Maria Boustead is the talented young founder and owner of Po Campo, creator of bags for the modern mobile lifestyle. Under her leadership and vision, what originated as a wild idea for stylish bicycle bags has grown into a lifestyle brand with international distribution. Prior to founding Po Campo, Maria worked as an industrial designer and brand strategist, solving problems for brands as varied as 3M, Pampers and Yellowtail. A reluctant office dweller, she prefers to spend her time bicycling around town, traveling to foreign lands, reading books and drinking coffee in cafes, all of which count as "work".
Melissa Balmer: What's your favorite early childhood memory of riding your bike?
Maria Boustead: I had a bike as a kid, but no specific memory comes to mind. Maybe this story will work in its place? I really got hooked with bike riding while studying abroad in Germany. Not only did the university students bike, but moms with kids, grandparents, the mailman...it just seemed so natural and fun and healthy, and like something you could do in perpetuity. Then, when I moved to Berlin for an internship, I loved biking around to explore the city. I would get lost all the time, but would always stumble across cool new cafes and shops or parks. It was also the first time I lived in a big city with great bike lanes and the little bike stoplights. Biking for transportation there felt totally legit. I never thought we'd have bike lanes and bike stoplights like that in the U.S. I never would have guessed that they would show up within 15 years.
MB: You began as an industrial designer rather than a fashion product designer right? But you loved to ride your bike to work. Can you share with us more about the moment in 2009 when you realized there wasn't the right kind of bag for you to carry things to work on your bike and you were going to have to design it yourself?
MBoustead: Yes, my background is industrial design. My first job was working for a lunch bag and cooler company, and that's where I learned how to do "soft goods" or "cut-and-sew manufacturing". Then I worked at a packaging and branding agency as a design strategist.
I loved biking to work because it helped me wake up in the morning and give me some distance from the office in the evening. I never liked wearing backpacks or messenger bags though because my back would get too sweaty and they'd strain my neck if packed really full. Also, they just weren't my style. Instead, I'd put my handbag into a canvas tote and bungee cord that to my bike rack.
My system for carrying things felt so fussy that I thought there must be a better way. But when I hunted online for a versatile bike bag that you could carry on and off the bike, I was astounded that it just didn't exist. I knew that bicycling for transportation was an undeniable growth trend, and thought I could use my experience in designing bags and brands to create a bag that would help people integrate biking into their lifestyle. I'm still proud that only Po Campo makes bike bags that you would carry even on the days that you don't bike. No other bike bag can claim that.
MB: What inspires you in your design process? Can you share more how one of your latest designs - the Kinga - came together?
MBoustead: I wrote about the inspiration part of my design process in this blog post and the Kinga specifically in this blog post. Essentially, I created the Kinga (and its big sister the Uptown) to correct some long standing issues in our original bike bags. So I approached it more from a problem-solving perspective than a whole new product perspective.
MB: How long does it take to go from inspired idea to debuting a new product?
MBoustead: It takes about a year. The first month or two are spent on consumer research, looking at trends, sketching up possibilities. The next three months are working with the manufacturer to refine the concepts. Then another 2-3 months are spent on research with customers and on pre-sales. If the concept makes it through that stage, then it is another 4 months or so to purchase all the materials, print the fabrics, sew the bags, ship them to our warehouse, take photos and videos, etc.
MB: Not too long ago you and your husband decided to pick up and move from Chicago to Brooklyn. What sparked this change?
MBoustead: I would say that we both were hungry for a change of scenery. My husband and I are both big lovers of the arts and of big, dense cities, and we had often dreamt of moving to NYC. Personally, I was feeling in a bit of a creative rut and thought that changing my surroundings would be stimulating (which it definitely has been). I was also eager to locate to a place with a thriving community of small brands and entrepreneurs to help support my business growth, which I have also found. I'm looking forward to my first summer of open streets.
MB: You also decided to regroup and refocus on your key customers. Can you tell us more about this decision?
MBoustead: When we launched in 2009, I was constantly told by my advisors that our target market of women who liked to bike for transportation and who cared what their accessories looked like was too small of a market to sustain my business. Po Campo only works when it reaches a certain volume, so I took their warnings to heart and was always trying to think of ways to grow my target market. As a designer, the easiest (and most fun) way for me to do this was by creating more product with broader appeal. We made casual bags, travel bags, baby bags, etc.
And while this strategy was more or less effective, as far as increasing our volume went, it pulled our attention away from our true passion of helping women integrate biking into their lives. So while on one hand, the business was "working", on the other hand, it wasn't, because we weren't able to deliver on our vision of building a community of women who loved to bike to get around because we were just too busy with our other projects. Once I recognized this, I decided it was time to take a step back and refocus.
One good thing is that a lot has changed since 2009. That was before bike share, largely before bike lanes...a lot more people are biking now and I definitely do not think the market is too small. I'm proud that we were prescient in being first to market, I'm proud that we've built up brand recognition with our target consumer, and I'm excited to be zeroing-in on our vision going forward.
MB: Who are your key customers? What's her profile?
MBoustead: Our key customers are women who live in walkable/bikeable communities, who value living a healthy lifestyle, and who are mindfully creating a life that works for them. Most of our customers are between the 25-45 age range and are already big fans of biking for transportation.
MB: You have a new ambassador program coming up soon. How does this help focus on the heart of your brand, and the people you most want to celebrate and connect with?
MBoustead: We have some very loyal customers who have supported us over the years, telling their friends about us, giving us ideas for new products, etc. The ambassador program will be our vehicle for recognizing them, and thanking them for their ongoing support. Moreover, as we strive to build a community of women who love to bike to get around, the ambassador program will be the catalyst to that coming together.
MB: You've had some very good media placements including Bicycling, the Huffington Post, and The New York Times. Now that you're in the #1 media market in the country where would you like to see your products featured in the media next?
MBoustead: Real Simple magazine has been at the top of my list for a long time because of their "life made easier" promise. To me, biking for transportation belongs there, because it is an easy way to 1) get exercise, 2) be kinder to earth, 3) be kinder to your city.
For a similar reason, I would love Po Campo to be in InStyle magazine to dispel the myth that you have to sacrifice your style if you opt to bike for transportation.
Stay tuned! We'll have more design and style insights from Maria very soon!