I'm Fred Perrotta, co-founder of Tortuga Backpacks and ex-Googler. AMA

Hi Nomads,

I’m Fred Perrotta, the co-founder of Tortuga Backpacks. We make carry on luggage for urban travelers.

In 2009, my co-founder, Jeremy, and I took a two-week trip to Eastern Europe. Despite a ton of pre-trip research, we couldn’t find backpacks that worked well for city travel. My hiking bag was a nightmare to pack and unpack. Having recently read the 4-Hour Workweek (and being naive), we decided that we could solve this problem.

A year later, I left my full-time job at Google to work on Tortuga. At the time, I paid the bills doing freelance work for startups.

I’m a medium-term traveler (a month here, two weeks there), rather than a full-time nomad, but Tortuga Backpacks has enabled others to take on the digital nomad lifestyle.

Ask me about making products for travelers, making physical (gasp!) products, online marketing, sourcing in China, the Canton Fair, trying to build a remote team, why I have $6,473 in Airbnb credits, or anything else.


And because I was asked in the Slack chat, you can use discount code LEVELS for 15% off any of our backpacks through the end of the year. Our flagship bag, the Tortuga, is a maximum-sized carry on. For the light packers of the DN community, the Tortuga Air (ships in January) may be a better fit.

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I was always last to ask questions, now it appears i’m #1 :smiley:

So, what kind of client did you try to reach while designing tortuga backpacks? Did you consider digital nomad as your main client?
Do you plan to extend your product line to anything else that Digital Nomad could find useful? if yes, what characteristic product should have to apply to digital nomad?

Awesome to having you for an AMA on #nomads.

I was wondering why you have $6,473 in Airbnb credits ? Did you make some referral for them or something close ?

What was your critic point to make physical product while you are travelling ?

Hey Fred! Glad to have you today

My questions are about manufacturing and shipping logistics

How did you come up with the right company to make your product? Any inside you could give us for choosing the right one? Do you prefer china or Vietnam better?

Do you guys ship the bags from your home or you have a logistics company do all the process for you?

Cheers mate!

NomadForum is truly a bastion of civility on the internet if you didn’t yell “FIRST!

So, what kind of client did you try to reach while designing tortuga backpacks? Did you consider digital nomad as your main client?

We didn’t design the original bag to cater to digital nomads because I hadn’t heard of the concept in 2009. In I had, maybe we would have targeted a different audience.

We designed the bag for travelers like us: people on urban trips of a week or longer who still wanted to travel light. At the time, I thought that was plenty niche. Turns out more people travel for a week or two, much less years at a time, than I realized. That’s why we chose to make the bag a maximum-sized carry on then built smaller bags from there.

Do you plan to extend your product line to anything else that Digital Nomad could find useful? if yes, what characteristic product should have to apply to digital nomad?

Yes, though we are focused on bags and packing accessories. Our second bag is smaller and designed for shorter trips, though I suspect DNs will like the bag for extended travel. Many nomads find the Tortuga (44L) too large for their ultralight travel. Our daypack (on the slate for early next year) will also work well for DNs.

For nomads, the most important characteristics for gear are utility (inessentials get left at home), quality/durability, and weight. Nomads will pay for good stuff that they don’t have to worry about replacing.

If you have any other suggestions, we’re very open to hearing them.

I was wondering why you have $6,473 in Airbnb credits ? Did you make some referral for them or something close ?

I stumbled into them. I wrote a blog post about VRBO, a site I’ve used when Airbnb was booked. Since the post mentions Airbnb, I included my AIrbnb referral code (every user has one). Eventually the site started ranking well for “Airbnb competitors” and “Airbnb alternatives.” People started clicking the referral link. When they later used Airbnb I got an email for a $25 credit. Then they started snowballing… Now I have an embarrassment or riches and don’t pay much (if anything) for lodging on most short trips.

What was your critic point to make physical product while you are travelling ?

The critical point in getting started was a 2009 trip to Eastern Europe detailed here.

Building physical products while traveling is tough. I try to travel between development cycles since getting a physical sample to random countries where I don’t have a permanent address is hard. Or I travel in Asia so that I can go directly to our supplier in China when a new sample or order is ready.

How did you come up with the right company to make your product? Any inside you could give us for choosing the right one? Do you prefer china or Vietnam better?

Lots and lots and lots of trial and error. We started with zero manufacturing knowledge, so it has taken a lot of time to learn by doing. This post describes some our early misadventures in China.

When your looking for suppliers:

  • Ask for referrals to suppliers
  • Ask for references from the supplier
  • Be upfront about your needs, budget, and minimum order quantity (MOQ). Don’t waste time with them if you can’t find a price/quantity that will work for both parties.
  • Order a sample. If it’s an original product, you will go through multiple cycles and learn how they work and about their quality.
  • Go to the factory. See how it looks. Have lunch with the boss. See if your gut feeling is positive or negative.

We manufacture in China, not because it’s the cheapest (it isn’t) but because it has the best infrastructure of manufacturers, suppliers, supply chains, and know how. Vietnam has lower labor costs (and skills in some cases), but materials and hardware still have to be imported from China. We prefer to pay the slight premium to keep everything consolidated. I have no interest in chasing the absolute lowest prices across the world. Logistics isn’t the most fun part of my job.

Do you guys ship the bags from your home or you have a logistics company do all the process for you?

We use a third-party logistics (3PL) company. Otherwise, my apartment would be overrun with bags. We’re all about automating and outsourcing basics like warehousing and fulfillment, so that we can focus on areas where we can make a difference, like product and marketing.

I’ve been bit paranoid about this for many years and I’m not sure if this is actually a silly question :smile:

When you fill your backpack with lot of stuff (clothes and what not), and finally, you fit your laptop in laptop pocket. How likely is it, that the laptop bends when it is pressed between the stuff and my back when you’re carrying the backpack and you have tighten the straps? (I’ve had laptops for over 10 years and I’ve never experienced such a horror, so far…)

We hear this concern occasionally, but I’ve never seen your fears realized.

You can mitigate this in two ways:

  1. When carrying heavy loads, make sure your bag has a framesheet and/or stays to give it structure. A framesheet is a semi-rigid piece of plastic. Stays are like an aluminum “spine.” External frame backpacks went out of style years ago. Now most bags have an internal frame. Travel bags have a simpler system than hiking bags do. Make sure yours has some built-in structure to prevent any bending.
  2. Pack your laptop first, not last. Here’s a video we made on the rough order and placement of your gear in your bag. This packing style will also help ensure a balanced, comfortable carry.

How does marketing physical product differ from marketing online service/software? What would be your recommendations to anyone who knows how to sell software (to some extend), but wants to sell physical product?

Before starting Tortuga, I had primarily marketed online services. When I worked at Google, most of my clients were dating websites. (That’s a whole other story.) Afterwards, I worked with marketplace startups like Airbnb, Udemy, Lyft, and WeHostels.

Physical products have additional challenges:

  • No freemium or free trial. Either the customer pays or they don’t. Having a lead magnet or blog that earns email subscribers and builds an audience is even more important for physical products. This is also a consideration if you’re only selling online. Your website and return policies should make people feel comfortable buying without trying the product first.
  • Real unit costs. Each unit you make has a real cost. In software, that marginal cost is essentially $0. You have to be an expert on your numbers if you want to be successful, especially when it comes to discounts, free samples, or paid advertising. Giving 10 users free access to your software doesn’t cost you anything. Giving away 10 physical products has a real cost.

The basics of marketing are still the same. Make something that solves a problem. Find your tribe who values what you do. Help them however you can (blog, customer support). Establish yourself as an expert and a thought leader in your niche.

We’ve also had a lot of success sharing our product development journey. This could also be powerful for software companies, but I don’t see many doing it, aside from solo founders who also blog. We discuss what we’re working on and share previews on our blog. We post sketches and pictures of early samples on Facebook. People get invested in the products and are excited for the launch. They are willing to sign up for the wait list which we use for email marketing. Tell your story, and you’ll find your audience.

Like a lot of us DNs, I’ve had Tortuga on the top of my wish-list for quite some time but because I wasn’t able to get my hands on a bag until after I purchased a different brand, I wasn’t willing to invest that amount of money on a bag when (on paper) a bag half the price has similar features that push it into the “good enough, I’ll buy it” category.

This predicament is a common one with a lot of DN-friendly products that shine on the various travel blogs but the inability to get hands-on deters consumers from committing to purchasing a premium product. Does Tortuga have a plan of having the products available in grass-roots stores for us to fondle and coo at or is the organic growth strong enough to negate the need?

Side note, I regret not getting the Tortuga and every time I pack my backpack, I find myself wishing my bag would spontaneously combust. Someone please make that happen.

As a lanky guy, I can sympathize with the need to try on gear or clothes before you buy them.

I don’t believe that getting into retail stores is necessary for building a big business. The need to try stuff on or see it in person can be partially offset by product photos and videos, liberal return policies, free return shipping, and a clear use case for each product. Having a website that holds visitors’ hands through the shopping process, like a good salesperson, is hard but a big opportunity for retailers.

Being in stores would be helpful for prospective customers. In the future, we may pitch a store like REI to be our exclusive retailer. Customers could then see and try on our products in person in various cities. We would only have one relationship to manage while maintaining some exclusivity and control of the branding and messaging. We aren’t interested in being one of a dozen “travel” bags in a pile at the back of the store. Customers can’t make good comparisons or an educated decision in that environment. The strengths of our bags are in the details.

Thanks Fred for the AMA! Some great insights on product creation and how we could possibly document the journey for software companies.

We’re closing the AMA, will update with a blog summary!