Arrow & Board creates a new generation of custom leather goods
By Lynn Ascrizzi
It comes as no surprise that the new moderns — that is, the 20-and-30-somethings — are crazy about high-tech products that fit their digitized lifestyles. But the real jaw-dropper is that this tech-savvy generation also values fine products that are traditionally handcrafted.
This trend is evident in the growing success of the three-year-old, artisan leathercraft business, Arrow & Board of Austin, Texas. The small, startup company, owned and operated by husband-and-wife team, Zachary and Jacki Brown, is based in a 150-square-foot, mini-house set up in their backyard. “It’s just enough space,” he said.
The couple, who have two young children and one on the way, run the entire business. Jacki Brown works part-time doing designing and leatherwork, and she also handles the social media end of their business, which includes Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. Zac Brown does the majority of the designing and production.
Their product line includes a number of the regular, small leather goods you might expect to see being made by custom leatherworkers: full-grain wallets, key chains and ID wallets. Much more atypical are their leather iPhone cases, the leather camera straps made with nylon paracord and leather, and leather wall maps, signs and pennants.
But the company’s signature line, the one that has captured the greatest attention and sales, is its hand-sewn, leather watchbands. Fitted with an Apple adapter, the bands are designed precisely for Apple smartwatches.
Right now, their most popular watchband is the Triple Tour. Designed by Jacki, it comes with a unique, split-leather band. “The model offers a choice of buckle colors that match the finish of its Apple Watch adapter — black and gray, polished stainless steel, silver aluminum and gold aluminum.
“When you just buy an Apple Watch, they mostly come with a silicone rubber watch band that is pretty plain,” she explained. “I wanted to make a watchband with a unique, layered look. The Triple Tour is what I came up with, and it can be worn three different ways. It’s more my style.”
Sharing her sentiment was a young woman reviewer on YouTube. Her critique of the Triple Tour was delightfully high on exuberance, and her spontaneous review gave a glimpse into the mindset of hipster trendsetters.
“It’s leather, it’s funky, fun and different,” she said, after opening up the small round tin that held the leather watchband. Then, she gingerly lifted the band out of a white, drawstring fabric bag. “This is like, legit leather. . . . This is so gorgeous,” she exclaimed, while slipping the bands onto her Apple smartwatch. “How cute! Oh my gosh! I absolutely love this!. . . . I love chunky watches! . . . I’m so obsessed! . . .You can either dress it up or dress it casual.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYsbiuO7EZg)
“All our watchbands come in a metal tin,” Zac Brown said. “On top of the tin is one of our logos. You can remove it from the tin and use it as a magnet, if you want. We’re big into presentation. Because we market online, we want to surprise customers when they open the box. You can’t go into a store and try it on. So, it’s really important to have a good presentation.”
The company sells almost entirely online. “We have a few wholesale accounts, but not for the watchbands. We’re an online business, at this point,” he said. They wholesale to a local café in Austin, to The White Buffalo Co. in Castlerock, Colorado, and to Forth & Nomad, a new business in Houston that carries curated, handmade, small batch goods.
“Most guys want the Porter Band,” Brown said. The Porter is made of veg-tan, hand-sewn leather that is edge-coated to prevent fraying. Bands come in black, medium-brown and tan. The model includes a stainless steel Apple Watch adapter and stainless steel buckle.
“Watchbands are our big thing. They are our main bestseller,” he added. “Most of the people who order them are younger professionals in the tech world, lawyers or doctors. But with Apple selling more and more of these watches, more everyday people will be having them, people you wouldn’t expect to wear a smartwatch — all different kinds of customers,” he speculated.
He might be right. In May 2018, analysts estimated that the innovative Apple smartwatch, first announced by the tech giant in 2014, has sold at least 40 million watch units. And, record smartwatch sales were reported for the first quarter of 2018.
Judging from this data, it’s highly likely that Apple watches will be in demand for some time. But even if the timepiece gets outdated down the road, Brown isn’t worried.
“The Apple Watch needs an adapter on our band for it to fit. We make the hardware removable on our watchbands. Some people don’t own an Apple Watch, but they can take off the adapter and fit our band on their watch,” he said.
Arrow & Board watchbands are made of full-grain, English bridle leather from Wickett & Craig, the most popular of that company’s leathers. The watchband leather they order comes pre-dyed. “We used other leathers, but they stretched over time. They didn’t work as a watchband,” Zac Brown said.
The Austin company also uses shell cordovan for select watchbands and wallets. Cordovan is obtained from Horween Leather of Chicago, Illinois, a 112-year-old company that is both a hide processing and finishing tannery. The tannery, which mostly processes cowhide, is one of the world’s last remaining producers of cordovan, which is made from horsehide. “It’s pretty special stuff, and it’s not always available,” he said.
Prices for their watchbands range from $70 to $150, for their shell cordovan bands. Brown enjoys working with cordovan, he said. “It cuts nice and clean and it takes edge coating and burnishing really well. It has a really nice, matte finish that has some depth to it.”
As for leather tools, he uses the Regad M6000 Electric Creasing and Edging Machine, an Epilog Laser engraver, John James Needles and Little Wonder riveter by Weaver Leather. Brown threads his needles with Ritza 25 Waxed Polyester Tiger Thread.
Arrow & Board also makes leather MacBook envelope cases, priced from $130 to $150. Less expensive goods include their leather wallets ($50) and iPhone cases ($60). Other products, like their leather flags and maps, and the leather wall signs that come with quotes, like Measure twice, cut once and Not all who wander are lost, are “steady movers,” he said.
Regarding sales, “we’re doing good,” Zac Brown said. “We’re growing. Definitely. We have much higher sales this year, than last.” He estimated that 100-plus products are moving out of the shop per month.
The company offers free returns and free exchanges. “Our return rate is low, much lower than the 13 percent average of return rates for online businesses,” he pointed out. “Shop orders go through seasonal ebbs and flows. In summer we get to do more designing and marketing stuff. In fall and winter, we’re working 24/7. I pretty much work full time.”
Since starting the business, they’ve learned to bring more focus to their product line. “When the business was in the early stages, we’d make a little of everything. In time, we could see that doesn’t help us grow. Our biggest challenge is production and efficiency — getting work out on time. Anything that takes a week or more to deliver discourages people who buy online. Right now, we’re our own bottleneck. We can only make a certain amount by the end of the day. I want to offer more to customers.”
The idea of hiring skilled leatherworkers is on the table. “We’ve thought about hiring seasonal help. If we were to hire help, it definitely would be on the production end. It’s hard to manage and run the business and do every other thing, like customer service, fulfillment and designing.”
So far, they’re excited by what they’ve achieved to date. One of their biggest boosts comes from reading the reviewer responses at their website and at Etsy, particularly regarding the watchbands. “We get mostly four and five-star reviews. The comments are usually that they love the materials and construction of the bands, and that it matches their watch. We’ve taken a liking to the Apple Watch world and the tech world, in general,” he said.
DREAM OF STARTING A WATCHBAND COMPANY BECOMES A REALITY
The leather watchbands made by Arrow & Board of Austin, Texas, are specially designed to fit the Apple smartwatch. The idea was first inspired when the small company’s co-founder, Zac Brown, worked at tech support and computer and software repairs for Apple Inc., in San Antonio, Texas. In Oct. 2015, the company moved him to an Apple site in Austin.
“Before the Apple Watch came out, I was into watches. I wanted to start a watchband company and made plans for it,” he recalled.
Although a techie himself, Brown has leatherworking in his DNA. His aunt and uncle, Dave and Suzette Munson, own two online retail stores based in Fort Worth, Texas. His aunt runs Love41, which manufactures and sells luxury leather bags and purses for women, leather jewelry and chic accessories (www.love41.com). His uncle runs Saddleback Leather, which makes and sells backpacks, travel bags, briefcases, canvas bags and much more. (www.saddlebackleather.com).
“For quite a while, I worked part-time for them,” he said. “I took over their Amazon sales channel. By the time the Apple Watch was announced, I knew more about leather quality. I started making watchbands at home, on the kitchen table. I wanted to make something of good leather that looked cool. I wanted the Apple smartwatch to look more like a traditional watch. We wanted to make the best product you can get,” he said.
Their online sales began with Etsy. “It was a good way to test the market. Now, we sell mostly on our own website. (https//arrowandboard.com) We don’t do a lot of advertising,” he said.
“I made a lot of trips to Tandy Leather,” his wife and business co-founder, Jacki Brown, recalled. “We started the company in the summer of 2015. We worked on the watchbands together, throughout the summer, and showed them to friends. They’d say, ‘Hey, I want one.’ Lots of people liked them.”
Some of those friends were Zac Brown’s coworkers at Apple. “I wore a watchband to work and friends saw them. They asked me to make them one, in this color or that color. Early on we did it as a side thing and customized whatever people wanted. When we started the business, it was not a big money maker. It was just fun to do,” he said. It wasn’t long before the fun began to flourish. Enough so, that about a year and a half ago, he left his previous job at Apple.
How did the Browns arrive at the business name, Arrow & Board? “It’s definitely different. We were always making things on the side to sell,” he explained. Before he and his wife launched the leather goods enterprise, he had done a lot of woodworking, like making furniture – hence, the name “Board.”
The “Arrow” was a Native American reference. “I did hand-screened T-shirts for kids. I’m part Comanche and had Native American symbols and imagery on the shirts,” she said.
“We thought we should combine the two occupations,” he said.
FOR MORE INFO
Arrow & Board
Zac and Jacki Brown
Monday – Friday
9 a.m. — 5 p.m.