How the Timbuk2 Brand Went From Basement to Famous

To scale his bag company Timbuk2, the founder had to keep his startup mentality when growing his brand.

learn more about Melanie Spring

By Melanie Spring


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The following is the 13th in the series "Live Your Brand" in which branding expert Melanie Spring takes us along on her three-week road trip across the country to meet innovative entrepreneurs whose experiences offer lessons learned to businesses big and small.

Rob Honeycutt never realized his job as a bike messenger would be a life-changing endeavor.

Riding the streets of San Francisco on his bike in 1989, Honeycutt was in dire need of a bike handlebar bag for all this items he needed for his job as a messenger. Using his crafty skills he made one. Realizing other messengers may be feeling the same pain point, Honeycutt created 50 more in his basement, called them Scumbags and sold them to a local cycle shop. When Rob's non-messenger friends asked about the bag he wore on his back, he knew he was onto something. He seized the opportunity and created his first messenger bag. They were such a hit, he dropped the Scumbags brand and renamed it Timbuk2.

Even now after selling more than 60,000 custom bags annually, Timbuk2 still has the feeling of a startup. Staying lean and hardworking has been part of their brand from the beginning: It's the secret to how they've stayed successful through all the ups and downs of the economy.

Here is how they did it:

1. Innovate within your brand. Although Timbuk2's bags were initially created for bike messengers, they are now designed for a larger audience - the mobile community. From laptop bags with built-in battery packs to diaper carriers with a place for warm milk and bags for the frequent fliers, there's a bag to satisfy any need.

Timbuk2 was able to broaden their offerings because they've innovated within their brand, allowing them to continue to grow their market share.

2. Build a thriving culture. "We live and breathe what we do," says social media employee Noel Kopp. And it shows. If you walk through the floor-to-ceiling front doors, you see employees' bikes hanging by the entrance. Plus, they have bike-catered employee lunches, funky furnishing and a "wear what you want" style. This sort of environment creates not only a productive one but a happy one.

"I've worked in Timbuk2's e-commerce department for nine years. After making my first custom bag in 2000, I knew I wanted to work for such a strong brand," says employee Lizzy Fallows. "It's my home now."

Related: How Building a Community Helped Launch an International Brand

3. Give perks employees want. The Timbuk2 team works hard to make the company successful and rewarding them with non-traditional perks has allowed Timbuk2 to retain great employees.

For instance, although they don't specifically hire cyclists, their employees get passionate about cycling by being part of the brand. Timbuk2 cycling perks include indoor bike parking, stipends for riding your bike to work, shower and towel service, loaner bikes and a retail store with a bike-share program. Other ways they keep employees happy are allowing dogs in the office, weekly yoga in the conference room, a full-sized stocked kitchen, a keg of beer on tap and even coffee beans delivered by a bike roaster. But to get these awesome, an employee needs to make the cut.

With over 70 employees, everyone knows everyone. Each hire is very important and is done by committee (since there is no HR department), ensuring the fit is right. They have their culture in the forefront of their mind when they hire new staff.

Related: Why Happy Employees Are Your Key to Successful Branding

4. Hire self-starters. Timbuk2's internal slogan is "Drive the bus." To work at Timbuk2, you have to be a driven, self-starter. You are respected for who you are as a person, but you have to be willing to step up and do whatever is needed.

"This is a hard place to work if you're not a real self-starter," says Fallows.

And Timbuk2 respects this hard work and tenacity. As a flat company, or no hierarchy, everyone knows they can say what they want in front of the CEO. With this type of transparency, along with people being recognized and promoted for working hard and being big thinkers, employees tend to stick around.

Related: The Holy Grail of Workplace Motivation

Melanie Spring

Chief Inspiration Officer of Sisarina

As the Chief Inspiration Officer of Sisarina, a D.C.-based branding firm, Spring built her business with a strong content marketing strategy. With an innate sense for social media, connecting with her customers, and building a culture around her brand, she teaches businesses and non-profits how to rock their brand. She also recently toured the U.S. on the Live Your Brand Tour collecting stories from businesses living their brand.

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