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It’s Show Business - Mark Dwight & Rickshaw Bagworks

This is part 1 of 3 blog posts about Mark Dwight and Rickshaw Bagworks. Part 2 and 3 coming in the next weeks.

In 2007 Mark Dwight founded Rickshaw Bagworks. Mark and his team design, produce, market and distribute a line of bags and accessories aimed at the urban commuter. What’s somewhat unique about their approach is that they do it all in-house in their mini-factory in the historic Dogpatch district of San Francisco. In November I spent a morning with Mark and his team in an attempt to gain some insights from a fellow entrepreneur with a company that, like Plywerk, manufacturers their own branded goods. Rickshaw is also roughly the same size and age as Plywerk.

Mark Dwight of Rickshaw Bagworks has been around the bag making block
a few times and is not shy about sharing his war stories.

I was introduced to Mark Dwight by fellow entrepreneur Curtis Williams of North St. Bags. This was over email, back in January of this year, and I intended to visit Mark ever since. Since that time I have also become the Educational Chair on the board of Portland Made, a non-profit company committed to supporting Portland-based designers, goods retailers, and manufacturers. Mark founded SFMade on which many of the concepts of Portland Made are based. So besides being the founder and CEO of a small manufacturing operation we are also both involved in the business community and economic development of our respective cities. Mark, however, has about a 10 year head-start on me so you can imagine I was eager to pick his brain. Luckily for me Mark is not a person that you need to pick at much. You ask a question and he’ll just start talking and talking and talking and ALL of it is fascinating… at least to a fellow entrepreneur (aka business nerd) like myself it is.

I arrived at Rickshaw a few minutes early and was told that Mark was running a little late. Apparently he likes to personally deliver orders on Rickshaw’s cargo bike. He was delivering an order of screenprinted totes to a new Whole Foods Market store that had just opened. Tyler Vaughn, Rickshaw’s Corporate Sales Manager, and I talked for a little while before Mark got back. Tyler showed me the new tweed fabric patterns made from recycled plastic bottles, whose development is being funded by a Kickstarter campaign. They use the Kickstarter campaigns to both gauge if there is enough interest in a new product and, if it is successful, provide funds to develop that product. This particular campaign with a goal of $6k raised just over $20k.

Old plastic bottles are cut and shredded into small nuggets that are then melted down and turn into the yarn you see in the background. The funding for this recycled material was done through a Kickstarter campaign. Old plastic bottles are cut and shredded into small nuggets that are then melted down and turn into the yarn you see in the background. The funding for this recycled material was done through a Kickstarter campaign.

When Mark arrived he was sweaty, full of energy and had a huge smile on his face. He obviously enjoys the fact that his job entails starting the day riding a cargo bike up SF hills in the gorgeous sunny (but cold) day it was turning out to be. He first showed me around the factory floor.

The Rickshaw “mini-factory”, as Mark likes to refer to it, humming along nicely on a custom order for Google. The Rickshaw “mini-factory”, as Mark likes to refer to it,
humming along nicely on a custom order for Google.

I asked if I could take pictures and he said “yes, please, take photos, share them anywhere and everywhere. It’s not just business here, it’s show business”. This is the first way in which Mark is a little different from many other manufacturers I know. He readily admits that anyone can take apart a bag and essentially have the patterns they need to produce their own. But it’s one thing to make a bag, it’s another to make a healthy business out of it. Given that, and given how fascinated people are to see how something is made, what better way to get existing and potential customers engaged than showing them how it is done. Mark goes as far as having people push the start button on the laser cutter that is about the start cutting a part for the bag they have just purchased. People love that kind of level of engagement in the goods they are buying. And engaged customers are the best marketing anyone can ask for. It’s how Rickshaw differentiates itself in an industry where making it locally in San Francisco means that you cannot afford to compete on price. Instead you focus on branding.

Cutting patterns for the Rickshaw product lineup. Mark readily admits that anyone can take a Rickshaw bag apart and copy the patterns. Instead he uses branding to ensure their foothold in the market. Cutting patterns for the Rickshaw product lineup. Mark readily admits that anyone can take a Rickshaw bag apart and copy the patterns. Instead he uses branding to ensure their foothold in the market.

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