Starting A Handcrafted Leather Brand

The Story of The Populess Company

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

My name is Brad Gadd I am the owner and operator of The Populess Co. Handcrafted Leather Goods and Apparel.

We sell handmade leather goods, mostly daily carry/wear items like Wallets, Belts, Notebooks covers, Fobs and accessories and have a line of apparel as well. We love to work with other creatives to showcase and deliver their authenticity to collaborate on our products. Our customers are people that understand and appreciate simple quality and timeless design. We are a very small company that has been organically growing year after year.

We recently just did a project with a talented Tattoo artist that tattooed leather for us and we crafted various wallets out of each piece. We love working with talented authentic creatives to showcase their work and tell their story.

We have been growing the business at a gradual sustainable rate of about 25% in revenue year after. And we just launched our first flagship store this April.

starting-a-handcrafted-leather-brand

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Populess was a high school project amongst 3 friends that hungered to deliver their art and philosophy through apparel. The concept behind the name “Populess” was a spin-off the word “Popular”.

We knew the value of an individual authentically being themselves. We felt it was important to be honest to oneself and not follow the sheep. It was ok to be “Populess” rather than “popular” - just do your own thing.

I have really learned how important it is to know WHY I do what I do on a personal level and really challenge that and articulate it.

I had always had a drive for art and design and expression and Populess was my way to keep the creative juices flowing and hopefully give purpose through the apparel. My other two partners after high school went on to do other postsecondary things and I continued to keep the project alive.

I purchased my own silkscreen and rented a space in the back of skate shop while working another full-time job. I printed our own shirts for a few years selling through the skate shop and a couple other locations in town and out of the trunk of my car.

I later had the opportunity to partner up with a friend that had some financial backing and we purchased the skate shop I was working out of. During that process it allowed me to focus on the brand while my partner ran the skate shop. During this time I found a passion to work with leather as a hobby and then later started incorporating some leather goods into the brand all handmade by myself. Which now is the main focus of my business today.

The only experience I had at the time was working retail. I really just learned everything as I went. I had zero Idea of how the hell to run a silkscreen, run a small business or do leather work. I did as much research as I could and tried to figure it all out and to this day I’m still trying to figure it all out, I don’t think that will ever change...

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

In designing the Leather goods I have always had the philosophy of keeping everything Simple, Timeless and must be Quality.

I purposely use thicker leather than most other leather companies out there. I do this because I want my goods to really stand the test of time. I want to make products that are truly built to last. I was extremely frustrated about paying good money for “Quality Products” to later find that the “Genuine Leather” was paper thin and glued to some synthetic material that does not hold up in time.

starting-a-handcrafted-leather-brand

I think we need to be more responsible in how and what we buy as consumers. So, I feel as a company that manufactures goods it is my responsibility to fulfill those needs from a sustainability standpoint.

Buying poorly made products is not responsible, and these products end up in landfills and most likely cost the consumer more money because they bought that product multiple times through its lifespan. Where spending a bit more buying a quality product made to last to me is more of a win-win. The consumer gets to use the product for a lot longer and less shit ends up in a landfill.

Inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. Most of my products have stemmed from a personal need. It starts with tons of daydreaming then eventually moves to graph paper drawings, then to hand cut prototypes then hopefully to the shelves if it is a success.

I use local farmers (Huderites) to help me manufacture specific tools for crafting our products. This allows me to have the freedom to have very little limitations in our design process since we are able to locally control how everything is made.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

We had stumbled upon Shopify in its early stages and have been very pleased with its platform for an ecommerce site. I am an idiot and I was able to mustard through Shopify’s layout and process for creating a website. So that made things a bit easier to get the site up and running.

We never really did a full website launch from what I can remember. I am sure we posted on social avenues but I don’t remember a big specific “launch”. We have just very organically been growing online. It’s been a bit of a slower process with getting traction online than hoped for but I really have little to no experience with any SEO or e-commerce so don’t really have expectations. Online is going to be a huge focus for us in the upcoming year so we hope to grow that category.

We did spend a fair bit of money on specific web developers at one point in time which looking back was frustrating. I didn't feel like we got our money's worth and constantly felt nickeled and dimed to tweak small things here and there. It was also very frustrating not fully understanding what the programmers even did so down the road if we needed to do more tweaks it was hard having different people in and out of the site, there was no consistency. We have just recently been able to afford to have an in-house employee help look after the ecommerce side of things.

Through the entire process, I really learned how important control was in the business. Not just from a ecommerce way but in everything we do. From ecommerce, mfg, to wholesale and customer service. The more we are able to control in all areas we are able to deliver the best customer experience and service and create beautifully designed products. It is a big part of our process.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

I think being authentic in every aspect of what you do is extremely important. Creating authentic content for us and telling that story is something we constantly are striving to do through social media, email blasts and word of mouth.

Email

We seem to get good traction through our email blast we send out. We really try not to flood our customers with spam. We tell the story of WHY we do what we do. For us, it is not about jamming products down our customer's throats.

We are able to control what is on our site we can’t control what is on Amazon or Etsy, just the products we put on there. We want our customers to really get a feel of our company and philosophy through our means.

It is about telling the philosophy of Populess and building the culture and community around the brand and sharing that story with the world and meeting amazing people along the way. Our Email list is around the 5000 subscribers at the moment so not huge by any means but all very organically grown.

starting-a-handcrafted-leather-brand

We do not buy lists and we never will. We get most through the website sign up, through our brick and mortar location by asking if our customers would like to sign up and through any events we attend or do. We want our customers to want to be part of our community. The content we create in our emails is usually in three’s. 2 of the three posts are usually distilling our “WHY” or core values of the company.

For example, we will feature other individuals, or brands/businesses that we feel are doing amazing authentic things that are worth mentioning, artists works and their stories, album releases or a local new business that opened in our community.

For us, it’s all about building relationships and community.

Social Media

Right now we have a pretty basic social media stream. At this time we really just focus on Instagram a little bit of Facebook and the website. I find it so easy to be overwhelmed with all this new social accounts or apps and it really takes away from what we actually are set out to do.

Responding to 10 different messaging streams with our customers for us can be very time consuming and hard to put into a consistent system to be able to deliver good customer service. We keep it pretty simple and try to send people to the website to keep them up to date.

Keeping Control

Again comes back to control. We are able to control what is on our site we can’t control what is on Amazon or Etsy, just the products we put on there. We want our customers to really get a feel of our company and philosophy through our means. We had an Etsy site at one point in time and it really flopped.

I felt we were doubling the amount of time/money on marketing sending people to our Etsy store and/or the website. It is more simple to just plug one online stream to get our goods.

Now, with that said, we do keep an open mind to opportunities for sure but has to be simple and be able to control in a way that makes sense for us. The Amazon thing is intriguing but will have to do more research to see if it makes sense for us to enter that avenue. At this point not a priority for us.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today we are in the middle of opening up our first flagship store which is extremely exciting and a pile of work! This year we really going to focus on our relationships with our wholesalers and growing our online presence as well as offering some leather manufacturing for other companies. All of which offer very different profit margins in each category. As time goes on we will see what will be most profitable and where our time will be best spent.

On the wholesale front, we really want to develop great partnerships across Canada. Find specific wholesalers that our core values align and we can grow great relationships with to sell our products. The wholesale model helps get our name out there and can actually drive more online sales.

Online which can be one of the more lucrative avenues for us since it is direct from us to the consumer is an area where I would say has the most opportunity to grow. It is a category that I would say we really struggle with and my lack of experience in this field makes it the most frustrating. Hence the position to hire someone who has more knowledge in this category.

Our flagship store is something that is very exciting and again will be a great place to really deliver the full Populess experience. Again we can really control that environment and it can profitable being direct from us to the consumer. Having our own space to really grow the culture and community is important for us.

Manufacturing for other companies is new for us. It has sort of stumbled in our laps over the years. Other companies have really appreciated our quality and craftsmanship and have reached out for us to collaborate with them with making co-branded products.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I have really learned how important it is to know WHY I do what I do on a personal level and really challenge that and articulate it.

Once these core values are defined it helps in all aspects of my life. Business, relationships, decision making etc. These are my core values to WHY I do what I do and this has been extremely helpful in my endeavors in business.

1. QUALITY

To have meaningful quality relationships with all people in our “Populess” circles. Customers, suppliers, employees, artists etc. We strive to have quality in our work and the products we create, in the created systems and work we do within those systems.

It is in everything we do. We want to have quality relationships and surround ourselves with quality individuals and make or have made quality products. By doing all this you will cultivate a beautiful team and network of individuals which will in return make beautiful quality work.

2. AUTHENTICITY

Be authentic in the work you do. If it doesn't feel right don't do it. From manufacturing products, designing, sourcing, building relationships, BE AUTHENTIC. Have reasoning behind your work. It’s not authentic work if you're doing it “just because”.

3. BUILDING CULTURE AND COMMUNITY

Good people are everything. We want to cultivate a culture that aligns with our values and communally work together to grow our endeavors. This also helps with what events to attend, what advertising avenues we want to use or sponsor, What people or companies we want to work with etc.

If it doesn't help build our culture or add value to our community we heavily reconsider doing it. The culture we want to hone is one that aligns with these values. Always looking for a “win win” scenario. All parties have to win in our endeavors. Business, hiring, firing, events, marketing etc. Our “People” should enter and leave our organization with this principle in mind.

4. HONOR

Honoring our customer's needs and wants at all times. Honoring the community within the company, the suppliers, employees, artists etc. If we do this there will be a high level of mutual respect for all parties involved. By honoring our “people” we can be held accountable for what we do.

5. SIMPLICITY

Keep it simple. In design, in structure and concepts dealings with our customers and people. I'm just not smart enough to have it any other way.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Google Apps have been very helpful for brain dumping and organizing my thoughts lately

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I think identifying core values is key for me keeps the company vision true and authentic.

Ask for help, be humble, hungry and smart.

Where can we go to learn more?

www.populess.com

IG: populess

Want to start your own business?

Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.

We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business.

By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.

If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.

- pat-walls Pat Walls, Founder of Starter Story


More interviews like this:
Learn how e-commerce businesses are earning as much as $100K per month.