Katz and Fleisher started sewing bags and aprons in a storefront apartment in Chicago as a way to explore their creativity while holding down full-time jobs.
What started as a side project grew into Winter Session, which makes canvas and leather bags, wallets and cases. Katz was an architect, while Fleisher had recently finished graduate school and was working as a museum guide.
"We always enjoyed making things and always aspired to start our own business," Fleisher says. "We wanted something we could do at home. Sewing was something that's relatively clean. Wood was just too messy."
Katz and Fleisher relocated Winter Session to Denver in early 2013. The couple has trained most of its employees, who include musicians, a beekeeper, and social workers who did not have production skills before working at Winter Session.
About half of the company's business is wholesale. The remainder comes from sales on its web site or the small storefront in Five Points where everything is made.
"Everything is made under this roof," Fleisher says. "That gives us more control and flexibility. We can make something in a day or a couple of days, which sometimes works to our benefit and sometimes not."
Winter Session gets the leather for its wallets and cases from Horween Leather Co. in Chicago, one of the oldest tanneries in the country and the only one left in the city. The leather it uses for its bag handles and shoulder straps comes from Hermann Oak in St. Louis. It uses 100 percent cotton canvas, some of which is treated with a light water-resistant coating, for its bags and backpacks.
Winter Session has about 40 wholesale accounts across the country, with their largest clients in cities like New York. They also have several accounts in Europe and about 20 in Japan, where they ship their products about twice a year.
"We're inspired by Japanese aesthetics," Fleisher says. "It's nice to know they appreciate what we're doing."
Challenges: Their backgrounds in art, design and architecture make managing people one of the biggest challenges Katz and Fleisher have. They also find it difficult to say no to projects. "We still say yes to more stuff than we can actually handle," Fleisher says. "We get a lot of requests for custom work, and we've gotten better at saying no to most of that. We said yes in the beginning because we could gain more skills and get more experience."
Opportunities: Winter Session finds opportunities by connecting with other small businesses to collaborate on projects. For example, two years ago the company teamed up with Denver-based eco-beauty products maker R.L. Linden & Co. Winter Session makes leather headbands for R.L. Linden's customers to wear while washing their faces, as well as a canvas and leather bag to hold R.L. Linden's skin-care travel kit products.
Needs: Though the couple has not yet sought outside investors, it's possible they may do so in the future. What they really need now is more space and guidance. "We never learned anything about business," Fleisher says. "We're coming from artistic, creative backgrounds. We started working with a consultant but we could use more help. We have trouble knowing what to take on and when and we need to figure out how quickly or slowly to grow. We're trying to figure out how to make it work while still making everything ourselves."
Though Winter Session leases an additional 300 square feet of space near its Five Points storefront, it also needs more space to make and sell its products.