Fred Perrotta from Tortuga Backpacks: Build something unique

Fred Perrotta is a great example that the best ideas are those you come up with when you’re trying to solve a real problem you’ve encountered. After not being able to find the perfect backpack for his European trip he decided to make one himself. Tortuga backpacks are now widely used by travelers and digital nomads.

Read on to find out how it’s like to manage a product remotely
and what plans he has for 2015.


Tell us a bit about yourself. Is Tortuga backpacks your full-time business now or do you do anything else for living?

Hi, I’m Fred Perrotta, the co-founder of Tortuga Backpacks. We make carry on backpacks for international city travel. Yes, Tortuga Backpacks is my full-time job. I was still working at Google when we started the company and later supplemented my income by freelancing for travel startups.

By the way, why “Tortuga” backpacks? Any particular interest in turtles? :)

We chose “tortuga” for two reasons. (1) It’s a foreign word, which reflected our international travel focus, and (2) turtles carry everything they need on their backs. We wanted to make a backpack that let travellers do the same.

Are you more an entrepreneurial digital nomad or a travelling entrepreneur? What are your favorite places and destinations you’ve been to so far?

I’m a traveling entrepreneur, not a full-time digital nomad. Having a home base makes working with physical products much easier. I take a few longer, international trips per year and lots of short, domestic ones.

Most of my favorite destinations are either places I’ve spent more time, like Sydney and Hong Kong, or places associated with a specific memory, like visiting Prague on the trip that led to Tortuga Backpacks.

Working remotely and especially managing a production remotely usually requires some degree of automation.

Definitely. Product development requires the most in-person work. Our supply chain is much more automated.

We use a freight forwarder to get our products from the suppliers in China to our warehouses in the US. When a customer places an order on the website, the order is sent to the warehouse. The warehouse preps the order and hands it off to the carrier. Tracking numbers are automatically generated and emailed to the customer. Unless a problem arises, we are “hands off” of the entire process from ordering to delivery.

   

Any tips for digital nomads who think about moving from freelancing to developing and selling their own products?

Build something unique and visit suppliers in person. If you want to really build a business, don’t white label existing products or source everything through Alibaba. Show your suppliers that you’re serious. They get lots of emails from wantrepreneurs. Make them care about your business. Having a reliable supplier will make your life and business much easier.

How long did it take from the idea to holding the final backpack?

Manufacturing the first run on backpacks was the biggest hurdle for us. We had the idea for the Tortuga in the summer of 2009. The product didn’t go on sale until almost two years later. The design was easy enough. Then we spent a year and a half cycling through factories and getting the bags made. You can read more about that journey in the blog post I wrote about it.

Have anything changed on the backpack market since the launch of Tortuga Backpacks?

The biggest change has been that more companies are jumping into the market from established brands like Timbuk2 to new companies imitating what we’ve done. We’ve been fortunate enough to build a large community that is vocal about their needs and quick to give us feedback on our ideas. Our next two bags were inspired by our needs and those of our past customers.

Our biggest differentiator is building for specific use cases and types of trips. The outdoor companies’ “travel” backpacks aren’t well considered. Just because a bag opens from the front, doesn’t make it ideal for the modern traveler. For example, we don’t describe our products in liters (volume), we describe the length of trip that you can use it on.

Do you have any plans to widen your product range?

Yes. Our second bag, the Tortuga Air, is designed for short trips and will be released in January. The packable Tortuga Daypack will be available for pre-order later in Q1. Our first line of accessories are slated for later in 2015.

What’s your hardware and software setup?

I work from a 5+ year old MacBook Pro but will be switching to a Macbook Air soon so that I can travel even lighter.

Our team is big on efficiency and systems. Our store runs on Shopify, which handles everything, including payments. As a team, we use Asana to manage projects and tasks and Slack for most other communication. I would also recommend HelpScout for customer support.

Can you share any personal productivity tips & hacks?

Stay out of your email and design your day around your peak productivity. I queue up a few big tasks in Asana for each morning because that’s when I’m most productive. Around lunch, I’ll check my email to archive anything unimportant and to respond to time-sensitive or easy emails. We use Asana for anything task-based, so email doesn’t usually add much to my to do list. After lunch, I go to the gym to break up the day and to get my energy back up for any important tasks in the afternoon.

I’ve recently started using ScheduleOnce to cut down on emails and make scheduling calls and meetings more efficient. Text Expander saves me hundreds to thousands of keystrokes per day.

What do you do pack for your trips abroad?

As little as possible. Here’s a recent example where I traveled to China for 12 days with just the Tortuga Air. With each trip, I inch closer to a capsule wardrobe that is functional but still looks good. I wear jeans and non-sneaker shoes because that’s what I like to wear, performance fabrics be damned. My other essentials are wool socks (Smartwool, Wigwam, or Darn Tough) and quick-drying underwear (Exofficio or Uniqlo), both of which can be washed and re-worn.

Do you have any routines when you travel? What’s your preferred working environment on the road?

I try to get myself into a routine to ensure that I get work done while still enjoying wherever I’m visiting.

As a wannabe foodie, I eat out as much as possible. Anything from street food to a gourmet restaurant works as long as it’s good. I love trying new foods and experiencing familiar ones in a new context.

For working, I strongly prefer coffee shops or coworking spaces. Then I’m out in the world of my destination and am able to meet people and learn more about the culture, not cooped up in an Airbnb apartment.

You’ve also founded a special scholarship program under the Tortuga brand. Why exactly a scholarship program?

We just awarded our first study abroad scholarship. We believe that everyone should travel the world. Helping young people start traveling was a logical choice for how to give back to the community. Plus, not studying abroad is my biggest regret from college.

What plans and goals do you have for 2015?

In 2015, I’ll be spending more time throughout Asia, including Southeast Asia and China, where we make our products. In the fall, I hope to get back to Europe, which I haven’t been to in a few years.

Our business goals for the year are to release the products that I mentioned earlier, expand our blog with an editor and four new writers, and to start a podcast. We covered this and more in our end of year post.

Your 3 favorite books?

The Four Hour Work Week sounds like a cliched answer, but that book gave us the confidence (and blueprint) to pursue the idea for Tortuga Backpacks.

Blue Ocean Strategy completely changed my thinking about business. I learned that you can’t (and shouldn’t) be everything to everyone. Choose a few factors to be great at and ignore everything else.

Sometimes a book seems to perfectly state what you already innately believed but hadn’t put into the right words. Antifragile was like that for me. Taleb codified some of my beliefs and taught me about the logical extensions of them. Being “antifragile,” as he described the concept, is the only way to thrive in the new economy.

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