Ever wondered what it’s like to travel the world and build a product from the road at the same time? We spoke to Jimmy Hayes, one-half of the Minaal duo, on how he & his co-founder Doug develop a physical product while moving around, what challenges they face and what his advice would be to anyone looking to start out.
Hey Jimmy, can you give me a quick run-down of your personal background?
I’m a New Zealander from a small town in the South Pacific. Doug and I have pretty varied backgrounds; he used to work in law and procurement but was never corporate and he always wanted to be his own boss, travel, and surf.
I was in all types of media, particularly written. One of my first jobs was as a journalist in Parliament, but I was stone cold broke, and so I had to pretend to have nice clothes to fit in! I’ve also worked in radio and even drove an ice cream truck at one point. I’m a bit less entrepreneurial than Doug – I was never that kid that’s sitting on the street selling lemonade.
But Doug sucked me in and we setup a business together. It started because we wanted to carry on traveling whenever and wherever, but that means it has to be a specific type of business. Quickly our trips became more about the business rather than traveling to visit factories and things like that.
So what made you decide to start Minaal?
On the trips we were having we realized that we hated the bags we were using, so decided to try and make bags that we could both travel and work with. It made sense building a company based on what we already knew and to build a product that suited our lifestyle.
So, we wanted a bag that could withstand an active lifestyle, but also looks nice for meetings.
What’s the biggest problem that you tried to solve with Minaal gear that you felt was lacking in other travel gear?
We felt that there was a missing link with a lifestyle that’s becoming more popular. It doesn’t matter if you’re a nomad, a remote worker or just make the occasional business trip, we wanted a bag that would suit travelers and workers.
Previously, your work life and your home life were segmented. But now, people work from home, then go to a co-working space or a coffee shop, then pop to the gym on the way home again, so we wanted a bag that suited all these different aspects.
Transitions between your work life and home life are much more smooth and common now, and you need gear for that.
How did you come up with the quirky name Minaal?
Complete credit to Doug for this one – he was fast asleep and then suddenly woke up and had a lightning bolt moment with the name ‘Minaal’. He did a mental calculation on a word that sounds like a word but isn’t actually a word, and it worked!
It was tough to get six letter dot coms, and there wasn’t that much competition on Google, so he registered the domain at 4 am then went back to sleep.
Amazingly, we later found out, and I kid you not, that ‘Minaal’ is actually an Arabic word meaning “to reach your destination”!
Your logo, brand name and even the gear is very slick and minimalistic – do you try to go with a “less is more” approach to everything you do?
This is a pretty fair way of summing it up, to be honest. Having less is not always an intrinsically positive thing, but we always start with a blank state and then set a high bar and a high standard.
We always ask ourselves with any new idea “does this add strongly to the aesthetics and function of the product?” There is a danger of adding loads of features that are cool by themselves, but when all together it actually takes away from the product. Like Homer’s car from the Simpsons!
We’ve made some tough choices along the way that have alienated some users, but we’ve had to keep the approach consistent, and so we always rigorously question each feature.
There’s a place for everything somewhere in the world, but we’re very set in the direction we want our products to go in; you wouldn’t, for example, use our bags to hike Everest. But our products are perfect for our type of people; sleek on the outside but lots of space on the inside.
Your mission is ‘Roam. Work. Live’ – do you try and help people to achieve the freedom that they’re after?
Yeah, we don’t want to just be a bag company; we have a long-term plan far beyond bags and gear. But we like to think of ourselves as facilitators for people who want to work and travel.
So many of our users are already doing amazing stuff, and so it’s less about helping or empowering people, but more about giving them the gear that they need and then letting them carry on with the amazing stuff that they’re already doing!
We almost want people to not notice our bags so that it means we’re doing our job properly.
What’s your daily routine like, combining work and traveling?
Doug doesn’t need routine and seems to thrive on the chaos and the movement, whereas I love to travel but to feel productive I need more structure. I need to stay based in one place and streamline my travel a little more.
Daily I don’t have a fantastic schedule as it’s harder planning a daily schedule when you’re constantly on the road. Just be aware of what works for you – it took a while for me and Doug to figure out that we don’t need the same things. The freedom to choose is such a big thing.
How difficult do you find it staying location independent while creating & selling a physical product?
It definitely has unique challenges, but they aren’t insurmountable. Doug is very passionate about a lifestyle business and if it’s this way from the start, then you can setup systems from the beginning to keep things running smoothly.
It obviously can be managed as we’re doing it, and we can do things that bigger companies can’t as we have greater flexibility. We only sell through the website, which is processed by one of our team and then goes through one of our warehouses in Hong Kong or the US.
The whole process is reasonably automated, although Doug & I do check in with the orders. Our biggest involvement comes after the sales; we do work really hard to sell the bags, but we work even harder to make that that everyone is happy once they’ve purchased.
We offer a level of support that’s pretty unusual for a bag company or an outdoor company. When you e-mail us, you’re going to get a reply from a real human who likes to travel and uses the gear rather than a robot!
We take real pride in treating people like people and our current users better than potential users, and so our biggest growth has come from word of mouth. You really don’t need to reinvent the wheel when dealing with customers, and communicating clearly can make all the difference. It’s surprising how few businesses want to give proper support.
It’s easy for someone to quit their job, start up on a freelance site and travel that way, but building a product from the road is much tougher. What’s the best piece of advice you could give to someone looking to do this?
This isn’t so much specific to being on the road, but my main piece of advice is to find the community that is relevant to you. This isn’t revolutionary, but it’s amazing how many people forget to do it.
Just get a product out, it doesn’t matter what stage it’s at, and get brutally honest feedback on it. And not just from your friends who will say “wow that’s great”, but real, honest feedback.
We really delved into the community that were going to be our first supporters early on, and it made a big difference. We were making these bags for ourselves, so we were already a part of that community, but big changes came about because of the feedback we got. Fundamentally, our products are the same that we originally invented, but we took feedback on board and made them different to the original prototype.
Wherever your potential users are, find them and start telling your story; expose your product as early as possible.
Are there times that you wish you were back in an office?
Yes! Although Doug’s answer would probably be no.
Naturally, as humans you want what you can’t have, so that’s probably part of the reason I miss it. The trouble with working from the road is that the work never stops – sometimes you crave leaving at 5:30 pm and that would be it for the night.
Now I could work 24 hours a day, and sometimes have, but this isn’t good for your long term outlook. I don’t want to be back in an office, but it would be nice to have a switch off point.
It’s just about adjusting to the life – you don’t count down the clock from the road, so you have to set goals for yourself, be proactive and strong and say “I’m not going to do any more tonight.”
Like any other aspect of working from the road, it requires more self-control and intuition, and quite quickly you get over that feeling of wanting to be back in an office. There is always a nagging sense of guilt that follows you around when you aren’t working, but you have to get it into your head that taking breaks is good for you in the long run.
I had a weekend off recently for the first time in a while and man, it was the best Monday I’ve had in ages!
I see you’ve run two very successful Kickstarter campaigns – can you tell me a little bit more about the ups and downs of that journey?
We launched on Kickstarter on 17th September 2013, so that’s technically our first day of business. It was a huge effort trying to bring this to fruition as it was just the two of us at this point – we had to get the product ready, shoot the videos, get the page running, organize press releases – it was a huge undertaking that definitely took its toll both physically and mentally.
But it was a great launch and a great campaign, so it was all worth it. Most importantly for us, we delivered on time because many campaigns with physical products struggle with this.
We thought our second Kickstarter campaign would be easier, but it was actually much tougher as we went from one product to six products. Even though we had an amazing team by this point it became a lot more complex.
It was really intense and pretty last minute, plus our standards had gone up (I look back at the first Kickstarter campaign and am slightly embarrassed – let’s just say I’m no graphic designer!).
The trouble with crowdfunding campaigns is that you think it’s a sprint to launch the campaign, which you do, and then realize it’s actually a marathon because then you have to build the product! It’s more like a bunch of sprints and then a long grind.
But, Kickstarter is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to our business, and we wouldn’t be in the same place without it, but it is a lot of work. It’s an incredible way to raise capital and keep control of your business so that you can make the best decisions for your users rather than what investors want.
But, you have to put the work in to get those benefits.
How is it running the company with another co-founder? Do you have different ideas for what you want to do with Minaal or are you like two peas in a pod?
We always debate, poke, and prod things and we do at times disagree, but I would be worried if there was never a debate or creative tension. The main thing is that we’re always headed in one direction. We may not always agree on how to hoist the sails, but we’re always on the same ship!
There are different challenges with having a partner rather than being solo, but I wouldn’t be where I was without Doug and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I believe that our differing skills and viewpoints have made Minaal what it is.
Is it just the two of you involved with Minaal at the moment?
We’ve got a team of contractors but no full-time employees. The team is small, but it’s growing. We just let demand lead growth to be honest as we’re still completely bootstrapped. We grow slower than a Silicon Valley startup, but we love it.
I believe you tried to manufacture shirts once - have you got any plans for new pieces of gear or other avenues you want to explore with Minaal?
Our first idea was to manufacture premium, made-to-measure shirts from great material that were breathable, odor resistant, easy-care…that kind of thing. We got pretty far with this – we had samples made, had the fabric and even had beta tests with a good response.
But we couldn’t find a manufacturer at that point who could make the shirts of the quality that we wanted. We had high standards, and we wanted this to be a premium shirt.
We were very sensitive to how things were progressing, and while the shirt was a priority, we started talking about bags. Once we did, the traction was inescapable, and the bag was like a hot knife through butter.
We’d been on and off with other jobs and on and off with the shirts for a couple of years now, and to be honest, it was like two steps forward and one and a half steps back. The product was good and the concept was good, but it wasn’t right at the time, so officially it’s paused, but we may go back to it. As a startup and as a team the bag was smarter and was progressing more rapidly, so it made perfect sense to go down this route.
We have no official announcements on new gear at this stage, but we’re not a company that’s going to create 100 different versions of the same thing, like we’re not going to create a bunch of different carry-on bags. We want to progress and broaden widely, not deeply.
We want to be the best in each different category, and so we don’t want to make products just because; it’s very obvious when a company just has dozens of different versions of the same thing.
We’ll tweak stuff – like we’ve got the carry-on 1.0 and 2.0, but we believe there should only be one in each category. We’ve already got the carry-on, then the daily bags to integrate with that, and then some accessories to integrate with both of them.
I do a lot of travelling myself and people I meet say that the most successful travelers are the ones who can live out of hand luggage only – do you agree with that?
I would yes – I’m never going to throw shade on people that don’t and it can be especially tough if you’re diving or something, but that’s not what we’re about. It’s definitely more achievable than people think, and once you travel and work on the road, you can quickly work out what you do and don’t need.
Every gram and ounce counts, and just having hand luggage saves you time and money. You especially don’t have to wait around for your bags at baggage reclaim!
One of the things I find hardest about travelling - are you and Doug experts at folding clothes and fitting everything into your bag now thanks to Minaal?
I’m much better at this now than I used to be, you progressively improve through repetition and habit right? There are people who are much more pro than we are and we get a lot of ideas in that we share.
Everyone has a distinctive style. I creep on people at airports to see how they pack and I’ve learnt a lot from watching this. That’s not as weird as it sounds, I promise!
Your ‘Page of Love’ section on the website is great – do you try to build a real sense of community with the Minaal brand?
For the first two years we tried to not tell our own story, just other people’s as honestly, our lives just don’t seem that interesting compared to others! We don’t want to be those guys that turn up to a party and just talk about themselves as too many companies do this.
We want to showcase the people out there in our community doing really cool and inspiring stuff which helps to breed that sense of community. We probably went a bit too far though and didn’t explain enough about our mission and what we want to do – we’re rebalancing this now though, but we still want to share other people’s cool stories.
How long are you currently based in Lisbon for? Is your co-founder Doug with you?
No Doug is in Greece at the moment; I’m in Lisbon for three months but only have two weeks left so will probably have left by the time this interview goes live! It’s sad to be coming to the end, but I’m heading back to the road for conferences in the US, hopefully keeping my routine somewhat intact.
What do you love about Lisbon?
There’s too much! I’d say find the views; you can walk around these narrow streets and buildings which are cool but they block the views. There’s a bunch of lookout spots so go and check them out and you can probably find an old guy up there selling some decent coffee!
Lisbon is a city of hills, and so it’s a city of views.
I’ve obviously got to ask you this question – do you like surfing?
I used to get in the waves a bit but my surfing today is limited to body surfing. This obviously has a wave limit which I’ve been punished for before! Doug is a massive surfer though and looks for the waves wherever he goes.
Do you want to settle down one day or do you plan to keep travelling?
This is a big question mark for me. I have a strong vision for getting a piece of land, some pigs, and a horse or something! But this is probably a response to the chaos and the constant movement the current life has.
I’d probably get bored if I suddenly stopped, but I am moving more towards being settled, which for me means having four bases a year rather than just keep moving from place to place. I’ll just keep moving along this path until it feels uncomfortable or I get bored, then I’ll recalibrate.
Where is your ideal spot to be location independent from?
This sounds weird, but I like going to a place where I don’t know anyone so that I can get some work done! There’re so many people constantly moving around and crossing paths, which I love, but it means I can’t work as much.
There’re times when you just really need to clear through some e-mails, so I’ve ended up in some random hotel in the US and haven’t left the room for three days! But that feels good because it means you can go out and start being social again – it’s like the yin and the yang of the lifestyle.
We’ve heard a rumor/myth that everyone from New Zealand knows each other with a maximum of one connection between each other, is this true?!
100% true. If you find two New Zealanders, they can probably figure out someone that they know within five minutes. Obviously, there’re exceptions to this, but it’s rare to meet someone around the same age and not have a connection.
It’s not even a size thing – I asked someone from Denmark once how big their country is and she said 4.5 million, which is the same as New Zealand. So I said “you must know what I’m talking about when everyone knows each other, and you can’t go under the radar”, and she just said, “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.” So it’s definitely something to do with the culture, and there’s obviously pros and cons to this as you can’t escape sometimes!