Portage Supply Co.

I recently witnessed first hand how changing the build equation of a product can totally reverse a negative perception of a small business.

Back in June, I purchased a camera and laptop bag from Portage Supply Co. They're a little family-owned business "born in Northern Minnesota" and they specialize in creating quality goods without asking a bajillion dollars for it. Since not having a bajillion dollars is high on my list of priorities (sadly), they were the obvious choice for:

  1. a good-lookin' bag
  2. a good-lookin' bag crafted without cheap materials
  3. a good-lookin', quality-made bag that carries all my dumb gear at once

After I got the bag, it Yoda'd my back all over the place; Washington DC, the Tough Mudder (spectating), Ft. Myers, practically every inch of Downtown, up and down Liberty Hill, and countless other places. I routinely stuffed it full with 7+ pounds of camera equipment, my Macbook, a tripod, and a full water bottle. The little Portage bag made trek after sweaty trek with me from start to finish, and I loved it.

But here's the rub: the bag done pooped itself out after 9 months. The shoulder straps started ripping and the top leather handle became so dissolved, it literally hung by a thread on one side. I didn't feel safe using it to carry my stuff anymore.

C'mon, guys! I thought you were different from other bag-ufacturers! I trusted you.

It didn't even make it a year. Something needed to be done about this. I went on their website and did a little research to see if I could get it fixed. Apparently, according to their website, if you have issues with your bag within 6 months, Portage'll swoop in and take care of it. It said nothing about those of us at the 9 month mark.

Figuring my full-term-baby-aged bag was about to end up stuffed in the closet forever, I emailed them anyway. It couldn't hurt to try, and if they told me I was out of luck, then I'd have to deal with it.

But here's where the story takes a dramatic turn: they were like "Yeah, no problem. We got you."

They asked my address after cross-referencing my name with the date of purchase I gave them, and they sent me a brand new bag, free of charge. I was stunned. Not only did they fix my problem, they gave me a brand new bag. And this wasn't just a copy of the same bag I had before; they made significant, and I mean significant, alterations to it. Alterations that made the old back look and feel like a generic dollar store version of the same thing.

You know how MadTree recently moved from 1.0 to 2.0 and how it was a gigantic of a leap forward to their business? It's like that with this bag. There's literally nothing quality-wise about the old bag that even comes close to the new one they sent me.

Here are some side by sides to give you some idea. The new bag is on the left.

The actual material it's made with is stiffer, heavier, and feels more synthetic than the old bag. You can feel the thread's weave on the new bag; its texture is pronounced and solid while the old bag's felt mildly absorbent and thin. The leather is a different color and feels slightly more rigid (although that could be due to its relative newness).

Left is the new bag.

And the new bag retains its shape and doesn't crumple under its own weight, either. Toward the end, I'd added a thin piece of wood into the laptop compartment of the old bag just to get it to stand up on its own. I felt like it needed a skeleton because it wanted to go fetal whenever I placed it on its "butt."

But the outside isn't what I love most about this updated bag. "Looks aren't everything" and "it's what's inside that counts", right?

The compartments where the gear is stored is much improved. The old bag had a Velcro-anywhere, cotton-y material that covered thin pieces of flimsy foam. While that was fine, it wasn't ideal. After a few months, the foam was curling inside the material and losing its shape.

The new bag's material feels more like vinyl and has isolated strips of Velcro on the ends of the dividers. The foam inside feels stronger and supported, giving you more confidence about the protection of your stuff when you place it inside.

Here's the old bag. Left is where you put your camera gear, and right is where you slide in your laptop:

And here's the new bag. Left is where you put your camera gear, and right is where you slide in your laptop (now with elastic strap to keep it tight):

The contrast is staggering. I don't know the real story behind the bag's redesign, but I speculate that enough people complaining about the original directly led to a much-needed overhaul.

An overhaul which not only totally solved the design issue of the bag, but also totally overhauled my opinion of Portage Supply Co.