I know you’ve had this moment! this thing, whatever it is chair, shirt, jacket! it sucks, if only I knew how to make it, I would make it better. In the case of R.E. Load, it was a messenger bag, only the moment was taken into action and the bag was made. Now the Philadelphia born bag company has expanded over the past decade to have a store and production studio here and in Seattle designing bags of all sorts for messengers and civilians alike.
Roland Burns (he’s the R in R.E. Load) grew up in New York and has always been into bicycles. He received a degree in materials engineering from Drexel University where he had good internships working for bike design companies. After realizing that breaking into the bike industry was not to be as easy as planned, he took a year off from pursuing his career and worked at a no longer existent bike shop on Walnut Street, where in 1998 he met Ellie Lum (she’s the E), who had just train hopped to Philadelphia from San Francisco.
How did R.E.Load get its start?
I was working at a bike shop on Rittenhouse Square, and Ellie, who I hated at first, because she was a big hippie from San Francisco and just a punk kid, came in and she had spray painted a bike that I thought looked cool, so I asked her about it, and then we ended up hanging out. Then she became a messenger and I became a messenger shortly after that. I had this bag that was horrible and I knew she knew how to sew so I asked her if she could help me fix it, and then we both just decided to make bags. We each made a bag of our own, not planning on doing anything else…
More after the jump!
Then Dan Murphy, who was probably the most well known messenger in Philly and also on the East Coast at the time, asked us to make one for him. So when he started carrying one, that was a big thing and people just started asking us for bags. We would just ask people for the money up front and then go buy the materials and make the bags. The first machine ever was my roommate’s home machine, which broke immediately. We just kept breaking home machines until we finally got a semi-industrial machine, which is basically a home machine made out of metal. That would break every two months and cost us a hundred dollars to fix. But that let us hobble along until we could finally afford an industrial machine, and that’s actually our first one (he points to a machine). But that’s the first one ever; right there is the basis of R.E. Load. It’s my favorite, but nobody else likes it.
What are some pros and cons of having your own business?
Every day I come down here to work and I’m like, thank god I don’t have to be in an office right now. But at the same time, we can’t offer health insurance to our employees yet, and what if someone gets hurt. I’m really stoked when I create a really detailed graphic on a bag, but right now I’m working 70 hours a week. There are a lot of pros and cons.
What’s in the future for R.E. Load?
Our main focus now is taking advantage of our own design skills and trying to establish ourselves more as designers and artists. We want to introduce new designs and products that we know will work and are what we want to make. For the past ten years we’ve been kind of making what people want us to make, and not [that] they want to stop doing that, but we are at the point now where we are more established so we want to create new designs and market them.
Do you have any advice for other people who are starting a business?
You have to love what your doing. It’s a ton of work. I highly advise that you have a partner. I feel like Ellie and I have a lot of complimentary interests. You have to have a game plan and a goal. As you grow, you can get trapped in just maintaining and that’s a bad place to be, because the next thing you know you’re not the forefront of what you’re trying to do anymore. You have to sustain growth; we were fortunate to grow really slowly, so we could handle it. Now what we are struggling with is being in the middle tier. We started out as an underdog company, and now we’re not anymore, and people want to support the new companies, the grass root companies. I think that you have to know your market, and try to make only the best products. For example, people always ask us to make iPod cases, and not that we can’t, but we know a company that already does it, and ours wouldn’t be better, so we refer people to that company.
What do you find inspiring about Philadelphia?
One of the things that hit me right away about Philadelphia was definitely Fairmount Park. I don’t utilize it so much anymore, because I don’t have the time, but I used to ride my mountain bike there every weekend. Other than that I think it’s the sense of pride that the city has. I feel like it’s really community based. I think one of the biggest pros about Philly is the biggest con: It’s a city that is really easy to get by in without having to work too hard. The pro is that this means that you can persue things that you want to do. With R.E.Load for instance, when it started and I was 21, I didn’t mind not making much money to make it happen””you could never do that in NY or San Francisco. But at the same time it gives people a sense of comfort that they can get by without doing too much. It can keep people from doing what they really want to do, which can be kind of a bummer.