Editor’s note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Jedd Rose has been an outdoorsman since childhood. Raised in Laramie, Wyoming, he grew up hiking and fly-fishing with his father. After college, Rose took a job as a digital designer in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he often spent weekends in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. But by 2008 Rose had grown tired of a job that was indoors and frustratingly intangible. Eager to work with his hands, he bought a sewing machine and carried it down to the basement of his house.
Rose wanted a backpack that resembled the 1970s hand-me-downs he used to get from his dad: something simple and durable. He didn’t like the big, bulky bags packed with technology that most outdoor-gear brands sold. Sitting at the sewing machine, using his father’s old packs as a muse, he made a version for himself and for his wife. He told Mark Hansen, a friend and former colleague, what he was doing. Then he made backpacks for Hansen and Hansen’s wife, too.
“It started as a thing I did for fun, more than anything,” says Rose. “I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels, and it came to the point where I either had to stop or get serious. So, I got serious.” Hansen was also looking for a career change. “We naively moved forward, saying, ‘Let’s start making stuff. Then we said, ‘Let’s start a company.’ And we did.” That company became multimillion-dollar Topo Designs.
A tech guy, Rose nonetheless envisioned a low-tech product–more nostalgic than innovative. Topo’s aesthetic, he says, is “a conglomeration of different brands and eras” as well as “some modern capabilities” like laptop and smartphone sleeves. Topo’s products don’t look like bags made by Patagonia or Osprey. Instead, they resemble props you’d see in Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom: colorful, symmetric, a tad wistful.
Eight years after its basement birth, Topo, which is short for “topographic,” has stores in Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins, and San Francisco; and sells through 150 U.S. stores such as outdoor gear shop REI, as well as another 150 stores overseas. The company is fully bootstrapped and has only 18 full-time employees. It makes all of its gear in the United States, relying on a “daisy chain” of small contract manufacturers in Colorado and California. Topo’s main sewing factory is an LEED-certified operation in Broomfield, Colorado.
Topo Designs’ backpacks are easily the best-selling items at Hatchet Outdoor Supply Co., in Brooklyn, New York, which has offered them since it opened in April 2013. “The Topo bag is really an everyday, all-purpose bag,” says Jed Lubin, Hatchet’s manager. “You can take it on hikes, and you can wear it to the office and around the city, and no one is going to ask you why you’re wearing camping gear. Instead, they’d say how cool your backpack is.”
“They hit the sweet spot between heritage and performance,” says Lubin. “They are really stylized and nostalgic, but they are overbuilt and super-tough.”
From the basement to Tokyo
Nothing about Topo’s early days presaged success. Rose and Hansen brought their prototypes to a startup sewing company and asked for help making the final versions. They launched a website, which featured just two backpacks. Without an established brand, they did not make many sales. Even after the bags’ unusual looks attracted some press, business remained slow. For all intents and purposes they were two guys making bags in a basement for nobody but themselves.
Then one day they made a sale to an unexpected customer. The owner of a Japanese distributor called Notes Unlimited had found their site and ordered a backpack for himself. “At the end of the email, he threw in a line about how if we’d ever want to distribute in Japan he’d be happy to talk,” Rose says. At that time Japanese consumers were hungry for retro American fashions, and many U.S. companies were successfully marketing heritage lines there. “The Japanese do American culture better than we do,” Rose says.
Notes Unlimited brought samples of Topo’s backpacks to the retailers it serviced in Tokyo and soon began placing orders. As owners of a domestic manufacturer, Hansen and Rose hadn’t expected to cope with the complexities of international business out of the gate. They had never dealt with customs or shipping logistics.
Rose says that since their first customers were in Japan, they had to “solve big problems” immediately, instead of selling locally and slowly expanding internationally. “It forced us to grow up quickly,” he says.
Fortunately for the founders, Topo’s Japanese customers were boutiques and department stores that cared more about distinctiveness than volume. One store in particular, Beams, asked for exclusive colors and designs. “Instead of being buried under a mountain of orders, we were able to start off slow and make small, limited runs,” says Rose, who at that point was the whole design department. (Today he works with one other designer.) The low volume also allowed Rose and Hansen to iron out their supply chain and form partnerships with small, domestic contract manufacturers.
If Rose and Hansen knew little about international business, they knew less about the fashion industry. But that, ironically, was where they made their next big splash. The exclusivity of Topo’s products fed the brand’s allure–as did its rejection of the cutting-edge in favor of classic design and low-tech materials like nylon and leather. Its made-in-the-U.S.A bona fides were another selling point. In 2011 The New York Times‘s T Magazine mentioned Topo, and suddenly the company was on the map. This small startup born of two men’s love of the wild found itself outfitting the hip and fashion-conscious.
By the fall of 2012, Topo had introduced a full line of clothes, including T-shirts, button-down flannels, pants, shorts, and more. A typical small company, says Rose, “would usually sell to friends and locals and grow from the epicenter out.” At Topo, by contrast, “we eventually worked our way back to the U.S. market.”
Coming to America
Topo had the Japanese market. It had the young and the cool. Now, eight years later, “we’re making it in the outdoor world,” says Rose, “although that’s where we were squarely spaced to start with.”
The original vision for Topo is evident on Instagram, where Rose and Hansen have built a strong digital community, with 131,000 followers. There they post bucolic shots of hikers trekking through the wilderness wearing Topo clothes and packs. The company’s marketing tells a strong story that is set in the American frontier. “We are a super visual and design-heavy company, so being able to communicate with thousands of people is really important,” says Rose. “People are strongly attached to our colors and aesthetic, and social media has helped us convey our story. Instagram is one of the best brand-building tools out there.”
Topo has also raised its profile by collaborating with bigger, better-known brands, such as Woolrich, the iconic American flannel company; Salomon, the ski company; and Giro, the helmet and extreme sports business. “We try to work with brands and companies that are not exactly in our space so we can reach a wider audience,” Rose says.
But Topo’s most compelling selling point may be its flavor of nostalgia. Says Rose, “We wanted to celebrate the rich history of American brands and clothing that stopped getting valued for what they were.”