Old sails mean new sales for Peaks Island company
PORTLAND — Growing up on Peak's Island, Charles Friedman learned a few lessons worth taking with him.
One was how important it was to conserve resources and get the most use out of a given item.
"Islands seem to make people think about sustainability, because you see the result of people’s actions quicker, because it’s a small area,” Friedman said, recalling a competition where island residents had to make sculptures from bulky waste materials.
A second lesson was how to sail, from which Friedman, 23, developed an interest in sail-making. For three years in high school, he worked for Maine Sailing Partners, picking up a knowledge of sailcloth and the ability to sew.
Put it all together and you've got the driving forces behind Flowfold, Friedman's small, but growing accessories company.
Founded in the autumn of 2010, Flowfold started as a Web-based seller of wallets made from left-over sail cloth, just like the ones Friedman had been making and giving away to friends and family for years. The company has since introduced a line of iPad covers, and is now working on tote bags made from the same materials.
Friedman sources the materials himself; virtually everything the company uses, from the high-tech Mylar sail cloth lined with fibers like Kevlar and carbon fiber to the recycled-soda bottle padding used in the iPad covers, comes from New England, he said.
Friedman still designs the products himself – he learned to design the company website, too – and he does some of the sewing, although he contracts most of the work to a network of seamstresses ranging from Lewiston to York. The shipping department is still based in Friedman's mother's house on Peak's Island.
A friend, Devin McNeil, 23, is part-owner of the company and takes care of the its financial aspects, and the company added a salesman and marketing employee this year whose college thesis was on sustainable surfing.
They'll even have an intern this summer, arranged by the Island Institute, which also provided the company with some early seed money.
Since the start of the year, the company has seen tripled its active wholesale accounts from 30 to 90, Friedman said, with customers on both coasts and in Canada, the Caribbean, and Spain. Direct retail business via the website is brisk, he said.
Friedman attributes the growth to the dedicated sales staff, and to what the company's business mentor, Ponch Membreno of Freeport retailer Horny Toad, called "living the brand."
Friedman and his crew are enthusiastic not just the products, but about their workers – he noted how much work it takes to have an intern, because "it's got to be a good experience for them" – and the lifestyle that their customers lead.
In order for the company to flourish, its founders have to blend it all seamlessly: over the winter, they filmed a short surfing video, mostly during a snowstorm, that doubles as a promotional spot.
"Some people say it's silly to go surfing and call it any type of work, but it really kind of is," Friedman said.
What (Friedman) and his buddies are doing is, they're selling the wallets, but they're selling the 'why,'" Membreno said. "They're (making) things that they would use, and they use them. Even if they weren't selling it, they would have it."