Adventurist Backpack Co. turned out its first line in September 2017. Since then, the social enterprise is committed and on course to provide a total of about 65,000 meals to people in need.
Co-founder Kelly Belknap is a Monument native and Lewis-Palmer High School graduate who created the company with his Swedish wife, Matilda Sandström. Belknap, who received his psychology undergraduate degree from Colorado State University in 2014, attributed his social awareness to volunteering at the Marian House Soup Kitchen in Colorado Springs with his parents during his formative years.
“Seeing the people there be so thankful for a warm meal was obviously a good experience,” he said. “That really stuck with me.”
Belknap said, “like Warby Parker did with glasses,” Adventurist Backpack Co. aimed at launch to provide style and quality at a relatively affordable price point — and all while giving back.
“We had gone to Sweden to visit her family,” Belknap said.
“And for the first time Kelly saw minimalist Scandinavian style,” Sandström added. “So we started talking about that for backpacks.”
According to Belknap, it was difficult finding a backpack “that was stylish and high quality while still under $150 or $200.”
So the couple set out to create one.
But there was one small problem: Neither had any idea how to launch a line, find a manufacturer, run a business, handle logistics, market a brand, negotiate with retailers…
Do your part
Belknap and Sandström connected, in part, because of their mutual love of travel. While jobless and wandering around South America and Europe, the two would pass out meals to the less fortunate.
“What we wanted to do was to help the people in the countries we were visiting. We bought food at the grocery store — fruit and bread — and turned them into individual meals and put them in our backpacks and handed them around to people, just to spread some kindness and to make someone’s day better,” Sandström said. “That’s when it clicked. We were like, ‘We could go back to Colorado and keep doing this — keep giving meals.’”
They wasted little time when they returned to their home state. The couple used Alibaba — a conglomerate that, among other things, connects entrepreneurs to manufacturers, most of them in Asia — and had their design turned into an actual product.
“We emailed manufacturers on Alibaba leading up to [the launch] and narrowed our search based on quality,” he said. “We wanted to make sure the manufacturer had credentials and certifications — Bureau Veritas — to make sure they treat their employees fairly.”
The two first invested $7,000 on an order for 900 backpacks with the intent to sell their product solely online.
“Then we didn’t have to deal with wholesale pricing and could just make the most money by doing it online,” Belknap said.
Belknap and Sandström didn’t have any money after their initial investment, so all of the marketing they pursued was through social media and free.
They began posting on Instagram and within a week, a Montana retailer with six locations reached out and wanted to order 90 backpacks, sight unseen.
The two personally drove the order to Bozeman.
“We made half of what we would have made selling it on our website because we sold it wholesale,” Sandström said. “But at that point we were happy people even found our website, and selling so many at once kind of made us reconsider our whole strategy.”
Adventurist Backpack Co. began approaching other retailers after that and focused on growing its Instagram following, which is nearly at 10,000 people. The couple also signs up to have a presence at events, such as races, and because they operate a social enterprise, the entry fee is often waived.
The marketing plan has worked — Adventurist Backpack Co. is in 40 retail locations across the country and is working to get shelf space in a major national retailer this year. The company also sold its initial order of 900 backpacks during Year 1 and has already reached that total during the first five months of its sophomore lap.
The packs, which retail for $65, can be found regionally at Mountainside Skate Shop in Manitou Springs and House Of Sk8 in Colorado Springs. And for every pack sold, 25 meals are donated through Feeding America. Belknap said, even with a 10 percent increase in production costs due to Chinese tariffs, the number of donated meals will not decrease.
“[Feeding America works] with food banks around the U.S., including Food Bank of the Rockies in Denver, which distributes meals in all of Colorado,” Sandström said.
And social enterprises will only become more popular as Millennials gradually become the generation with the most buying power, Belknap said.
“When we were giving out meals on trips we weren’t trying to solve world hunger,” he said. “We were just trying to brighten someone’s day and be kind. We weren’t fooling ourselves into thinking that handing out 25 meals from our backpack was doing something. But now, seeing brands like TOMS [Shoes] — the whole Millennial generation and brands — we want them to give back. We want brands to be responsible ethically, socially, in every way.
“So we think we can continue the first part of the wave that make it known that it’s a brand’s responsibility to give back in some way. We feel like capitalism and entrepreneurship can actually solve basic problems if every brand does its part.”