The company, Teamwork Design, started in 2006 when two friends started making screen-printed T-shirts. Teamwork Design eventually broke into the high-end bag market using recycled material and a very limited distribution channel. Now, thanks to an infusion of capital from pre-seed fund Start Garden, the company hopes to scale up to the next level of growth.
Nick Stockton and Nick Stygstra, two Kendall College of Art and Design graduates, founded Teamwork to make T-shirts in a Grand Rapids studio. When they decided to branch out into new products, they brainstormed what kinds of materials they could get on the cheap or even for free. That got Stockton thinking back to the time he made bags out of a blown-out sail from a friend who raced sailboats.
“I had made a bag out of necessity because I couldn’t afford the one I wanted,” Stockton said.
Teamwork Design wound up making 11 bags and sold nine of them at Renegade Craft Fair, a do-it-yourself mecca for “indie-craft” artists.
“We were like, ‘Oh, this actually has some legs,’” Stockton said. “We took the money and reinvested into a better sewing machine, made some more, invested in some more fabric and equipment and just kept rolling the money into the company. That’s what we’ve been doing up until now.”
Teamwork got a boost earlier in June when Start Garden awarded the company $5,000 to work on scalability issues. Additionally, the company used Kickstarter to pre-sell products, determine interest and launch new lines and models of bags.
Even though the bags are relatively expensive – some ranging up to $300 or more – they are handcrafted by just a couple people at the sewing table. The bags also sell out just as quickly as they can make them.
“Our goal now is to try and scale up so we can actually turn some profit,” Stockton said. “Growth is our current focus.”
Up to recently, Teamwork would make a product, post it on a website and sell it within a week or two. Its production team consisted of two or three people manufacturing the product. That worked when order sizes ranged from two at a time to a dozen in one order, but the company needed to change if it wanted to grow, said Chad Morton, business development and project manager for Teamwork.
“The Start Garden opportunity came along, and now we are starting to look at where really growth can happen,” Morton said.
Teamwork used the money it got from Start Garden to identify and start to work with a commercial sewing firm in greater Baltimore. Stygstra said the company had struggled for some time to find an in-state commercial sewing firm that would manufacture the bags to order. Many of the companies Teamwork approached wouldn’t produce anything less than several thousand units, he said.
However, now that the company isn’t doing its own production sewing, it has time to focus on other aspects of the business like building the brand, identifying the customer base and vetting potential retailers. Already, the company has seen interest from a handful of sales channels that would like to carry Teamwork products, Morton said.
Teamwork currently has a deal with online retailer AhaLife, a company that offers a range of primarily high-end lifestyle goods. Morton said the opportunity with AhaLife is a good fit because the retailer can work with Teamwork’s limited inventory and still have the relationship be beneficial for both companies. As Teamwork’s first commercial bag order heads out the door, the company also has added the ability to keep several hundred bags in inventory, which should also open more opportunities, Morton said.
AhaLife recently approached the company to extend the line of Teamwork products it will carry as well as to present an opportunity to be included in the store’s New York pop-up shop.
Teamwork also received visibility through partnerships with the likes of Herman Miller, Whirlpool and Bissell to make corporate giveaway products. The work has also provided the company with the opportunity to further tap into its design talents.
“We really want to increase our opportunity to become a design house,” Morton said. “Now that we’re not doing our own manufacturing, we can start doing more with what we can design, which is really where we wanted to be anyways.”
While Teamwork is known for its bags, Stockton said he doesn’t want to pigeonhole the company to just that. He said to take Teamwork where he wants it to go, it has to open up to exploring new materials and new products to make the company sustainable.
“Part of our sustainability model, that we don’t see in other companies, is sure you can up-cycle some material and make some crappy product of out it, but what’s the purpose if it just goes back into the waste stream,” Morton said. “Our goal is to take whatever material we have and create something that has heritage to it, is high quality and simple.”
The company will continue to make salvaged sail bags, but Stygstra said it wants to leverage its minimalist and utilitarian styles into other sectors of the market.
Teamwork currently operates out of the Tanglefoot Warehouse at 314 North Straight Street in Grand Rapids. The company also plans a pop-up shop in the Harris Building at 111 South Division Street that runs through ArtPrize.