By Matthew Claudel
on 1.6.11

We know that the best gear in the world is no good unless you’ve got a way of getting it from point A to point B. Of course, the MK4 would be our preferred choice, but its beauty comes with more environmental and financial baggage than, say, a bike. Companies like Rickshaw Bags are making satchels for schlepping with just as much style as our friends at Factory Five. But that’s all up to you: Rickshaw bags are custom-built to order, allowing you to specify color, size, and texture. They sell a range of bags – from messengers to backpacks to iPad sleeves – all handmade in San Francisco (aka the urban bike commuters’ mecca).

Gear Patrol saddled up with a Rickshaw bag and an interview with CEO and founder Mark Dwight. Read our interview after the jump.

Gear Patrol: When and how did you originally become interested in making bags?

Mark Dwight: I started my career in Silicon Valley, working for a variety of high-tech companies. My introduction to bags was during a two-year stint as Director of Product Development for the PC accessories company, Kensington, in 1995-1996. During that time, I helped design and launch several laptop computer briefcases and backpacks. In 2001, in the wake of the first Dot Com bust, I took a one-year sabbatical, during which I was presented with the opportunity to join the popular but then struggling San Francisco-based messenger bag company, Timbuk2, as CEO.

GP: How did Rickshaw Bags begin?

MD: I ran Timbuk2 for about 4 years. During that time, the company went through a nice growth spurt, and my private investors decided to cash-in and sell the company to a private equity fund. I left Timbuk2 about eight months after the acquisition, and began another one-year sabbatical. For the first six months I spent a lot of time thinking about what I’m passionate about and what I wanted to do next. I love designing and making consumer products. I love running my own small company. And I love bags and bicycles. I had come to appreciate how attached people are to their bags, more than any other “fashion” accessory. Everyone, it seems, has a story to tell about their favorite bag. I also found that the bag business got me involved in all kinds of community activities — the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the SF Chamber of Commerce, programs for at-risk youth — because bags are perfect for fundraisers and sponsorships. So, I decided to start my own bag company, and Rickshaw Bag works was born in May, 2007. The name “Rickshaw” was inspired by a book published by Lonely Planet — a photo essay called “Chasing Rickshaws” which celebrates the diversity of rickshaws in 12 different Asian cities. The word “Rickshaw” derives from three Japanese characters — jin riki sha — which translate to “human powered vehicle”. I thought the name was wonderfully apropos for a company that sits at the intersection of bags and bikes.

GP: One of Rickshaw’s strongest tenets is feeding off the energy of the city of San Francisco. How is that expressed in your bags?

MD:Our bags are designed to be simple, functional, personal and fun, and to express our interest in sustainability and local artisanal manufacturing. In addition to our passion for bags, we share a strong set of humanistic, environmental and social values that guide the way we conduct every aspect of our business. San Francisco is a friendly, approachable city, and we think our products and our people express our San Francisco “sensibilities”. We have a retail showroom in our factory, and we love giving factory tours and meeting our fans in person. We welcome visitors to come experience for themselves the “what, where, who, how and why” of Rickshaw.

GP: It seems that an important part of Rickshaw is the “humanistic, environmental and social values that guide the way you conduct ever aspect of your business.” What does that mean for Rickshaw, specifically?

MD:I have a little saying I developed to capture my values: “We are the only species with the power to change the world — and ourselves. Let’s change for good.” I want Rickshaw to be an expression of my values, a catalyst for change, and an inspiration to the people who work here and anyone who chooses to associate with us, whether they are customers, partners, investors or just fans. I especially want the people who work here to feel that their “work” is an expression of their own values and personal passions. Work should be fun and meaningful — otherwise, you’re wasting your life.

GP: Tell me a little about local production and being based in San Francisco.

MD:Local manufacturing is a personal passion of mine. I love being directly involved in the process of designing and making things, and I love the intimacy of small-scale, artisanal manufacturing. There’s something inherently noble about mastering your craft and being passionate about the process, not just the transaction. Of course, most of our modern technology products require diverse skills, sophisticated processes and massive scale — and this is amazing in its own right. I just happen to love what I do here at Rickshaw. It turns out there are quite a few people like me, so I founded an organization called SFMade to help preserve and expand our local manufacturing economy, and to inspire other cities to do the same.

GP: The most unique aspect of Rickshaw is the ability to customize – each bag is handmade specifically. Explain your decision to manufacture that way, and how it works as a business model.

MD: Modern consumer product companies operate on a vicious cycle of forecasting what people will buy, making stuff in advance, and hoping it all sells. Invariably, forecasting is as much guesswork as science, and every season ends with lots of unsold goods, which results in margin-eroding, brand-tarnishing closeout sales. I experienced this stressful and wasteful cycle in my previous company, and decided I wanted to avoid it in my new business. Our product design process explicitly and exclusively focuses on products we can build-to-order. This allows us to customize our products as we go, and respond to customer preferences in the present, rather than guessing what people will want in the future. This business model has certain limitations in terms of scalability, but I’m okay with that. I’m not personally driven by a desire to make Rickshaw a huge company. I’m content to run a small business that makes excellent products, provides good value, and delights customers.

GP: Does Rickshaw have an overarching aesthetic, or does customization make it pretty fluid?

MD: I think we have a distinct “look and feel”, and we’re very conscious of how aesthetics reflect our values and sensibilities. Our designs are a minimalist balance of function and style, which is an expression of value, integrity and sustainability. We’re very flexible with customization, but we try to present our customers with a broad selection of beautiful fabrics and elegant embellishment options.

GP: Are there certain places or people or things that you go to for inspiration?

MD: We love to travel to other cities to experience differences in culture and fashion — especially “bicycle-friendly” cities, like Seattle, Portland, New York, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. We love the “DIY” culture, and we’re inspired by Etsy, Maker Faire and Renegade Craft Fair. And we’re students of sustainable design and manufacturing, and try to push the boundaries of what it really means to be “green”, and inspire others to do the same.

GP: Rickshaw manages to stay current with its offerings – iPad sleeves, folios, etc. – but where do you see the company heading in the future?

MD: As far as bags go, we focus on the “everyday, all-purpose carry-all” — or, bags you can live out of from dawn to dusk. This is really the nature of the “active urban lifestyle”, where you leave home in the morning, and transition between work, fitness and play before you return home in the evening. At Rickshaw, we concentrate on bags, and accessories that go “in” and “on” the bags, to address the active urban lifestyle, and accommodate our ever-evolving collection of personal technologies. We’re also passionate about bicycles as alternative transportation in the urban environment. Aside from that, we really design for ourselves, because we’re living the lifestyle ourselves. We all live right here in SF. I’m the only one in the office who owns a car, and we all ride our bicycles to work everyday. So, you can expect Rickshaw to continue to focus on bags and bag accessories that are influenced by our love of city living and human-powered transportation.

GP: Do you have any funny or interesting stories from being the premier bag maker in San Francsico?

MD: I would humbly decline to characterize Rickshaw as the “premier” bag company in SF. There are several other well-known bag brands headquartered here, and they each have their own special personality and following. I do believe we’ve carved out a distinctive niche, with our focus on sustainable design and manufacturing. Most of my stories relate to our interactions with our customers. We have received wonderful feedback and some amazing gifts from our fans. Our first customer in Switzerland send us a 10-pound chocolate bar. Our first customer in Germany came for a visit and brought us two bottles of beer from his hometown. We’ve received numerous handmade gifts from people who share our passion for craft. This personal connection and interaction is the most inspiring element of our “work” here at Rickshaw.

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