, to the zippers that closed it, all the way down to the color of the button you click on when you “Add to Cart”! No detail was too small. Finally, on October 23rd of 2018, they went live with online sales. How fast do you think they sold out? (Spoiler alert: They’re consistently rated with the top name brand bags in the travel industry!)
Are you ready to take your idea and turn it into reality?
- 18:55 – 19:34 (39 sec CM) I think the real critical thing is…that’s really challenging for a lot of people.
- 37:41 – 38:24 (43 sec CM) I think that given the blurring…unsustainable multi-bag approach.
- 43:08 – 43:21 (13 sec CM) The biggest moment was when…I was buying a bunch of bags.
- 48:21 – 48:56 (35 sec CM) I just love the fact that our bag…that’s the fundamental point of this product.
- 48:58 – 49:34 (36 sec CM) On the service side…put everything we do through that lens.
- Why can’t one bag do almost everything, and do it equally well? – CM
- Knack is all about trying to rethink how people carry their life with them. – CM
- You have to be willing to take risks & have failures, because in order to lean into that magical side, it’s not always home runs. – MG
- This is the bag for the mobile professional, and travel is only a portion of what they’re doing. – CM
Chad Mellen 0:03
To me, the biggest moment was when I had to write that first purchase order. And I had to write that first purchase order before we had any kind of financing in place. So basically, I was buying a bunch of bags. And you know, I had a real crisis of confidence that point in time, like, you know, do I really want to do this, but luckily, Keith was on board at that point in time. Again, he kind of balances my things, and he’s very optimistic and he was really excited about this. And that meant a ton to me. So, you know, it really helps soothe my nerves to write that purchase order and send that deposit through.
Marc Gutman 0:46
podcasting from Boulder, Colorado. This is the baby got backstory Podcast, where we dive into the story behind the story of today’s most inspiring storytellers, creators and entrepreneurs like Baxter. And I cannot lie. Hi, I’m your host, Marc Gutman, Marc Gutman, and on today’s episode of Baby Got Back story, how to career executives in the bag and luggage industry broke ranks and built the bag that no one else would. Now if you like and enjoy the show, please take a minute or two to rate and review us over in iTunes. iTunes uses these as part of the algorithm that determines ratings on the apple charts. And ratings help us to build an audience, which then helps us to continue to boost the show. Today’s episode we’re talking to Chad Mellon and Keith Bristol of knack bags. Mac is a new and exciting company that is getting a lot of attention for their unique perspective. One bag for both work and play.
Chad is the CEO and founder of knack and has spent his career in the branded luxury and premium accessory and retail industries. As a senior executive, he has been directly responsible for the development and growth of several iconic American and international consumer brands at private, public and private equity owned companies in the writing instrument that means pens, pencils, that same type of thing, luggage, leather goods, handbag and accessory categories. Before knack. He helped co president cmo VP sales and director roles across companies such as at cross to me and coach Keith Bristol is the Chief Digital Officer at knack prior neck. He’s been a creative director at an advertising agency and was instrumental in building the direct to consumer businesses for ebags. Calm and to me.com in the US and globally. He has helped launch bootstrap startups scale or progress to acquisition and he’s a husband and father I have two daughters, and I love this. The household athletic director, Chad and Keith both met while working at the well known luxury luggage company Tumi and knew that someday they would work together again. They just had to find the right fit. And this is their story.
Chad Mellen 3:25
So what’s Knack all about? a knack is all about trying to rethink how people carry their life with them. That’s really it. And we’ve said from the very beginning, you know, Keith and I, we just fundamentally don’t get the current bag industry. And I’ve been part of the bag industry for a long time. It’s been a lot of time, it coats a lot of time to me. And the idea that you have to put the things that you carry kind of in specialized bags, to get from point A to point B Or not optimize how you carry them? It just doesn’t make sense to us.
What do I mean by that? If you’re going to go to the gym from work, what do you carry? You carry your work bag you carry your gym bag. If you’re going to take a quick overnight trip for business, what do you carry, you carry a carry on, you know field or a duffel and you carry your work bag. You know, if you’ve got a kid you’re taking out, you probably have a tote in a diaper bag. It just doesn’t make sense. That’s how the business is, you know, the industry has been built. They kind of grow businesses by further refining single function bags that match you know, increasingly smaller use cases. And our whole idea was, why can’t one bag do almost everything and do it equally well, and that’s what max about, you know, it’s a business bag. It’s an everyday carry bag that also really works well. So the travel bag and gym bag, a bag carry photography equipment in a lot of different uses the whole idea is you now have one bag to live your life.
Marc Gutman 5:03
And thank you for that. And that’s a great overview of what Knack is and what you stand for. And right now currently you are based in Oregon. And for the both of you, are you both originally from Oregon?
Chad Mellen 5:17
Well, actually, we’re by Coastal and Keystone, Oregon and Portland and I’m in. I’m actually looking out right now on the beautiful shores Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island
Marc Gutman 5:28
vary by Coastal you’re about as cooked by Coastal as it gets.
Keith Bristol 5:31
We’re about is by Coastal as it gets
Marc Gutman 5:33
it so Chad, where did you grow up?
Chad Mellen 5:36
I was born in New Jersey. And my dad was a marketing executive at Sherwin Williams, which is a paint company and they were in New York City. My mom and dad were both born and bred dyed in the wool New Yorkers. And you know, when I was five, the company said to my dad, you’re moving to Cleveland, Ohio.
That’s where their headquarters were. He thought he was being sent to you know, purgatory or hell, you know, it just This was the worst thing in the world to go from the tri state area to Cleveland, Ohio. So I went when I was five grew up in Cleveland and like my parents loved it. I mean, absolutely loved it. I consider myself in Ohio and Clevelander medine the wool Indians fan and browns fan and you know, brought that curse to my kids.
Marc Gutman 6:19
The only thing worse is being Alliance fan because I was raised in Detroit. So I’ve also brought that curse home to my family so I can relate.
Chad Mellen 6:26
Yeah, it’s the same thing. At least the Tigers won something recently.
Marc Gutman 6:30
That’s right. That’s right. And Keith, how about you were you grew up?
Keith Bristol 6:34
Yeah. So I grew up in Nebraska actually, in the heartland I grew up on a farm. So I you know, it’s it’s funny, I was the first kind of generation to leave the farm and, like go graduate from college and live in the city. I always wanted to live in city. I don’t know why really, I just did. It always just drew drew me always really like just the people and new and different things and farming just wasn’t for me. So I kind of left that. behind and yeah, from there I moved to what to school in Nebraska actually and then moved to Colorado. And then recently in the last six years moved to Portland, Oregon.
So I migrated West, but I’m definitely a Midwestern or at heart diehard Husker fan. And so Chad and I have a lot of fun with Nebraska, Ohio State, although he has way more fun than I do in the current moment. Recently, recently, yeah, yeah. So
Marc Gutman 7:27
yeah, it’ll come around. It’ll come around.
Keith Bristol 7:29
So yeah, that’s kind of where I grew up and and sort of my path.
Marc Gutman 7:34
Yeah. And so to Midwest guys, like were you both into bags and fashion when you were
Chad Mellen 7:42
young men, you know, it’s funny. I guess you could say mark, I was pretty oblivious about everything, like right through college. And no, I wasn’t at all I love brands. And that’s something that I carry with me the idea of a brand has always fascinated me. The idea of That, you know, kind of a logo and a symbol and an aura. You know, what we call equities now can actually transmit so much information not only about product, but about the person who uses the product. absolutely fascinated me. So that’s probably the only thing that I can say that really kind of drove me to where I am now.
Keith Bristol 8:22
Yeah, I would actually, it’s kind of funny because I didn’t realize that chat. But I was the same way. I was a little bit more like that with advertising. So I was really obsessed with advertising. I just loved any kind of advertising as a kid Prop, any product advertising, anything like that. And so in branding, I thought was just really a cool thing.
So that’s why I started my career actually out as in an ad agency as a creative art director and a creative director. And how I got into bags actually was a complete fluke. I was in Denver, and I moved to Denver for a startup. And that was back in the dot bomb days when everything kind of was really really high and then it crashed really, really hard and ended up being at that company for like six months or eight months. It went under and I was looking for a place to land and I found e bags and I really really liked e bags because they had a, you know, kind of a more mature leadership group. And I it’s funny because when I started I was like, oh bags, like that’s not really that interesting. I’ll be in bags for like, I don’t know, six months or something. And lo and behold, I was there for over nine years and I got to work with some amazing people and kind of found my love for bags then. And then kind of reconnected with Chad. So that’s kind of my bag connection. But now I’m obsessed with bags.
Marc Gutman 9:44
totally. And it’s so interesting. Thinking about that time and going back in time and thinking about ebags because I think for listeners on our show, like they don’t like it’s even in the name ebags like the revolutionary part about That whole business was that you purchased online, you know, and then they start to extend the brand a little bit into their their own product line but but thinking about just, you know, how revolutionary was that when you when you got there and you’re like, we’re actually like selling bags on the internet?
Keith Bristol 10:16
tremendously revolutionary. I mean, you know, the guys that founded it left Samsonite, because they wanted Samsonite. To do that. They wanted to sell online and Sam’s like, oh, no one will ever buy online. And frankly, I think we were one of only three startups pure play startups to make it through the.the.com era back then. So it was pretty, it was a pretty amazing accomplishment and all the things that we had to go through for that. So So yeah, that was that was kind of a, you know, that was really amazing for me to be part of that. And even like you said, the name back then you had to be called a something because people didn’t really know what e commerce was, you know, and gosh, how especially In the last, you know, couple months how much it’s changed drastically for so many companies.
That’s always been what I’ve done online commerce, even after I left ebags but in how Chad and I met was when he was at to me. We actually ran the tv.com website and back then to we did only have line drawings for their for their product, you remember that Chad said and then we had to reshoot we reshot everything for them to put it online to sell online. And that was like a big, big deal. It’s just it’s funny to kind of look back now and just think how, like second nature that is now but back then it was pretty groundbreaking.
Marc Gutman 11:41
Yeah. Did you know what you were doing? Or were you kind of breaking breaking eggs as you went it? Was it new ground? I mean, like, I don’t think there was a lot of people that had a ton of expertise in any commerce in that way into that scale.
Keith Bristol 11:55
Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, you but that there wasn’t really a lot of experience because we are We were really on the forefront of it, you know, there weren’t a lot of people selling pure plays, selling online. I mean, there are definitely companies out there that had an online presence. And a lot of them were just had branding sites, they weren’t even ecommerce back then.
So a lot of it was, you know, for us just figuring it out. And, you know, sometimes it was going with your gut, but we were really big into testing things. And that’s always kind of stuck with me We test and see how people you know, react and down to like, what’s what is the color of the button that they’re supposed to click and what’s the word on the button? And so we were really big believers in that and that’s something I’ve taken with me everywhere I go and we you know, we do that here as well. So yeah, that’s,
Chad Mellen 12:46
you know, Mark one of the stories Keith told me later on in our career is after we flew out to Denver, you know, we’d be the to meet he flew out to Denver to say, hey, let’s, let’s do this partnership where he bags and to me work together to launch to me calm You know, the ebags guys are just knocking it out of the park during the presentation. They’re saying great things and we’re all you know, this is great. It’s fantastic. Can’t wait to work with them. We left the building and said, Okay, guys, let’s go ahead, we’ll we’ll, you know, tie the deal together. And let’s go ahead and then what did you say Keith? after we left?
Keith Bristol 13:21
Yeah, so after, after the, the, to me, executives left the building, we all just kind of looked at each other like, okay, now how are we going to do this? And who’s gonna do it? Like, what? We don’t know what we’re doing? We’re doing, like, how to run an e commerce site. But we weren’t really expecting to say yes, let’s move forward with this because we had the backstory to that is we had tried to get to me to sell on ebags for Gosh, probably since the beginning of time, that that ebags launched. So to me was sort of that brand that we really, really wanted we aspired to get.
So when they, you know, talk to us about running their site, everyone’s kind of like, yeah, we’ll do it. We can totally do it when they left was like, how are we gonna do it? Do it. So it’s kind of funny now this the two sides to tell those stories and it worked out great. I mean, worked out great. Yeah, to me was thrilled with it. We were thrilled with it. And, you know, I obviously met wonderful people there. And to this day, some dearest friends that I have her from too many bags, times and it’s fun to kind of come back together with Chad to start, you know, knack based on all of our history that way. So it’s pretty cool.
Marc Gutman 14:28
Yeah, so let’s rewind a little bit and talk about that. So we’re both of your first forays into the bag world. So Chad, like how did you get into this industry and how’d you get started?
Chad Mellen 14:41
Uh, so I left college and went to work for a strategy consultant in New York. And, and again, as I said, as a little oblivious going through school, I was kind of following the herd mentality in our school either one of two things you went to work for an investment bank, you went to work for a consultant And, you know, I picked the consulting room, kind of I don’t even know really why. And I ended up with a firm called Kurt’s on associates. That was a strategy firm that focused on apparel, textiles retail. And what I found after about two or three months, there was I loved that industry just loved it. And of course, I knew that they did this going into it, but I really didn’t understand it. And, you know, I’m gonna give give a little bit of my experience away here. We were, we were dealing with people back then our clients were just amazing like that. Polo Ralph Lauren, I was working directly with Peter strong, who ran that company for a long time.
At Saks Fifth Avenue was one of our clients and I was working with Bert tans D there, you know, these are like real icons in luxury, branded business. And the most important thing was I had a client At coach, division of Sara Lee back then, and I got to know Lou Frankfort as a client pretty well and he said you know, why don’t you come and work for me and I did. I went and became head of business development and then later head of men’s products and product marketing and work with Lou who just taught me so much and you know, kind of one of the first aHa’s in my career with Lou was how important a mentor is. And and the product was great you know, love the coach product. And this was way back. You know, again, I’m dating myself but this was you know, way back in the 90s. And Coach was about 100 million dollar brand at that point in time. And it just launched stores you know, about five years beforehand It was really a small business, a relatively small business and was starting to grow like a weed and the product is just fantastic. And the the kind of the smell of the leather and you know, going into the sample rooms and seeing the hides there. And how these guys picked out the right height and how it caught it and designed around it.
It was just fascinating to me. And so the product really grabbed me, but then also, the brand grabbed me. And one of the things that that Lou said to me and said to a lot of people back then it still stays with me to this day. And we use it at knack is that in a brand like coach which, you know, is a consumer brand, but also has a fashion element to it. You’ve got to balance logic and magic. And I thought that was just so really on spot on logic and magic.
You know, it’s not all logic. This is not a spreadsheet business. There is some sort of element to that spiritual almost, you know, why do people like that color? Why do people like that shape? Why do people like that texture that’s that’s kind of a magic portion of it. And that’s not something that I have much skill set in but the last portion of it also has to work with a magic potion to create this brand and this aura and this product. And you know, balancing logic and magic is something that I’ve absolutely carried with the rest of my career.
Marc Gutman 18:13
Yeah, and I totally love that. I mean, I, I speak a lot. And on the stage, I talk about that a lot when it comes to branding and building a brand that it really is this combination illogical and magical. And I’m sure you know, obviously, I didn’t invent that it was it was passed down to me by other brand builders as well. And I firmly believe it. And that’s one of the things that I love about it. And it’s also a little frustrating about it sometimes, you know, that’s the challenge. I mean, that it’s, it’s easier when we’re talking about the logical side and putting things in a framework. It’s a little harder on the magical side. And I think, at least from my experience, you have to be willing to take risks and to have some failures because in order to lean into that magical side, it’s not always homeruns
Chad Mellen 18:54
Well, it also I think the real critical thing is as a manager A business or an owner of a business that that really is trying to work on both sides of the equation, you’ve got to learn how to kind of straddle, and, and manage and talk to and relate to people that are on the logical side as well as people that are on the magical side, you know, I found that, in my experience, people that are creatively oriented, just don’t respond to the same kind of stimulus and direction and encouragement as people on the logical side of the business. And I think that’s really challenging for a lot of people. And it’s something that’s been challenging for me, but, you know, I’d like to think I’ve kind of figured it out, and and very comfortable working with people on both sides of that equation.
Marc Gutman 19:44
And that’s well said, and I think that, you know, again, from my perspective that you know, branding today isn’t, you know, about logos and colors and in an icon icons, but it really is more about bridging those two sides. And being the bridge as a leader in the organization to maintain that, that feeling that purpose, that culture, all those things that go into being a brand. So, I love that. So why don’t you guys take me back to ebags you guys are working there.
If one of you could first just paint the picture, kind of like, you know, Keith was doing a little bit of that talking about what’s going on there. But I really want to paint the picture because when I look at, you know, the company today, and this is not a you know, I’m not here to bash on ebags but, you know, back then there was like something super revolutionary and something super cool. And today it’s kind of like I’m not sure where they are in the in the whole mix of things. But what was it like for you guys working at E bags and what were you both doing there?
Chad Mellen 20:40
Well, I think Keith needs to answer that first. I was at to me I was, you know, I was head of marketing. I was the chief marketing officer and head of product to me. So I would travel out to Denver and work with these guys. I don’t know Keith probably once every month or two for a couple days, which is always a blast. But Keith was the one that was really living the day to day life that he begs. Yeah. So,
Keith Bristol 21:06
yeah. So I mean, I can’t speak to what’s happened recently, because I haven’t been there. It’s been a while since I’ve been there to be honest. So but but when I was there, I mean, it was it was crazy. It was really, you know, we were the nice thing about ebags. And what drew me to it, honestly, and I said this earlier was the leadership. You know, I, when I first got into working in startups, I was the first one that I worked with was a we’re all in our 20s. And there was just really no leadership and it was kind of a chaotic, to say the least. And so what I was looking for was really somebody that understood business and was running the business. So that’s kind of what drew me to ebags not necessarily the bags part. I’m a huge fan of john and Peter and those guys that started the company because they weren’t like I said they were they came from Samsonite, they were a little bit more had more experience. So they weren’t your typical 20 some, you know, CEOs Have a startup. There’s nothing wrong with that. Those folks are great too. But at the time, that’s what I was looking for. And, you know, we were coming right when I got there was sort of right when the.com kind of started right bomb started happening.
So it was very challenging from the beginning. And of course, back then, people weren’t buying as much online. And so, you know, we kind of had to earn that trust. And, and the biggest thing I think, that I took from my experience at ebags was just again, you mentioned it, Mark is taking risks. I mean, we had to take risks too. Especially doing something as pioneering as we were doing back then. And it’s kind of funny to say that now because it’s not that pioneering anymore, but back then it was it. So taking risks and also measuring and testing was so important. And the one thing I kind of took away is you know, from john Lord marketing, I think he’s probably one of the definitely one of my mentors and he was such a visionary. He just really that’s why he left Stanford. Because he really felt like there was a place for this and Samson, I didn’t want to do it. So he wanted to be able to do it on his own. And the guy just really had a vision I always I tell the story to a lot of people, he he came in one day and he’s always he always would come in with like, Hey, you guys gotta check this out or check that out. And one day is like, Okay, you guys all have to be told the whole company like you guys have to sign up for Facebook.
This thing Facebook is gonna change the world. It’s gonna change, you know, how people are, you know, perceived the internet, we’re like, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, whatever, you know, it’s in again, this is when Facebook first came out. So we signed up for it, and kind of just left it and nothing really happened. And you know, like, what is price six or eight months later, like, all of a sudden, you get Bing, friend requests, friend requests, friend requests, and it was like, all of a sudden this thing just like, took off and it was crazy.
But he had that vision of like, realizing that you you know at the time, there were a lot of people that were doubting what that would do, but he always sort of had that vision of like, this will be a game changer. And so I’ve always kind of looked at things, new opportunities, you know, and I brought that to everything that I’ve done sense is to look at new opportunities as, as just that, like, it’s something we should try if it makes sense. I mean, obviously, you can’t try everything and you can’t do everything you want to do, but you have to try to look for that future thing of what’s gonna, you know, happen next. And so, you know, it was also built with really, really smart people.
I mean, they did a great job of, of hiring and bringing on really talented people that you can, you know, give them a direction and they run with it, and they’re motivated. And I think that’s what really, you know, they had great leadership, and they had great people that work there and that were driven. So those two things, and I think the product was really, really good. I mean, everyone needs bags, as we all know, but so it’s a little bit of that, like, you’ve got to have all that working together. And as far as like where they are, again, I can’t really say I know when I was They’re there. You know, we went through quite a bit of stuff, obviously with, we went made it through the dot bomb.
As I mentioned, we made it through 911 a lot of challenges with all that stuff. But through it all, I think we just persevered. I mean, I know that’s kind of cheesy, but like you, you just really have to face all the challenges that come with a startup and with building a business. Because there’s going to be things that like that you can’t control and what we’re dealing with right now you can’t control. But if you have really good people that are that are passionate and want to, you know, build something the right way, you’re going to find a way to do it. So as it got bigger, obviously it changed because you get you get more people in there. And when I think when I left there were we had changed offices and I don’t even remember is like 150 people.
I think when I started it was like 80 I was there kind of the first year in so it definitely changed a lot, you know a little bit more layers and different things like that which slowed things down a little bit. And that’s The thing I love about what we’re doing, we’re small and nimble right now. And, you know, if somebody has an idea, they just run with it. And we jump on a call and talk about it, and it
Marc Gutman 26:09
and we do it.
Keith Bristol 26:10
And we test it and make sure that that it works. So
Marc Gutman 26:14
yeah, thank you for that. My apologies. I have right here that you both met it to me. And somehow I had the the signals crossed about.
Keith Bristol 26:22
Yeah, no problem. And yeah, that’s how we met is with like I said, we tried to get to me and to me really was interested in doing their own e commerce site. But they didn’t have the technology background. So we brought our technology background to run the to eat.com site, and then for the last probably four or five years that I was in ebags. I ran the division that ran to be calm. So that that way and yeah, that’s exactly how Chad and I met so we met and you know, I say this all the time. Like you meet people throughout your career that you’re like, I’d really like to work with that guy again, or, or girl or whatever, but Chad was always one of those folks that I really, really had a lot of respect for. And, and I always said, you know, I’d love to work with him again someday. And in fact, we tried to do it a couple times. But he couldn’t convince me to move to the east coast in and this sort of this sort of worked. And it’s interesting because he would, he came to me with the idea of knack.
I have kind of two criteria that I look for when I’m looking for my next opportunity. And one is the product like does it resonate with me and, and when he told me about it, I was immediately hooked because I travel a lot. I travel for one to two days, and I’m like, Oh my god, I don’t know how many times I’ve stuffed a backpack full of crap and couldn’t make it work or I pack a carry on quarter of the way full because I had to. And I was like, Oh my god, I would love to be able to travel with one bag and just expand it when I can.
So I love that concept. And then I really, of course, like working with Chad and admired him a lot. I think we actually balanced each other out. lot, you know, a lot of the things that he brings to the table and his strengths are not mine, and vice versa. And so it was just a great fit. And he actually wanted me to move to the east coast again. And I was like, I just moved to Portland. And it’s, it’s not, not in the cards for me. But if you’re ever open for doing this and building a remote team, I would be interested because I’ve, I’ve managed teams remotely for, I don’t know, 10 years of my life, and worked with offshore development teams, and so on and so forth.
So it’s, that was nothing new to me. It’s a little bit more new to Chad. And so he’s like, I don’t think that that’s kind of what we’re looking for right now. But, you know, we’ll stay in touch and so I kind of advised and just sort of helped while he was kind of working through some things and then he calls me one day he’s like, you’re never gonna believe where the designer The bag is located. I was like, where he goes Portland, Oregon. And there’s a backstory there but but I was He’s like, you know, if you’re up for Doing this and you’re still interested, let’s try it and see how it works. And we agreed that we would be upfront with each other. And if things weren’t working, that we would figure something else out. But so far, it’s been really, really great. We’ve been able to hire people from around the country, really, really smart people. And they all again, it’s, they’re all dedicated, and they are hard working, and they know what they’re doing. And it’s been great. And especially with this current situation, it hasn’t impacted us working standpoint, obviously, it’s impacted us in other ways like everyone else. But from a work standpoint, we’ve all worked remotely since we started the company.
So it’s been a, it’s been a fun thing to be able to do that and build this team. You know, the way we’ve built it is is pretty, pretty unique. And I think it’s interestingly enough, I think it’s kind of a sign of the future. I think there gonna be a lot more companies that that end up doing this because you can find really great people, wherever you want to find them and if you’re organized about it, you can Grow a company like this. So
Marc Gutman 30:05
this episode brought to you by wild story. Wait, isn’t that your company? It is. And without the generous support of wild story, this show would not be possible. A brand isn’t a logo or a tagline, or even your product. A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product service or company. It’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room. Wild story helps progressive founders and savvy marketers build purpose driven brands that connect their business goals with the customers they want to serve. So that both the business and the customer needs are met. This results in crazy, happy, loyal customers that purchase again and again. And this is great for business. If that sounds like something you and your team might want to learn more about, reach out @ www.wildstory.com and we’d be happy To tell you more. Now back to our show.
Chad, so where were you in your career in your life when you said, Hey, I’m going to, I’m gonna start a new Bad Company.
Chad Mellen 31:17
It’s a great question a little bit of backstory after coach I left and as we talked about went to work to me, as chief marketing officer to the tiny little company back then, and worked closely with the founder, Charlie Clifford. And, you know, went through real tough times real great times. You know, the the 911 time in a travel bag company was just devastating. And fire the entire marketing staff, you know, we all took salary cuts. It was devastating. Sounds familiar to today? Right? Absolutely. It’s like, wow, I never thought I’d have to do this twice in my career. But the business popped back up. As a great brand great product, great team. And we sold the business to a private equity firm. And I left and went to Rhode Island to become chief marketing officer and head of sales at at cross writing comedy.
So the first time I had been since my consulting career out of the bag industry, and, you know, was CEO across for a while, sold that business in 2015, to a private equity firm, after I learned the hard way that it’s not really a winning strategy to you know, fight against a secular consumer trend. Writing instruments, unfortunately, are going one way and it’s, it was tough. But anyway, after I left and 15 took some time off, did some consulting, learn to play piano poorly, you know, had some fun. But ultimately, uh, two things happened. I started to work on a totally different startup with a friend of mine. Going to build Docker who had been the founder of interactive search holdings, which was a company that had survived the dot bomb and you know, had their big brand was I want calm.
So, and Bill and I were trying to do this, this crazy thing with Donor Advised funds and democratizing them and trying to bring them to companies as a benefit for employees to attract millennials. So it kind of got a little bit of the entrepreneurial bug in me at that point in time. So we were working on that. Ultimately, we decided not to proceed for a bunch of reasons but at the end of that kind of time period, I took a fishing trip to Costa Rica with with some friends, and it was a short weekend trip, but you know, still doing this Mike giving account with Bill and I had a business backpack with me. I had a duffel with me that had some fishing gear in it and you know, a couple pairs of shorts and some flip flops. And as I think flew from Boston down to San Jose airport. I’m walking around with two bags, both have filled in a place that speaks Spanish. I don’t speak any Spanish.
So I’ve got these two bags of guy, you know, a cup of coffee in my hand. I’ve got my phone out with my Spanish translator app to try to figure out where to go. And I’m sweating bags are falling off my shoulder and said, this is just a terrible, terrible experience. I said, you know, I’ve been out of the bag business for a while, the first thing I do when I get back from this fishing trip, so I’m going to go buy a bag that carries my business stuff, and it’s going to carry my you know, my travel stuff my clothes at the same time. I don’t want to stick my underwear in my toothbrush next to my laptop, you know, so kind of the existing bags didn’t work for me. So I got back to the States. And look for this bag, this bag that did two things at once. And it didn’t exist. It didn’t exist anywhere. You know, because I’ve been in this category for a while I knew all the brands, I knew the places to buy them. And I was shocked mark that this didn’t exist.
It just was such an aha for me. And then I remember going to New York to visit with some people and just sitting in a coffee shop and looking out the window. And the amount of folks that had two or three bags that they were carrying, was shocking to me. Hey, like I said, Jim bags, diaper bags, tote bags, purses, backpacks, business cases, wheel bags, duffels. I mean, all these things, people are carrying multiple bags. I said, this makes no sense. And I knew like me, these people didn’t have another option. That’s when the AI hit me. And I said, You know what, it’s time to get back in the bag bag category. So I reached out to Charlie Clifford. And he and I had been doing some work together at that point in time and said, you know, what do you think of this idea? And he said, I think that’s a pretty good idea. And I kind of kicked it off at that point in time. So this was a Probably the end of 2016.
Marc Gutman 36:03
Yeah, and like all really good ideas, it seems really obvious and simple.
Chad Mellen 36:09
so obvious, so obvious. But then you step back and realize why no company has ever done this, because it is so different than the prevailing business model, which I said is you grow your business by figuring out the 10 needs that Mark has, and creating 10 different bags for each one of those needs. And you know, you figure out more needs, you figure out more bags. And, and that’s so the idea of creating multiple function bags that do a lot of things really well, is just foreign.
It’s anathema to to the, you know, the current category. So that’s why I think it never got done, frankly. But as I said, I looked at this and said, this makes no sense. We’ve got to fix it.
Marc Gutman 36:52
Yeah. And I think the whole business philosophy of selling more by selling less is fairly new. You know, more, you know, there’s some companies adopting that But I totally can understand that a big bad company looks and says, hey, we’ve got X amount of consumers how do we and fans and people in our network how do we sell them more they’re not another bag another bag and I’ve I’ve fallen victim to that myself where you start to have a billion bags and I’ve got camera bags and I have you know messenger bags and backpacks and at the travel bag and I have the travel bag for when I want to be a little more business I have the travel bag for when I want to be a little more adventure like like it’s crazy and now I’m like drowning in bags that I don’t use.
Chad Mellen 37:31
That’s exactly it. So I look at this and like Okay, first of all, this is really not a sustainable approach. You know, this is consumerism run rampant. Secondly, I think that given the blurring of people’s professional life and their personal life and how those two lives intermingle all the time, it’s just the fact that people carry a bunch of stuff with them every day. You know, it’s not like 20 years ago where you had real cut and dried start to work day. into the workday gave you enough time to do stuff after the work day before the workday in your own time.
It just doesn’t exist. So people are much more flexible and dynamic mobile, you know, professionals are a big portion of the workforce going from point A to point B and not working at a set office. You know, all these folks were being really ill served by this, you know, unsustainable multi bagger approach.
Marc Gutman 38:24
Yeah. And so you have this idea and you float it by other industry, other industry experts and and you know, they’re like, good idea and then so what’s the process like what like, What don’t we know about starting a bad company? I mean, do you just go in and make some sketches and and have in so it yourself and oh, this is great. I mean, like, like, walk us a little bit through like, what that process looks like.
Chad Mellen 38:47
Well, I told you it’s getting back to the my logic and magic comment. You know, I’ve got a lot of the logic side of me I don’t have much the magic side, so I’m not selling anything that anyone wants to buy so much. You know, one of the beauties of being an experienced though say, or an older entrepreneur, first time entrepreneur is that you actually have a network. And you know, we’re so lucky Keith and I that we can call on some of the most successful people in this categories direct to consumer fields or this category supply chain fields are this categories factories, or this category is branding and marketing and really pick their brains because they know us they worked with us.
So you know, I was really lucky that I was able to call some of the best factories both here in the United States as well as overseas and try to start getting an idea of is this even constructible this type of bag, I was able to find through kind of our friends network, great possible designers that I could then talk to and say okay, here’s the vision, help me bring it to life. You know, help me make this into a three dimensional thing. And you’re these are guys that are really experience. I was able to To talk to marketers that, you know, normally wouldn’t have touched a brand new startup and concept phase to really help refine our thinking. So, you know, what did I do? I went and talked to a lot of people and then started spending a little bit money on on designs with a designer that we ended up meeting with who had worked at the north face and had a lot of experience.
We got introduced, and I’d met a couple of my factories and and brought the designs to them and say, Is this manufacturable? And they said, Yeah, we’ll do some prototypes for you. They did some prototypes and some more prototypes, and about a year and a half of prototyping. And, you know, all at the same time, while this kind of magic was happening, the logic side of the business was was being worked on. We had the business plans, put together the financing setup, understand how we’re going to sell to the consumer, you know, what the vehicles we’re all that sort of stuff.
And I think if I step back, Mark, if I had any clue at that point in time? all the questions that we had to answer, I don’t think I ever would have started this. It’s just you know, in retrospect, it’s overwhelming. But I think, you know, entrepreneurs tend to be optimistic and ignorant at the same time, which is a bit of a dangerous combination. And thank God we are thank God we were else this wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.
Marc Gutman 41:21
Yeah, what did that first bag that first prototype look like? Do you remember it? Uh,
Chad Mellen 41:25
yeah. It’s right here. I keep it. It actually, you know, it came out pretty well. It proved concept right away. And so it really it looked kind of the way we wanted it to work kind of the way we wanted it to. So we said, you know, what, we know this can we can do this. And the interesting thing is the price was kind of where we wanted to. So then it just became a process of working with designers and developers in the factory to iterate it. And then the most important thing is once we have some thing that was kind of, we were somewhat proud of.
We then started showing it to consumers and getting feedback, both in terms of how they use it, what features they wanted, what features they didn’t. And since that point in time, our net community has really been part and parcel of our development, not only our product development, but our service development or service offering.
Marc Gutman 42:22
Well, that was a lot of kindness on that first bag. Like what wasn’t working what was like when you got it where
Chad Mellen 42:28
you’re like, Ah, it was it was too heavy. The zippers didn’t open really easily it you know, the pocketing wasn’t right. So there was just not functional pocketing to the whole thing. So we had to really think about it, you know, but the size was right. And it actually did work. So anyway, it there was a lot of things that we had to work on and you just start knocking them off.
Marc Gutman 42:55
Yeah, and it’s, you know, now you’re looking at it and you kind of chuckle but I mean Was there a moment when your heart sort of dropped or you felt like oh man, like, maybe this won’t work.
Chad Mellen 43:07
So, to me, the biggest moment was when I had to write that first purchase order. And I had to write that first purchase order before we had any kind of financing in place. So basically, I was buying a bunch of bags. And you know, I had a real crisis of confidence at that point in time, like, you know, do I really want to do this, but luckily, Keith was on board at that point in time was, you know, really, one of the things that Keith is is really optimistic and he kind of balances My, my, I don’t wanna say pessimism, but, you know, I questioned a lot of things and he’s very optimistic, and he was really excited about this. And that meant a ton to me. So, you know, it really helped soothes my nerves to write that purchase order and send that deposit through.
Marc Gutman 43:56
Yeah, I can imagine as a new brand Look, I mean, a very easy To you would be like, does the world really need another bag? You know? And so there is this this confidence, this belief in yourself against the world. And I can just imagine that when you’re writing that first purchase order, you’re like, this is either going to be great, or I’m going to be giving birthday and holiday gifts of our prototype bag for the next 10 years to everyone I know.
Chad Mellen 44:21
That’s exactly literally that is an exact quote. I remember saying to my family, I hope you like this bag. You’re gonna get
Marc Gutman 44:28
it for a long time. That’s right. And so you bought some bags, but do you remember the first bag that you sold?
Chad Mellen 44:37
The first neck? Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So when we launched the business online, October 23 19, or 2018, and, you know, Keith had everything ready to go on the site. And I just remember that it goes live and I’m literally watching that first order to come through The first order didn’t come through, we actually had a pretty good day. And I remember the guy know the guy that bought it. And like, this is a great, great feeling.
And then, you know, more orders came through. It’s like that cartoon where you see the speedometer click, and then it clicks again. And then it clicks a little faster. And, you know, it was just such a high see something like that and say, you know, what, there are people out there that actually get this and like this,
Marc Gutman 45:27
that what about the first person that maybe came back to you and wasn’t happy?
Chad Mellen 45:32
Well, I’d like to say that I’m the harshest critic of the bag. You know, I look at this bag and I see about 50 things I’d like to do differently or that don’t work the way I’d like to. I have yet to have anyone come back and identify all 50 things.
So you know, usually it’s confirmation when someone comes back and says, not for me didn’t like it. It’s confirmation that we just have to do better, you know, the next iteration the next version of the best has to be better.
Marc Gutman 46:01
Yeah. And so you’re a brand that you know, a big part of your messaging, a big part of your positioning was like, hey, you’re traveling a lot and doing these one or two day trips. This is the perfect bag for you know, how in this current climate being the marketers that you are, I mean, how are you handling that and starting to change your positioning in your in your branding?
Chad Mellen 46:21
Yeah, the real the real positioning about this is, it’s the bag for a mobile professional and travels only a portion of what they’re doing. So in actual fact, it’s not the travel side of the business or the current environment. That’s, that’s impacting us. The fact that people are still sitting in their homes, you know, they’re not going to see clients, they’re not going to the office, they’re not going to work out at the coffee shop, they’re not going to the gym.
So you know, that’s really the issue. But fundamentally, we believe that’s going to change so right now we stay the course we really want to reinforce and we are reinforcing that we are a bag For what is going to happen when all these safer at home orders are lifted. And that’s really, I think, a fundamental trend away from dedicated offices, five day a week commutes to those dedicated offices, you know, this, this pandemic that we’re going through and the crisis it’s creating, I believe and we all believe firmly is going to create a much greater number of mobile trout mobile professionals working from home part the debt part of the time working from clients part of the time working in an office part of the time, that environment is right for one bag. brand.
Marc Gutman 47:40
Yeah, and you know, so I recently became a private owner of an app bag and I will say that there are some real differences in in the knack bag and the way they you both are approaching this, this challenge. What are your some of your favorite you know, features that you just love about? The Mac that you know, you’re like, aha Like I finally you know, I mean I think there’s something so amazingly great about being into something that you care about and then being able to make it the way you want to make it because someone else isn’t like what what features perhaps were big breakthroughs for you?
Chad Mellen 48:15
Well, there’s two things one is actually product and the other brand related the product thing is I just love the fact that our bag, weighs looks feels like an everyday professional backpack kind of backpack you put your laptop in and take to work. But then it’s got this fully functional, hidden expandable suitcase attached to it. That basically you you open it up and expand it when you want to use it. And you close it and you know get rid of it when you don’t want to use it. So essentially, it is an everyday bag that that doubles really well as a travel bag.
I love that about it. And that’s the fundamental point of this product. But, you know, on the service side, the business brand One of the things that Keith and I said from the very beginning, mark that, that it’s been a guiding principle of our brand and our business, we don’t do anything if we wouldn’t have done it for a friend. And what do I mean by that? If we’re thinking about sending out or doing a marketing program or doing a product, the first question we asked ourselves is, would we send this to a friend? Would we give this to a friend, what a friend find this a value? And, you know, I like to think that all of us at knack put everything we do through that lens.
And I’m really proud of that. You know, if you talk about to our customers about our customer service, if you talk to our customers about our approach to quality and our approach to our team, we really try not to do anything that we wouldn’t do, you know, for good friend. You know, maybe that’s a derivation of the golden rule but but it really has helped us and and I’m really proud of that.
Marc Gutman 50:00
Yeah, and, you know, we had a former guest on the podcast, Jed rose. And he said something to me that really stood with me and I think is relevant. He said, you can really tell a lot about a person, by the bag they carry in the shoes that they wear. And I’m like, oh, man, I agree. What can we tell about the neck person, you know, someone carrying a neck bag?
Chad Mellen 50:24
I think, you know, Keith, I’m interested to hear what you say. But one, I’d like to think that you see someone carrying that but they’re smart. You know, they’re smart in a lot of ways. They’re smart about sustainability. You know, they’re not buying into consumerism, you know, I think you’d have 50 bags. They’re smart, and that they found a bag that serves multiple needs, that they’ve got one bag that serves multiple needs that they’ve got, you know, they’re smart, they’re smart, because they’re not wearing a walking billboard.
You know, it’s not like we’ve got logos emblazoned all over the product. So I think it’s a smart consumer. It’s a person that kind of You know, is a bit discerning and gets it.
Keith Bristol 51:03
Yeah, I was I was actually going to say well educated and entrepreneurial, you know, somebody who’s, you know, out there doing cutting edge stuff and wants to be on the cutting edge of, of not only a bag but whatever they’re doing in their life, you know, we’ve got a lot of executives that carry our bags that you know, whether they’re startup CEOs or just people out there trying to do new things. I I that’s how I would envision our customers and that’s really a lot of the feedback we get from them and and, and then yeah, kind of going back to you know what Chad was saying one thing you know, back to the I don’t want to rehash this But back to kind of the features and things. I agree with what Chad saying.
I mean, for me, just the everyday use of this bag has been like really great for me personally, I like the top pocket because I can grab stuff out of it and and easily access my wallet or my keys or whatever is there but I’ll tell you what the offer moment for me is when I traveled the first time, it completely changes the way you travel. And that’s, you know, whether you’re taking a road trip or taking a flight, you know, not really hit me when I was able to walk on the plane the last minute and put the bag underneath the seat. I didn’t have to fight for over headspace. And then the best part was when I had to do a layover, and I didn’t have to check my bags, that gate check. As I walk off the plane, the whole lineup of people waiting to get their bags. I was like, wow, this that would normally be me waiting for my bag. But I’m actually just walking by you know, I’m gonna go meet a buddy for a beer. And I can get there 20 minutes sooner than I normally would.
I mean, we start adding that up if you’re traveling all the time, it’s it was the real aha moment for me. I’m like, wow, this is actually a game changer. So So yeah, I did not to backtrack, but I wanted to get that in before I before I moved on. But But the other thing that I think is really, really great about what we’re doing is, and Chad alluded to this, but I’m a huge believer in really, really good customer service. And and listening to our customer. I just think through the years, it’s just I look at the brands that I really like. And I’ve always had really good brand experiences, whether I have a problem with the product or I have a question. They’re always really good about it.
So I think we’ve invested a lot of time and energy in listening to our customer and actually working with them and listening to them, you know, if they’ve got a problem, or sometimes, you know, like you said, Every once in a while that bags just not for that person. And we have a generous return policy and so all those things, I think, if people don’t like this version, they’re like, I like the concept, but I may like this, I’m going to come back for the next version.
And that to me is really the most important in building a brand because as Chad said, he looks at the bag and sees 50 things I look at it and see I don’t see 50 Chad, I see maybe 40 that I’d like to change and so you know it’s not it there aren’t it’s not going to fit everyone in we want to be able to You know, make sure that people are happy with their purchase. And if they’re not, that’s, that’s okay, too. I think that’s super critical.
Marc Gutman 54:06
Where’s the name NEC come from?
Chad Mellen 54:09
Oh, God, I hate that question. You know, the canned answer mark is that, oh, people have a knack for, you know, carrying their stuff around with them. That’s the canned answer. The real answer is, we just spent a lot of time trying to find a great name that resonated to both Keith and me that wasn’t already taken in this category. And we went through a lot. So you know, this this bag was almost George, frankly. And we you know, we’re kind of giving up at that point in time. But But yeah, it’s it’s really a it was something about you know, ultimately people have a knack they’re smart they get it and they know how to get from point A to point B’s like that. Well,
Marc Gutman 54:51
I actually love that answer. I just released a podcast maybe two weeks ago, there was a naming masterclass right is basically went through like how are we now names and we and it’s all about finding the right name, not the perfect name. And, and it’s okay, more than okay to do it the way you did it as long as you have a story kind of behind it what you do so, I mean, I think that’s a great answer. And I think that’s really relevant.
I think that, you know, a lot of times people think there has to be this like moment for their name where it represents the exact time that they were spoken to from above and got the idea for the business. But that’s not the case at all. So yeah, I appreciate appreciate you sharing that because I think that a lot of people can can learn from that as well. So if they come to the, to the end here, what does the future look like for NEC?
Chad Mellen 55:39
Well, I think, as I said, given what we see as really a fundamental change in how people work that’s coming out of this current crisis, we think we’re in great shape to take this to take advantage of that and really, you know, when I say take advantage it I mean really help people cope. With this new work environment, our product really reduces friction and in their daily life, it makes it easier to get out their front door.
And you know, we believe firmly in helping people get out their front door. You know, both Keith and I have had really the benefit of being able to travel all over, you know, I’ve visited over 40 countries in my life. And I’m a firm believer in getting out the front door meeting people. And we can make that a little easier. And we can make this future world where you know, your commutes a little more challenging, and you’re where you work is a little more challenging. If we can make that easier for our consumer. I think we will and I think it’ll be great.
Marc Gutman 56:40
Chad Keith, thank you so much for coming by and sharing your story. We’ll make sure to link to nack in the show notes. For those of you that don’t like show notes, it’s snack bags.com knackbs.com.
Keith Bristol 56:57
Thank you, Mark. Appreciate you having us. We it was A lot of fun chatting with you and thanks again.
Chad Mellen 57:02
Yeah, thanks mark. I really appreciate it.
Marc Gutman 57:10
And that is Chad Mullen and Keith Bristol of knack bags. I love chats insight that it was his network and experience that has allowed him to be a successful entrepreneur and really understand what makes a great brand. Too often, I think there’s a misconception that you need to start a company day one, and go out and claim your personal legend. There’s a lot to be said to building your learning and your network for brands that are doing it right. And then taking that knowledge and launching your company when you are ready.
Thank you again to Chad Mullen and Keith Bristol of knack bags. If you’re looking for a great looking bag that is fit for both work and play. I encourage you to check them out. Well, that’s the show. Until next time Make sure to visit our website www.wildstory.com where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher or via RSS, so you’ll never miss an episode. A like big stories and I cannot lie to you other storytellers can’t deny