Curtis Williams founded North St. in the basement of his first Portland home in 2009. Raised on the lakeshores and trails of Vermont, and educated in the heart of NYC, his experience as a theater set designer would lead to innovative product design that people can live with.
What is your company?
North St. Bags specializes in the design and manufacture of dual-function backpacks, panniers and accessories for simpler commuting.
Our flagship product, known as the Woodward Convertible, morphs in seconds from backpack to bicycle pannier. It’s durable, all-weather, and comes loaded with features aimed at making your commute easier. It’s brighter lining makes finding items fast and easy, and it comes in a wide range of custom color options.
How did you come up with the idea?
I was dissatisfied with other cycling packs on the market at the time. None of them looked right to me, and the ones that did were missing features and functional elements needed for the daily challenge of getting around by bicycle. It began as a side project while I was working at a non-profit bike shop in Berkeley CA. I made several bags, all of which were very rough, but it felt great to make something functional, that I use every day. Before I knew it I as making them for friends, and I became hooked.
Where did you find your first customer?
That was probably at Bike Craft in 2009 – a holiday bazaar of locally made cycling products. I think I literally had two finished bags to show as prototypes, but I remember meeting a lot of great folks that I’m still in business with to this day.
How did you determine your target market?
All of my products are designed to be as functional and versatile as possible, to fit my own lifestyle. They’re practical enough for the daily grind, durable enough for spontaneous adventure, and they perform without fail every moment in between.
I’ve never defined myself as a “cyclist” or “bicycle commuter” – my bike is simply a tool that I use to get around. I think a lot of our customers feel the same way. Our bags, simply put, are designed to make that easier.
What are you currently doing to reach them?
We sell bags through independent bicycle shops in the Portland area and elsewhere. We also ship bags worldwide through our website – www.northstbags.com
How much did you start up with?
I started with a few small rolls of fabric, a handful of hardware and a Juki industrial sewing machine which I found on Craigslist for $200.
Did you bring on investors, get loans, or grow naturally?
We grew naturally. I built each position and system from the ground up, bringing on new employees and consultants only after learning (often the hard way) the challenge of trying to do it all myself.
What’s the best advice someone has given you?
You’re going to be wrong about half of the time. You’ll make mistakes, everyone does, it’s just a fact. The key is to learn as much as you can from your mistakes, and strive to never repeat them. If you can do that then you’ll be ok. I think that’s true in business and in life.
Less is more, and not just in design. Don’t try and solve problems that don’t exist or you’ll be going in circles. Take a breath a look at the actual problem in front of you.
What’s the worst advice you have ever received?
I think the worst thing you can do is not take advice. I’ve had tremendous support from friends, colleagues and mentors along the way, and I wouldn’t be where I am without that.
When you started your business what was one thing you wish you knew?
I wish I had stayed a lot more focused. Opportunities come up and I distract easily. It sounds strange, but your business is defined by your ability to say “no”. It feels like a compromise, but at the end of the day, if it isn’t building your brand and helping to accomplish your mission, then it probably isn’t worth doing.
What resources or books do you refer to regularly?
I’ve read up a lot on Lean Manufacturing which has transformed our production line and reshaped the way that I run the business.
Has your company experienced any close calls or lucky moments?
We’re currently working on a “big break” project which we’ll be announcing soon.
What does success mean to you?
Supporting myself while doing something I love, creating jobs, supporting my community, and being a part of the “Made in USA” movement.
Where would you like to see your business 5 years from now?
I think it will look very similar to what it is now, although I would like more time to devote to design and product development.
How can people find you?
You can also visit our factory showroom in SE Portland – 2716 SE 23rd Ave (at Clinton St)