Made in New England: Meet Beth Shissler of Sea Bags
When Beth Shissler left her corporate job to join forces with Sea Bags to help scale the company, her friends thought she was crazy. Their mission—to transform recycled sails into nautically inspired totes—was unheard of at the time, but her gut was telling her she could help them grow.
Well, her gut instinct was right: 25 retail stores and thousands of recycled sails later, Sea Bags is making waves—hand-crafting new bags weekly at their flagship waterfront store in Portland, Maine. We got to chat with President and COO Beth to discuss scaling obstacles, commitment to local sourcing (hint: nothing is imported, ever), and their new dreamy, caramel-colored fall collection. Swoon.
R.K.: How did you discover Sea Bags, and help take it from idea to business?
B.S.: I became aware of these amazing totes made from old sails when my brother wandered down to the wharf and picked one up from the founder. It was a hobby business at the time, and my instinct was that we could grow it.
It took three years of discussions to come together and incorporate the business with a plan to scale it. Our goal was to grow the business, create jobs and keep the essence of what made Sea Bags so special: being made in Maine from recycled sails.
R.K.: We love that all the bags are hand-crafted in Maine! Can you give us a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes and how you go about the production process?
B.S.: It starts with the beautiful old sails. They come to us when they are deemed no longer of use to the sailors who own them. They are almost immediately laundered and cut down into as many pieces as we can get from one sail: from tote bags to buckets and using the scraps as hang-tags. From there, they come to our amazing production teams who apply designs, and then they are stitched by our talented stitchers.
R.K.: Local sourcing is important to you. Can you speak to me a bit more about how you go about sourcing the materials for your bags and your sail supply chain?
B.S.: Sourcing locally is really important to us—we believe there is a tangible ripple effect of jobs that come from that. For example, we buy our rope from New England Ropes in Massachusetts.
We are now a large customer of that company, which employs 200 people—many of them working on our ever growing demand. We also support many small local entrepreneurs, giving them a footprint in our 25 retail stores. Our support is what keeps many of them in business all year long.
As for our sail supply chain, we have a team of folks that works hard to keep sails from the landfill. We took in nearly 8,000 sails last year alone and are on track to take in more this year. We make it easy for folks to trade their sails for Sea Bags through our Sail Trade Program. We pay for shipping, will pick them up or allow them to drop off in any of our 25 Sea Bags retail locations.
R.K.: What collection are you loving right now for Fall 2019, any recommendations for our readers?
B.S.: Our design team has outdone themselves again. Every season I think it’ll be hard to beat the last one, and they have. My favorite for fall is our new Sea Bags Tan Chebeague line. I particularly love the size of the handbag, but the entire line speaks to me. The waxed canvas caramel color speaks of fall, and I love it against the natural beauty of the sail.
For totes, I carry a unique tote from our Sea Bags Vintage collection. While all of our bags are made from recycled sails, this particular line has the original sail markings from the sails. We think of it as the sweet spot of the sail and believe we have the largest collection of vintage insignia anywhere. My favorite at the moment has a red number on it. I just love the way the ocean and sun have worn that bright red to a lighter color and also love the original stitching from the sail maker.
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way when you joined the company? Any particular challenges along the way?
B.S.: Ha! There was no book on how to use a recycled sail and turn them into totes. Scaling took on a whole new meaning as sails are made from different fabrics and vary in size or weight, and our goal has always been to use every sail. The largest obstacle early on was convincing folks that we were a serious manufacturer and not just a craft business. We did that by running it right, communicating and treating our employees well.
R.K.: It all started on the waterfront of Portland, Maine. Do you think there’s been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you wouldn’t get elsewhere?
B.S.: I think that New England and particularly Custom House Wharf in Portland, Maine, provides an authenticity to Sea Bags and what we do. We are part of the working waterfront here and believe that sustaining that atmosphere is important to our culture.
Maine and New England offer an entrepreneurial atmosphere where startups are encouraged, and there are many resources for support. It’s not the most conventional manufacturing space, but it works for us. We get many folks coming into our flagship retail store in Portland just to see the totes being made. There aren’t many stores that offer a glimpse into that.
R.K.: What other local brands are you a fan of—in Maine or New England in general?
B.S.: Locally I like Stonewall Kitchen. They started much like we did and have grown while keeping their values the same. They are great employers and showcase Maine very well.
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
B.S.: There was no big influence to start the business—most thought I was crazy to leave my corporate job at the time. Once I got started and realized I had lots to learn, I would soak up every bit of knowledge I could.
I finally met a guy who was still in the business who graciously and informally mentored me for my first few years. He had forgotten more than I could ever learn. We used to play cribbage every week, and he’d teach me about cutting and sewing and introduce me to vendors for raw materials. He made me pay for breakfast and pay him a dollar for every game I lost. But I came out so much richer for having had him in my life and our business. He’s no longer with us, but we should all be so fortunate to leave such a lasting impression on someone.
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
B.S.: In the next two years, I hope you see Sea Bags expanding further. More products, more sails, more doors and as importantly, more jobs. We are fairly well known in New England and down the east coast but have plenty of room to grow and stretch beyond.
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business from scratch?
B.S.: Keep your eye on the future—whatever that looks like for you. Enjoy the whole experience as uniquely yours—even the tough times can be appreciated in the experience of them. Practically speaking, make your business operationally sound. Focus on selling more than you spend and pay yourself something. Otherwise, it’s a hobby and not a business.
R.K.: At WELL, we believe wellness comes in all forms. What does wellness look like for you?
B.S.: Wellness today looks like happiness and gratitude. I believe that if you’re happy and grateful it can be contagious to those around you. I’m so grateful to be in this company I helped create and to those who choose to work here every day—doing their jobs better than I ever dreamt of.
Want more Made in New England? Check out our full series coverage.
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