by Stephanie Overby

What’s Your Bag?

Dec 01, 20012 mins

Timbuk2 Designs, a San Francisco-based manufacturer and retailer of bags, eschews mass production for "mass customization."

When Henry Ford began offering the mass-produced Model T, it’s said that he offered any color car a buyer wanted, as long as it was black. Not so for Web Business 50 winner Timbuk2 Designs, a San Francisco-based manufacturer and retailer of bags that eschews mass production for “mass customization.”

The company was founded in 1989 to sell custom-built bike messenger bags without resorting to sweatshops, piece workers or use of the term product units. Originally, Timbuk2 partnered with retailers such as REI and Eastern Mountain Sports to stock its bags and promote custom orders. But a year ago, Timbuk2 also began offering a variety of built-to-order bags via its website, Customers can choose from several models such as the “commuter computer bag” or the “pork chop utility bag” and customize them electronically for desired size, fabric, color, custom features and accessories. Timbuk2 makes the bag and ships it within 24 to 48 hours. The retail channel model still accounts for 80 percent of the company’s production but only 50 percent of its sales. “Eventually we hope to fully merge the two models and get the software into the retail stores via a kiosk system,” says Vice President Jordan Reiss.

So far, the dual business models seem to be working. Annual sales have grown an average of 50 percent per year since 1994, and current sales are around $5 million. Reiss attributes that growth to word of mouth, not marketing. “It was a lot of human effort,” says Reiss, noting that Timbuk2 operates with only 41 employees (31 of them work in production). “The nice thing is that our most successful marketing tool is our bag itself.”