Pre-Orders: Past, Present, and Future

In this post, we share some of our thoughts on and the history of how we’ve offered pre-orders over the years. If you want to get straight to the nuts and bolts of how pre-orders work now, see our Pre-Orders: Frequently Asked Questions post.

The Past

For the longest time (something like 2001-2015) we accepted backorders for existing designs and pre-orders for new designs on our website. Our choice to accept backorders and pre-orders was important to our growth over those years and there were other benefits as well: notably, we could plan our production schedule around the bags that we already had orders for (as opposed to forecasting what bags we might get orders for).

Around 2015, we stepped back from our daily operations to reflect on our past, present, and future. We tore down some walls, turned our focus towards some key procedural improvements, and evaluated the impact of various small — but important — efficiency improvements we had implemented in our production department over the past couple of years.

One of the major changes we decided to make was to no longer offer pre-orders of new designs or backorders of existing designs. Three of the main reasons behind this decision were: the combination of greater efficiency and the hiring of a few new talented personnel in our production department meant that our production capacity had significantly increased; we were outgrowing our current website and the options that looked the best to us didn’t allow us to accept pre-orders and backorders as we previously had; we were finally outgrowing what had been a pretty darn good system for managing backorders. Eliminating pre-orders and backorders was an easy way we could reduce complexity — without, at that point in time, reducing a significant benefit to our customers.

The Present

Flash forward to 2018. Our production department is still hecka efficient. We’ve continued to occasionally add a new crew member to our factory — but only when we were certain we could devote the full attention and significant amount of time it takes to train a new crew member to Lisa and Fong’s exacting standards. Over the past few years, we designed and programmed our own inventory and production management software and inventory scanning/tracking system, rebuilt nearly our entire website on a new platform, and reviewed, improved and documented all fulfillment related procedures. That’s all in addition to new designs and new fabrics.

We’re in a good place. So good that we think we might’ve just found our happy place. Our company is now comprised of 47 people: not too big and not too small. We don’t have any plans to aggressively pursue or promote growth at the rate we experienced in previous years, but demand for our bags continues (something we never take for granted).

This year, we retired more designs than ever before, as had been the plan for a while: a smart decision, perhaps, but one that often didn’t feel that great (sometimes, as an artiste is prone to do, we disparage our own work and wish it would disappear — but more often, designs that have been a part of our line for years just become part of the family).

We also found ourselves a bit restless and wanting to experiment more with new offerings. Amongst Tom and Nik’s various designs are those that we look at and wonder — “Would anyone find this useful?” Or, we might find ourselves with the opportunity to purchase a smaller quantity of a very cool fabric or color — not enough to offer a significant number of bags in, but perhaps just a production run.

As Nik trained Mike to manage finished goods ordering, we reminisced about the days when we placed some finished goods orders based on what had already been purchased. It was more of a sure thing to order what we knew was already wanted — and the entire crew enjoyed knowing they were making bags for specific people who already couldn’t wait to get them.

Those three considerations and subsequent conversations — the sadness related to retiring designs, the excitement of offering small or limited edition runs, and the efficiency and connection to customers inherent in ordering already-purchased bags — led us back to pre-orders.

In 2018, pre-orders are much different than they used to be. Most payment gateways nowadays don’t allow authorizations that last longer than a few days. That means we must immediately charge the full amount for any pre-ordered item. That this makes us hesitate in the day and age of crowdfunding is probably a little laughable and points to our Pa Ingalls sensibilities when it comes to money and debt. (To be clear: our pre-order system is not about crowdfunding.) But hesitate we did, until we were convinced that it’s normal. Plus, we would, of course, gladly refund someone’s money and cancel their pre-order at any point in the process.

Read our Pre-Orders: Frequently Asked Questions to learn more about the specifics of how our new pre-order system will work — at least for our next debut…

The Future

“Change is the only constant in life.”

“The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny – it is the light that guides your way.”

Heraclitus

 

(Okay, that last quote has nothing to do with this post — we just thought it was pretty cool.)

While we have planned, documented, and tested down to the most minute, most boring detail the internal logistics of our first pre-order debut, we are leaving open the possibility that there is much we will learn once the rubber hits the road.

Perhaps pre-orders won’t be all they were cracked up to be — for you guys, or for us internally. Or maybe we’ll be really glad we did all of this. We’ll have to see. In any event, your feedback throughout the process of the pre-order debut is essential: feedback@tombihn.com

We even dare to say your feedback is required. What isn’t a requirement, but something we generously receive nonetheless, is your support. Whether that support is demonstrated through constructive criticism, appreciation, or recognition of individual efforts, it’s always seen and absorbed (though not always acted upon).

The next design debut after this one may or may not be a pre-order debut. If it is a pre-order debut, certain aspects may be changed. You’ve been warned by us — and Heraclitus.

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On The Design Process: Inspiration, Timeline, Testing

Both Tom and Nik are designing various new bags and smaller items—everything from new backpacks to new travel bags to new organizer pouches. And that, of course, prompts questions: When will they be released? Will all the designs turn into real bags that will debut someday?

There’s an easy answer: we don’t know. But why do we not know? And further, how can we be comfortable with—and actually admit to—not knowing?

First, we might identify the various impetuses behind the new designs, as the origin of their inspiration does impact the design process and timeline of development.

The inspiration for Tom and Nik’s new designs is influenced by:

  • Taking and using bags (current designs or prototypes of new designs) on trips.
  • Observing other people traveling, hiking, or commuting with bags.
  • Feedback from people who use our bags.
  • The intervention of inspiration from an unknown, unidentifiable source. (Sounds lofty, but we’ve all experienced that in our work, haven’t we?)
  • A design problem or challenge that would be exquisite to solve.
  • An aesthetic drive: to first start with building something that looks good.
  • Life events. Best friend having a baby? We’ll make a diaper bag!
  • Recalling an incomplete design that was put aside years ago, and applying newfound knowledge and skills to complete the design.

The development timeline of new designs is influenced by:

  • How busy we are running our small business. Internal projects can sidetrack design. For example: over the past few years, we’ve designed and programmed our own inventory and production management software, implemented our new inventory scanning/tracking system, rebuilt nearly our entire website on a new platform, and reviewed, documented, and improved all customer service and shipping-related procedures.
  • How inspiration waxes and wanes. It may be there for a week and gone the next three weeks—or three years. We don’t push it or force it; in our experience, design driven by inspiration is far superior to design forced to meet a timeline.
  • Research into and development of new materials that’ll make the new design truly sing.
  • Engineering the manufacturing of the design so that it is … manufacturable.
  • Configuring a new sewing machine set-up, folder*, or ordering dies* to make the design efficiently manufacturable.
  • Staff time to either make the bag or make the debut happen. We have decided we’re happy with the size of our company more-or-less—with 47 people, we’re big enough to do stuff like develop custom fabrics and small enough that we’re all still working here together under one roof in Seattle. Having a smaller company/crew means there’s less redundancy—if someone takes family leave because they’re having a baby or someone else has major surgery (these two things have happened recently/are happening right now FYI), we rally to cover their work or make do so they can take time without worrying about it. That can mean that new releases or debuts or other projects get delayed because we don’t have our full crew on deck. With the rare exception around the holiday season, our crew doesn’t work overtime. Tom, Nik, and I often work in excess of forty hours each week, but that’s because we want to.
  • The fact that many design ideas don’t make their way to fruition. This excerpt from Tom’s most recent newsletter update sums it up well: At the same time, we’re experimenting with and developing new fabrics (my Taber testing machine is getting a workout!), new webbing, and new zippers. And I realize (once again), that more often than not, these forays start off with high hopes but yield nothing new that we can actually use—they’re good ideas that turn out to be not-so-good realities. Indeed, life would be much different (though far less interesting, IMHO) if one knew in advance which was going to be a gold mine and which a rabbit hole. But the few fabrics that work well, and the few designs that rise above the others, make it all worthwhile.

Updates on Just a Few of the Designs We’re Working On Right Now

Last month, Tom sewed a prototype of a new backpack/briefcase design so he could use it on a weekend trip. In line at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the guy standing behind Tom told him that it was a great looking bag and asked him who made it. Tom replied that he, in fact, had made it, and that while he appreciated the feedback, he’d already redesigned the bag over the course of that short trip, and it would end up looking a lot different. Tom made something like five design changes to the bag after using it on trips—that’s how his design process works. Even when that process results in a longer development timeline, we think it’s worth it. We’d rather take our time and meet our own standards of perfection.

Or, take the Luminary backpack: we were 100% sure its design update was done when several different people testing the bag told us an additional interior pocket against its front face would be useful. And, upon first consideration, Tom thought that could be a good idea too. But by that time, he had shifted his focus to working on other new designs, such as the aforementioned briefcase/backpack, which are now nearly done. His plan is to complete those designs and then work on samples of the Luminary with the new pocket so we can see if it’s a good idea in reality.

The same process can apply to materials—and it’s not uncommon that we have to wait on the development of a new material that’s necessary to make a new bag design. Tom’s currently developing a new fabric and a sample of it arrived from our mill. It looked exactly as we had envisioned it, but it didn’t Taber test as well as we had hoped. We expect to spend weeks investigating those Taber results in an effort to identify and solve the problem.

To Sum it All Up…

As usual ’round here, there’s a lot in the works. And when a design is really, really done—and its debut it scheduled—we’ll let you know about it.

Until then, we remain grateful for your feedback, support, and interest in our little company and what we make. The more work we put into what we do, the more we get out of it, and the more you share with us (whether a review of your bag, photos from a trip, or constructive feedback), the more we’re inspired to take on new projects and make things even better than they are. Thanks!

*Dies and die cutting
A die is, most simply put, a sharpened steel edge bent into a specific shape: think of an industrial strength cookie-cutter. We use dies to cut small fabric parts like pouches, as well as foam and plastic parts. Dies allow you cut out parts with a very high degree of accuracy and speed. We use a 20 ton press (called a “clicker”) to push the dies through whatever material we’re cutting. All of our dies are custom fabricated to our specifications.

*Folder/binder
A folder (also sometimes called a binder) is an attachment to a sewing machine, typically made of stainless steel or chrome-plated steel, which sits in front of the needle and feed-dogs (mechanisms that pull the fabric through the machine). The folder/binder effectively mimics the hands and fingers of a sewing machine operator, locating or placing various parts in very specific and consistent orientations relative to one another. Folders allow many of our sewing operations to take place with near-perfect consistency, and at high speeds. We have folders that keep the edge of zipper tape in the same relative placement to the sewing operation, at the same time folding the cut edge of the fabric and holding that folded edge consistent to the seam and zipper as well. We use several folders that fold the various narrow widths and types of fabric tape (effectively light weight webbing) that we use to cover the cut edges of fabric inside our bags, preventing those cut edges from fraying apart. Many of our padded handles are created by using folders. All of our folders are custom fabricated to our specifications.

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Recognition for our Crew from Andrew

Thank you all,

I found you after one of the other coaches for my company showed off his Brain Bag while we were traveling to support a new contract. I subsequently managed to grab one of the last few red Synapse 25 specials and its made a huge difference in my daily work. I’m in a suit most of the time and the bag stands out, in an awesome way. It has literally removed pain from my daily commute, and opened a few conversations that became contacts for my next project. The design and immaculate craftsmanship is wonderful. I used to do theatrical costuming and am envious of your ability to make such excellent work of the materials and designs in your hands.

I’m now hooked. I’ve just received my second bag (a Co-Pilot) and am eagerly awaiting the return of the right color of the Aeronaut 45 to place my next order. I’ve got a trip planned for this fall and have rebuilt my itinerary from the ground up to take advantage of the two bags without wheels options. I fully expect to indoctrinate friends and family in the very near future.

You do great work, thank you,
Andrew

The above was sent to factorycrew@tombihn.com

As one might expect, we include a receipt with each bag that we ship from our Seattle factory. On the back of the receipt is the usual useful info plus the following invitation:

Appreciating the fine workmanship of your new bag? Feeling inspired to recognize the talented folks responsible? Here’s your direct line to our production team: factorycrew@tombihn.com

We read emails sent to factorycrew@tombihn.com to everyone at our monthly company meetings. It means a lot to us to be recognized for our efforts: thank you. Know too that it’s something we pay forward in our own day-to-day lives.

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News Briefs

The Guide’s Edition Synapse 25, The Truck, and Small and Large Zip-Top Shop Bags will be available for pre-order on 09/10 with an estimated shipping date of late October. Sign up on on any of the linked product pages to be notified the moment the bags are made available for pre-order.

New color of ultralight Aether fabric = Northwest Sky = new Packing Cubes. Sign up on the Aeronaut 30, Aeronaut 45, Tri-Star and Western Flyer Packing Cube pages to be notified when they’re stocked and ready to ship.

The Pre-Order window for The Truck, Small + Large Zip-Top Shop Bags and Original Small Shop Bag has closed. Our factory will now begin making the pre-ordered bags. All but the Original Small Shop Bag (due to low numbers ordered) will be made available for pre-order once again in September.

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