Why I Left Silicon Valley to Start My Own Company
Two weeks ago, itschelon.com launched. Last week we started shipping our first orders. This week, I’m telling our story.
For those not familiar, I recently launched a direct to consumer e-commerce brand, chelon (pronounced shuh-lon). We’re focused on creating premium products for every day without traditional retail markups. Our first product is the Everyday Leather Backpack. Why start with a backpack? I’ll get to that later. In this post I want to share how I got here and how I’m thinking about the future of chelon.
The chelon story started many years ago. While in college at Gonzaga University, I studied Business, with focuses in Marketing and Entrepreneurship. Instead of interning in Seattle during the summer of my Junior year like many of my friends, I worked as a Retail Management Intern at Nordstrom in the Men’s Clothing department in downtown Spokane.
I’ve always been interested in branding, clothing, and retail, so this was the perfect mix. I spent the summer of 2013 slanging Hugo Boss suits and taking classes from store management about selling, pricing, inventory management, merchandising, and everything in between from one of the best retail brands ever.
The Men’s Clothing department focused on suits, pants, shirting, ties, and accessories. New merchandise arrived on the floor weekly, if not daily, and one day we received a leather backpack that I couldn’t take my eyes off. There was only one problem, it was a $500 bag and I was a broke college kid working to pay for school. That didn’t stop me from craving it though. From that point on, I was in love with leather backpacks.
Fast forward a few months into my Senior year at GU, I am working as a customer experience and operations associate for a new game-changing brand, Everlane. I was the 26th member of the team and we had twenty-five products. I was drawn to the concept of “radical transparency”. Everlane told you exactly how much the product cost to make, and their markup on that product.
Coming from what I learned at Nordstrom, this was unheard of. Traditional retail products are marked up 4–6x, so the 2x markup model at Everlane was a breath of fresh air. It proved that high-quality does not have to equal high-cost.
During this time, I was still dreaming of a leather backpack. I pitched Everlane’s Head of Design the idea of a simple, clean leather backpack, but she wasn’t too receptive for reasons I don’t recall. I continued working at Everlane for 3 more years, learning the ins and outs of customer experience, operations, analytics, and how to measure and grow a business. The founder and CEO, Michael Preysman, is incredibly talented and an amazing person to learn from. My time there was invaluable. Thank you for taking a chance on me.
I left Everlane to work at Lyft. Hey, if I’m in San Francisco, might as well work in tech, right? During my two years at Lyft, I honed in on my operations and analytics skills, and helped build out Lyft’s in-person storefront presence. While I grew immensely in my career at a high-growth Silicon Valley tech company, I missed the fashion world and was thinking about starting something of my own on the daily. At the time I was consulting for a few clients, and also designing and concepting chelon in my spare time. I decided to use that freelance money to order my first sample. Sending that first wire payment was the catalyst for everything . It’s been a busy year since then, and chelon is now shipping out our first orders!
Now that you understand my background and my affection for the leather backpack, you’re probably thinking, now that you have a real job and real money, you can finally afford that backpack you saw at Nordstrom years ago? Even if I wanted a luxury fashion house leather backpack ($1,500+), it still would have definitely been cheaper to buy versus designing and ordering 3 samples that didn’t end up being the final product. But I knew I was onto something. During this time I heavily researched the leather backpack market. You’d be surprised, there aren’t many great options out there. Of the leather backpacks on the market now, they are either poor-quality, outrageously expensive, or over-designed.
The backpack industry is a $3 billion dollar a year market in the US. It’s market share is dominated by VF Corp (Jansport, The North Face, EastPak). VF Corp controls ~50% of the US backpack market. What about the size of the handbag market? $12B in the US. Don’t forget about messenger bags and briefcases! All these products are shifting with the rise of the laptop, and the fall of textbooks, paper files, and other analog information storing.
In 2019, the world is mobile, especially the working world. Old are the days of having a desktop computer, leaving work, and being done for the day. Every night, people bring their laptops home from work and lug them out to happy hour, the gym, or whatever other after-work activities they’re up to that evening. They need a better option.
Next time you’re on the city streets, look around and see how many working people are wearing backpacks or carrying a large handbag or tote. I bet 90% of people wear one to work. But backpack fashion hasn’t caught on quickly enough. Many backpacks are made for technical activities like camping, biking, or traveling (think North Face, Patagonia, Incase) but aren’t used for much other than carrying a laptop, a notebook, and maybe some gym clothes. Only bankers or lawyers use briefcases, since a backpack doesn’t look “professional”. Well, that is about to change. Function and fashion are essential when looking for a bag to carry you from office life to real life, and that’s where chelon comes in. A leather backpack is the best of a briefcase, handbag, and a backpack. The style and utility are both there. Why compromise?
When I left my cool tech job at Lyft, I decided it was time to dive in on bringing chelon to life. It’s difficult to find out what your passion is, but I know that if something stays on your mind for a couple years, it’s probably time to take action or you’ll regret not trying. So that’s where I am. Check out itschelon.com and share it with your friends. Leave your thoughts or feedback in the comments below.
Thank you for reading.