July 13, 2015

Tearing Down Walls: Changes, Growth, and the Seattle Showroom


Heraclitus said, "Everything changes and nothing stands still.” Whether in the life of a person or in the life of a business, change isn't always extreme or sudden—it can be so ongoing and constant that you might not realize that things are different until one day they are. Here at the factory we're in the midst of a series of renovations, and the changes we've made (and those that are still to come) have caused us to slow down and reflect a bit on our past and our hopes for the future. It has been very exciting, even though as the walls come down around us we've faced some temporary challenges that we believe will all be worth it in the end.

We are fortunate to have a very good teacher of life: this small business of ours. We’ve tried to learn when to leave work at work, and when to carry it with us and revel in its possibilities. We’ve learned that change is constant and that counting on anything to stay the same keeps us in the past, preventing us from enjoying the right here and now. We’ve learned to strive to find bliss in change and the opportunities it brings. We’ve learned stuff about ourselves: that our feeling hearts and creative minds can combine to create a kind of complexity that is both a joy and a challenge (note how many different designs and colors we offer and how much it pains us to retire an old design or color), and that implementing a new procedural efficiency can be as exciting as debuting a new design (yeah, we’re dorks).

Not all that long ago we’d close up shop for the afternoon and go on a hike if the weather allowed (something hard to pass up here in the Pacific Northwest). And not all that long before that, when Tom had his one-man shop in Santa Cruz, he’d walk to work with his dog Faux and they’d together put in some long days, while other days they’d put up the 'gone fishing' sign and hit the trail. We’ve grown to a point that it just wouldn’t work for all of us to close up shop and head to the beach, but we do our best to allow our people the opportunity to take the day off, even if that means we’ll be temporarily short-staffed. And those days show us all one of our favorite things about being a small business: we’re still close-knit enough that almost anyone can jump in and help when needed, whether that’s answering the phones, taking out the garbage, or helping to package orders.

A question we often muse on and one that is frequently the topic after-work cider discussions: how can we continue to be who we are as our company grows? How do we keep our identity from being diluted by all the daily minutia and details? When Tom had his shop in Santa Cruz, a sort of community formed around it and many of his dearest friends to this day are people he met at the shop. These days the majority of our community is online rather than just in the store, and it remains a great community: we get to know each other and learn about each other, and it’s about so much more than bags. We don't want to lose that connection.

At some point we’re going to decide we’ve grown big enough. Conventional wisdom states that a business should grow for as long as it can. When we stop and ask ourselves what the benefits of growth are, we come up with quite a list: we get to create more jobs/careers, we get to do cool stuff like order custom colors and weaves of fabrics, we get to buy rad new machines for the factory, and with more infrastructure it’s easier to support all the new designs we come up with. We like to think we can have all of that, and yet still bump along our slow-growth path until we've reached a size that feels right to us. Of course, we're hoping that we recognize that moment as it comes towards us, and not have to stomp on the brakes and jam the whole thing into reverse if we overshoot our goal and grow too big.

Though it’s useful to pause and contemplate our history and our future, we must focus the majority of our time and attention on the task at hand. And right now, we’re working on projects that we hope will support our modest future growth while allowing us to remain true to who we are (and remain true to you too!). These projects include website and Forum upgrades as well as behind-the-scenes projects: hiring and training more customer service and shipping staff, making procedural improvements (AKA making stuff flow better), upgrading our building, and, perhaps the most major project of them all, reorganizing our layout.

Earlier this year, we worked with several efficiency engineers to map out our existing space and brainstorm ways we could do even more within our current space, without adding more square footage. It was really fun! Since then, we’ve been making small changes here and there: we demolished the wall between the sewing floor and finished goods area on which our "sew-by" samples were hung (it feels so much more open!) and we've turned our shelving 90 degrees to fit more of it in the same space, amongst other improvements.

Now we’re ready to start taking on the bigger changes. First up: rearranging our departments so that everyone is more or less sharing the same wide-open space together, which further includes a remodel of our Factory Showroom.

These kinds of big changes and improvements aren’t without their downsides, though. Like, when we moved our website to a new and better server a couple weeks back, the website was unexpectedly down for a couple of hours. And as we're in the process of making upgrades to our Forums, bugs and issues are popping up here and there. In the long run, these hiccups won't matter all that much, but at the time, they can be a challenge.

And while we ramp up new staff and build out the new store design, our Seattle Factory showroom/store will be closed beginning the week of July 20th.

We know that many of you local Seattle folks, as well as all you visiting dignitaries, will be disappointed with this news (as we ourselves are). However, we've come to realize that if we are to have a retail store of which we are proud, we need to take a step back and make some improvements, both in the design of the store and the way we staff it. We're not sure how long these improvements might take; naturally, we are hoping that the store will be up and running long before the holiday shopping season.

Placing an order through the website and picking it up at our factory remains a good option. Add the bag(s) you'd like to your basket and during checkout select the 'Store Pick Up - Seattle Showroom' option. We'll give you a call when your order is ready to be picked up.

And if you're from out of town and were really hoping to see our factory, emailus@tombihn.com and we'll see what we can do. Note that it is very likely there will be no showroom or bags on display but we can at least say Hi and give you a quick glimpse of our factory in action.

We want you to know that, as we think on these weighty matters and tear down walls and dream big (and think small), we wouldn't have the opportunity to take all of this on without you guys. You appreciate our bags and our company enough that all of this is possible. And when we goof and show we're human (sigh, server downtime), you are ever-so patient and understanding with us. You share your feedback with us; you tell us what you like and what you don't. We couldn't (and wouldn't) do this without you guys. So, thank you.

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We're the TOM BIHN crew: we design bags, make bags, ship bags, and answer questions about bags. Oh, and we collaborate on blog posts, too.