Flowfold in the Island Times by Susan Hanley: It's a Living
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It’s a Living
"Going to work for a large company is like getting on a train. Are you going sixty miles an hour or is the train going sixty miles an hour and you're just sitting still?" -- J. Paul Getty
Americans are an industrious lot, and Peaks Islanders are no exception. Some of us work on the island, some commute. Some of us have one job, some have three. Some of us have part time professions, some of us have full-time passions. But all of us are busy. Busy. Busy. Busy. Busy figuring out a host of inventive, resourceful ways to earn a living while we enjoy island living.
Charley Friedman, President and Co-Owner, Flowfold
You couldn’t make up a better “business on a shoe-string budget” story. Charley Friedman founded Flowfold with just $50, his grandmothers old Singer sewing machine, high tech racing sailcloth scavenged out of dumpsters and a brilliant idea. An idea that was born when his grandfather’s old leather wallet fell apart and Charley decided to make him a new one from scrap sailcloth. Six years and hundreds of prototypes later, Charley had his first commercially viable product.
With almost no business training and the audacity of youth, the 22 year old civil engineering major passed up a desk job to launch his company. Somehow, the lure of creative product design and being his own boss appealed more than figuring out better ways to treat sewage or design traffic flow.
It was a smart call. Flowfold’s products—wallets, iPad sleeves, and the uniquely-named tarjeteros (credit card or business card sleeve)—hit all the right notes and business is booming. The lightweight, waterproof, stronger-than-steel products mix high tech appeal with an earth-friendly, socially responsible business ethos. With products that are manufactured locally from materials that would otherwise end up in a land fill, Charley means it when he asks customers to “Carry the Future.”
There’s no “typical day” for a company president that is learning by doing. Charley bounces back and forth between shipping clerk, product designer, fundraiser (his Kickstarter campaign just raised over $7700), and marketing guru. Through it all Charley keeps an even keel. He remains unphased by his success to date, the mountain of work in front of him, or the risks in the future. Charley is just going with the flow.
S.H. I read that the first wallet you ever made out of sailcloth was for your grandfather. Does he still have it?
C.F. He has a newer version because he always wanted to keep up to date with the latest design. But we have it. Wallet number 1.
S.H. When you were making that first wallet, was the idea for starting a company somewhere in the back of your mind?
C.F. No. I was back in high school and I was working in Yarmouth at a place called Maine Sailing Partners. It was a cool experience building sailboat sails. You’re sewing massive sheets of fabric. The needles are super thick and they’re pretty big machines. It’s more like construction work than sewing work.
People have been making things out of the scraps for a long time. The wallet I made for my grandfather is an exact replica of his – I just took his leather wallet and copied it. Then I spent the next six years tweaking it. The new tri-fold is very unique. The way it’s sewn and the placement of the panels is very original. Until now, it was never full time. I just made them for friends for their birthday or for the holidays.
S. H. It’s a huge leap to go from an idea to making a few wallets on the side to then decide to start a company. What in your background gave you the skills to launch a company?
C.F. I guess it’s all about just learning every single part of it as you go along. For our generation there is so much information around. You can google anything or go to the library and find out the best, up-to-date way to do anything.
During my last semester the University of Maine had just launched the Innovation Engineering Program which is about turning ideas into businesses. So one day during my last semester I visited a woman there and asked her “What’s the best way to start a company?” Now they have an actual curriculum so students can study how to start a business and they use our company as a case study for the course. It’s not too complicated.
S. H. How did you get started?
C.F. When we started we just had a product so everything else had to grow up around it. We realized we had to name the brand, make a logo, develop packaging and write a marketing plan. We designed our logo and filed the trademark application ourselves. Our goal the whole time is to keep overhead low so we do as much as we can ourselves.
What we’re working on now is developing wholesaling and retailing. We went to the New England Product Tradeshow in March last year and we started 18 new accounts from Rhode Island to Maine and Vermont. Since then we’re in over 50 stores. In January we actually hired someone to do shipping and another person to do sales and marketing.
The big learning for us is that it’s the little things that make a huge difference. When we first started out we were packaging the wallets on sock hangers with paper bands that held them closed. It looked really cool but people couldn’t see inside the wallet and the sock hangers got lost so we adjusted. Now the wallet hangs open from a tab that’s attached to the paper. It’s not really that different but it makes a huge difference. The stores like it a lot better. Now we’re working on making a counter display.
S.H. Are you still making your products from scrap sailcloth?
C.F. At this point we’re getting most of our material from companies who make the sailcloth. It’s manufacturing waste, and it’s rolls of new material that they will throw away to store new stock. We pay them to NOT throw it out right away so we can get the stuff that we need.
S. H. If LL Bean called you up and said, “We want to put your product in our catalog,” would that be a blessing or a curse?
C.F. Well, I’d like to see us get more of a foundation before something like that happens. The nice thing these days is that you don’t really need those old companies like that to get exposure. All it takes is the right person to say something online and just the way the internet works, it takes off. And I’d also be afraid they might just copy our design and make it themselves.
S. H. What sort of business advice have you gotten along the way?
C.F. The Island Institute has a program, The Island and Coastal Innovation Fund, and their mission is to work with island-based businesses to help them and to keep the island communities viable. They reached out to us and they were interested in helping us. We don’t have enough credit as a business to go to a bank and get a loan but they were willing to help us with some early financing.
They also assigned us a mentor Ponch Membreno, who lives on Peaks, is helping to advise us. Ponch works at Horny Toad in Freeport and he has worked with Patagonia and Whole Foods. He has a lot of experience in retail and branding so he’s helping us develop the brand—we’re writing the brand statement and developing a marketing plan. It’s not product development but it’s just as important or more important. We meet with him twice a month and he helps us stay on track.
S.H. You guys have a pretty good website (www.flowfold.com). Do you get sales from your website?
C.F. We sell quite a bit of product through our site and we’ve never had a month with less sales than the month before even with the holidays. We got mentioned in MacWorld. They covered five new iPad sleeves and we were one of the five they wrote about. So that pushed sales of the iPad sleeves. And we got written up in Bangor Daily News just before Christmas and completely sold out of everything on the website that day. I wish we had more stock but it’s fine – that’s how you learn.
S. H. Where are your seamstresses located?
C.F. They are around southern Maine. We try to send them big bulk orders and build inventory in bunches rather than give them a day of work here and there. After the article was in the Bangor Daily News I got about 60 calls from people who wanted to sew for us. There are still a lot of people who sew in Maine. Our seamstresses work for us as independent contractors but we’re almost ready to hire some seamstresses as employees. Obviously having employees would mean a lot more overhead but we want that experience.
S.H. Do you sell any products internationally?
C. F. We do tons of business in Spain; over half our business is from Spain. We went to a tradeshow in Orlando and we met a distributor from Spain who handled huge surf brands and they had lots of experience and connections. And the style is something that Europeans really seem to like.
S.H. What do you have in mind for future products?
C.F. Laptop cases, ladies wallet, back packs. I’ve been working on a lot of designs. I’ve been doing loads of prototypes of the ladies wallet. We want our designs to be original and I haven’t created one I really like yet.
S.H. What is your favorite thing about your job?
C.F. I guess learning things and meeting new people. Lots of different experiences - it’s never the same day. And providing jobs for people, which we’re just starting to do, that feels really good.
S.H. How has living on Peaks influenced your work?
C.F. We moved out here when I was six months old. Living on the island and taking the boat has its up and downs but the one thing it does teach you is to make sure you really think about everything you need and to take it with you and that’s a good thing in business. Whether you’re taking the boat, or filing a trademark application or putting something on the web you need to make sure you have everything you need. You end up carrying way too much stuff with you but then you’re prepared. Plus it’s nice that the post office out here is so easy to ship from – there’s never a line.