How a Dead Phone in the Middle of a Burmese Forest Inspired an Entrepreneur to Disrupt the Future of Luggage (& a Warning for Crowdfunders)

How a Dead Phone in the Middle of a Burmese Forest Inspired an Entrepreneur to Disrupt the Future of Luggage (& a Warning for Crowdfunders)

When you’re a jet-setting globetrotter living out of a suitcase…

That suitcase had better not let you down.

But long before Gaston Blanchet would co-found a company and crowdfund his way to thousands of customers and more than $1.4 million in pre-orders for a category-creating product he hadn’t even built yet, he found himself in the middle of a Burmese forest with a dead smartphone and no way to charge it.

Obviously, he blamed his suitcase!

“That was the thing that irked me more than anything,” Blanchet says. “Not only was my suitcase clumsy and difficult to get things out of, but it was useless when I needed something important like a phone charge.”

Blanchet had been crisscrossing the globe on various business ventures visiting places like Burma, Iceland, and Japan when a friend who was leading a similar lifestyle and dealing with strangely familiar luggage frustrations just happened to call and ask whether Gaston had any suitcase purchase recommendations.

“It’s funny you called,” Gaston recalls telling Jesse Potash, the friend with whom Gaston would soon found Trunkster, a smart luggage designer and manufacturer of suitcases with zipperless entry, USB charging, GPS tracking, and embedded digital scales.

“What if we invented the perfect piece of luggage,” the pair wondered aloud?

It was a question that would lead to the heights of entrepreneurial stardom.

And some horribly frightening nightmares.

Ideas Are Easy

It might sound a bit harsh, but Trunkster’s founders argue the luggage industry hasn’t innovated substantively in five decades or so. “It’s true,” Blanchet says with a chuckle. “The last thing that shocked the luggage industry was putting wheels on the bottoms of suitcases fifty years ago.”

Two newcomers like Blanchet and Potash might not have any manufacturing experience. Still, they were certain they could invent a next generation suitcase with intelligent features that would define a new standard for discerning travelers.

Unbeknownst to them, though, the idea would be the easy part.

“The first day is just incredible,” Blanchet says. “The ideas are flowing easily, and we’re coming up with the best ideas in the world. We feel like we’re inventing the best piece of luggage on earth.”

But after a quick Google search reveals nothing like the suitcase Blanchet and Potash are dreaming up exists and high-fives abound, reality begins to set in. “How are we actually going to manufacture something like this,” Blanchet recalls wondering. “It was super technical in terms of designing and manufacturing, and we didn’t even know where to start.”

Details like manufacturing, shipping, and fulfillment will iron themselves out, right?

Time to start pre-selling and enjoying the publicity.

Trouble Starts after the Kickstarter Video

“When you’re getting lots of press, it’s great,” Blanchet says. “But the majority of the time being an entrepreneur is stressful, not very fun, and almost like being manic depressive.”

On the surface, it appeared as if Trunkster was on the verge of conquering the Goliaths of the luggage industry. The Kickstarter campaign the company used to launch its brand was a success by any metric:

  • More than 5,000 units pre-ordered
  • More than $1.4 million in revenue collected
  • A growing community of brand advocates validating the idea

In conjunction with the campaign and a successful appearance on Shark Tank, Trunkster partnered with Shopify Plus, an enterprise-level ecommerce solution for high volume merchants, to continue taking pre-orders. “Shopify and crowdfunding are a match made in heaven,” Blanchet says.

The orders continued pouring in; another 1,000 totaling several thousand Trunkster units. But there were problems beneath the surface. “The trouble starts after a great Kickstarter video,” Blanchet says. “It can turn into a nightmare quickly.”

Even the tiniest of details can loom large.

For instance, one of the keys to engineering Trunkster’s sliding rolltop door, which Blanchet says makes it much easier to access your belongings, is a 3-millimeter round piece of plastic that allows the door to roll smoothly. Initially though, the Israeli engineers and the Chinese manufacturer with whom Trunkster had partnered used a 5-millimeter piece.

The piece was just 2 millimeters too big but it meant there was too much friction when Blanchet rolled the door. “We probably could’ve shipped it as is but that’s not what we promised our customers,” Blanchet says.

It meant killing the Kickstarter ship date and forcing customers who had already paid to wait.

But Blanchet can’t imagine doing it any other way.

A Brand Before a Product

“I can’t imagine how people used to build a brand,” Blanchet says. “It just blows my mind the amount of upfront investment it once took to build and market something. And here we were, cash in hand with almost no upfront investment.”

Not only did Trunkster have proof of concept, thousands of eager customers, and millions of dollars in the bank, but it also held no inventory. It’s a relatively new way of doing business that simply wasn’t possible in bygone years.

“We really are next generation entrepreneurs,” Blanchet figures. “We had a brand before we had an actual product.”

The idea of trying out an idea with little or no upfront investment, creating demand for something that didn’t exist yesterday, and taking on no inventory risk until it’s time to ship to customers who are practically begging you for the product seems like pure genius.

It certainly can be, as Trunkster will eventually show.

But it can also be a trap that can kill a company before it ever ships.

A Warning to Crowdfunders

“People feel like they’ve been waiting forever,” Blanchet says of the Trunksters that were supposed to ship toward the end of 2015 but won’t be delivered until the spring of 2016.

Blanchet is being tougher on himself than his customers, who are already demanding a second generation follow up Trunkster product. Still, Blanchet says that attractiveness of proving a concept and taking pre-orders well before ever investing a cent in manufacturing should also come with a giant warning; do your homework.

“The work you do before putting out that crowdfunding video really matters,” Blanchet warns. “Once you think you’ve done all your homework go back and do some more. For instance, we did six months of manufacturing research and were still unclear about certain details.”

In other words, it’s what you don’t know that’ll hurt you.

Or at least, blow up your shipping timeline, promise to customers, and profitability.

Here’s an example:

  • Once Trunkster found a manufacturing partner in China it trusted, the company got a school-of-hard-knocks lesson in logistics when it realized it hadn’t fully considered the tiniest of details associated with logistics and fulfillment
  • Besides substantial pricing differences regarding whether Trunkster filled an entire shipping container with product or not, the company also belatedly realized that once its fulfillment center received a container shipment, some international orders would be problematic and even unprofitable
  • For instance, shipping Trunksters to South Africa required air freight which meant paying by volume rather than weight. The additional $150 in air freight make the Trunksters sold in South Africa unprofitable

“We’ll actually lose money on those,” Blanchet says. “The numbers have to make sense; they have to add up which means entrepreneurs have to do the work and know long before they put up that crowdfunding video and start taking orders how they’re going to manufacture and fulfill orders and whether it’s going to be profitable.”

It’s a hiccup Blanchet wants to help other entrepreneurs avoid – even though Trunkster’s loyal customers could care less.

Building a Second Generation Product

Here’s proof customers love Trunkster…

Even though the company hasn’t even shipped its first product, customers are already clamoring for a second generation product that also seems poised to upend the luggage industry. “We used the feedback we got on our original pre-orders to begin designing a second product,” Blanchet says. “So yeah, we’re excited that there’s so much interest in our second product when the first one hasn’t even shipped.”

It’s only possible to discuss a second generation product before delivering the first because Blanchet and Potash are now experienced in 3D prototyping, logistics, and fulfillment. In fact, the pair suggests the experiences they’ve obtained will undoubtedly cut the time it takes to bring the second product to market and deliver on time.

Here’s a sneak peek; it’ll be called Trunkster Flex, a high-end soft side bag with a compression system travelers can activate with just a click of a button. It’s the bag you’ve been looking for if you’re the type that likes to pack a lot of stuff but still wants it to compress it all into a relatively small space. “We’ve taken all of the advice we’ve gotten and built something we know will meet an unmet need,” Blanchet says.

Besides manufacturing experience, the co-founders also cite their ecommerce platform as a tool that allows them to focus on product design and development, rather than building a website and constantly worrying about technology. “Entrepreneurship is extremely challenging and an uphill battle,” Blanchet says. “But there’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur because of Shopify, which is an invaluable resource for us.”

The Suitcase Life

“I’m heading back to China in April to see the new prototype,” Blanchet says, referring to the Trunkster Flex. It’s a prototype, thanks to the wisdom that comes with experience, that has taken just a few months rather than the nine months it took to complete the first one.

Even the titans of the luggage industry are starting to notice.

“That was certainly a moment of panic when the industry leaders started calling,” Blanchet says of the overtures. “We’ve definitely made a splash and have been having lots of conversations with industry leaders.”

But no matter where the future might take Trunkster, don’t expect Blanchet to stop living out of a suitcase.

The only difference is now, he’s living out of the suitcase he built.

“It’s so weird I’m traveling with my very own suitcase,” Blanchet says. “I never would’ve imagined going from a piece of paper to an actual product. It’s really special and makes up for all of the hard times.”

About The Author

Nick Winkler is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog. He helps individuals & organizations generate new leads, make more money, and ignite growth with story. Get more from Nick here.