The two scoured the market for a backpack that fit their specifications, but when their search turned up empty, their motivation to find the perfect bag only increased.
If their ideal pack didn't exist, the duo decided, they would just have to build it themselves. The idea quickly became an opportunity for David and his wife, Teresa, to create a unique educational experience for their ambitious daughter.
Last year, at age 14, Sierra had already graduated high school and was taking online classes at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. Still, her parents, owners of Saylors Machine & Design Works in Trenton, Georgia, wanted her to have practical experience to accompany her degree, so they challenged her to build a small business.
Thus, Swanky Climbing Gear was born.
It wasn't long before the business became a family project, and Sierra, a self-proclaimed "jack of all trades," had to also master the art of delegation. Under the teen's guidance, Teresa became the company's accounting genius, her aunt Amber became its master seamstress, and her father snagged a spot as the resident tech wizard and engineer. Sierra's boyfriend, Gus Carter, also got in on the action, becoming the company's social media and resident climbing expert.
Trial and error
One of the unexpected challenges of building a business was creating a website, Sierra says. But now, she laughs, after weeks of trial and error, their homepage no longer reads "Swanky Climbing Gear: Best Burgers in Brooklyn!” Visit swankyclimbing.com to marvel at the Saylorses’ much-improved web design capabilities, watch a video illustrating the Aries’ features, or get your hands on one of the backpacks.
But first the team had to brainstorm all the features they wanted to cram into their backpack.
In addition to a design that is both self-standing and spacious, they decided they wanted a bag with a minimal frame. This way, boulderers could comfortably wear the pack across their chest while carrying crash pads on their backs. The team also wanted a bag that climbers could lay down and zip all the way open, so they wouldn't have to dig around blindly to fish items from the bottom of the pack.
But creating the perfect bouldering bag would not be so simple, they soon realized.
Even before Sierra sketched out the design for her aunt, the family had to work out "all the little minor details that no one ever thinks about," says David, like zipper sizes and Velcro measurements. And master seamstress Amber sent them groaning back to the drawing board a few times by pointing out that some of their design features were "physically impossible" to sew.
"It strengthened us as a family a bit in that we learned how to communicate with one another a little better," David says. "Communicating changes verbally is difficult — a lot more difficult than I realized it would be."
The difficulties only multiplied when they started taking their prototypes out in the field. One of the early models didn't have enough foam in its frame to keep the sides from slumping down. Another's square design prevented zippers from going around corners. One prototype had a water bottle holder that was too small — something the team discovered when they slipped a Nalgene bottle in but couldn't pull it back out.
Still, Sierra was not discouraged. With each test session at climbing spots such as Little Rock City or Kentucky's Red River Gorge, the slowly improving prototypes attracted attention.
"All of the really seasoned climbers would ask me, 'Hey, where'd you get that bag?'" she says. "They liked the size and the fact that it's really comfortable to wear."
» Converts from backpack to messenger bag
» Square bottom to prevent bag from falling over
» Wide zipper for easy access
» Soft frame for comfort in various positions
» Comes in red, royal blue and black
Though Sierra knows the budgeting and time management skills she learned will give her a leg up in the business arena, the most impactful moment for her came during Chattanooga's Triple Crown Bouldering Series event, after she launched one of the Aries packs into the audience as part of a promotional giveaway. A month later, she found its new owner still carrying the bag during the next event in the series.
"It's really cool to be around the climbing gym or out in the boulder fields and see your bags and see people using them," Sierra says. "It just makes me really happy to see all those Swanky logos."