I like to travel light. (Sometimes too light, especially where dressing for an unexpected occasion is concerned.) I can often get away with just a backpack, even for 3-day trips.

Not getting sucked into the baggage claim black hole is great. But a backpack isn't exactly wrinkle-free clothes friendly. (Good thing my mom taught me to iron.) My backpack is great to carry but is terrible for packing everything I need. And I've never found a bag I liked that meets carry-on restrictions.

Until now.

Stuart & Lau, the bag and briefcase start-up, makes the Regimen Gym Bag -- and it's the best bag ever, especially if you're not a luggage kinda guy. (Like me.)

It's light weight, it's rugged, it looks cool without appearing to try to look cool... while positioned as a gym bag, it's also perfect for a short trip carry-on bag. In fact, I've used it for a variety of needs.

I love to talk to entrepreneurs who make great products, so I spoke with Matthew Stuart Janney, the co-founder (with Jimmy Lau) of Stuart & Lau.

This might make me sound like the least hip person in the world where bags are concerned, but I love the separate shoe pocket, especially since you can access it from the outside and don't have to dig through the bag.

We'd love to take credit for that, but we weren't the first to think of it. (Laughs.)

But we are proud of our built-in locker hook. Living in Hong Kong, where locker rooms and lockers are really tight, the hook lets you hang it in your locker and work out of it. It's a small touch, but sometimes the small things make all the difference.

Neither of you are from the luggage industry... so what made you start the company? 

I was based in Hong Kong and traveled a lot, and was often carrying bags that didn't work for what I needed. Jimmy was in New York in a similar situation. Both of us needed something better. 

So it started as a passion project: We decided to build a briefcase. That resulted in the Monaco Weekender... and we realized we really enjoyed the process. We had no idea it would be so much fun. 

But while it sounds like a smooth, fast path to our first product, it took quite a while.

Great ideas are hard enough to come by, but turning them into reality can be even harder.

Jimmy and I have a network in Hong Kong, and we were able to find someone to help us build prototypes and create our first beta collection.

But getting a beta product is far from the finish line. The early road of sourcing and getting products made has plenty of speed bumps. We had a tremendous amount to learn.

Like?

For one thing, we didn't push hard enough to get the minimum order size down. Factories naturally want larger order sizes, but it's always better to go as low as possible and incrementally build up. Of course there's a balance you have to strike, because you have to agree on a quantity that makes it worthwhile for the factory.

Another is to walk the fine line of minimum viable product. In hindsight we were below MVP in phase one, but that did give us an opportunity to put product out in a kind of soft launch and get a lot of feedback. We got our product in the hands of 400-plus people to see how it worked for them.

Family and friends said it was great. (Laughs.)

We also did an anonymous survey through SurveyMonkey and got a tremendous amount of feedback.

Some people wanted more pockets and more compartments, but that ran counter to our design philosophy of making the bag streamlined and light. Others didn't love the fabric: It had more of a sheen or sateen look, and that didn't resonate well with people.

That was something we could readily change. When we launched last spring we used a different fabric, something a little more "matte," and we're launching another new fabric this fall. 

When you get feedback, it's tough to sift through what is possible and what is not. Sometimes you have to prioritize changes, and other times you just need to stick to your original vision.

Did the inclusion of an attached pen come from feedback? I used mine the other day at the airport; for once I didn't have to borrow a pen from someone.

No, the pen was there from day one.

We want to make sure that every bag has something different, something you wouldn't expect. So we thought about a battery pack but that was difficult to source. Then we thought, "What about a whistle?" But we didn't know if people would actually use a whistle. (Laughs.) So we slept on it, and both of us said, "How about a pen?"

You've launched several new product lines. How do you decide what will be next?

We do have a road map for new products, but before we create something new, we want our existing bags to be the all-star in that utility, to be the best in class. 

For example, the gym bag is everything we want in a gym bag. That's the same with our other bags. 

Our long-term goal is to provide a range of products that satisfy the different utilities men may need a bag for. We're happy in terms of what we currently offer, and as bandwidth and resources and the financial means allow, we'll look at a backpack a travel kit, a portfolio sleeve... always focusing on the needs of that specific utility and making it as good as it can possibly be. 

Speaking of resources, cash flow is a huge challenge for consumer goods startups. (Or for anyone in retail.)

The cash flow picture is tricky to navigate, somewhat more so than in other industries. You can mitigate that by doing high frequency, low volume production runs, but it's definitely something we're figuring out as we go along.  

Fortunately the factory we use is a really great partner. They really are more like a partner than a supplier. They've been in the business for a long time and work with some huge brands, and they've helped us work through some of the challenges. 

It also helps that we built a personal relationship with them. I didn't move back to NYC until this winter.

You're in large part selling direct to consumer instead of working with department stores, etc.

We're very focused working directly with our customers. There are third-party websites that fulfill in a drop-ship manner, and we work with them because they have large audiences and are very streamlined in terms of facilitating the transaction... but for the most part, we work directly.

That means finding ways to drive traffic to our site, through social media, content marketing, etc. That's also helpful because it keeps us very close to our customers. Working with a number of wholesale partners might seem easier in some ways, but we think it's important to have as little distance between ourselves and our customers as possible. 

Since this is your first startup, what do you know now that you wish you had known then?

Can I start with something we did right? (Laughs.)

One thing we did was trust our instincts. Early on we didn't know if the first bag should be predominately leather or predominately fabric. We settled on fabric after having conversations about what was in the market... and more importantly, what we really wanted, and what was important to us as users. 

Top of the list were qualities that fabric brings: Lightweight and waterproof. So we built from there.

What we didn't predict nor understand was how the market was going to shift from leather to fabric. In the men's bag space, leather is diminishing rapidly in terms of the percentage of new products released. Established bigger brands, new brands... everyone is building with different forms of fabric, and leather rims or accents.

The classic leather briefcase is not what people are buying.

We didn't know that would happen, though, and are fortunate we are well-positioned to be part of that movement.  But then again, maybe we did know, because the reasons we wanted a fabric bag were clearly part of the collective consciousness about leather and fabric.

So you didn't predict the trend.

We focused on the functional qualities of the bag: Why this, why that, what works... which also turns out to be a very authentic way to market your product. 

When you try to predict a trend, you may get lucky and you may not. When you build something for very specific reasons, it's easy to communicate those reasons to your customers. 

It's easy to be authentic when you actually are authentic.

What would you have done differently?

Working with our first factory was a bit of a bumpy ride. We needed to take more time to vet that partner.

We also made some expensive decisions. We ordered leather in the U.S., shipped it over, had to get it into China... and then were using a factory that wasn't very efficient, and some great leather went to waste.

Now our factory partner sources the leather. They handle all of that.

The first time around we also were trying to learn everything: How to source leather, source zippers, source all the components, procure them and ship them to the factory... and it tied up a lot of time and money.  We did our best but we needed to change how we operated. 

That's a great advantage of being a small startup: You can be nimble. It's very easy to change. 

Hardest aspect of what you do?

The hardest thing is managing priorities. This is our first startup. We haven't launched five or six new companies. We're still figuring out how to determine what needs to be front of mind and what can be put off.

But the day-to-day challenges are completely offset by speaking to our customers and knowing they enjoy our products. We like the fact our bags really do make your day better. We like knowing that when you pick one up and head out the door it makes your life easier. It does what it is supposed to do. It helps you in all the ways it's intended to help you.

Getting that kind of feedback is extremely fulfilling. We make products we like, and it's great that the people who buy them like them just as much as we do.

We also like making continual improvements so that each new version of a particular bag is even better. It doesn't make sense to us to make a new briefcase just to make a new briefcase. We prefer to emulate the tech industry and focus on product innovation.

Our goal is to build a great bag, listen to our customers, and keep working to make it even better.

It turns out that's really fun.

Published on: Oct 23, 2017
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