Adam Nicholson lives in Winter Park, Colorado, and when he found himself in need of some functional, streamlined new bags in the spring of 2020, he decided to make his own. He wanted them to be just right. What began as a small passion project snowballed into his learning to design and sew bags, prototyping and improving his products over and over throughout the last couple of years, and eventually quitting his day job to officially launch his business. Today, he handmakes a variety of bags, divided into his Mountain / Race lineup - informed by his enduro racing and lifestyle of "riding shit tons" - and the Adventure / Life category, made for bikepacking, cruising, and just plain enjoying the ride.
Over the last few months, I've had the opportunity to test out two hip packs, a handlebar bag, and a tool roll from Adam's workshop, and I've been impressed enough that I reached out to learn more about the person behind these custom-colored, sturdy but streamlined products. Stay tuned for a write-up of my impressions of the gear, and in the meantime, check out the fledgling company's site at sanutildesign.com.
Tell me a bit about yourself. How old are you? Who are you as a person?
My name is Adam Nicholson. I live in Winter Park, Colorado, am 26 years old, and started San Util Design in January of 2021.
Most folks know me as a lanky, calm, and gentle person who loves to ride my bike and ski in the winters. To the folks who know me a little better, I’m a fiery person who is wildly competitive. I push hard to be the best I can be while treating folks around me the best I can. I try to live life like any day could be my last, and strive to impact those around me.
Oh, and I really like racing bikes. I’m especially hooked on enduro recently, but have XC roots in me.
How did you start San Util?
Well, San Util started like a lot of other small, creative businesses. It all started with too much time on my hands and my mom’s sewing machine.
March of 2020 was a weird year for a lot of us. People were going through something that none of us had gone through before. We all had to figure out what life was going to look like at a time when we couldn’t be with each other and were supposed to stay within the confinement of our own communities.
For me, I spent the spring of 2020 on big bootpacks in the backcountry along with hours on my bike followed by beers on the deck watching the sunset. For these big trips, I needed bags to hold my gear and decided to learn how to sew my own.
After the first couple iterations, my friends quickly learned they could get bags from me. A few more months down the road, I had created a logo and a story for San Util that meant something to me.
It all started as just a creative outlet and something new to learn, however, the following summer of 2021, one of my friends challenged me to actually do something with San Util. I spent a year and a half dialing in designs, buying machines, and learning how to build strong bags that I wanted to use. Maybe it was time to actually do something with San Util.
Thanks to my buddy James, and the support of so many friends and family, I ran a Kickstarter campaign that went super well. It raised quite a bit more capital to move the business into a workshop and buy the last few machines I needed.
It was finally go-time.
I quit my job as a coffee roaster to fulfill the 250 bags that I had sold on Kickstarter! It was official, San Util Design LLC was a business and it was time to crank.
What is your background with materials, sewing, and making things?
My background in the textile and manufacturing industry is pretty limited as I’m sure you could tell from the story of how San Util was created.
I have always had a mind for design (wanting to go to engineering school but ending up in business school). With that being said, I believe it’s best to “learn by doing” and I’ve been learning everyday the past 2.5 years on how to build things better, where to source material, and how to build a small business in the mountains.
I have been so blessed by the riding community in Winter Park and supported by other small business creators who have helped and given advice. Despite all competing with each other, it seems like a lot of people in the industry just want to see more people on bikes and more people playing outside.
I can get behind that initiative!
What's your background with biking?
When I was a kid back in the Los Angeles area, I was a super shy, quiet kid. My Uncle Mike bought me a Redline BMX race bike and said that if I would enter a race, he would get up on the start gate with me. I was terrified, but I finished a few races and we would go to 7 Eleven after for Slurpees.
We moved to Colorado when I was 10, and my parents entered me in a local XC race when I was in the 6th grade. I ended up winning and was fully hooked. For the first time, I felt like I had my place in the world and had my people. I raced in the NICA league through high school and worked at the local bike shop. In a lot of ways mountain biking gave me the confidence to settle into my own shoes and be Adam.
In short, you could just say I have a background in BMX.
Every bag I’ve used in the past always left me wanting more (actually less and more simplicity) in some way, shape, or form. In college, I went on a craze to find the best mountaineering pack but never found one I truly loved. Same thing for MTB hip packs. I could never find the one that fit me well. I’m a thin dude, and every hip pack rides up to my ribs on the descent and is so frustrating to use. On top of that, most of the bags on the market either do not have enough space or they have way too many zippers.
Ultimately, I wanted to make a bag that I wanted to use. A utilitarian mountaineering style hip bag for riding. I wanted to come up with a system to have it as simple as possible for the folks who wanted no frills — yet customizable for the folks who prefer more organization.
Essentially, I’ve always had ideas for how to improve the gear I use, and I decided to do something about it.
From cloth pieces to a no-frills yet functional hip pack.
Tell me about the process of making a bag - something like one of your hip packs - from starting the design to the finished product.
I'm not sure how other bag makers do things, but for me, a bag is born in my head. I will design it and picture the order of how to construct it. It usually sits in there for a couple months as I play out if it is a bag that I would actually like to use. If the answer remains a “yes” after the several month time period in my head, I sketch it on a piece of grid paper.
First, I sketch the outside of the bag as a general concept. Once I dial in how I want the bag to look (where I want straps to be and what features I want it to have), I draw a more detailed version with dimensions and seam allowances.
The next part of the process is the hardest. I transform the small drawing into a scale template that I use to cut my pieces of fabric, webbing, and cord. After that, I cut the material, and slowly construct the first prototype while figuring out the best method for construction. During this process, I’m constantly thinking about how to duplicate the bags faster and with more precision.
Then the fun part begins — testing the product on a ride. Did I mention I'm obsessed with riding bikes? It’s pretty easy for me to tell if I’m onto something or if it’s garbage and needs a clean slate. I take my personal feedback from the ride and make edits to the template based on my perception of the experience with the bag.
After a few back-and-forths through this refinement process, I will give the bag to a bunch of folks in the area to get some outside feedback. If the feedback is up to snuff, boom, we have a new bag! This is when I upload the new product on the website for other folks to customize and purchase.
Who are your products for?
Anyone who likes riding bikes and appreciates thoughtfully designed outdoor products. More specifically, we’re creating high end, handmade bags for adventure bike riders and racers alike.
Everything is made in Winter Park, Colorado and thus the price is a touch higher than some of the big guys like Osprey, Dakine, or Race Face. I would say my niche is for people who want to have their hand in the design process (at least for colors) and value high quality, made-in-the-USA gear.
I absolutely love the personal side of running a small business and love the opportunity to connect with folks who love to ride, so if anyone reading this is coming to Winter Park, send me a line on Instagram and let’s go ride!
What are the unique challenges of running a homegrown company like San Util?
Oh man. There are so many challenges that I had no clue would be challenges. When you picture what the day-to-day of running a business is, it is impossible to foresee obstacles that will come up. So far, a few of the bigger challenges are as follows:
• Having enough time to complete all the projects I want to and prioritize the ones that will make the customer experience better instead of the fun ones.
• Having so many suggestions from people that care about me and show it by telling me what I “should” be doing. It is really hard to sort those things into groups of things that I want to review and the things that don’t fit my dream for San Util. I want folks to be a part of building this business, but ultimately need to be true to myself with where I want it to go.
• Being so small and not having the purchasing power of the big guys.
• Learning an entirely new industry and trying to compete as we build.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud that I am actually doing it, rather than just talking about it. I am running a small business that I created fully from the ground up. I always wanted to own my own business (a bike shop) and while this one looks different than I thought it would, it allows me to learn, be creative, and be a part of the community I care most about.
It is absolutely terrifying to put yourself out there and pray that people will be into what you are doing. You have to fight through feelings of inadequacy, especially when comparing yourself to companies like Osprey. But at the same time, I remind myself that I’m comparing San Util to a company that sold for $400M. Even just getting to do that comparison is a win for me. I am building a company that could actually be something in the future, can help so many people, and can put up a fight with the big guys.
Having no prior experience in the industry (outside of bike shops and riding shit tons) and learning enough to build products that I would pick over a lot of other companies' products gets me pretty pumped.
How have your projects evolved since you started San Util a year or so ago?
Every product has gone through so many iterations in the past year that, my old bags are almost unrecognizable. It pumps me up how much craftsmanship I put into the bags, and I don’t think I’ll ever lose excitement for designing new concepts. After selling quite a few bags this last year, my confidence in developing products has grown immensely.
This translates to each product iteration being simpler, looking better, and being more functional than the products before. The two lines of products (Mountain/Race and Adventure/Lifestyle) have evolved as well. Moving forward, I am excited to keep building products rooted in racing with adventure on the mind. What a slogan, eh?
San Util really seems to be growing into its own, and we look forward to seeing what Adam does with it in the future.
What’s next for you and San Util?
Summer 2022 is going to be a fun one. Lots of enduro racing, camping with friends, drinking beer, and riding bikes as fast as I can, with as big of a smile as ever.
I will be releasing another two hip packs in the coming months. One for kids and one for big days on the bike whether that be a backcountry enduro race or a big adventure epic.
Within the next year, I am hoping to bring on another employee or two and provide enough money for people to actually dream of building a life here in Winter Park. Like many mountain towns, it is getting harder and harder to live here. Money is getting poured into our community and we are having to work more and more hours.
I would love nothing more than for folks part of San Utils’ future team, to love where they work, love where they live, and be able to focus time on the people around them instead of stressing about making rent.
Is this true? do most of you have BMX backgrounds?
It’s nice to be able to have guys making great looking, usable , sustainable, and something other than dakine. nice job you guys.
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