Eric Heins, aka Corter Leather, is an easy guy to like. Affable, unassuming, and as down to earth as they come, he’s one of those people you just can’t help rooting for. That he’s also insanely talented doesn’t hurt either. Over the last three years, Heins – a self-taught designer, maker and company owner – has grown his one time bedroom-based business into a full-on, and highly respected, brand. And yet, despite his myriad achievements, he remains just as approachable as he ever was.
In the coming weeks, Heins will be launching a newly revamped Corter website, and with it, a brand new collection of Corter goods. Eric was kind enough to give us a preview of some of the new pieces, as well as answer questions about the range. Having known him personally for a few years now (you can check out an oldie but goodie interview we did here) I can’t help but marvel at how accomplished his new work is. It’s really a hell of a collection, and it’s made by a hell of a guy.
Well Spent: Tell us about the new collection. What makes it different from previous efforts?
Eric Heins: There really had never been a solid direction for Corter, I was just a kid making wallets in a college dorm and enjoying the ride as it grew organically. I’ve spent the past few years learning the craft and the business, and I felt it was time to put everything I’ve learned into one cohesive body of work. It’s not a completely new collection – there are still old favorites, and my vision hasn’t changed one bit. It’s just a cleaner, more polished line now. No white noise, no crazy trendy stuff, no superfluous bullshit. I worked a lot on the behind-the-scenes stuff like the construction methods and details, to lower production time and meet demand without raising prices. This ended up raising the quality beyond my wildest imagination, and allowed me to up my output by over 500%. Anyone can make an expensive wallet or belt – it takes a lot of work to keep prices accessible to a broad audience while keeping the paychecks rolling in.
Are there any specific new products that you’re most excited about?
The leather pieces for sure. So much of the last year was dedicated to metal stuff, it was really nice to sit down and work with leather full time again. The new pieces are dialed in from design to materials to functionality – I’m really proud of them. The relaunch only has about 50% of the new product because I wanted to get it out as fast as possible, there will be more released throughout the year.
After the runaway success of the For Japan Bracelets two years ago and the Bottle Hook Kickstarter campaign last year, do you feel pressure to come up with something equally as popular this year?
I’ll always feel pressure to create products like those and the guitar picks, but it’s internal and not because of the immediate success. Those products filled a void; they came out of necessity and they solved problems that had yet to be solved. I’ve always said I don’t want to be white noise and that’s still one of my big goals. However, I don’t ever feel pressure to outperform from release to release. That’s when you start loosing your soul and making stupid products.
As Corter’s renown has grown, so has the number of Corter rip-offs. How have you dealt with that?
I see people spending major time and money on fancy websites and logos for a craft they won’t spend the time to learn, so the quality of the product and material usually sucks. Leather work has such a long history that it’s almost impossible to design a truly unique item. That said, these folks make it painfully obvious where they’re getting their ideas from because they not only use the same design, they use the same price point and name as well. It’s like, dude, at least be sneaky about it and undercut me on price or something.
In all seriousness, the only thing you can do is learn from it and move past it. I’ve learned to patent and trademark the big ideas and call it karma points when one of my original concepts puts food on someone else’s table. I’ve always just diversified my product line like I would an investment portfolio, so if (God forbid) a product does get taken by some big retailer and my business for that product goes with it, I’ve got things to fall back on. I’m lucky to have a pretty awesome customer base that’s followed what I’ve been doing for a long time, so they usually know what’s up.
What are your thoughts on the growing debate between the customer-direct online retail model and the traditional wholesale retail model? Do you think it’s possible for a brand to utilize both?
I don’t think wholesale retail is dead, it’s just not in control anymore. It’s a fallen gatekeeper. I think a lot of brand owners will transition into seeing wholesale retail as tool rather than something they live and die by. It almost feels like we’re phasing out the electoral college. It gives more control to the people that create and buy products and less control to the middleman who’s biggest interest is monetary.
I think it’s very possible to use both, and there are many ways to do it that minimize traditional business risk. You can build a brand through direct sales to prove a concept, then roll into wholesale retail with way less hesitation from wholesale buyers. You can test new products with small production runs, which may cost more to produce but make more profit in direct sales as opposed to traditional retail so you don’t loose as much capital if they don’t sell. I like it because I can design without thinking about the bottom line. If it costs too much to produce for wholesale retail it doesn’t get shelved. I just sell it direct, and it still gets produced.
Will you always stay a one-man operation?
The short answer is no. I’m a producer, not just a designer or brand owner or whatever, so if this thing works out and I start getting those “real orders” people talk about on Shark Tank I’ll want to bring in more hands for the work. Staying a one person operation has been the most valuable lesson I’ve had because it’s forced me to solve problems creatively and streamline every process. Once I hit a point where I can’t streamline anything else to meet demand, I’ll hire some folks to help.
Any other upcoming products / projects you can tell us about?
The relaunch is my big priority this year – get it running smoothly, settle in and live a normal 9-5 life for a couple months. Other than that, I’m building a mobile workshop in a VW Vanagon Syncro that I’d like to take across the country once the floors are welded back and the new engine’s in. I’ll be able to produce at full capacity in the van, so it should be really cool to bring it around and teach other people what I do and how I do it. I’ve lived in the same square mile for 5 years now… it’s time to go have an adventure.
For price and purchase info, visit Corter Leather.