September 1, 2013

Making the dream backpack: Fred Perrotta & Jeremy Michael Cohen of Tortuga Backpacks

Fred Perrotta and Jeremy Michael Cohen, Co-Founders of Tortuga Backpacks

My first reaction to discovering the Tortuga Backpack was: Now that’s a backpack! Here, its makers share their story about realizing their vision of a better travel backpack, in addition to straightforward opinions on collaboration and starting a business.

What is the backstory (pun surely intended) of the Tortuga Backpack? How did you arrive at the idea of making your dream backpack for urban travelers?

Fred: In 2009, we planned a two-week backpacking trip to Eastern Europe. Despite a ton of pre-trip research and multiple visits to REI, we couldn’t find the right luggage. We knew that suitcases wouldn’t work for our city-hopping itinerary, so we were set on backpacks. The perfect travel backpack didn’t exist, so we decided to make it.

Jeremy: I distinctly remember talking about starting the business on the trip. We were obsessed with our bags’ failures and already had our mission in mind.

Tortuga Backpack, Version 2

What were essential steps you took to envision Version 1 of the Tortuga Backpack? And why were these steps important?

Jeremy: I think the biggest step was the trip to Eastern Europe itself. We did in-the-field research in a way you never really could if you already had a final product in mind. That trip led, along with endless conversations about what we wanted from a backpack, to our vision. Our first designer got a sense of the features we wanted, and looking back on it, we may have only known what features we wanted and probably didn’t have a comprehensive design in mind. We didn’t yet understand the zen (for a lack of a better word) of the product.

However, we kept promising each other we’d build a product we’d want to use.

What was the first thing you did when you embarked on making the ultimate travel backpack and why?

Fred: The first thing we did after our trip was buy a domain name. While small, it was our first step and started the momentum that we continue to build every day.

Very first concept drawing which eventually became Tortuga Backpack, Version 1

How did you find awesome people and skills to make Tortuga Backpack, Version 1?

Fred: We found our first partners online. I have no idea how we would have built Tortuga before the internet. We found our first designer by looking through portfolios for people with soft goods experience.

Jeremy: We never found an awesome factory to make the Version 1 bag. We ultimately settled on one near Los Angeles, but I don’t that that factory ever took us seriously as a client. I find his lack of respect very motivating.

When Tortuga Backpack, Version 1, was launched, how did you get the get the word out? And what approach(es) were effective?

Fred: We tried some of everything: PR, word of mouth, social media, contests, advertising. Our first bump in sales came from being featured in Thrillist the week of our launch. Since then, our blog has been the best way to reach customers. On the blog, we offer packing advice, share travel tips, and answer people’s travel questions. Helping people is the best way to market a business.

Jeremy: We also answer every single customer email or call personally. Oftentimes people call with questions about the bag, and quickly we’re giving them other advice about their trip. We really care about each customer, we want them to feel like they get an experience they could have nowhere else, and we want each customer to not only like the bag but to be passionate about it.

In your collective two-year journey of getting real Version 1 of the Tortuga Backpack, who and/or what kept you going?

Fred: Each other. And our desire for this product to exist. Even if no one else wanted it, we wanted this backpack. Being partners was a huge help. When you’re feeling discouraged, you have someone to lift you up. Plus, no one wants to let their friend down.

Jeremy: Fred’s last sentence is exactly spot on. The other thing is that we had already put our name on something. We just don’t want to fail at this.

How did you make a living while working on Version 1 of the Tortuga Backpack?

Fred: When we started the process, I was working at Google. As we got closer to production, I left the company and supported myself by freelancing for startups.

Jeremy: I was still a film school student at USC when the project started, and I was TAing. After I left school, I started freelancing in the film industry.

It’s amazing that you two are best friends since childhood. How does this fact help in your working together? Are there times when it doesn’t help? If so, how?

Fred: Being friends has been a huge help. Like I said before, you never want to let your friend down. We’ve known each other too long to let disagreements fester or piss us off. When we disagree, we talk it out until we have a solution that we’re both happy with.

Jeremy: The amount it’s helped is indescribable. I trust Fred with everything, including the dollars in my bank account. We’ve both traveled and been out of touch while the other runs the company, and there’s never a question that everything will be fine. We also each have absolutely zero appetite for drama, so there never has been any. If I screw up, I apologize and that’s that.

An early blueprint for Tortuga Backpack, Version 2

Do you two share responsibility on everything? Who does what in your company?

Fred: We share a lot of responsibilities like product design, customer support, and operations. I handle most of the marketing and Jeremy is leading our sales efforts to get the bag into stores. He also took our awesome new product photos.

What is the size of your team? What size of company do you prefer?

Fred: We are still a two-man team with a lot of outside help from freelancers and contractors. Our vision for the company is very specific, so we’re cautious about changing that or our working dynamic by hiring employees.

Jeremy: It’s fair to say we’ll stick with this setup for the foreseeable future.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?

Jeremy: We’re both very clear and to the point. So either one of us sending an email saying, “This idea is dumb because of X,” is normal and helpful. Oftentimes the next email is, “You’re right,” or, “I don’t understand, can you explain further.”

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying, and how did you deal with it?

Fred: All of the important parts of the business are new to us so we’ve had a steep learning curve with design and manufacturing. You have to accept that screw ups are part of the job. Give yourself buffers (time, money) and don’t beat yourself up over mistakes. Everything we know now is because we did it wrong the first time then learned from it.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute to doing the quality of work you want to do?

Fred: I work from a combination of home (a tiny studio apartment), coffee shops, coworking spaces, and spare desks in friends’ offices. This nomadic style probably doesn’t help the quality of my work but does expose me to a lot of different people, ideas, and viewpoints. I get to constantly pitch Tortuga and get feedback on the business.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?

Fred: Collaboration tools have been crucial for us. We use Dropbox and Google Docs the most. I also like Trello for project management, Hangouts for videoconferencing, and a new service called Meldium for managing contractors’ access to all of the online services we use.

How do you stay creative? What are some of your sources of motivation?

Jeremy: I watch a ton of old movies and have started watching a lot more great television. I’m inspired by the creators’ faithfulness to and clarity of vision. If you make something that you yourself would love, other people will have faith in it and by sheer chance likely share your taste.

Tortuga Backpack, Version 2

Also amazing that you’re taking pre-orders for Version 2 (at this Interview’s posting). Congratulations! What upfront lessons did you carry with you from the experience of realizing Version 1?

Fred: We learned what our customers wanted. Version 1 wasn’t perfect (in fact it was quite ugly), but we did manage to ship it. Having something people can buy and use is the best way to get feedback. You get much more honest answers from a paying customer than from a friend whom you let test drive your product. When suggestions started coming back from Version 1 customers, we were glad to see that we already had most of their ideas in our plans for Version 2.

Jeremy: We also learned to simplify our design a lot. If something might be sub-optimal or cause a user problems, we’d just get rid of it.

What is your definition of bad design?

Jeremy: My least favorite kind of design is one that copies a very strong, beautiful vision with no faithfulness to what makes the original special and different. Think Zune. Or all the endless movie scores that sound exactly like the booming bass from Inception.

Imitation isn’t necessarily bad and it’s almost inevitable. It’s really horrendous, surface level imitation that’s insulting to my senses and horrible for the end user.

If a person approached you and said, “I have this idea for a product, but I don’t know where to begin. Where do I start?”, what’s your advice?

Fred: I’d ask, “How long would you work on this before getting paid? Could you see yourself still working on this in 10 years?” If they’re sufficiently dedicated, I would advise something that I wish I had done: make a shitty version by yourself first. Even a bad drawing or prototype is better than an idea. You’ll learn about the process of making a thing and show potential partners that you’re serious and not just an “idea person,” i.e. a talker, not a doer.

Jeremy: I’d tell them to shut up and begin. Any moron can start a great online store on Shopify and hire a designer for a few hundred dollars. If they begin, then they’re probably passionate about the product and will make amazing progress in a few months if they’re only doing one hour of work a day.

Any other aspects of your company that would be interesting to creative practitioners and aspiring product makers?

Fred: Tell people what you’re working on. Even when the Tortuga was just a sketch, we were sharing it with our friends and asking for feedback. These conversation are helpful, even if you don’t include everyone’s feedback. For entrepreneurs, sharing your work is a great way to get people excited about the product and invested in its success. By the time you launch, they’ll be begging you for a chance to buy it. That’s the exact approach we’ve taken with Version 2 by sharing pictures and stories throughout the entire process.

Jeremy: Three take-aways:
  1. It’s good to have a business partner you trust.
  2. You have enough time. You don’t need to work full-time. Most “full-time jobs,” unless you’re on a factory line, are 90% fluff anyway. The amount of work you’re getting done is very different from the amount of hours you’re at your computer.
  3. You don’t need to be an “expert” at something to start a business. Start the business, and you’ll become an expert.
What’s the meaning of your product’s name?

Jeremy: I think we were joking around on a train back from Croatia to Germany, and I tossed out the idea. As Woody Allen said recently in an interview in Esquire, most people think that when you write a line or joke, “You make it up consciously—but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious.” I think the second I said Tortuga, we both knew it was right for us. I happen to love turtles and have since I was a tiny kid, and they signify everything that we want to embody with our bag: durability, portability, toughness, long-life. The word also has a nice international ring to it. But if you were to ask me why I thought of it, I don’t think there’s an actual concrete reason.

What is a must-experience place
that must be on everyone’s bucket list?

Jeremy: I loved the Dalmation coast of Croatia. It’s not-clich├ęd, it feels very old-world, and there’s nothing pretentious about it. It was a good enough vacation spot for the Roman emperors, so it’ll make due for most of us.

How does traveling contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

Fred: I live in San Francisco where a lot of startups are solving “problems” that are really just minor annoyances for well-to-do twenty-somethings. Traveling to different countries helps me escape that bubble and keep a broad perspective. Experiencing different cultures also pushes you outside your comfort zone, breaks your routines, and forces you to be very present. That kind of mental stimulation is great for creativity.

Jeremy: I live and work in the pressure cooker of Hollywood. It’s famous for its myopia. It’s easy to confuse motion for progress here. You have to get away to get any sense of clarity and remember the things—generally painful things that we mask in everyday life—that made you want to tell stories in the first place. My imagination tends to go into overdrive when I travel.

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All images courtesy of Fred Perrotta and Jeremy Michael Cohen. Typeface of quotes is Nexa designed by Fontfabric in 2012.

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Read travel-related Blogger’s Quest(ionnaire)
with Globetrotter Jodi Ettenberg, a.k.a. Legal Nomads.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

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