5 Questions with Michael Hess of Skooba Design

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Skooba Design was Gear Diary’s first advertiser back when Judie first launched the site. They were also the first company to become a Newsletter Underwriter.

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We tell you that in the interest of full disclosure, but what’s more important is that we really love AND use their stuff. Most recently, we were both taken by the new Skooba Design Laptop Weekender V.3, and are already getting a lot of use out of them. (Read the review here.)

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Skooba makes great products, and now comes outside confirmation of something that we’ve known for some time: they provide great customer service.

Skooba Design has just been awarded Elite Status by Stella Service. Stella Service does “secret-shopper” testing; their shoppers use the company site, order products, return them, call, e-mail and chat with them in order to assess their level of customer service. This is the highest rating a company can earn, and it puts Skooba Design in the same category as companies such as Zappos, Amazon, Apple and Neiman Marcus.

We recently had the chance to interview company founder Michael Hess; here’s what he had to say:

1. How did you get into this particular business and why?

My family owned a well-known, 50 year-old manufacturing and distribution company in the photographic industry. Among the dozen-or so brands under our roof was a famous line of professional camera bags, which we manufactured in our own sewing shop, right here in Upstate New York. I also created an entirely new brand of outdoor photo packs and integrated a line of neoprene cases that we had acquired. After we sold the business in 1998, I decided to stay in the “bag business” but move my attention to the laptop and portable electronics market. I started the company under the name “RoadWired” in 1999 and changed the name to the more brand-y “Skooba Design” (long story) a couple of years later. I’ve also been involved with a variety of other bag and travel businesses, either as an owner or advisor. So I’ve been in the bag biz for about 20 years now.

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1.5 Follow-Up: Dan wanted the long story about the name… especially since Elana just asked him about it.

Well, it’s not *that” long, just not particularly interesting… I came up with the name “Skooba” and registered the trademark about 2 years before I ever started RoadWired. It was originally intended to be a new line of neoprene (wetsuit material, hence the play on “SCUBA”) camera pouches for our previous business. That product line never materialized. After starting RoadWired, we were using neoprene as the “signature” trim material on all our bags. So I resuscitated the name to use for a collection of bags, “Skooba by RoadWired.” People seemed to take to the name very quickly – it was more universally brand-y sounding, could be pronounced in any language, and was generally “cooler” than RoadWired. So we decided to just change the name of the business entirely to Skooba Design, figuring the best and least painful time to do it was when we were still small. And that was that.

We still hear from people who miss the old name, but for the most part “Skooba” seems to have stuck better than RoadWired.

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2. In the time that you’ve been in the business how have you seen things change?

The biggest change is the sheer number of people, brands and companies in the business. When I started there were maybe a half-dozen major names in high-end camera bags and a bunch of little ones, and there were maybe 2 or 3 major “household-name” brands in other portable electronics (laptops, portable CD players – pre iPod, of course – cassette storage (!) and so on. Now there are countless companies, big and small, in every nook and cranny of the carrying case business. It is an easy business to start but a very difficult one in which to succeed – in the 12 years since I started this company, I’ve seen a lot of others come and go.

3. What goes into developing the initial idea for a new product? What’s the inspiration?

Of course we are constantly looking at what’s out there, both in terms of equipment and cases, and taking in feedback from customers. Generally I, or one of our designers, will have a “vision” (not to overdramatize) of some new design or concept, come in and talk about it, and discuss whether we think we can really do something different. We abhor the “me too” element that makes up so much of this industry (it is hard to be original), and greatly admire the companies – including competitors – who really do their own thing and do it well. So, if we can do something fresh, new and different, we play with the idea. If we can’t, we toss it.

Like a lot of designers, we tend to be inspired by aesthetically sleek products, whether it’s a piece of sports equipment (everyone who works here is involved in multiple sports and we love that influence), planes, trains and automobiles, or even something as simple as a new buckle design. Our priority is to make a top-quality, feature-packed, very street-smart bag (we’re all frequent travelers and tech-heads as well), but we understand that a bag is a personal statement to many people – just like clothing — and what’s outside does count. We don’t want our bags to look like boring black boxes.

4. Can you walk us through the design process from start to finish?

As mentioned, someone brings a general idea to the table first and we “beat it up” to see if we love it, are ambivalent about it, or hate it. We are very open with each other, and very designer-driven (I am often overruled by our design team, and only put my foot down on very rare occasions – I believe they should be allowed the freedom to take calculated risks, and there is no punishment for failure, except a little pain in the checkbook). From there, we do a bunch of rough concept sketches (what industrial designers call “ideation”… though I’m not a fan of that word). We then drill down to the 2 or 3 that we like, draw them out in very realistic detail, and discuss some more. From there we refine, make initial samples, test, review, and show around. We frankly don’t spend a ton of time on things like focus groups – first of all, like most of the best design companies, we have found that asking for too many opinions can lead down the wrong road (or no road). Focus groups understandably tend to be swayed by what has been or what is, not what could be (to borrow from Steve Jobs’ philosophy). Also, as a small company, we are very close to our products and customers, and have learned that we are better off executing quickly and effectively, then evolving products as we learn more about the way people are using them. Customer feedback is critical to us and we act on a great deal of it… we’ve just learned that the best feedback comes from people using the products in the real world.

We also have a growing custom design business, where we create products for other businesses – might be a rolling sample bag for reps in a field sales force, or a specialized protective case for expensive industrial equipment, or just a beautiful corporate gift. The process is very similar… find out what the customer’s functional needs are, come up with lots of concepts, work with the customer to narrow down to the ones he/she likes best, refine, sample, and so on.

5. What gear do you use? (You know we had to ask…)

Because I travel overseas a lot, I try to travel pretty light: Lenovo X-series laptops, always — until someone comes up with a better pointing device than the eraser-head, I’m not going anywhere. iPhone 4. iPod Nano (from when they were good). Canon Powershot. Tons of cables, adapters, chargers, etc

And there you have it!

Do you have any questions for Michael? Leave them here, and he’ll likely reply!

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