May 15, 2018 6 min read
When Pacsafe started in 1998 it was launched with one product – a wire mesh net that locked over the top of a hiking pack. The style was mostly catering to intrepid backpackers exploring the globe. Since then, the brand has evolved from being a niche outdoor brand, into one that bridges the gap between anti-theft backpacks for travel and products used each and every day for peace of mind.
I recently sat down with co-founder of Pacsafe, Magnus McGlashan, to chat about how Pacsafe’s products evolved over the years, to solve more problems and help people get out in the world and enjoy all sorts of adventures.
“We started with the Pacsafe net, but there were some bags it didn’t fit, so we made some different sizes,” explained Magnus about the first time things started to expand. “They all had separate names: Backpacker, Backpacker Plus, Transit, Travel Light. All these different sub names. We also did another series for wheeled luggage, so we went from one net to eight nets pretty quickly.”
The two-man company of Magnus and co-founder Rob Schlipper then moved into creating a portable safe with a material backing.
“Rob had been working for a really long time getting the wire eXomesh laminated well into fabric,” continued Magnus. “That was launched in 1999 as soon as we were able to get it done at a high quality. We called it the Travel Safe, which is still in the range today and does well. It’s easy to pack into luggage and is really sturdy.”
As time progressed customers came to Pacsafe asking for more accessories. A suggestion from one group was to add a neck pouch and waist wallet into the range.
“We thought, sure, we’ll do it! It was harder than we expected. Twenty years ago Shen Zen was a very different place for manufacturing. Just to get minimums was crazy. We built these pouches with the Pacsafe twist of having wire in the belts that you use to attach them to your body, so they were slash resistant. Rob engineered all of that in. There was lots of trial and error because no one had done it before. He found a great way for the buckle to slide and adjust with the right amount of tension. We still use that today almost 20 years later, that’s how solid Rob’s design is. We called it the Pouch Safe or something, but they’re called the Coversafe now. It was a turning point for the business. It was the start of segmenting into different categories. We also did the Wrapsafe, which was an anchor cable for your bag, which we still sell.”
“We then ended up building a small bag, the Metrosafe 100, again still in the line today, and still one of our best sellers. It’s crazy to think that most of those early designs are still in the range and still doing well. It was 2002 or so that bag hit the market. ”
While a lot of those early styles were successful, and continue to be, Magnus went on to admit not everything they tried worked.
“We made some abominations along the way! At that point, we didn’t really have designers as much as engineers. We were looking at problems that needed solving before we built any bag. So, we made some mistakes in terms of how things were presented. That’s okay though, it’s the nature of evolving and learning as you go.”
There were also the tough years business-wise, that strangely led to the company expanding.
“When 9/11 happened that was a horror year,” recalled Magnus. “All of a sudden world travel died overnight, especially from the USA. Sales just stopped. Terrorism didn’t affect European travel as much as it affected the USA. We didn’t see much of a dip there, so were lucky we had an international business to see us through. We got through that and then SARS hit. That brought all world travel to its knees. But we decided that in times of crisis, it was a good opportunity to double down and strengthen your brand. Roll the dice and take it to another level. That’s because your production costs slowed, you ran down your stock and you actually had cash flow. So it was this weird thing. When business is booming and growing, all of the cash goes into the product. When it slows, you have a bit more to invest in branding.”
“So, when SARS hit we approached a branding agency. They did a full assessment of what we did, to see if we could bring some life into it. They key thing was simplifying everything down, making it easier to understand. We dropped a bunch of names, streamlined the conventions. We came up with icons, which we probably overdid a bit. But we captured the brand essence. It was another turning point.”
The next key turning point came in 2005 when Magnus and Rob decided to finally get some true designers on board to complement the team’s engineering experience.
“That was a pivotal moment. We were at a trade fair and a lady called Jan Sati from Magellan’s came in and asked if we could do some handbags. We knew we needed good designers for that. The Citysafe came into the range and it has continually been a top seller for us ever since. We went from something like $20K to $600K of sales in a year and a half. It really was like a full rebirth of Pacsafe. We went from outdoor, adventure only, into handbags and bridging across to everyday use and also into luggage stores. It made us a lot more successful. We looked a servicing certain markets and solving problems they had.”
Another key step in Pacsafe’s 20-year journey was in how to communicate the problems they were helping to solve. While ‘fear-mongering’ was a tempting tactic, they wanted to inspire people to get out and see the world.
“We realized that when you feel safe, you can do more. It’s about outsmarting the threats before they happen. So we called it smart travel gear, instead of security. So Pacsafe as a brand isn’t about anti-theft. The products are, but as a brand we’re about enjoying yourself, traveling and loving it. It might sound basic now, but that was a big insight. You have the inspiration of the life you want to lead, and the product that helps you get there.”
“We also had this guy called Brain Pemberton who we hired to be in charge of European sales, but whose real talent was marketing. He brought in 4 security features – the way of communicating it. Once we knew how to tell people what we were selling in a way that was clear, things took off. It was also when the imitators started. Because we could articulate things better, it meant people could take that intellectual property and use it to their own benefit. We combatted that with our use of patents, solving new problems, but also just really focussing on quality.”
Today, that focus on quality and constant innovation has brought Pacsafe’s ‘Do more, Be more, See more’ message to over 35 countries around the world and growing. There are still adventure focussed bags, like the Pacsafe Dry series that helps people enjoy fun times in the water. But there are also ranges like the Stylesafe collection for roaming in the city, and wallets that help protect your credit cards from unwanted scans. The products have changed, but the heart of the reason why Pacsafe started is the same – help people enjoy life’s adventures knowing their gear is safe.
It will be interesting to see what the next 20 years bring as part of that journey.
Tim Hawken is an Australian writer who enjoys surfing, Indian food and romantic midnight strolls to the beer fridge. He has clocked up visits to 23 countries on 5 continents (and counting). Find out more about his weird world by heading tohis website, or following him onInstagram andTwitter.
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