Chez Brungraber and her husband, Griffin, live in Bend, Oregon but travel a lot. They spend three to four months every spring in San Diego working with endangered species. They make international trips a priority. And, as West Coast transplants who grew up in the North East, they make their way home regularly to visit family.
All this bouncing around resulted in disheveled belongings, especially when the couple shared luggage to minimize airline fees. Chez’s socks would end up in her husband’s shirt sleeve and they’d have to dump everything out onto the floor to sort through their items.
“This is insane. I can’t do it anymore,” Chez found herself thinking, which soon led her to an idea for a solution – compartmentalized, packable, lightweight bags to store, segment and organize all of their things.
Chez made the first prototype for what would eventually become Gobi Gear on a sewing machine before a trip to Asia. It took her 20 tries to get that first bag right. While the idea of stuff sacks with dividers to create compartments inside them is simple enough, actually sewing them is much more complicated, Chez said.
During that trip to Asia, Chez was amazed at the difference her little invention made.
“It was weird because I never had that experience where I was just ready to go all the time,” she said.
After meeting Israelis who wanted one of Chez’s compartmentalized travel stuff sacks, “it sort of dawned on us, there’s a business there,” she said.
Eight years and two successful Kickstarters later, there are now 70,000 Gobi Gear bags circulating this planet. They're used for everything from travel, backpacking and camping to organizing more routine activities, like yoga, skiing and dog gear. Two full-time employees help Chez run operations. And Gobi Gear products are supported by a design patent.
While getting to this point of success is “really cool,” it’s definitely been a journey that rivals exploring the most off the beaten path parts of the world.
“All of these people want to make a product, but that’s 10% of the story,” Chez said.
Gobi Gear has definitely had factory challenges, and tasks like Quickbooks, inventory spreadsheets and graphic design take time, but for Chez by far the most difficult part of launching this business has been branding and marketing – especially because she has bootstrapped it without any outside investor money.
“I have a double degree in ecology and economics, which does you absolutely no good when you’re branding a business,” she said.
The first Hobo Rolls – the company’s initial product – didn’t even have the Gobi Gear logo on them. Plus there was no website, nor branded packaging.
“We made it really hard for people to figure out who we were,” Chez said.
With time and perseverance, Chez has started to wrap her mind around things like the company’s voice and target audience.
“It’s now like I have a whole other degree in branding and marketing,” she said.
Chez has also put tremendous effort into automating as much of the business as possible. This has been in large part driven by necessity.
When she and Griffin head to California every spring to survey rare plants, their work days can be 13 hours long, entirely out of cell service.
While things like automated order confirmation emails are fairly commonplace nowadays – done with a simple app install – back seven years ago, when Chez was first tackling this project, it wasn’t so easy. She had to write some of her own code to get the job done.
Chez’s focus on streamlining Gobi Gear processes has become even more crucial in the last couple of years. As the mom of a newborn and toddler, who still travels with her family internationally, she has even less time to devote to the business.
She’s learned to delegate to her employees and better figure out what does and doesn’t have to get done.
“It’s been a challenge, and if your hearts in it, you can find a way to make do,” she said. “I’m also about spending time with our families. There’s absolutely nothing that can replace it.”
In a few weeks, Chez and her husband will get on a plane for a vacation in Europe, two young kids and Gobi Gear sacks in tow.