Tucked away near downtown Jackson Hole is Pam Barlow's studio. Pam's space is utilized amazingly - beautiful hand crafted bags hang from every surface available, a huge shelf of finished clutches and wallets lines a wall, every color of leather hangs from a rack. I arrived and was greeted by two huge, friendly Bernese mountain dogs. As Pam and I talked about all things business, it became clear she's not only a talented creator but an incredibly savvy businesswoman on top of it.
Q: How did this all start? What has your creative journey been like?
Pam: I have always sewn and made things. It was sort of Edward Scissorhands with clothing. I made dollhouse furniture when I was little - I was always into crafts. I was at home with using a sewing machine but the actual leather bag worked didn't start until about 2012 when I came across a beautiful piece of navy blue pebble grain chap leather at the saddle shop. I said, this is what I want - a bag made out of this is what I want. The bag I put all my treasures and my survival kit into needs to be made out of this stuff. Then I took the leather to the saddle shop and worked with Tammy to get the bag and the dimensions made up just right (I didn't have a leather sewing machine at that point in time). That’s how the first Copperdot leather bag was born. I ended up making 2 more at that time, one for me, two for family as gifts. They loved them.
The desire to make the perfect leather bag really came from being frustrated with what's in the marketplace; the leather quality and the costs. I just felt like nothing really performed as well as I wanted it to. I couldn't figure out why the fashion industry couldn't use high quality hardware or leather like the equestrian tack industry. So, that's pretty much why I said I'm gonna make my own. I'm going to use bridle leather. I'm going to use equestrian tack leather and start putting together bags that look and feel as good as tack and will last just as long. That was the beginning of it.
My background and degree is in architecture. I've always constructed things in my head and built things. So, the actual building of the bag and coming up with a template and a formula for creating a bag came naturally. I started making the first bags in 2014 when I got my hands on an industrial sewing machine. I started practicing stitching leather, which is a whole different ball game than stitching with fabric. I practiced and made a couple bags by myself and they came out okay. So I kept working at it. Eventually I had enough bags to do my first trunk show, which was in the fall of 2014 at a boutique here in town.
To my utter surprise, I sold out, I think I made 17 bags for that show. So I was like, hmm, okay I think we're onto something here. I made every single one of those bags in my basement at the time. The house I was living in was a 75 year old log cabin in Wilson. The basement workshop was in a little corner where I would stitch, hammer and cut each bag. Now I'm in a two car garage and I'm moving on up!
Q: Between the beginning, now, how has your business grown and changed?
Pam: The biggest evolution that I had to make was going from a “jobby” to a job. Making that transition from a hobby to a job and a lifestyle. It was a question of: can I make a business that is sustainable and is scalable? In the fall of 2016 I took the Startup Intensive, which is offered at CWC in collaboration with Silicon Couloir. It’s a 10 week startup intensive business course. At the time when I took it, I really had a hard time envisioning what direction I was going to go, I just knew I wanted to grow.
How or what that would look like - I had no idea. I knew, the bags had a handmade local quality that was really important to keep in the product. Manufacturing overseas was not an option. I was like, no, that's not CopperDot. And that's not what I enjoy. I enjoy making the bags and I enjoy meeting the people that are going to carry the bag. That's the whole mojo for me.
The business development side was absolutely foreign and uncomfortable for me. I wasn’t an entrepreneur, but I guess I am now. I always said I came about this business backwards. I had the product first and then I had to create the business around the product, whereas a lot of my peers knew they wanted to develop a business but didn't know what the product was going to be. They were all psyched to do this startup and create a company. But they didn't know what it was going to be or what the product was going to be. I had the product, but I had none of the entrepreneurial background. So it was a big thing for me. A big step that opened my horizons and had me start thinking a little bit bigger than an 8x8 space in my basement.
Scaling and building my product was huge. How do I build lots of bags? How do I delegate? How do I disperse some of the workload? Then how do I sell them all? It was definitely a challenge and I'm still learning how to do that. I'm learning how to appreciate it too. It is hard for me to step back and realize what I've done and what I've built. I've built a business! It produces a quality product that people want and that is a really hard thing for me to remember every day.
Q: Have you had a pivotal mentor who affected how or why you create?
Pam: I think that there is a myriad of people that have influenced me and given me little pearls of knowledge that over that years kept me going. The first little pearl came from my brother, a few months before he passed away. He said, these are really great bags, Pam. That was hugely encouraging for me, coming from him. I knew then that I created a quality product (big brother approved of). In terms of creative inspiration? It's everywhere. I’ve grabbed inspiration from all over the cosmos. I never stop observing, questioning, learning.
Q: What would you say is the most difficult part of working for yourself?
Pam: Motivation to keep going. Some days I'm exhausted. Running a business for yourself is 24/7. It's like having a child. If I go away or if I go on vacation, it’s with me. I'm thinking about orders, I'm thinking about the next step, I'm thinking about finances and thinking about production all the time. It's very isolating because it's just you; nobody's going to care about your product or your business as much as you do. Nobody's going to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night as much as you do. It's lonely. Finding balance is so necessary but oh, so difficult!
Q: What is your favorite part about working for yourself?
Pam: I can ping pong ball all over the place and bounce in my nonlinear way and still get a ton of stuff done. I realize I do things my own way, and it's probably not workable for other people, but I understand that. I’m not really into being the Boss B***ch at all. I’m more interested in building a quality healthy business that allows me to develop my personal life as well.
Q: What does your day to day or week to week look like?
Pam: I put out a lot of different fires daily. I do have to be really flexible and juggle things in different blocks of time. Sunday night is my planning period and I plan out different goals that we are going to hit or strategise on marketing, finances, workshop, production, self - all the major categories. Then I try to keep the ball rolling on each facet of the company throughout the week. I have workshop hours in the afternoon. First thing in the morning is my quiet time then I roll into computer time emailing etc... The afternoon is where I'm doing fulfillment, and doing workshop production with my team. Then I try to shut down by 5:30 or 6:00. Somewhere in there I get out to do a dog walk and reboot my brain.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the process?
Pam: I love designing. I love coming up with ways to make a product that can be replicated.
The sky's the limit in terms of creativity. But I have a certain set of parameters within the confines of this workspace: my tools, my materials, my skill. It’s actually really fun to come up with a new design that fits with the rest of my product line. And a lot of times it happens serendipitously. Like, we'll tweak some things here and there . And then, what if I just did this and added this one feature. Then voila! A new product. I think the most important question to ask in the creative process is: what if I did this? What if we tried that? If I stop asking what if, then I'm done for.
It is super cool to make a product here in the workshop that is going to go to someone and they’re probably going to have it for like a long time. It is amazing to see people out in the world with a Copperdot bag: for example, I was just driving down the street and saw someone getting in their car with a great big brown tote bag. I was like, oh, there's a Copperdot bag getting into a pickup truck! That's awesome. Seeing the bags loved on and lived in is really, really gratifying.
Q: Tell me about a moment you’ve had where you’ve thought wow, this is real, this is my job!
Pam: Those moments are far and few between because I'm so caught up with the dat-to-day that I rarely step back enough to see them. It's not like I just climbed the Grand, now take some pics and enjoy the view. Growing the biz is like taking a million little baby steps. Sometimes those steps wander and fall. A lot, really.
I did have a moment - we have produced a video and we are getting ready to launch the video on the website. It shows the process and the story of Copperdot. The first time I saw the video was one of those moments where I went, oh wow! I guess that is me. And this is what I've created.
Q: Talk to me about work life balance.
Pam: Recently I met with a mentor from Silicon Couloir and he asked me are you taking care of yourself? He didn't ask me about my business, he didn't ask how my sales are, how am I scaling or anything like that. Just, are you taking care of yourself? So, I am learning and it's really hard to teach this old dog a new trick. Self care is not something that it's in my DNA, it's not something I learned growing up and it's certainly not something I'm anywhere close to mastering.
I have started setting parameters like no emails, no work texts after 7:00 PM or before 7:00 AM. I will glance at emails, but not necessarily respond to them over the weekend unless it's from Tristan (Marketing Manager). I don't do customer care over the weekend. We have business hours Monday through Friday, that kind of thing. It's hard for me to say no if, for instance, customers are in town and they want to come to the studio before they leave on Monday morning and Sunday's the only day they're not going up in the park. There are times where I do have to make an exception because that's where we live. But I'm trying to like trying to learn those parameters and trying to set boundaries.
Q: If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Pam: Breathe, breathe, breathe. I get uptight and hold my breath, I think more than others.One time one of my interns was concentrating so hard on the task, stamping leather that she nearly passed out on me. She went white and almost collapsed. She forgot to breathe! It's a great anecdote for me to remember myself because I forget, too! I told her, Sweetie, you gotta breathe! Important advice.
Q: If you could have your clients or audience know one thing about your product or your business, what would it be?
Pam: Probably one of the best compliments I have ever had from a customer was when they said, Pam, your bags have soul. I was like, yeah! They do. I think it's that handmade product, going from my hands to yours, kind of love. The bags have the hand of the makers all over them. When a customer opens a box with a Copperdot bag in it and the waft of leather smell fills the room, they get it! The bags have soul, and customers treasure that. You can’t manufacture that.
Q: What are your goals for the next year or two?
Pam: I have a lot of goals in terms of growing the business and scaling the business. I want to find a financial partner. I want to get Devin flying on her own wings with marketing and sales. In terms of measurable goals: double production, double sales and have fun doing it! I think that's very doable.