Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Kelly Belknap, and I co-founded Adventurist Backpack Co. along with my wife Matilda Sandstrom.
We design minimalist backpacks for travel, and for every backpack purchased, 25 meals are provided to families in need across the U.S. (We do this through our partner Feeding America, providing meals to over 200 food banks across the country.)
Our flagship product is our Adventurist Classic backpack, which is made as a daypack for travelers, hikers, students, and everyday use. It’s padded front/back for electronics and completely weather-resistant for any adventure - and also fits perfectly underneath the seat of an airplane. We have the Adventurist Classic available in 6 colors, and have 2 new designs on the way which will be available on our website starting at the end of August.
Since our launch 22 months ago, we have been able to provide nearly 100,000 meals to families in need. We currently have our backpacks sold in Urban Outfitters and eBags.com, as well as on our website and over 50 universities and boutique retailers across the country.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
We came up with the idea for Adventurist about 3 years ago when Matilda and I were 21 and 24 years old, respectively. Since Matilda is from Sweden, and I’m from the U.S., we spend a lot of time traveling back and forth from North America to Europe (not to mention that we love to travel anywhere whenever we get a chance.) This means that a good backpack for us is an essential.
We had no idea what we were doing and how we were going to get the word out about our new company. But we decided to move forward with the idea and start an Instagram account, the only free way we could think of advertising our new brand.
We are both fans of Scandinavian minimalist design, and I loved the style of all of the backpacks we saw people wearing in Sweden, as well as Denmark, Finland, and Norway. They weren’t just a tool to carry your stuff around in, but also a fashion accessory in which you could accentuate your personal style - and most importantly make your outfit look even better by wearing a backpack, not worse.
Sometimes you just don’t need 2 million zippers/pockets and bright neon colors.
After returning to the U.S. from one of our trips abroad, we decided that we wanted to make a backpack that we couldn’t seem to find anywhere across the country. We wanted to design a fashionable, high-quality, and affordable backpack for less than $100. Since most of the fashionable/well-built backpacks we found were upwards of $150-$300, we knew that there had to be other people like us that wanted something good looking and with high quality, weather-resistant fabric, that wouldn’t cost the same amount as a plane ticket itself.
This is when we started sketching out our designs for the first Adventurist Classic, a backpack that would blend the styles of Sweden (Matilda’s home) and Colorado (my home). It would be a simple and high-quality backpack with 2 pockets, 2 zippers, and a laptop sleeve. We had no prior experience in design, being fresh out of high-school (Matilda) and college (me) but we sat down with a piece of graph paper and a little pencil from IKEA, and started drawing away. The design that you can find on our website and at Urban Outfitters is the same as the one that we drew on that graph paper, before we even knew that we would start a company.
We also knew that if we were going to start a company, we wanted to integrate giving back as a key pillar of our business model. On one of our early trips abroad, we would go by the grocery store each morning and buy food to pack into individual meals, and then stuff them into our backpacks. While we were out exploring each day, we would then hand these meals out to anyone that we saw who was in need. We wanted to spread kindness and thought that sharing a meal would be a good way to let others know that there are people out there who care about them.
When we came up with the idea for our backpacks, we thought back to this trip and thought that we could continue providing meals from our backpacks even while we weren’t traveling. During our trip we were able to fit about 25 individually packed meals in our big backpacking backpacks, and today we still provide 25 meals for every backpack sold.
At this time, our financial situation was basically that of college graduates scraping by while we were figuring out what we wanted to do with our lives. We had just gotten married and our budget was basically non-existent. I worked in the receiving warehouse for Barnes and Noble and Matilda worked as a retail employee for Banana Republic. We had about $3000 that we had saved up that went towards starting the company, as well as a $4000 investment from my parents. This $7000 total we ended up using to set up a website and order our first round of several hundred backpacks. We had no idea what we were doing and how we were going to get the word out about our new company, let alone if anyone would even like our backpack designs. But we decided to move forward with the idea and start an Instagram account, the only free way we could think of advertising our new brand.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
As mentioned above, we had no previous product design experience, so everything was pretty “learn-as-we-go”.
We’re not the kind of people who feel that everything has to be planned out perfectly - I personally feel that you kind of have to jump into things before you’re ready because the only way to truly learn something is by actually doing it.
We were in awe the first time a huge 18-wheel semi-truck stopped in front of my parents house to drop off our first shipment of backpacks.
After our designs were completed, we sent them around to about 4 or 5 different manufacturers that we found via Alibaba.com, which is a great place to start for anyone looking to manufacture a product.
After getting back a few samples, we settled on one factory that had a similar vision as us, was able to provide us with high-quality materials, and also upheld the highest certifications and standards for working conditions and environmental impact.
As soon as we had a final sample made that we were completely satisfied with, we went ahead and placed an order for several hundred backpacks of our first design.
We soon realized that an order of this size would not be delivered straight to our doorstep (a.k.a. The moment we learned about sea-freight, customs agents, freight forwarding, etc.) This was a really big learning moment for us, and having to work through all of this ourselves better educated us on the entire process from design and production, to shipping and receiving.
We were in awe the first time a huge 18-wheel semi-truck stopped in front of my parents house to drop off our first shipment of backpacks.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Besides designing our product and figuring out logistics, creating our website was the biggest process for us. Since we were planning to start out with only web sales, this was to be our main method of selling backpacks and showing our new brand off to the world.
About a week into being a company, we received a message on Instagram from a retailer in Montana with 6 locations that wanted to order 100 of our backpacks
We opted to use Shopify, a great resource for any business selling things online, to design our own website. Shopify’s basic plan costs only $30 or so a month, and provides you with everything you need to print shipping labels, accept all kinds of payment, and track metrics regarding users and sales.
We had our Instagram set up about 2 months before launching our company, and tried our best to “hype up” our new brand and the backpacks that we still didn’t even have photos of. We did this by taking photos of the sample backpack that we did have along our travels through South America and Europe prior to officially launching the business. We wanted to create an Instagram account that inspired the love of travel and adventure, and were able to gain about 500 loyal followers by the time we launched on Sept. 1, 2017.
The day that we launched, we were happily surprised to see that along with our friends and family who ordered backpacks as soon as the website went live, we were also getting a few orders from people we didn’t know - real customers. We attributed this to our social media presence on Instagram and decided that we would double down on this method of free marketing to hopefully gain a continuous stream of customers. This was also exciting because it was starting to validate our vision as well as our product, which we had not pre-tested in the market before launching. It was definitely a relief and a big motivator that we were on the right track.
About a week into being a company, we received a message on Instagram from a retailer in Montana with 6 locations that wanted to order 100 of our backpacks. As this was a big percentage of all of the backpacks we currently had on hand, we were super excited, and even a little skeptical about this actually happening. We had not previously thought at all about having our backpacks IN store, as we planned to sell only via our website. After a few seconds of disbelief, we decided that we would absolutely sell them 100 backpacks at wholesale price, and ended up driving a car full of backpacks up to Montana from Colorado the following weekend. The experience left us excited, and proved to be a useful lesson in staying flexible, and being able to say “yes” to opportunities that pop up. Without much of a game plan, it allowed us to be fluid in our decision making for the company and figure out along the way what works and what doesn’t.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We have bootstrapped our entire first 2 years, and plan on continuing to do this for the foreseeable future.
We have doubled down on social media and free press to gain attention and market our company. We spend a good amount of time creating high quality content on Instagram to share with followers, as well as doing giveaways and other contests. We also try to send out a monthly email newsletter that’s actually fun to read - not just touting the deal of the day.
Besides Instagram and our email newsletter, we’ve been fortunate enough to gain press and feature articles from Forbes, Travel Channel, Fast Company, ABC, CBS, etc. This has really helped in our search for retailers, as they know that we are doing our best to get our name out there. The name of the game is email, email, email. Send emails to everyone (read: send very well written, conscientious, and to-the-point emails).
Since we have nothing to lose, we have emailed writers from TIME Magazine, USA Today, New York Times, and other world class publications in order to gain press or gain contact with someone that we can pitch ideas to in the future. We have also emailed buyers of national and international retailers such as REI, Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, Journeys, etc. - which is how we eventually ended up getting our backpacks into Urban Outfitters.
The moral of the story is that there are tons of creative ways to advertise and market your business without spending much money at all - you just have to be open to possibility and look in the places that others aren’t.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Though we don’t give out specific financial details, we can say that our company has been profitable since day one. This is due to bootstrapping, and not spending money that we don’t have. Our only costs are the backpacks themselves (along with customs, taxes, etc.), our website, shipping costs, minimal FB and IG advertisements, and a MailChimp subscription. Everything else we do “by hand”.
We still sell mainly on our website (about 50%), but accounts with Urban Outfitters, boutique retailers, as well as universities such as the University of Oregon, Colorado State University, University of Wisconsin, etc. have grown our sales on the retail side of things lately (40%). We also occasionally sell backpacks for large corporate events (4-5 a year), such as for Google’s International Women’s Day conference this year, which accounted for several hundred backpacks in one order (10%).
We plan on keeping a healthy balance of web sales, retail, and event sales in the future, and hope to expand to even more states and countries in the coming months. We would love to have our backpacks in every state by the end of our 3rd year in business, as well as in my wife’s home country of Sweden.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
In starting a business, especially with no prior experience, the entire process is a learning opportunity. The biggest general tips that I have learned and can give are to take calculated risks, be flexible, and be friendly.
We have found a lot of luck in simply reaching out to people that we think we have no chance of ever actually talking to. If you have something of good value to offer someone else (especially if you can do it without asking for anything in return) - even if they are busy, high-up, famous, etc. - they will want to hear from you.
I also believe that grit is the name of the game. If you’ve come up with an idea that people like, and that can help people, while making the world a better place - you’ve already won half the battle. All that’s needed is to wake up, get creative, get to work, and keep on going. There have been so many stressful times in our first 22 months, as well as plenty of mistakes; but as long as you learn from each setback, and grind it out through the rough patches, there’s no reason why a business can’t be successful. That’s our plan at least, and we’re certain it will work out in the long run.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Shopify for all of our website, analytics, shipping, and selling needs.
We do everything from scratch on social media (Instagram and Facebook), and use MailChimp for our email newsletter creation.
We believe in a DIY approach to cut down on costs at the beginning, while possible. Of course there are different scenarios for every business, but if at all possible, it’s great to be able to know how to run everything yourself in case of emergency - and let’s be honest - most companies aren’t so busy in their first few months that you HAVE to automate or delegate every single task. Learn to do it yourself, so that when the time comes, you can more responsibly pass off certain tasks.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The podcast How I Built This is a super inspirational show that takes a look at how the founders of the world’s largest brands created their companies. You can learn what it took to build these brands, as well as the setbacks and problems the founders had to endure to make it to the top.
Another podcast Masters of Scale is a similar idea, but done in a slightly different, more story-telling approach. The host of this podcast is Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, so he has tons of experience and knowledge himself on what it takes to build a company and succeed.
My 3 favorite books (that I would suggest for aspiring business owners) are:
Shoe Dog is the autobiography by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. This story is valuable in the information he provides about everything from how he got started selling another brand’s shoes, to designing his own, and the making of Nike’s iconic “Swoosh” logo. It’s also possibly the most inspiring book that I’ve read thus far regarding business.
The Alchemist might not be for everyone - but it’s my favorite book of all time, and I think it’s an incredible story about following your dreams and your heart, and not letting anything get in the way of your ultimate goal and fulfilling your true purpose in life. I might make it sound more hippy-dippy than it really is, so just go find a copy and check it out for yourself. It’s super famous for a good reason.
Trust Me I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday is the book that has impacted me the most as far a concrete value and steps that you can take to get media exposure for your business. Contrary to the name, this book is not actually about lying, but about becoming a great storyteller, and learning how to get in contact with people that are able to spread your story far and wide across the expanse of the internet (and other more old-fashioned mediums). For anyone that has just started a company and is looking to get the word out, do yourself a favor and read this.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Just do it. There’s never a perfect time to start a business, so best to just jump in and start swimming. The worst that can happen is a learning experience, a great story, and an even better adventure.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
At the moment, we are not hiring for any specific positions, but we encourage anyone who is interested in joining the Adventurist team to send an email/resume to hello (at) adventuristbackpacks.com. Thanks guys!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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