Posted by Jeremiah Carter on June 14, 2011 at 8:52 am
If you ride around the Twin Cities on any given day and pay attention to what bags are on the back and racks of local cyclists you will see one logo over and over again, Banjo Brothers. Banjo Brothers bags are designed and headquartered locally, and we sat down recently with Mike Vanderscheuren and Eric Leugers to learn more about their design process and what keeps them rooted in the Twin Cities.
MBL: Where did the name Banjo Brothers come from?
Banjo Brothers: Eric and I were co-workers in the corporate cube farm. The business we ran was the redheaded stepchild of the parent company and was soon to be kicked to the curb and us with it, so one day, while goofing off we hatched the name. Banjo Eric’s brother Martin drew us a two-headed hillbilly sketch and the name just stuck with us. Mostly we thought it was funny and kind of catchy. When we traded our regular paychecks for the chance to wind up in the proverbial “van down by the river” we finessed the image a bit. Our second choice was G. Weiler – don’t ask – and it most likely worked out better.
MBL: Where in the Twin Cities does all of the design for new products come from?
Banjo Brothers: Eric is the design guru and a pretty remarkable guy. We do all our design here in a skunkworks operation in Eric’s home office and design studio. Over the years the process has been refined and we use a variety of methods to reach final design. That can be sketches, cardboard models, and de-constructed products. One of our first major purchases was an industrial sewing machine so we could develop most first generation prototypes in Minneapolis. Those prototypes are marked up and sent out for pre-production samples. When Eric does prototype here, the stuff is good enough it can be field-tested first and fine-tuned. Eric will sometimes give me stuff to see if I can break it or to see if I can pass the stupid test and install it on my bike. Sometimes I pass the test, other times it helps discover some shortcomings. And even though we usually have a set plan of what new products we’ll introduce in a give year, when I see Eric on his bike he’s usually got some newfangled product ginned up and hooked up to the bike.
MBL: When you are doing testing for new products, how do you know when you have something really good? (Like the removable waterproof liners love those).
Banjo Brothers: It varies – sometimes it hits you over the head. Take our white backpack for example. The white pack was born when we decided to try and make a backpack out of used billboard fabric. Eric sewed up a prototype and sent it to San Francisco for his brother Martin to test. It just so happened the bulk of that scrap of material was white. Martin wore our black pack for years with nobody batting an eyelash and all of a sudden with this new pack, people are stopping him on the street to ask where he got it. Other times our improvements are more deliberate. The design for the liner was a way we felt to extend the useful life of a bag by letting the tougher, more abrasion resistant fabric take all the abuse, and by creating a $10 replacement part a rider could swap out to make the pack whole again versus scrapping the whole bag. Some insights come from our years as cyclists and this experience allows us to view product function issues through a certain prism. You also have to be able to listen – like when the original design of our mini seat bag was for some cyclists causing their bike shorts to wear out early because of some abrasion we took that opportunity to make a number of small but important changes. An important part of our philosophy is the notion of continuous improvement so even though our core product line has not changed in appearance that much, almost every product has been improved in some meaningful way via this process.
MBL: What has helped you to grow from a small company in such a short period of time?
Banjo Brothers: Even though over the past several years we have built a substantial amount of dealers, we still consider ourselves small. Eric and I are both pragmatic guys and we knew when we started Banjo it was something we’d be building one shop at a time and that in and of itself is not a fast process. I think there are a couple of keys elements – one, we are fiercely loyal to our dealers and work hard to help them be successful. And for all the customers who buy our product we’re extremely committed to making sure they are happy with their purchase. There’s a big difference between affordable and cheap. Banjo Bags are extremely affordable and they are designed to work really well. When a cyclist buys one of our bags they count on it to work -and if it doesn’t we give them their money back or make it work right.
MBL: Do you have an all time favorite product?
Banjo Brothers: The waterproof backpack was a bit of a game-changer for us and I think we were slightly ahead of the curve on cycling specific packs, but day-to-day, probably it’s the 01085 Market Pannier because it’s such a versatile bag. It can take groceries or gear – it’s not 100% waterproof but functionally waterproof enough to take camping. The 01033 Waterproof Saddle Trunk is also a favorite– mostly because the design is ideal for competing in events like the Almanzo 100. Having 400 cubic inches of dry storage on a bike with no rear rack gives you a lot of options for carrying additional food and gear.
MBL: What keeps your company rooted here in the Twin Cities?
Banjo Brothers: When we started Banjo one of the main reasons was so that we both could stay in the Twin Cities. We love it here. Eric came to Minneapolis on purpose via Cincinnati and California. I’m a native Minnesotan who grew up on the Iron Range and who migrated to the city and stayed. There are business reasons to stay – like the huge amount of creative talent in the region and the cities’ embrace of biking as transportation and recreation, but equally important it’s a great place to live and raise a family.
MBL: Where did the idea for Tiny Bike Shop Concerts come from?
Banjo Brothers: I got the idea one Sunday in early February when I was driving to teach cross-country skiing to 6-7 years olds at Wirth Park. Like a lot of good ideas, it wasn’t 100% original but rather a take-off on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Series where musicians passing through DC often give little 4-5 song concerts in Bob Boilen, the NPR’s music director’s office. Music and bikes both elicit high passions in people– and I thought it would be a good way to bring some attention to our brand and collaborate with our shops. I was so excited about the concept of holding a bunch of concerts in bike shops around the country I cornered Eric after class. Another goal Eric and I have, and this was a part of the original idea, was in working with the other bike gear companies in Minneapolis and to use our collective resources. Other than O2 Rainwear, we really haven’t fully tapped into that yet.
MBL: What are the future plans for Banjo Brothers?
Banjo Brothers: In the short term, we have a lot of good things on tap for 2011 and beyond. First, we are about to launch this June, a collaborative product development project with a bike brand headquartered in this market. (We can’t spoil the surprise)
We made a number of upgrades to our existing product line and will be launching some “red” versions of core products like backpacks, seat bags and panniers in June as well.
Eric and I are doing a lot more travel for Banjo Brothers to other markets to open new customers and see existing shops. We barnstormed though Iowa this spring, just wrapped up a Pacific NW trip, I’m headed to Texas in June to see dealers, and Eric will be in Missouri, Indiana and Illinois. Plus we’ll be at Interbike again.
We’ve also been opening up some more international distribution and are working on a wholesale distribution agreement for the UK.
MBL: Do you have a favorite Twin Cities bike event?
Banjo Brothers: That’s tough because there are so many, so I’ll say no. In the vein of local, local, local, Eric and I do try and support as many local events sanctioned and unsanctioned as possible. Credit Chris Skogen for getting us interested in the Almanzo and the whole gravel series, Jeff Frane who helped get us into the All City Championships, the Bike Walk Folks, and so many more. Events aside, and I can’t 100% speak for Eric, but I think it’s safe to say the riding we enjoy most is with family and friends. That riding comes in a lot of forms – weekend training rides with friends, weekday rides to the warehouse, birthday pub crawls, couples night on our vintage tandems or the big bike camping trip we do every year at Carver Park.