Ten Lessons Learned With North Star Leather

What is your name, your leather craft business, and where are you located?

Mike Batson our business is called North Star Leather, we’re located in the very rural town of Ruby, South Carolina.

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All photos are taken from, and property of, NStar Leather’s Instagram & Website

What types of leather goods do you make, or what is your role in the leather craft business?

All sorts of small leather goods: Wallets, Checkbooks, ID Cases, pouches, coin purses, handbags- over 150 individual “stock” items not counting special items for specific customers. We’re 90% wholesale and much of our business comes from private label manufacturing. Besides our own line, we produce lots of items as swag, promotional, or classy packaging (ie embossed leather pouches, keychains, bracelets, etc).

We also do all sorts of cut components and such (leather backing for uniforms, flag tabs,etc). I do bracelet and keychain blanks in natural veg that other crafters finish. We do leather patches for a lot of companies (Goruck is our biggest patch client).

Many of my wholesale customers are other leather workers who want to augment what they can offer in a store or at a show.

We also work up all sorts of custom items/projects; recently I did a small “grooming kit roll” for a men’s grooming company (tweezers, clippers, etc). I’m also currently working on a menu cover for a semi-local restaurant.

A somewhat newer aspect of the business has been also been selling leather to other leatherworkers, as I tend to get my hands on lots of deals and can usually resell at a price that makes everybody happy.

We’re mid-sized as a company, 17 employees. We started officially in 1969, I’ve been here for my entire adult life, but have had my hands on leather since I was a really little kid. My dad “runs the shop” and I do as well, but we also have our hands in the production a daily basis. We’ll fall in where needed to get an order out or on a project that a small run and too complex to bother supervising and explaining to someone else.

 

The shop

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your leather crafting in the last six months (or in recent memory)?

Under $100 when you work on the scale that we do, for as long as I have there are very few “new” things that we’d buy at under $100. I guess a run of custom metal zippers from YKK was a pretty good buy that was a bit under $100. Also got a Worksharp sharpener for scissors mainly that’s worked out pretty well.

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How has a setback, or seeming setback, set you up for later success in leather craft? Do you have a “favorite failure”?

Biggest recent mistake (thousands of dollars) had to do with a custom order and a customer who we allowed to push us into doing things in the “wrong order” with a type of zipper we had never used before. The customer wanted a special zipper from YKK, but instead of getting a zipper sample an doing one prototype and getting it approved first, we assumed the custom zippers would probably fit/work the same as our “stock” zippers. Unfortunately the zipper was bigger and heavier and therefore didn’t close completely. Add to that the fact that the customer was in such a hurry that he pushed us to go ahead and make the cutting die and even cut the panels before the zippers had come in. To compound matters the zippers arrived while I was on vacation and I had left instructions to “make the cases as soon as the zippers arrive” because the customer was in such a hurry.

TLDR: mistakes were made and I’ve got 200 zipper cases with really nice zippers I’ll be selling off cheap soon because they don’t close. My biggest lesson from this is to never let someone else’s urgency cause you to compromise “the right way” to do things.

Another big waste of money that was a learning experience was any time we’ve paid another company to do any kind of promotional work regarding our website or online marketing. Pay-per-click has also never panned out for us (because we sell wholesale we’re competing with our own customers). We’ve paid for SEO and seen zero results and long before that we hired someone to “make our website” and it went no where. Everytime we do something in-house, from our website, to pictures, to our catalog we’ve learned a lot, kept control, and it’s turned out passably well.

 

Dice Tray

If you could create any leather good, with unlimited budget, what leather and hardware would you use? (Horween #8 Shell cordovan bag with Japanese brass hardware, for example)

We don’t really get into one-offs, so for me, this is a question of “what product would you like to start making?” I’d love to get into men’s bags. I’ve got access to lots of great leather and I know our price would be well below what some other makers are asking. We just stay so busy with current stuff that its not something I see happening. I don’t really want to be a company with 50 or even 25 employees so our goal is to simplify and make more while staying small-ish. One thing that is more likely to happen in the future is more high-end stock items. We’ve noticed that since we started offering Horween, that people are more than willing to pay for the high-end name when it comes to leather. This means I’m looking at doing more alligator, ostrich and other exotics.

 

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What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

Our Band-Knife splitter is probably our most vital tool. I get lots of leather from shoe companies and being able to split down for interiors of items is incredibly important.

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What’s an unusual or odd technique in your process that you’re pretty sure most people don’t do?

I iron my leather using a sublimation press intended for printing t-shirts. Most of the upholstery leather I get in is scrap that’s been balled up in bags so 90% of the time I need to iron it from the back side. It’s also pretty handy for evening out color on pull-up leathers. Also if a leather is holding it’s shape because it’s been rolled up we can flatten it right out. We had always ironed leather (from the suede side) when necessary but we’d go through an iron every few months. Getting this press for about $250 was one of the most “bang for our buck” investments we’ve ever done.

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Before the press….

 

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Viola! After the press — nice and smooth

In the last five years, what new mindset, behavior, or habit has most improved your leather craft?

One thing that I’ve changed on over the years is being completely upfront with customers and explaining costs and asking about expectations: “What are you expecting to pay?” “How many of the item will you be wanting?” Depending on those answers, be ready to just say “no.” This is more “business advice” than craft, but once you start working in volume and wholesale, customers will come with all sorts of expectations when it comes to price (leather pouches at .25 each), or volume (50,000 wallets); it is vital not to get to far along on a project or take too much time working out details if the costs and volume aren’t going to make it profitable. I’ve wasted hours quoting something and even doing prototypes only to find out later that we’d never have a chance of working on the project.

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What advice would you give a smart, driven person about to get into leather craft? What advice should they ignore?

Be ready to work hard, know it’s very hard to start a business. My answers to the previous questions are vital when starting.

Base your costs not just on what you paid (even if you get a deal), I’ve bought Horween Chromexcel for under $2 per foot but I also regularly buy it at $7.35+. Base price on replacement cost unless you have a steady supply of cheap leather (I get more upholstery scrap than I can use so I take that into account when quoting).

If you’ve not done something similar before, price higher than you think you’ll need to or give your client a range so you don’t quote too low. You want to be happy when a customer calls with a repeat order, not groan and say “oh no, not again.”

Understand your limitations, even with as “big” as we are, if someone wants a million of an item, the answer is “no.” One million of an item is 1000 per day for 1000 days, very few shops can handle that volume. I generally look at my wholesale price for an item, multiply out by the quantity they client wants and see what percentage of our gross income it works out to, if that number gets much past 10% I know that there’s very little chance we can squeeze that kind of project in.

Never put all you eggs in one basket. We have over 500 wholesale accounts so even if I lose my biggest customer, I won’t have to lay anyone off or close my doors. I’ve seen other companies go under because they had “one main client” who suddenly decided to find cheaper sourcing and that was it.

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What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

Anybody who says “x is the absolute best x.” This applies to leather, tools, techniques, hardware or anything else. “Only a Sith deals in Absolutes” There’s lots of folks who don’t understand that it’s “different strokes for different folks”, there are no absolutes when it comes to quality with tools, leather or anything else in this business. Once you reach a certain quality level it’s mostly a matter of taste. Way too many people say “hand sewn is the only way to go” or “full grain/veg tan/Horween/x other leather is the best money can buy and you’re a fool to use anything else.” It’s fine to talk highly about what you do and the materials you use, but I never trust the folks who say “my or bust.”

Chromexcel is great; so is English Bridle. Is one really “better” than the other? I may prefer one for a belt and the other for wallets, but it’s really not a comparison that can be made.

Also, always ignore anything from Saddleback’s Leather 101. Anytime I see a new leather goods company website repeat anything about “grades of leather” or “genuine is the 2nd worst type of leather” I know they don’t really know what they’re talking about. That post is probably the most widely spread “leather myth” on the net. I’ve kinda dedicated a blog to busting some of these “leather myths.”

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When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

 

I’ll just go do a job here at the shop that’s mindless: Embossing, splitting cut parts, cutting a single item anything that doesn’t need much active thought it give me a break and I can just go. Also try to “leave work at work” since leather is my full time gig, I try to avoid too much work stuff while on vacation an on weekends.

Jeans patches

Where can people find you (links to online store, blog, twitter, Instagram, etc.)

 


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