Lauren and I were traveling in the Pacific Northwest last week and decided to drop by Tom Bihn’s new factory / showroom to thank them in person for supporting the “Help In Your Own Way Giveaway”. We expected a quick visit but, instead, we received a full tour of the new place — personally led by Tom and by Darcy Gray, the Vice President of Tom Bihn.
If you’ve never heard of him before, you should know that Tom and his team design and build some of the best travel bags you’ll ever have the pleasure of owning. Bucking recent trends in the U.S. bag-making business, not only are his products domestically made (first in Santa Cruz, now in Seattle) but he sells them directly — and exclusively — from his company’s website.
When I tell people that I think Tom Bihn is like the Apple Computer of bag-makers, here’s why: His devotion to detail is absolute and his designs exemplify both utility and elegance. I’ve carried his Aeronaut Convertible Carry-On Bag on my shoulder for almost 70,000 miles of travel this year. Whether arriving at a backpacker’s hostel in Vietnam or at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, I never felt that my bag looked out-of-place. Other than the cost of taking the trips, it was the best travel-related money that I spent all year.
The Tom Bihn M.B.A. Program
While Tom and Darcy showed us around the factory, they gave us some insight into why they build bags the way that they do. They could not have been more gracious or generous with their time and it was like receiving an ad-hoc M.B.A. seminar or masterclass in “Succeeding By Doing Your Own Thing”.
The main business-related principle that Tom offered was this: Find out what everyone else in your industry is doing… and then move quickly in the opposite direction. It may sound like a joke or like conversational banter but, although delivered with a smile, it’s a serious, core component of what’s made him so successful.
Spend a few minutes with Tom on his factory floor and you’ll understand just how important it is to him to make bags that are exactly right. To do that requires that you have total control and oversight over your product from start to finish and, to be able to afford to do that, you need to sell them yourself.
Find a way to survive in that small niche you’ve carved out for yourself and, voilà, you’ve got yourself a working “Business Model”. Over the years, Tom and his team have followed this model and have figured out a way not only to survive, but to prosper in their industry. They don’t compete on the basis of price, advertising, or wide retail distribution. Instead, they’ve decided to build the best bags that they can and to trust that the word will get around.
More Than Bags…
Walking around the factory, Tom and Darcy also talked about taking pride in growing good jobs for people, the joys of being able to immediately flesh out new concepts and projects, and being a part of an environment that they feel connected to (the Factory’s new location is near an estuary filled with the wildlife they love). In essence, they’ve built their business around two things: being able to make things that they’re proud of and being themselves.
None of this is easy, of course, but it sure as hell is admirable and well-worth supporting. If you’re anything like me, as naïve as it may sound, you hope that the companies and people who you support are worth your time, trust, and money. After seeing Tom Bihn up close — the man and the brand — it’s pretty hard to imagine that I could ever buy a bag from anyone else.