Man & Machine: Staying Power Lessons From Mer Bags
Back in 2001 when Rob Nelson was working as a bike messenger he wanted a bag that could stand up to the physical abuse of the job. He also wanted a bag that no one else had. So he made it himself.
It was DIY long before “DIY” was a thing.
Now some fourteen years later, Mer Bags is still making super durable bags and has ridden sort of an incredible transformation in the industry; shifting from a wholesale model to direct customer sales via the web.
Nelson has added a few products to the lineup, a tote, a skateboard bag, a laptop bag and a shop apron, but he’s still cranking out messenger bags and backpacks as well. Mer Bags are made of industrial grade truck tarp nylon and other materials that are all made in the U.S.A. Each bag takes a few hours for Nelson to make. Or, on a slow day, maybe all day.
What can be gleaned from a company that has over a dozen years of staying power? Nelson says partnerships are key. “Collaborating is the best way to sort of promote each other and push each other,” he says. “It’s sort of like an organism you can keep alive or not.” A few of the Mer collaborators include Horse Cycles and Turntable Lab.
Hiring good people is also a challenge, especially for Mer. First, they have to be able to work a sewing machine, but they also have to be good to be around. This is critical for small operations like Mer. A lot of time this means Nelson hires friends on small contracts jobs, but in turn he has to train them which is time consuming.
Nelson is a trained photographer too and it’s easy to tell from any of the pictures on his blog that he takes a lot of pride in shooting his products and presenting them well for an online audience. In his shop he has a pro photo set up with umbrella photo lights. Presenting your product well is key.
When Nelson started his business there was no Facebook, no social media and the web was just sort of picking up steam for small businesses. Now of course things have changed.
“I started selling mostly through stores and now its mostly online,” he says. “I prefer online.” Makers like Mer can of course make better margins selling direct, even if it means spending more time on shipping and handling orders.
Overall though the thing that’s kept the Mer machines stitching for the last fourteen years seems to be Nelson's singular focus on making a really durable product. All the marketing and partnerships can’t make up for something chintzy. Making goods that will last is always a strong play and pretty much Mer's main mission.