Ten years on, company's bags dangle
from broader market of shoulders
Portsmouth Herald, July 19, 2005
By Natalie Otis
PORTSMOUTH - Bent on making a bag that people would find both practical
and attractive, businessman Jon Bailey transformed a modest career as a
San Francisco bike messenger into a chance to make a dream come true in
Portsmouth. It has been more than 10 years since the former
University of New Hampshire student launched his bag company,
BaileyWorks, from a small shop downtown.
And after a decade in business, Bailey, 40, is still going strong in
that downtown shop.
These days, however, his market has broadened from bike messengers to
the general public, because according to him, "people have stuff and
they need a bag to carry it around in."
His shop, sandwiched between Jumpin' Jay's Fish Café and Radici,
is small and quiet, but busy. Behind the glass doors is a manufacturing
facility, a business office and a retail store, all on Congress Street.
This week, Talking Shop entered the shop, fondly nicknamed "the
submarine," to find out what is hot on Bailey's plate and why he
remains in prime retail space downtown when his core market has turned
out to be Internet customers.
Talking Shop: Why did you open BaileyWorks and what was the premise?
Jon Bailey: If it were a screenplay, I would say "bag visionary strikes
out to fulfill his destiny in a hostile world." Realistically, I would
say I have always wanted my own line since I was an early teen, and
this is the result.
TS: What is the history of the company?
JB: I began making camping gear as a Boy Scout and continued through
high school and college. I graduated, and when a brilliant job failed
to materialize, I went back to what I had always wanted to do.
TS: When did you graduate?
JB: Graduated in 1990; I worked out of my dining room for two years
doing a full line of apparel, packs and fleece accessories.
I moved to San Francisco in January 2003 and worked as a bike messenger
while I tried to find a place to set up my shop. Then I moved back to
Portsmouth in June 2003, set up my first shop and opened the door July
TS: Describe what you sell to someone who has never heard of
JB: Bomb-proof and waterproof bags of enduring quality. Most of what we
build and sell are bicycle messenger bags in two styles and we sell
them mostly to non-messengers.
TS: Where did you get the idea for the original bag?
JB: My original interest in courier bags came from picking up a
hitchhiker in Vermont in 1989. Skinny little city kid way out in the
country, he had a big black shoulder bag with him that caught my eye.
It had a vinyl liner and was obviously built to be waterproof. Simple
build, but very tough and beefy looking. I asked him about it and I
spent the next 45 minutes hearing about how much he loved that bag. How
he could camp for days out of it and then carry his guitar. I knew it
was a bag the world needed.
TS: How long do the bags last?
JB: I can say that some of the original bags are still in use.
TS: Where do you build the bags?
JB: We build bags here in our shop and have a pair of New England
contractors who build bags for us.
TS: How many employees?
JB: We typically have three, but right now, two. We have never had a
problem finding people or retaining them in the past, but now it seems
to be hard for some reason.
TS: Can the contractors pick up the workload when you can't make enough
to fill orders?
JB: Yes, and they do. We have spent a lot of time and effort on those
relationships. They are building bags that we almost can't distinguish
from our own. Someone who doesn't work here would never know.
TS: How has the cost of doing business changed?
JB: Gone up - no surprise there. I have been able to watch the death of
the domestic apparel industry and the withering of other kinds of cut
Outdoor gear and the bag business have been resilient. Outdoor because
it is small, and bags because sourcing the materials offshore used to
be more difficult, not any more. But, unless you are at scale, it is
risky to go offshore (for manufacturing). A decent percentage of the
industry is small.
TS: Have you considered going offshore?
JB: I always consider, but it just hasn't made sense.
TS: Where does most of your business come from?
JB: One sale at a time on the Internet. We do some business in the
store, but that isn't where the most is.
TS: Any other outlets?
JB: We do a wholesale business and have been asked to supply bags to a
company that exports U.S. goods to Tokyo.
TS: Who does your outside sales?
JB: I do the sales, but not as much as I should.
TS: Since the shop is tight on space and you don't do much new business
downtown, why stay?
JB: Visibility, and I have been here for a long time. We do some
walk-in business, enough to not discount the location.
TS: What was your first job?
JB: First job was scooping ice cream at Friendly's Ice Cream. First job
in "the business" was working for Jeff Anderson at Anson's Sails.
TS: What advice would you give a young entrepreneur?
JB: An old production manager I met once told me "watch your nickels."
I would say, try to understand the difference of what you do for money,
from what you do for love.
TS: What other career path would you have liked to have taken?
JB: Never had a very clear idea of one, but I would like to teach
history at some point.
TS: If you could introduce one thing to improve the Portsmouth economy,
what would it be?
JB: Affordable housing.
TS: What do you do to relax?
JB: Outdoorsy stuff. I ski a lot in the winter. I ride bikes in the
summer and paddle little boats.
TS: What is one interesting fact about you that most wouldn't know?
JB: (I'm a) former Radio City Music Hall Rockette. (He is joking.)