Bikepacking bags; medical and other products during COVID-19
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Bikepacking bags
"The moment you think you can meet production demands from bike shops and customers, the next thing you know you get the biggest order of your lives and you need to hire someone else," says Willson.
That can lead to inventory and cash flow issues, but it's ultimately a good thing, she adds. "It's been such a surprise . . . because we started out making them for ourselves," says Willson. "I was already a seamstress and was helping my then-boyfriend, now-husband [co-founder Monty Willson]. He had the idea."
Monty's idea defied tradition: The packs and bags attach at various points on a bike frame, including a bike's forks, for carrying gear on multi-day trips. "The old school way of panniers and racks weighed more than all our bags combined," Willson says.
Oveja Negra's products proved popular quickly. "Our friends saw them they asked us to make them for them. Then the local bike shop was asking for them." Willson says. That was when they knew they had something.
The couple launched the company out of a hole in the wall in Leadville, Colorado. They've moved numerous times since, first in Leadville and then to multiple locations in Salida, the central Colorado town where their products are now cut, sewn, and produced.
"We are super lucky that we came into it at the right time," Willson says. "If we were to try to come into it now, I would say it would almost be pointless to expect to run a full-fledged business out of it."
Having first-mover advantage changed the dynamic. "When we came in no one was doing this kind of stuff," says Willson. "So we were able to take the time to build up a reputation. Since we've started, there have been a few China-based companies that have started making bike bags. She says there is also one other U.S.-based manufacturer at Oveja Negra's level as well. "I think we have a healthy amount of competition -- and a healthy relationship with the competition."
Oveja Negra, Spanish for "black sheep," initially designed packs for long mountain-biking endeavors. "As we've grown, we've been able to offer more sizes in products and more styles so that most of our products will fit a mountain bike or road bike or even a town bike," Willson explains. "We're about to come out with a line of full-frame bags. That will be a whole new product for us."
Expect more new releases, she adds. "We have a whole laundry list of products that customers email us about and, when we see the same request five times, we say, 'This is a need.' We try to grow that way."
Oveja Negra sells about half its products to retail stores and the other half is direct to consumer. "We're in bike shops in Australia, Japan, France, Austria, Canada -- even South Africa," Willson says.
As the company has expanded, it's had to move away from making custom bags for its clients to keep up with production. Still, Wilson is interested in working with bike manufacturers to make products specific to their needs, singling out Fort Collins' Black Sheep Bikes. "They make really awesome handlebars and we made some custom bags that fit in the hole when looking down at the handlebars, like a miniature trash can," she says. "We really like doing that kind of thing."
In addition to manufacturing in Colorado and sourcing as much as possible domestically, Oveja Negra also is working with other local manufacturers like Durango's King Cage. Explains Willson: "King Cage makes a universal support bolt, something you attach to your fork. It's a component that makes one of our units attach if you don't already have a bolt system on the fork."
Challenges: "Meeting demand," notes Willson. "We've had this challenge the whole time. We're just in this constant state of growth. Manpower, materials we need to buy, a not overpromising to clients. It's a good problem to have."
Opportunities: "To give people in the states a really cool manufacturing story, you can support U.S. manufacturing that's not out of reach," says Willson. "I really enjoy the employment aspect of it and bringing that to the public. That and making a backpack that's the only pack you need instead of making a pack that will break in a year."
Needs: "We'd really like a permanent facility," Willson says. "We have to make our product before we sell it. When the demand gets higher, we don't always have the manpower or the finances to keep up with the demand. So we're always one step behind on that."