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Interview with Dave Munson :: Saddleback Leather Co.

Interview with Dave Munson :: Saddleback Leather Co.

by , April 4, 2014
Once in a while a character shows up in the industry who seems to have the ‘it’ factor. That special knack, that showmanship, charisma and appreciation for theatre that just resonates with people and screams chutzpah! The Saddleback Leather founder, Dave Munson, is that guy. And he’s been dishing up his own unique take on brand advertising for some time now, laughing in the face of the traditional banner fluff and print ads, whilst getting more views than the best funny cat videos YouTube has to offer. 
But he’s got good reason. His bags are said to last 100 years and his brand has legions of loyal fans that shout its praises to the rooftops, and occasionally blow it up with dynamite (I’m not kidding).
So we tracked him down in Mexico and picked his brain about his brand, his philosophies and his latest viral video that actually lets everyone know how to knock off his stuff…

You’ve recently released the very bold and very funny ‘How to Knock Off a Bag’ video on YouTube. What inspired this reverse-sell approach for you? 

Our filmmaker in residence sent me a Barbour process film to watch on making their jackets. Everything Barbour does is high quality. And it was really nice and sweet. So I thought, “Man, we should do one, but very educational with information that will help people become more aware of quality in all things they buy in leather”. And, of course, we wanted it fun and cool.

How often have you seen counterfeit versions of your products, and in what kinds of seedy locations? 

Whenever someone gets fired from our factory for drug use or stealing, we often find out that they moved to a factory that accepts them and then makes them aware of how popular our products are, and then they start knocking them. I’ve seen counterfeits on generic-looking websites with bad grammar that you can order straight from China, and throw in a Louis Vuitton or two for good measure. One place from India actually copied every pixel of our website trying to sell our wares.

Have you ever had run-ins with counterfeiters? 

The guy who used to make them for me before we started a factory also knocks them off. I asked him to stop and he said that he had the right to do it. I talked to an Intellectual Property lawyer in Chicago who told me for a mere $410,000, they could sue them internationally and they were confident they could stop him. I met one guy who actually showed his counterfeit bag to me and he said that he bought 10 out of India for about 30% less than the materials alone cost me.

‘How to Knock Off a Bag’ just clicked past 250K views. Did it always feel like this idea would be even more viral? 

Not at all. It’s 12 minutes long!!! But that didn’t matter. We are making film a significant part of our website because we like telling stories and connecting with our customers. It’s all about relationships. So this was going to go on the quality education page anyways.


You’ve produced a number of other kooky vids that basically test the quality of your products, but in novel ways. It’s really a strange juxtaposition when comparing your products to your promo, why so? Does it reflect your personality? 

This is just what we do and where we go. We don’t go out of our way to film a demo video in a strange place. We film in places where we already are and show what we are doing to expose art in our business, since we already design and sell functional art. So, we just let our filmmaker go for it and the next thing you know, he gets a short employee profile film into Sundance and a full feature documentary into True/False and other festivals this year.

The reason we are sharing things through art is so that instead of us telling you what we do and who we are and what we value, we are showing you. People will tell you everything they think you want to hear, but usually they can’t show you anything. Soon, when you look at our Values Page on the site, you’ll see films and the phrase, “Tell me anything. Show me everything”.

OK, now I’m going to throw you a couple of titles I dug up from your YouTube channel and it would be cool if you could run us through each…

Guns and Explosives Bag: 

Mythbusters asked us to make them two bags for a show they were doing on Hitler’s assassination attempt. So, they loaded it up with C4 and kaboom! So, we decided to give a prize to the best example of destroying their bag. And that’s what happened. Did you see the liquid nitrogen frozen bag thrown off of the roof and shattering?

Australian Crocodile Attacks Bag:

We were in Australia and I became friends with a guide and I told him that I wanted to test my briefcase (that bag later became my diaper bag) and so he took me out on a boat and the rest is history. Talk about an adrenaline rush.

Spear Throwing Contest:

We were visiting a little Masai village in Tanzania up on the rim of the Ngorongoro crater and I saw all of these men with spears. They were singing and hopping around and it was really cool. But then I figured that if they all grow up with a spear that they certainly would be good spear throwers. So I took my backpack off and set up the contest. It was so much fun. Come to find out, they never throw their spears because if they throw their spear at a lion and miss, then they’ll get eaten. So, they weren’t all that good at throwing.

And last but not least ‘Tim and Susan have Matching Handguns’, which I believe is a short film?

Yes, of the 8161 short films that were submitted to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, this was one of the 66 selected. It is just a glimpse into the life of a couple of employees. Something interesting about them that you wouldn’t know from just talking with them on the phone. I feel that the film approach is way better for connecting with people than just posting a headshot (pun intended) of the employee and their three favorite hobbies. It’s only 95 seconds, but do you know how hard it is to tell a story well in 95 seconds? 18 different setups and whatnot. It wasn’t easy.

What’s your guiding philosophy when it comes to advertising/promotion? Does ‘entertainment’ play a large role?

Not necessarily to entertain, but to educate. And by doing so, people are made wiser and can make better decisions. And, of course, there’s no reason you can’t make education entertaining. If you have a choice, why not. But if one looks at the overall body of our ads and promotion, you’ll pretty much know what kind of a company we are. We’re real and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that people like real.

What kind of feedback do you get from your fans? Any haters?

People love us because when they see what they see, they say that the things we obviously value are the same things they value and so are representations of who they are. And then we become their brand. It’s pretty clear that we are not just about the money. We like making money because it lets us love people around the world. Our definition of success and why we exist really comes out when we share our life experiences with others. The wisest man who ever lived says that you can tell where a person’s heart is by looking at where they spend their money. If you watch our films and follow us on Facebook, you’ll learn where our hearts are. And people love it. Of course, the haters hate it. And we have some raging haters. It’s sad that they have nothing to do but to be so hateful. If they would transfer the energy they put forth in hate and transfer it to help, could you imagine the joy that would fill their lives? They’re really missing out as they search for some sort of significance in their lives.

Speaking of hate, what do you really hate about other brands and the way they promote their products? 

I don’t hate the way other brands promote their products. In fact, I LOVE it. I encourage them to continue on doing it the same way they learned in marketing class. PLEASE DON’T CHANGE A THING!!! One brand that is really doing it right though is Filson. They’re a really cool company who gets it. Whoever is directing their branding and marketing needs a raise.


I’m curious, how did a character like yourself get into the leather game? 

Here’s a long story made short: I was volunteering way down in Mexico teaching English for a year and needed a bag to carry my teaching stuff. I couldn’t find a bag like the one that was put in my head and so I had one made. And roughed it up and everyone loved it. When I got back to Oregon, four to five times a day people would stop me to ask me about it and where they could get one. My black lab, Blue, and I moved to Juárez, Mexico and ended up living in the slums in a $100/month apartment with no hot water for three years while we slept on an old mattress on the floor that a friend gave me. Every penny went back into the bags. I would deposit money into the bank of a father and son leather craftsman team and they would send some bags up on the bus to Juárez. I would pick them up and put them on eBay.


What’s next for Saddleback? 

Social Manufacturing. Where all of the money that is made from making our own bags goes right back into growing the factory and growing the people. We’ll have parenting classes, marriage classes and financial classes and nurseries and day care and breastfeeding rooms for single mothers who work with us. We’ll have English classes and schools for the kids of the employees. We can’t break the cycle of poverty for everybody, but we can break it for a few. Hopefully that will spread and we’ll have the pattern for social manufacturing around the world for others to use and implement. With quality and price being equal, who wouldn’t want their stuff made in a social factory? We’ve already started down in Mexico. It’s in the initial stages, but we’re moving fast.

Any new videos in the pipeline? Or maybe a directorial debut in feature film? 

Life After Death is a biggie. It’s in True/False at the end of February and will make its rounds this year. It highlights my amazing wife and her work in Rwanda with sponsorship and loving kids and young men. It’s what we’re about. I’m in there a little too. Our filmmaker, Joe Callander, is amazing. One of the founders of the festival said that the film is unprecedented and that in all of his years of running the festival he has never seen anything like it.

When you make a bag to last 100 years, there are some compromises the user must accept (e.g.: hauling extra thickness). How do you navigate those compromises in your videos? And in your design? 

The bag being a little bit heavier than others is just the price of owning quality. It also doesn’t have zippers and magnets and other conveniences because it’s built to last. There are a lot of trade-offs we must decide on in life and this is one of them. Quality isn’t always convenient, but it sure is worth it. No compromise in the design.


I’ve noticed you’re always traveling and in different parts of the globe, why so? Are you on the run? 

On the lam, baby!!! It’s the only way to be. Not really. Actually, we travel for travel’s sake. We just learn so much and have so much fun. And we take our little kids with us too. We want them to be global citizens and to understand how the world works, not just America. We also want them to develop a love for people around the world.

St. Augustine said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel, read but one page”. It’s true. I was on the airplane a few months back sitting next to a south Asian-looking guy and asked him where in India he was from. He said that he was actually from Nepal, but now lives in the U.S. and teaches at a university. He was really nice. I asked him if he grew up with running water or electricity in his home and he looked at me with the weirdest look. He said, “No I didn’t. Nobody in my village had that stuff. How did you even know to ask me that? Everybody that I meet in the U.S. just assumes that everybody has a flat screen T.V. in their house and would never suspect the way I grew up.” I told him that we have learned some things from traveling.

Since you do so much traveling, what’s your favourite travel hack? 

My wife plans all of our trips and she gets AMAZING deals on places to stay. Vacation Rentals By Owner (vrbo.com) or HomeAway or Airbnb is where she goes. For a family, they’re way cheaper than any hotel and especially if you invite other families to come and stay with you, then they split the cost. When I was single and hitchhiked all over Mexico a number of times, I always saved money by sleeping on buses instead of hotels. I would get an overnight bus to the place I wanted to go instead of hitchhiking there. Of course, I would usually meet some nice family and they would ask me to stay in their home that night. But if I didn’t, then I would pay to sleep on a bus instead of in a motel.

Before you go, can you take a photo of what’s in your pocket (pocket dump) and fill us in on what you’re carrying?

I have to be honest here. I don’t carry anything in my pockets anymore except for a little pocket knife. If I could, I would go naked, but my wife won’t let me. Nor will the police. I like to be as comfortable as possible and so clothes are a necessary evil. I put everything I carry with me daily into my Saddleback Leather pouch. It’s my everyday carry. I keep my Leatherman in the bottom, my Saddleback Leather simple Front Pocket ID wallet on top of that and then I put my iPhone in and then I put my keys on top or next to that. In the back pocket of it I carry a Field Notes paper booklet and a thin copper pen.

Damn, I was hoping on finding something illicit in there…but that’s cool. Thanks for your time. It was awesome fun. 



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