We sat down with the founder and CEO of High Above, a bag company based in Bellingham, WA, to chat about the trajectory of the brand, hip packs, and entrepreneurship. In the mountain bike landscape, small independently owned companies are by far the exception and there are both benefits and drawbacks to being a small fish in an ever-growing pond. JC gives us the low down on his inspiration and creative process. While we chatted, we watched JC make one of his sturdy packs start-to-finish.
When did you start High Above? Why?
Oh man. I started High Above in 2011 to make backpacks and accessories for urban bike commuters. Back then, there were a lot of companies making pretty simple bags out of 1000 denier Cordura, and we were all fighting to get our piece of the pie. My designs did okay locally, but for whatever reason sold like crazy in Japan, so for most of High Above’s existence - the majority of bags were shipped overseas. It was much later when, in searching for a straight-forward product to sell domestically, I wound up making hip packs.
Not Fanny Packs?
Ha! No, I worked really hard to change the perception of that style of bag, and it seemed obvious that the word “fanny” wasn’t helping things out. Many an Internet comment section is filled with hate for a style of bag for that reason, I’d wager. I started calling them hip packs, and after a number of other companies followed suit, I figured I had done a good job.
What makes a High Above bag unique?
I have some pretty basic requirements for most of the things that I choose to own. A bag needs to be made of good materials and last a long time. They need to be simple and focus on versatility. I’ve never been one of those people who needs a chap-stick pocket and fifty other near-useless features. Keep it simple, ya’ know? Our bags use the best materials that are available to us. For example, we use the very best water-resistant and US-made YKK zippers, locally made materials, long-lasting foam, repairable design, and classic colorways that you won’t want to throw away in a couple of years.
I’m sure that contributes bigly to the overall cost.
Yep. The cost is one of those things that frustrates a lot of people, and I get it. Most folks aren’t aware of, or interested in, something like selvedge denim. From the outside, it seems ludicrous to spend MORE money on a pair of jeans that are less comfortable. But, more often than not, they are sturdier and customers are seeking that. The saying, “I’m too poor to buy cheap things,” comes to mind. As a small business whose interest is in making the very best possible product, the cost is kind of secondary. Why would we try to simply copy the competition? The responsibility is on us to create the value proposition, and I’m afraid many of us who make high-quality goods are not doing a good enough job of this. Otherwise, the comment sections wouldn’t be so full of, “I can make this with a Ziplock bag and duct tape for .27 cents!”
What factors make a product the best it can be?
Simple pattern making, high-quality materials and attention to quality control. A great bag is long lasting to the point where the owner sort of gets frustrated. The most frequent complaint we get is that people are tired of their colors and want to get a new bag. This is high praise for us, but aside from that, we’re constantly working hard to make our designs better. You’ll see more and more of these changes in 2019.
What can we expect from High Above going forward?
The simple answer to that is, “a lot.” We need to keep pushing forward to stay relevant. There are some serious contenders (and copiers) on the market today, and we don’t want people to buy our bags simply because of the “Made in the USA” tag. We get a lot of feedback on the bags we sell and hope that every satisfied customer feels empowered to send us their wishlist of future improvements. We expect to re-launch a couple of bags and bring some new stuff to market in 2019, but the big move for us is opening more retailers and improving access to our products through retail channels. We believe in the LBS (local bike shop). In many towns, they are the heartbeat of a riding community and vital as a meeting place for the community.
You did most of the growth of High Above alone, but recently you picked up a partner?
Sure did! Her name is Mindy McCutcheon, and she’s our CFO/Adult in the Room. Bringing in a strong strategic and financial mind has enabled me to focus on growth, future design cycles, and streamlining production. Through her, much of High Above’s future success wouldn’t be possible. We also brought in some manufacturing help in-house with Max Parsons and out-of-house with a cut and sew facility in Seattle. I’m just so damn picky about my manufacturing standards, I put off using contract sewing because I thought it’d never meet muster. They’ve been super impressive thus far. I’m lucky to have them and their work keeps getting better.
How did you learn to make bags? How do you know what “good" is?
Great question. I cut my teeth at Mystery Ranch in Bozeman Montana, under the helm of Dana Gleason (of Dana Design). The thing that most people don’t know about Mystery Ranch is that their quality control measures are legendary and learning how to sew in that environment created a strong ethic for making a damn good product, even if that meant it took longer. I still strive to meet the QC employed at the ‘Ranch.
How long does it take to make a bag?
It depends, really. Cutting and stitching is something that gets more efficient the more units you make. Except, of course, when you make too many at one time and you end up going crazy doing the same damn stitch again and again for hours - then fart around on the internet because you don’t actually want to be working because it’s tedious. I’ve got a magic number that works with my apparent ADD, but working with the contract facility has allowed me to shift my attention toward building relationships, not just making bags.
...But you’ll keep doing custom bags?
Yeah. Custom is near and dear to our hearts, but not everyone needs or wants custom colors. Through our network of dealers, you’ll be able to get a great bag without the wait, even if that means the color options are sort of limited. As a small company, we’re lucky to be nimble and offer lots of options!
You’re known as a bit of an evangelist for entrepreneurship. Why?
Because too many people who are smart and young don’t feel empowered to put their idea on the table. We’ve all become professional critics, and it makes me sad when so many are professionals at talking shit but don’t offer anything up themselves. Like Laura from High Fidelity says, “You’re making something. You – the critic, the professional appreciator – put something new into the world. And the second one of those things gets sold, you’re officially a part of it.” I want more people to offer up their intellect, ambition, and ideas and grab a hold of their own future. If 5 years ago someone said to me that I’d do this by making f*cking fanny packs, I’d have laughed in their face.
Why is domestic manufacturing important to you?
For so many reasons: Chiefly, because it’s one of the things you can still do stateside at the same level as overseas. Technological advances and automation in textiles manufacturing never really landed on our shores, because we were so eager to ship it overseas in the 1990s - so we’re on our heels in the States. It means a lot to me to support local suppliers, so many of our materials, including zippers, sliders, foam, plastic bits, fabric, and post-treatment, are all done stateside. That means more jobs in textiles and more access to great materials from which to design and make bags.http://www.highabove.net/