Meet the underwriters: Skooba Design

Michael Hess is the chief executive of Skooba Design, one of this site’s charter underwriters. He continues our series, Meet the underwritersHere’s the first part.

What is Skooba Design and how did it get started?

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Skooba designs and manufactures innovative, high-quality tech and travel bags and accessories. Bags for laptops, iPads, netbooks, just about every gadget … plus cords, adapters, memory and all the other stuff that has to travel with any electronic arsenal.

Skooba got its start ten years ago — it actually was called RoadWired at the time — but we have actually been in the bag biz for about 20 years. My family owned a prominent manufacturing and distribution company in the photographic industry, and among our dozen or-so brands was a well-known line of camera bags, which we actually made right in our own factory in upstate New York.

After we sold the company in 1998, I decided to start a new bag business that would stretch beyond the photo market and get us into what were then the still fairly emergent laptop/gadget categories.

Where do your product ideas and designs come from?

Lots of places. For starters, we’re road warriors, so we live what we do. I have been traveling—both domestically and internationally—for 20 years, and I am an obsessive observer of the way people travel, what they do and what they use when they’re sitting at airport gates, on planes, in hotel lobbies, etc … I also watch the other side of the coin—the way the industry works and how it affects traveler/consumer needs and behavior. This simple but constant observation of real travelers doing real traveling is a big influence on everything we do.

Next, we study trends constantly. Not just in laptop bags, but in color, clothing and textiles, furniture, automobiles, electronics, pretty much everything that touches the design world. All of our products are designed in our own facility by our own designers—even our literature, web content and packaging is designed here—so there’s a lot of creative juice and we are always together to mesh and play with ideas.

Almost every day someone walks in with an idea he or she had in a dream, in the shower, at breakfast, whatever… and we talk about that kind of stuff. Of course much of it doesn’t go anywhere, but it contributes to the process and to our creative energy, if you will.

Do customers help you design better bags?

Yes, that’s critical. Aside from just listening to requests and suggestions, we listen to criticisms and pay special attention to any recurring themes. We know we can’t please everyone with every product, but if we get calls every day telling us that a shoulder strap isn’t
comfortable, chances are it’s not comfortable, and we change it. Luckily those kinds of things don’t happen often, and certainly never anything extreme. But we are always listening and we take feedback very seriously.

We also work very hard to be different. If we start going down a design path and later see that another company is already doing something similar, we change paths. We never want to be perceived as a “me-too” company.

What sets Skooba apart in what seems like an immensely crowded product category?

We focus to an almost crazy level on what may seem to many like tiny details. As you said, it is a very crowded business, and every bag is basically some variation on a theme … 4 closed sides and 1 open side, pockets, a strap, etc… so we work to find the little touches that will make a big difference to a real traveler in the real world. A place to put travel documents where they will be secure but very easy to access… a slot to store a USB thumb drive so it doesn’t get lost at the bottom of a bag. There are also bigger challenges, like shaving weight without compromising protection, features or qualities.

A seemingly trivial but telling example of tiny details … when I started the business, I couldn’t find a single company that was putting truly comfortable, ergonomically designed handles on laptop bags. Even the most expensive bags almost always had, and many still do have, two pieces of webbing, maybe wrapped in leather, and that’s it.

From our very first bag design we made our carrying handles to fit and fill the hand, with just the right amount of cushioning. Carry a heavy bag through Schiphol, or O’Hare, or Frankfurt for a few hours and see what a difference it makes. We spent months on the first handle. Now there are comfy handles everywhere, but I have to say—forgive the immodesty—that I think we were well ahead of that curve.

What should the frequent traveler know about you if they are considering buying a new bag?

We are obsessed—and I mean obsessed—with service. Unfortunately even the phrase “customer service” has become almost a cliché these days, but not to us.

We’re a small company, but we are fiercely proud and protective of our reputation, and I would honestly put our service ethic and practices up against anyone’s. My feeling is that in this day and age, especially in a hyper-competitive industry, companies that don’t live and breathe service don’t deserve to survive. I am so passionate about this that I write about it quite often in my weekly column on the CBS News business site, BNet.

And one bit of advice that never changes, whether you are looking at our product or any other. Buy quality. It may seem like “a bag is a bag,” but whether it is your luggage or your laptop case, you most definitely get what you pay for.

Anything new for the holiday season?

Lots. We have 2 new checkpoint-friendly bags. I’m sure your readers are familiar with the TSA-friendly laptop bag program by now. And a new sporty/casual collection of bags called Techlife, for just about every laptop, iPad, netbook and gadget out there.

I am most excited about our Weekend Warrior bag—it’s a first-of-its kind hybrid that allows a leisure traveler to pack clothes and supplies for an overnight or weekend, along with a laptop and other tech stuff, in one lightweight carry-on duffel. No need to carry a separate laptop bag—and I think every traveler knows that nowadays, the fewer bags, the better.