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He Figured That Business Is So Good, Who Needs a Store?

His Bag

New York Times, November 16, 2005


After three years of riding the Internet to steadily climbing sales, Eric Truran decided to use the Web to move his small manufacturing business, CourierWare, in another direction. He wanted it to shrink.

Like most small-business owners, Mr. Truran first viewed the World Wide Web as an opportunity to grow. But as time went by, he came to see it as the opposite - a way to close up his Cambridge, Mass., retail store, move the business to his home in this Vermont village and accomplish his real goal: spending time on the things he wanted to do rather than running CourierWare.

"The Web part of the business was growing," said Mr. Truran, whose company is known for its high-quality, durable messenger bags. "It was the only part of the business that was truly growing." CourierWare, which also stopped publishing its mail- order catalog in 2001, now takes only phone or online orders.

As his Internet choices show, Mr. Truran is not like most small-business owners. After 15 years of growth, CourierWare's retail business was stagnant, and corporate sales were starting to slip. The company's sales peaked around $500,000 in 2000.

He saw two options - expand the business or reduce it. Fearing an economic downturn and unhappy at having to spend 80 to 90 hours a week working, Mr. Truran chose to downsize. He closed CourierWare's Harvard Square store, laid off his eight employees and focused exclusively on the Internet.

"My whole business philosophy is, enough is enough," he said. "Anything more than that and you just work all the time."

Mr. Truran now works part time, probably 15 or 20 hours a week. He is also selling fewer bags - sales are about $100,000 a year now - and earning about $50,000, about half of what he made in the mid-1990's.

He has better things to do now, like playing guitar with his two bands, a rock cover band that goes by various names, and the Kind Buds, a "Jerry Garcia-inspired jam duet" that plays original music.

Life was quite different in 1983, when Mr. Truran moved to Boston after going to Trinity College in Hartford, hoping to make it as a musician. To pay the rent until he hit it big, he took a job as a bicycle messenger.

It soon became apparent to him that neighboring Cambridge could use its own courier company, so Mr. Truran and his friends started one.

He imagined spending his days answering the phone while he played the guitar. Instead, he spent entire days calming irate customers who demanded to know why their packages had arrived wet.

The answer was obvious, Mr. Truran said. After a few months of use, the seams on the couriers' bags would split and the liners would peel away, allowing moisture to seep in, Mr. Truran explained.

He could find no other supplier for courier bags, so Mr. Truran would pick apart the bags at home, deconstructing them to see which aspects worked and which didn't.

He knew the retail business - his family owned a furniture and gift emporium in East Wareham, Mass. As a child, he learned basic sewing from his mother and honed his skills in prep school, where he made burlap bow ties to wear with his uniform.

He experimented with various materials for a new bag, and settled on Cordura, a waterproof nylon manufactured by Invista. He designed the bags so the seams were joined between the layers of fabric, so they would not split.

Mr. Truran said that he and his wife, Diana Salyer, who is a partner in CourierWare, took their bags to stores around Cambridge, but none were interested in selling them. Abandoning the idea of wholesaling, the couple took out a $4,000 loan to begin making and selling the bags themselves. The venture was successful; they paid off the loan and soon sold the courier company to concentrate on the bag business. The couple opened their store in Cambridge in 1991.

"We thought it was a pretty good design," Mr. Truran said. "It was designed by people who used it."

By 1994, the store was self-sufficient and had enough inventory that Mr. Truran and Ms. Salyer chose to move to this small town, where they set up the manufacturing portion of the business. The move, he said, was possible because of that initial decision to stick with retail, enabling the company to operate debt-free.

The company was still free of debt in 2001, but overhead - including rent for the Cambridge store and salaries and health benefits for his employees - was eating up 80 percent of the company's sales. The venture was also eating up Mr. Truran's time because he spent a good part of each week in the car commuting from Vermont to the store.

Hooked on a calmer outdoor life of skiing and biking in Vermont, Mr. Truran decided to move the business to his home, where he would process the Internet orders and make the bags. Much work was already done in the form of the store's inventory, valued around $100,000, which he transported here.

His home is a 7,500-square-foot space in the basement of an old sewing factory, with the upper floors now housing other small businesses. Ms. Salyer runs a yoga studio and massage and bodywork business out of two rooms in the back. The studio is the only room with a window; Mr. Truran said a lack of natural light helps sewing and keeps the space cool in the summer. His bands rehearse in the living room, and he leases out a room to the Vermont Independent School of Music.

"Woodwinds are on Thursdays," he said.

The Internet, he said, allowed him the opportunity to move there, significantly cutting the business and its overhead but retaining its most profitable arm.

"It took 15 years until the Internet was a profitable enough marketing tool," he said. "We had a broad enough base that we didn't feel it would incur that much risk."

It took that long to build up the customer base. Mr. Truran and Ms. Salyer decided not to market their product, except for small advertisements in the Boston Review, a political and literary publication, and the Utne magazine. Mr. Truran thinks the bags speak for themselves.

"The bag itself is its own advertising," he said. "It's the outermost garment. Because of the rarity of them you don't see them everywhere. We're guerrilla marketing, word of mouth. Our phone number is on every bag. People will ask other people where they got their bag, and they'll call."

Mr. Truran is so proud of his product that each bag comes with a lifetime guarantee and free repairs, although he said only about 20 bags a year came back for that.

Couriers have never made up the bulk of buyers, he said, since many expect to move on to other jobs and do not want to spend money on such items, despite CourierWare's discounts to them. (It offers seven styles of bags and laptop inserts, from $35 to $179.) Instead, most of the customers are individuals who can afford a well-made bag.

The markup on the bags is typically four times the materials' cost, higher than usual because the company sells only retail.

Mr. Truran, whose corporation rents his office to himself, said his only overhead costs were fabric, of which he buys 2,000 yards a year, rent, Internet and phone charges and miscellaneous expenses, allowing him to keep half the sales.

In August, a typical busy month, Mr. Truran's Web site drew 19,050 page views and 50 orders, totaling $5,700 in sales. Mr. Truran estimates he sold 25 more bags over the phone.

While Mr. Truran says he is not in the business to get rich, he knows that CourierWare could leave him well off. His ultimate goal, he said, is to sell the licensing and name rights to a manufacturer who can produce thousands of high-quality bags annually.

"I've been polishing this jewel for 20 years," he said. "The real value it has is if someone licenses the name, the reputation and the design, and already has the distribution and production in place."

Mr. Truran is not, however, seeking a licensee, but just answering the phone each time it rings with the distant hope that such a person might be on the other end. Even if he isn't, Mr. Truran doesn't mind. For now, he said, business, and life, are fine.

"I'm in a good spot," he said.


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