Solving Business Problems Through Design: A Visit to Rickshaw Bagworks

Jun 21, 2009

rickshawMark Dwight, the founder, CEO, and sole investor in Rickshaw Bagworks seems blessed with the ability to speak inexhaustibly about the messenger bag industry. His passion is infectious, and it’s almost as though you can feel his heart racing from across the room as he explains in breathless rapid fire about the myriad details of the industry. As a former CEO of Timbuk2 and with an engineering education, Mark has a well rounded background in the messenger bag industry. It really shows when you hear him talk about his products.

Challenged with the task of creating a bag company that can differentiate itself from the pack while maintaining competitive costs, Mark arrived at a solution that involved low oversees labor costs, the customization of in-house assembly, and innovative bag design. The result is a rugged bag with a waterproof interior lining, plenty of pouches and slots, stands up on its own, and has a completely customizable outer skin, all for the prices comparable to anything you’d expect from Timbuk2 or Chrome. For the same price that you would spend on a pre-built messenger bag from one of these manufacturers, you can have a bag from Rickshaw that has your company logo, your child’s picture, or any pattern or even fabric that you can think of (Mark recommends upholstery-grade fabrics), as if you had it custom made just for yourself. During our visit to Rickshaw, we were able to see bags with conference logos being assembled and other bags with hand-woven Southeast-Asian fabrics. Rickshaw’s ability to cost-effectively integrate amazing flexibility in customization is breathtaking.

Mark accomplished this feat through innovative design, not just of his bags, but also of his manufacturing process. He recognized a fundamental challenge with the messenger bag industry: producing custom bags in the U.S. was expensive and limited production numbers and producing bags overseas limited customization and required large shipping and storage costs. His solution to this challenge was an innovative fusion of the two manufacturing options that allowed him to leverage the strengths of each approach, while minimizing there liabilities. By borrowing a page from the automotive industry, Mark was able to design a bag “chassis” that could be built in China for a low labor rate, these chassis could then be shipped, in two pieces, to San Francisco, where his in-house factory labor assembles the chassis and then applies a graphic skin to finish the product. The fact that the chassis pieces were shipped unassembled, allowed them to be packed flat, reducing shipping volume as well as storage requirements. The ingenuity of such a process is quite impressive, as is Mark’s enthusiasm in describing it.

We realized that it took a unique kind of person to create such a product. We also noticed that Mark’s situation was unique. After spending several years running a successful messenger bag company, he chose to start a new messenger bag company, using his own money! Surely, the fact that he put his own cash on the line helped to grease the wheels of creativity, but it was also his well-rounded background that allowed him to design and engineer not just a bag, but a manufacturing process to maximize his business returns. Indeed, some of the hot topics in the industry have been empathy, cooperation, and teamwork. In Mark, we found a one man team, and it really illustrated the value of understanding the business aspects of design. It hasn’t been unusual, in our experience, for us to come across truly inspired design that didn’t make it to market because of the costs associated with actually building the product. It takes a designer that understands manufacturing processes and associated costs as well as business logistics to overcome these challenges. It’s up to each of us in the design field to do our best to understand the tasks faced by all of those around us in order for us to help produce the best products in the market.

Bryan McClain and Demetrius Madrigal