Martina Brimmer: 15 Years of Swift Industries
Years before bikepacking became a household term, Martina Brimmer had an "aha" moment that sparked a shift in bike bag making. Fast forward 15 years, and she is now the CEO of her own company, Swift Industries, one of the most renowned bikepacking brands on earth.
My boss at my day job is a great friend and we have been working together for years. We have spent time traveling and designing products in every corner of the world, literally. In that sort of situation you tend to get to know someone pretty well. Nowadays, we are working together again for a tech company, and as busy as he is as the Head of Design, he still manages to take the time to catch up and chat. It was during one of these conversations about two years ago that he told me he grew up with the “founder of Swift Industries… Have you heard of it?” I almost fell out of my chair. It was the first time that my two disparate lives of cycling and design came together in one conversation. “Ya, I think I have heard of it”, I said knowingly, wondering how this little tidbit had never come up over the years.
He introduced me to Martina Brimmer who immediately said we should jump on a video call. I was over the moon, and to be totally transparent, super nervous. I had known of Swift for years, but had yet to learn of the story behind the legendary brand. In our first chat, Martina gave me the full story and asked some direct questions about this site and where I wanted to go with it. It was the first time I was honest with myself about what I really wanted—and here I was saying it openly to one of the most renowned people in the bikepacking community. As soon as the words tumbled out of my mouth, I froze. But Martina hopped on them and immediately said “DO IT! And.. tell everyone you are doing it!”. I’ll never forget that moment and her instinctive clarity on something that could easily be passed off as childish and naive.
When I reached out to Martina to ask her about doing this interview, that same clarity came shining through again. She didn’t hesitate. I was thrilled to chat with her about all of the stuff—fifteen years of bag making, how the industry has evolved, women-run companies, and more.
What was the lightbulb moment for Swift Industries?
It was 2007 when the first aha moment hit me; I realized that my bicycle could haul the heavy stuff I was lugging around in my messenger bag. At the time, messenger bags were a cultural symbol, they were the bike punk and fixie-kid’s most essential accessory. They represented the urban bike scene through and through, which for me was inextricably linked to the DIY and Punk scenes that went hand in hand with a full-blown revival of urban bike culture in the US. The messenger bag stood for something. Panniers and other on-bike carriers reeked of convention, from design to color and branding. That’s when it all came together—bike bags needed a major shake-up and I was going to be the person to do it. LOL, I guess these days they’d call that a major market disruption #crylaughemoji
15 years ago would have ever imagined where are you today?
When you were 25, did you think you’d be where you are today? When I was fresh out of college life was simple. I was just having fun making bags in my basement and working part time at a local high school. I didn’t give much thought to the future. This morning I heard the expression Be Where Your Feet Are, and loved it. That’s exactly where my head was at.
What is the holy grail of bag making?
At Swift, the holy grail of bag making is to elevate our customers’ quality of life through purposefully designed products, made out of responsibly sourced components. What was true at the start is true today: we exist to encourage community and inspire concrete climate action through bicycles. Peel back the layers and that means a deep commitment to designing and making products that please and last, and generating culture that bucks up against the exclusive norms we’ve experienced first-hand in the outdoor, cycling and business communities. In our wildest dreams, Swift’s very existence would enhance the lives of every stakeholder (human, animal, plant and mineral) in each bag’s life cycle. We know there’s a lot to work toward to actualize this dream, and we’re here for it.
How has our corner of cycling changed over the past 15 years?
On Culture: I see more acknowledgement of people who haven’t traditionally been recognized by the mainstream cycling scene. We have long ways to go, but it’s wildly important to acknowledge that things have changed since I started this zany business in 2008.
On Product: Design has followed the beautiful arch of the resurgence in bike touring (think racks), followed by the emergence of bikepacking (think rackless), and now the settling into the lovely less dogmatic era of radical acceptance. I should emphasize that the changes in bag design over my career have been on the tails of radical improvements to the outdoor gear they are meant to carry. My current sleep system is likely under a third the volume of the one I started with in 2004. It’s really fun to be downstream of those innovations.
What has been the biggest challenge of the past 15 years?
Juggling the multitude of challenges and the adaptiveness and flexibility that that requires. Our unconventional start without any business know-how, and the fact that we were completely self-funded, meant that we thought outside the box in fantastic ways and also that we reinvented waaaaay too many wheels along the way.
What are you most proud of and what’s the one thing you would do differently?
I’m incredibly proud that we’ve built a brand that is globally recognized and valued. Today’s Swift Industries represents so many impressive hurtles we’ve faced head-on. Where we are today encapsulates our ability to evolve and excel through stages of change including being forward-thinking designers, an intelligent and highly skilled sewing team, thoughtful managers, and finally sensitive business leaders. It’s exciting to note that the current team at Swift has been through the majority of those stages together, and folks have stepped into the progression in impressive ways.
The one thing I would do differently is assume and embrace the position of CEO much earlier. I was allergic to what I thought that title represented, and what I’ve found in my painfully slow adoption of the role has been wildly empowering and critical to the health of all the parts of Swift. For me, the mindset shift started to take hold in 2016 when I pursued my Certificate in Entrepreneurship through 10,000 Small Businesses, an accelerator hosted by Goldman and Sachs. That was the moment that I really stepped into the responsibility of working on my company, and not in it. I reluctantly stepped away from the sewing team at that point, and dug deep to completely reshape my personal identity as a leader. For me, this wasn’t a lightning bolt moment. I didn’t utter the words, “I’m a CEO”, and then magically knew how to scale a company. First I had to learn how to manage processes, set up projects and hold our team to their structures, and most importantly, I had to learn how to verbally communicate way more effectively. That made way for more people to work less tactically in the business here, and gave us a lot more room to plan, learn and dream. The most critical factor in that equation was that we began sourcing from partner factories. I knew that I wouldn't have the ability to dream really big if we were making every product in house, and that we wouldn’t be able to self-fund our growth. Every extra penny was going towards making our wages more sustainable for the people to make this company hum, and we couldn’t keep up. We knew there had to be something left in the pot to nurture the growth of the company.
Until I accepted that was the role my company needed from me, I was continuously the biggest obstacle to achieving my own dream.
Swift needed a visionary that had a holistic foundation in management, business finances, the market, and was overjoyed to be of service to our customers. Until I accepted that was the role my company needed from me, I was continuously the biggest obstacle to achieving my own dream.
Woman owned and operated?
That’s right. I’m a fucking unicorn. I came to riding bicycles as a really empowering way to do my part as an environmental activist within a vibrant queer, punk community. I didn’t have a relationship with the industry, or bike shop culture, and frankly, I didn’t care much about either of those spaces. There were bike shops I loved and always went out of my way to support, but they were largely those that were having exciting and necessary conversations about addressing gender and racial exclusivity in their store culture. In 2002, those were the dramatic minority of bike shops.
When I decided to grow Swift, I had to step into the conventional bike industry, and business world to do it. What I found was an alarming lack of diversity. Something that has the potential to be empowering and thrilling was often lonely and intimidating. I don’t take it for granted that if my experience as a cis white woman felt messed up and needlessly exhausting, then for people who are not white and don’t seem to fit neatly in the gender binary it must be awful at times to be in this space. I say this mostly for the people who are gaslit over and over again: systemic discrimination is real. It is measurable. Male founders get 97% of VC. Female founded companies make up less than 3% of the outdoor industry. We’ve interviewed one female sales rep for every 15 male candidates that come our way, and as I’ve been hitting the road to visit bike shops all over the US, I understand why. More often than not I’m met with a coolness and dismissiveness from male bike shop staff that’s really exhausting to get past. These are the ways I experience discrimination in my work.
And I say this to everyone reading this: It’s also undoable. We can dismantle it if there’s a will to. That’s an invitation.
My antidote to all of this? Preserving just enough time and energy to recharge in my queer and feminist communities. The spaces where we, and the incredible people before us, built something different and so we know that when we long for a place where we belong, we have firsthand experience that it’s 100% possible.
That’s what we’re doing internally at Swift. My entire leadership team at Swift is made up of women. We look around in our steering meetings and are wholly in a space where we belong. What I hope we’re building is an atmosphere where we strive to do exceptional work from a place of passion, not a place of having to prove our capabilities. I want that to fortify us for our meetings with bankers, lenders, and industry leaders where we’re most typically the only women in the room.
Any advice for smaller/younger bag makers out there?
Get as obsessed with your business financial acumen as you are with making exceptional gear. That’s your responsibility to yourself (future you), your employees, and all of your stakeholders. Your health and company’s longevity, very likely, depend on it.
What is your definition of “craft” and has it changed over the years?
My definition of craft is and always has been: expert ability to manipulate and improvise with a medium in non-traditional ways to draw out unconventional and expansive results. At the beginning my medium was materials and my tools were tangibly the equipment we used to make our gear. It was exciting to play with materials and construction in ways that pushed the performance of the end-product. For example, folding seams and textile to significantly reduce contents from getting wet in shitty weather, or applying common materials in the sailing world, like fiberglass battens, to reinforce and elevate the attachment points on handlebar bags. One of my favorites was when I designed the side pockets on the original Ultra Romance Fabio’s Chest to fold up flat like a coffee bag when they’re not in use. We used the webbing closure strap as the mechanism to lift the base of the pocket into place. Those innovations weren’t taught to me, they came after thousands of hours of working closely with my materials and equal time being on my bike.
What is the soul of Swift Industries?
Our work is fuelled by ambition, playfulness, integrity and respect. We believe that we will drive incredible impact as a company with these values at our core, and that they’re part of our special-sauce.
Some might call you the O.G. of bikepacking bags. How do you take that?
With a whole lotta pride and a grain of salt.
Where is Swift Industries headed in the next 15 years?
We’re gonna keep doing what we do best: being change-makers and designing top notch products that aid in cultural shifts toward stewardship and connectivity. We hope that continues to evolve and progress in vibrant, unexpected and wildly intriguing ways.