Thrupack (formerly “Thru.”) is an upstart cottage manufacturer that specializes in fanny packs for hikers (see my review here). Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Paul Thomas, Thrupack founder and owner, about what it’s like to run a cottage company and make ultralight gear for a living. Here’s what he had to say!
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Me: Hi Paul, thanks again for taking time to answer some questions. Let’s start from the beginning. Where did the idea for Thrupack come from? How did you get your start?
Paul: I guess I always liked the idea of having things accessible while you are hiking, rather than needing to fumble with taking your pack off. It didn’t really dawn on me that a fanny pack (hip pack) was the solution until I saw a few hiking friends wearing them. I also noticed that a lot of the packs on the market were very generic, but with a recognizable company logo slapped onto it. They seemed very convenient though.
I had also been wanting to try to make my own gear for awhile, so this seemed like a perfectly-sized project to start out with. I borrowed my girlfriend’s 10-year-old, $60 sewing machine and went for it. (She’s not my girlfriend anymore though. Plot twist: she’s my wife!)
Anyway, I can be kind of obsessive, so I made a LOT of fanny packs and ended up with a design very similar to the Summit Bum along with the Comfy Strap. A few other friends wanted to get one and gave them high praise after using them for a bit. I decided to get a website and see what would happen if I sent out some demo packs to what we call ambassadors and I started dabbling in digital marketing at the same time.
Before starting Thrupack, I had some experience with sewing automobile interiors, but that was all by hand. The bulk of what I know, I’ve learned specifically through making backpacking gear.
M: That’s awesome! Just to put this all in perspective, how long has Thrupack been around?
P: We started in January of 2017. It’s been a fantastic journey with steady growth from something that started as a hobby and turned into my primary source of income. What started on a borrowed, worn out, cheap machine is now 5 machines, 3 of which are commercial grade and we send packages all over the world! The majority of everything is done by me, but having this many machines is a good in case one malfunctions; it will also allow me to hire somebody in the coming months as we expand our inventory.
I don’t know the exact number, but to put it in perspective I’d estimate that we’ve made close to 1,000 packs (if we haven’t surpassed that already). I’m very pleased with the number of returning customers that we have had.
M: What is it like to run a small cottage company? What are some aspects of running a small gear operation that backpackers don’t understand?
P: It is mostly laid back, but can be stressful because I feel the responsibility of getting packages delivered to hikers where they need them. Often, I get orders from thru-hikers who are on-trail, so the fulfillment time needs to be accurate so they can plan around that and keep moving.
I think people often overlook the fact that we literally use our own hands to make this gear. That means that sometimes the queue backs up and it takes a little while, but we try to be very transparent about the fulfillment time and keep it updated in the shipping info section of our website.
M: What is your favorite part of Thrupack? Anything you dislike? Why?
P: It can be a double-sided blade. I love working from home, but sometimes I get a little stir-crazy. The responsibility of being a small-business owner, paired with being a few hours from the mountains can be frustrating. I still make it out there, but I had to miss Trail Days this year; that was a bummer.
M: Can you tell us a bit about how you operate? Walk me through how long it takes from me pressing order to you shipping gear–and all the steps in between.
P: Well, right now, every order is created individually. This is critical in keeping up-front cost low and not dominating the workspace with huge rolls of material. We just pay a little more for shipping more frequently.
Once you order, the fulfillment time is really contingent on how many orders are in front of you. We’ll usually cut the material we plan to use all at once and then fulfill orders one at a time. I am hoping that a year from now, we will keep inventory stocked and buy entire rolls of material. Other than the actual sewing, it’s just a matter of printing invoices and shipping labels and wrapping them up nicely to pack.
M: What’s it like to be a part of the cottage manufacturer network? Is there even such a thing?
P: There is such a thing! I wouldn’t have known until I hopped in.
My primary inspirations were Purple Rain Adventure Skirts and Dirty Girl Gaiters. Purple Rain because I met her on the AT in 2012. She is an awesome person making gear worthy of our support. Dirty Girl because she just dominates the gaiter scene on long trails. If somebody is wearing gaiters, there is a 95% chance they are Dirty Girls. I love mine. So, the comfort of waistband in Purple Rain’s skirts and the fun patterns that Dirty Girl brought to back country fashion were inspirational in the concept for the Comfy Straps.
We do communicate with other gear companies. Help would mostly be in collaboration to gain followers, rather than a hands-on thing. It’s nice to have actually given valuable advice to others, even with my very limited knowledge.
It hasn’t been a cutthroat industry. So far, everybody has been really nice. We work with Garage Grown Gear and they specialize in the cottage industry. They have been instrumental in getting us connected to the cottage network. We are definitely proud to be affiliated with them.
M: What is your goal with Thrupack? What do you want Thrupack to look like in the future?
P: My goal with Thrupack was really just to create a sustainable income, which I have.
In the future, I think it would be really neat to employ thru-hikers and rotate them based on who is on the trail. I’m really not sure how that would work out logistically though. I can dream.
M: Any exciting new products or changes on the horizon?
P: Yes! A 35L and a 45L pack, but I don’t want to say much about them until they are completed!
M: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Anything else you’d like to get out there or say to the backpacking universe?
P: You are super welcome. Thanks for the interest! There is quite a bit I’d like to say to the backpacking universe, especially some of the “elite” hikers, but it is mostly summed up in the infamous words of Bill and Ted, technically Rufus: “Be excellent to each other and party on dudes!”