Happy birthday to Po Campo bags! Chicago-based founder Maria Boustead is celebrating her company’s fourth anniversary this week with a special edition (above) of the Six Corners Handlebar Bag in a pattern called Jelly Bean Wave.
I first met Boustead in 2010 on my inaugural trip to Interbike, the North American cycling industry trade show in Las Vegas. Her booth, carpeted in bright green artificial turf and furnished with lawn chairs and rustic display crates, gave off a homey and inviting vibe in the midst of a cycling-hardware-heavy scene.
A native of the Chicago suburb of Des Plains, Boustead has been a pioneer among independent women entrepreneurs creating innovative products that combine functionality and style to address their own needs as everyday cyclists. Today Po Campo bags are sold at bike shops and boutiques around the globe and are distributed through bicycle parts and accessories giant Quality Bicycle Products.
Check bikenyc.org to save 20 percent on Po Campo bags through July 15.
But none of this happened overnight, and the road to success has at times been bumpy. Boustead, whose background is in packaging design, has evolved and grown her business through patient, passionate stewardship of the Po Campo brand (named for a character in Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western, Lonesome Dove), responsiveness to the needs of her customers and pursuit of business acumen.
‘I Needed a Cuter Bag’
Boustead found early inspiration while studying industrial design in Germany, where she observed people of all ages — not just college students — riding bicycles for daily transportation.
Photo courtesy of accionchicagoblog.org
She continued to commute by bicycle when she returned to Chicago for a job with an international branding firm. Boustead needed to maintain a professional look, but wanted to carry things in a way that didn’t signal I rode my bike here.
“I realized that you had to choose between biking and fitting in with your colleagues,” she says. “I needed a cuter bike bag, and I assumed that they were out there. But when I looked, I couldn’t find any.”
No fan of messenger bags or backpacks, and unable to mount a basket on her road bike, Boustead used a rack and a bungee to carry a rolled-up canvas bag. With many of her friends starting to ride and cycling’s growth in popularity, Boustead saw a niche that needed filling.
The challenge, she says, was to develop bags that move seamlessly from the bicycle into daily life. She and her founding partner (who moved on in 2011) delivered their first order of bags to a Chicago bike shop in 2009.
While local shops were supportive, Boustead admits that it was hard initially to get the bags to sell in a typical bike shop retail environment. There were no shortcuts; old-fashioned elbow grease prevailed.
“Once we had a foothold in Chicago, I would compile lists of stores around the country that I thought would be interested in the bags and do lots of cold-calling,” Boustead says.
She sold bags herself and built retail distribution by attending trade and consumer shows, such as Interbike, Eurobike and later the New Amsterdam Bicycle show in NYC.
Designing for Urban Lifestyle
Boustead says the company hit a rough spot in 2011 when the bags were not selling as vigorously as hoped and some orders were canceled. At the end of the year, she left her full-time job to focus exclusively on Po Campo.
In the intervening “learning” years she has professionalized and expanded the business and broadened the brand to include a wide variety of active urban lifestyle features for bicycling, yoga and travel. For example, the adjustable straps of the Armitage Satchel (above) make it easy to attach the bag to a bicycle rack or a stroller handle, but when used in combination with the should strap, can also accommodate a yoga mat or umbrella.
Boustead names her products, offered in sizes from handlebar bag to messenger bag, after Chicago streets and locales and finds inspiration for fabrics in her city surroundings — a pattern of wear on the sidewalks, brick edifices, cafe umbrellas.
Made from resilient materials in a variety of colors and exclusive patterns, the bags are sold in the U.S. and 15 other countries. On any given morning here in NYC, you’re likely to spot Po Campo bags on bikes traversing the Brooklyn Bridge during the morning commuter rush hour.
With her success, Boustead is turning to giving back, as well. In May, she announced a partnership with World Bicycle Relief, an organization that donates bicycles to people in rural African communities to help them obtain education, health care and economic opportunity. For every 25 bags that Po Campo sells, a school girl in Africa will receive a bicycle.
In her anniversary email to customers, she says, 2013 is looking like “it’ll be the best year yet.” Here’s to many happy returns!