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10 Years of Ethnotek: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

10 Years of Ethnotek: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

WOW, it's so hard to believe that it has been ten years of being in business already and it brings tears of gratitude to my eyes for all of the stories, memories, and friendships we've made along the way. It's hard to know what to do for such an occasion, have a big party, go on a trip, who knows. It's thrilling and daunting at the same time.

In my opinion, the best way to celebrate is to acknowledge and thank all of the incredible humans that made this dream become a reality and elevate it into the thriving global social enterprise that it is today.

Photo: Ethnotek founder, Jake with the first 300 Raja Packs ever made

Lets start from the beginning! Hi, I'm Jake, the guy who dreamt up the idea of Ethnotek and brought it into existence from my one bedroom apartment in California between 2010-2011. I'll be the one to take us along this colorful history... highlighting the heroes of the Ethnotek journey, a few of our shared wins, losses and lessons learned along the way. Here we go!

Photo: Jake with the 1st Ethnotek bag sample

Missed flights and getting fired

From 2009-2010 I was working in Los Angeles for another bag company and was developing Ethnotek on nights and weekends and when the website was ready to launch I told my boss (who I won't name) at the time so he didn't have to find out some other way that I was going to launch the business that Friday.

My wife and I were separated at the time and while she was living back in Vietnam, had been home visiting friends and family in the states and missed her connecting flight through LAX. Since we had still been in contact and she’d been helping me connect with the team in Vietnam, she called me to help her out. She stayed with me that night and helped me set up the social media accounts and various odds and ends on Shopify and had a lot of fun. It wasn’t long after that we officially reunited, who knew that we’d end up running the business together years later!

Photo: Cori helping launch the business in 2011. Must have been late, why the box hat?

The following Monday, I was fired from my job, yikes! At the time I was freaked out, but in the end, he made a hard decision easy for me, which was to go all-in on Ethnotek. Well, I didn't really have a choice, did I?! So the first thank you's go to my boss in California for firing me and Cori for helping me launch that Friday night!

Friends and basement dreaming

Immediately after getting fired, I got out of my apartment rental contract in California and hired a moving company to transport all of the 1st batch of Ethnotek inventory (300 Raja packs and 150 Threads) along with my personal belongings back to Minnesota (where I'm originally from and our business has been registered since). Throughout the early stages of development, I was talking to my high school friend Josh on nights that I was doing Ethnotek work. He helped with odds and ends at the time and eventually I asked him to partner with me in the business. He excitedly accepted and invited me to move myself and the inventory into his basement. I was also friends with his wife Carrie so it was an easy decision to move in with my climbing buddies! Josh and I agreed to divvy up the responsibilities, him on the ops and admin side and me on the sales, design and marketing side. He also invited his friend Brad to manage our accounting, who eventually became a partner as well. Though Josh and Brad are no longer with the business, they are both doing amazing things in their lives, careers and families!

Photo: Jake and Josh in Josh's backyard in Minnesota, 2012.

Huge thanks to Josh for believing in the Ethnotek vision, joining me in it and helping assemble a killer team of people to run, advise and invest in the business early on. If it weren't for you, we would have had a much tougher time getting Ethnotek off the ground. And thank you Brad for keeping our financials above board and organized while Josh and I ran around like over caffeinated wide-eyed puppies!

Trade shows and storytellers

In the first 4-8 weeks of launching, we received a lot of good press and signed deals with REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) and Urban Outfitters, two of the US's biggest outdoor and lifestyle fashion retailers, yowza, we were off to a good start! We then carried that momentum into our first ever trade show at Outdoor retailer in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Just before that, we received some emails and social media messages from an incredible person named Megan, who was a customer and proud owner of a Raja Pack. Megan came from the marketing and ad space and wanted to help us out. We didn't think twice at that offer and she quickly joined the team and also became a partner. She introduced us to Steph and both of them paid their own way to join us at the trade show. Champions!

Photo: Brad, Steph, Megan and Jake at Outdoor Retailer show in Utah 2012.

The show was a hit! We were featured in the in-show publications every day and our booth was swamped. We left that show with several international distribution contracts, mostly in Asia and we had a blast in the process! Megan and Steph have also moved onto other meaningful endeavors.

Huge love and thank you Megan for helping us get our storytelling and marketing message honed-in and brand identity clear and strong. Thank you for setting up long-lasting partnerships and for infusing your unique and magnetic energy and spirit into the brand. Hopefully you're proud of how we've carried it on over the years.

Thanks Steph for helping us for that brief, but awesome time!

Thank you Josh F. and Aaron for being our wingmen on those trade shows, it was super helpful and fun!

Thank you Lindsey for letting us borrow your van. We're forever sorry for it breaking down and being left in the Dakotas, eek!

Hugs and kisses to my mom Cathy who fulfilled all online orders from our family home in the early years!

Photo: Mom fulfilling bag orders from our basement in 2013

Everyone needs a good dealer

While the vibe around the brand and our bags was high, the business isn't viable without it selling well online and in retail. In the early days, we didn't know what the hell we were doing with eCommerce, but we had champion distributors and retailers that put us on the map.

Photo: Masa & Fumiya of A&F Corporation Japan with Jake in their Shibuya store.

Massive thank you's to Russell at REI, Ryan and Meghan at Urban Outfitters, INS, Midwest Mountaineering, Forage Modern Workshop, Cliche, Mild Blend, the Alt, Erik's Bike Shop, Outside Hilton Head, Vita Trade, Bag Creature, Oribags, Tenkie Box, Suburban HK, Rushfaster, Love Luggage, and Gustavo Trading! Also huge love to our sales reps Tom and Terry, you guys were the best.

Photo: Gustavo Trading Co., Jim & Stefan with Jake & Cori at the Outdoor Show in Friedrichshafen.

Investment and advisory

Early investment came from my parents, grandparents and my personal savings. Thank you Mom and Steve, Dad & Diane, grandpa Rog, grandma Jeanne and John! Our first business mentor and advisor Brian was introduced to us by Josh and he's been our sturdy tree of knowledge throughout. Brian is still with us today. Thank you Brian!

Photo: Investors & Advisors (left to right, top to bottom) Benoit (France), Brian (USA), Chris (Australia), Ned (Scotland).

We went through an accelerator program for investment in Singapore with a group called LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability - Asia) which was run by Cissy and Adam, who introduced us to our investors/advisors and all around solid dudes, Chris, Ned and Benoit. It's very helpful having these wise and seasoned pro's in our corner, they've helped us blast into orbit and stay strong during hard times. Thank you guys!

Thank you Pierce for the mentorship, council and words of encouragement.

Creative encounters

Creativity, design and handmade art have always been at the core of what we do and the story would be incomplete without mentioning the creatives that helped us elevate the product, brand story and all things visual. Thank you Adina for your passion for our mission, graphic design, photography and great ideas! And thank you for joining us on that very special sourcing trip in Vietnam to the K'ho village and coworking session in Bali!

Thank you Corey for the videography for our first Kickstarter campaign.

Thank you massively Francis, for the studio and lifestyle photography and great ideas in general. I know you love your current projects, but our door is always open if you ever want to collaborate again!

It's good to be social

A community like ours can't thrive without someone to bring everyone together, keep our colorful, inspiring, informative and enthusiastic stories pumping out on a regular basis, and for this, we thank you Tiffiny! You made our social media platforms shine, connected us with great people to collaborate with and we made some really fun memories in Bali together. You rock!

Photo: Tiffiny in Colorado

Time to bring in the pros

At some point we were growing at a rate where it was creating a bit of a mess, and that's when we brought in Jennifer who essentially rebuilt our operations and accounting systems from scratch. That was a massive undertaking! Thank you Jenn for that, for bringing a greater degree of organization and professionalism to our business and for bringing us the all important Anthony.

Photo: Jenn, Kevin and Tom being very serious at business meetings.

Thank you Kevin, for sharing your sales insights and for pushing us to launch our first Kickstarter campaign. That probably wouldn't have happened if not for your tenacity. Man, we learned a lot and smashed it!

You make us look good

You know all those good looking photos of people wearing our bags on our website, social media, newsletters and ads? Those wouldn't look as hot as they do without the help of our various friends and extended acquaintances that volunteered to wake up before sunrise to join us in those, all for the price of a free bag. You're all the best!

Thank you Arley, Sarah, Aaron, Lindsey, Joe, Shane, Ben, Mallory, Milan, Miguel & friends, Kevin, Pam, Matte & friends, Ngan, Chiara, Kennett, Edsar, Citra, Jamie, Agi, Tim, Kate, Lilly, Ara, Fabian, Yoi, Adioso, Lena, Esa, Frenemy, Dior, Heidi, Fede and Oliver! Apologies if I've left out any names here, my memory sucks. Please reach out if so and we'll add ya!

Our team today

Now, this brings us to the present day and we're now growing faster than ever thanks to our team of rockstars! Yeah, we're 10-years in business, but we're still small, humble, lean and mean. Our full time team consists of myself, my wife Cori and our Ops Manager Anthony. Cori and I are from Minnesota and run the business between here, Bali and Vietnam and Anthony is based in Altadena, California.

Photo: Anthony, Jake & Cori adventuring in Los Angeles.

Our incredible freelance marketing, photography and eCommerce team (as pictured below left to right, top to bottom) consists of Marissa in the Netherlands for Email Marketing, Precious in Atlanta Georgia for Pinterest ads, Reyta in Java, Indonesia for Shopify coding, Emile in Lithuania/Bali and Shanice in Canada/Bali for UI/UX design, Joao in Brazil for Facebook & Instagram ads, Ruben in the Netherlands for Google ads, Niels in the Netherlands for eCommerce & Analytics, Hai in Vietnam for studio photography, Eszter in Hungary/Bali for lifestyle/photography and Fraser in Scotland/Bali for videography.

Even though most of our team is part-time, we don't see it as a client to contractor relationship, we've developed a culture together, laugh a lot, support each other and are friends. We share one common goal, which is to sell 12,000 bags per year (which equates to 4,000 meters of artisan fabric). We haven't achieved it yet, but when we do, we're all flying to an exotic location of the team's choosing to celebrate the win and make a plan for the year ahead. We're a bunch of nerds and love digging into data, graphs and performance metrics to ensure the best possible shopping experience on and offline. It's so damn fun!

Photo: Eszter, Jake and Fraser goofing in the studio at Kinship, Canggu Bali.

The magic makers

At the core of the Ethnotek business and the heart and soul of our shared mission, are the artisans, suppliers and sewing workers. We're honored to collaborate with them, spend time together on sourcing trips and to be in service of helping share their culture and craft with the world!

In Ghana, our artisan fabric manager and facilitator is Reiss Niih Boafo. Kente weavers are George Ameyaw, Felix Boakye, James Atagbolo and William Agbo. Batik artisans are Charles Acquah and his son Nathaniel.

In Guatemala, our artisan fabric manager and facilitators are Averie Floyd and Manuel Sic Tzunun. Our artisans are Agripina and her family in Paxtoca, as well as Lidia, Blanca and Alida in Comalapa.

In India, our artisan fabric manager and facilitators are Pankaj and Mina Shah. Our head artisan Shamji and 20-30 weavers (depending on order size) are based in the Bhujodi, Kandherai, Mota, Varnora and Jambudi villages in Gujarat. A special thanks to Arushi for your original sourcing trip with us and all the love over the years!

In Indonesia, our artisan fabric manager and facilitators are Setiawan Muhammed (Iwan) and Teddy Priyanagroho. Artisans Harjono, Sri and Yatmi are based in Surakarta (Solo), Java Indonesia.

In Vietnam, our artisan fabric manager and facilitators are Pham Huu Ai, Inrahani and Ms. Luong. Hand embroidery is created by 90-100 talented H'mong artisans in and around Sapa, Bac Ha, Lai Chau and Ha Giang. Weaving takes place in the Phan Rang Tap Cham village.

Our production family of 40 incredible humans is led by our good friend Ai and we're based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Just over 70% of our production team consists of badass women!

Amazing catastrophes

It's safe to say that this adventure didn't come without a few bumps, bruises and panic attacks! Here's some of our craziest and educational mishaps to date.

  • Our van broke down on the way from Minnesota to Utah for our first trade show. It was lent to us from a friend and couldn't be fixed in time for us to arrive at the show so we had to rent a Uhaul and leave it there. In the end, the engine was too shot to get repaired so it never returned home. Our friend was not happy to say the least! Lesson: sometimes the cheap option isn't the best option. Better to go for the safe option so we arrive at our shows on time, rested and relaxed with minimal collateral damage and hurt feelings.
  • A cargo ship sank with over 1,000 meters of artisan fabric on it, and we weren't insured. The sea freight ship hit a sandbar in the Vung Tau harbor in Vietnam en route to our factory, which made it tip sideways, dumping about 20 containers into the sea (luckily no one got hurt). Lesson: plan for the unexpected and always insure shipments!
  • We almost went bankrupt and had to close the business, TWICE! Lesson: learn how to do your own bookkeeping and cashflow management and stay on top of it daily. You can't keep the dream alive and your amazing team paid on just cool designs and fun ideas. Getting good at forecasting and smart budgeting can. Also, lean on your team when global pandemics strike!
  • Burnout: I personally worked and stressed way too much in the first 5-years of the business without any sort of self-development, coaching, mentoring or work-life balance. I was hospitalized from a panic attack and they kept recurring. Lesson: Working less hours while prioritizing play, social life, time in nature and seeing therapists and coaches. This really course-corrected me into a much healthier head space. This combined with a healthy diet, regular exercise and daily meditation has resulted in a much clearer, creative, productive and sustainable state. Learning how to get out of my own way, stop trying to force and control everything and ask for help when I needed it was a game changer. Fwew, sometimes you gotta learn the hard way.

Power to the backers

We launched two successful Kickstarter campaigns. The Premji Pack in 2016 and the Optiks Camera Bag collection in 2018. We learned a lot through that process and we're grateful to everyone that backed and encouraged us, thank you! And we even brought two backers with us on sourcing trips, woohoo!

Photo: In India with Premji and Kickstarter backers Kirk and Justin.

Community is everything

After several years of nurturing Ethnotek in Vietnam, Cori and I moved to Bali, Indonesia. Cori's teaching contract was up and she was ready to join Ethnotek full time and we both were ready to live somewhere new that made it easier to connect with nature more. It made sense to stay within South East Asia to be close to the artisans and production team, so we chose Bali. What sealed that decision was becoming members of Hubud, one of Bali's most prolific coworking spaces.

We learned so much from the community there by attending the numerous skill shares, think tanks, startup weekends and many networking events and parties. We made so many friends and met a lot of people who are still on our team today. It was such a high energy place, with a strong "win and help win" culture of digital nomads nestled in a beautiful bamboo structure in Ubud. It sadly closed in 2020 because of COVID, but it's spirit and community lives on forever. Thank you Peter and Steve for creating Hubud and to all of our Bali family, you know who you are and we love you! 😁

Most importantly, you!

Wow, that was a lot of people to thank who made this all happen, but it truly wouldn't go anywhere without you, our global community of customers. By purchasing our bags and helping us spread the word amongst your network of friends and family, you're making an impact that has far-reaching positive effects, more than you realize. Especially when it's combined with that of all your fellow members of the ETK Collective.

Check out our Impact Report HERE to see what we mean.

Onward & upward

10 years after launching Ethnotek, we find ourselves back in Minnesota, where it all began. We are more energized than ever and feel like we're just getting started.

If you're based in Europe, get excited because we're setting up our 3rd fulfillment center there in early 2022. That means we'll have North America, Asia Pacific and the EU covered, yeah!

If you're based in Minnesota and want to meet up for a hike, paddle or beverage, reach out, we're always keen to connect with our people.

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for the love, feedback, and support over the years! Here's to ten more years of creativity and global collaborations. Let's continue our shared mission of celebrating diversity, handmade art, culture, equality, expression, uniqueness, and color!

❤️ Big love from the whole Ethnotek family 🙏


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