With Technology in Hand, An Artisan in Born

Artifact Bag Co., Omaha, NE

Like many Americans, Chris Hughes had a rough 2009. The Great Recession led to a layoff and nine months of unemployment, followed by a customer-support job that provided a steady paycheck and health insurance, but no long-term career trajectory.

Hughes found his motivation instead in a side passion for military collectibles and vintage apparel, which eventually triggered a business idea. He bought a vintage commercial sewing machine on Craigslist and opened an Etsy store called Artifact Bags to sell products made from vintage leather and canvas.

In 2010, a fortuitous couple of tweets by a popular online writer prompted a flood of orders to the Etsy shop and convinced Hughes to build a website, tell his story and turn his side hustle into a full-fledged business, Artifact Bag Company. A decade later, he has a larger studio in Nebraska, a partner in Jeremy Vlcan, who previously spearheaded the digital advertising efforts at Bonobos and Hayneedle and a dozen employees helping create an array of products.

From his first equipment purchase on Craigslist to the Etsy shop and the tweets that changed Hughes’s life, technology made the dream possible. And it still does. “The reach and efficiency of digital tools opens up the world to small companies,” Vlcan said

Artifact Bag’s Etsy shop and Shopify-integrated website drive the sales, 80 percent of which occur online. Ads on Bing, Facebook, Google, and Instagram get the brand in front of precisely targeted audiences. MailChimp is another effective promotional vehicle, and tools like Dropbox, Gmail and Quickbooks support the business behind the scenes.

The total digital package kept startup costs low and ensured lower operating costs going forward so Artifact Bag could compete against larger rivals. Aggressive five- and 10-year growth plans for Artifact Bag are built entirely upon digital technology, assuming Congress doesn’t undermine those plans with policies aimed at the companies that make the tools

“Increased costs [for technology] would price us out,” Vlcan said. “We wouldn’t be able to reach the customers at a cost that makes our business possible.

He is concerned that policymakers in Washington will make ill-informed decisions, hurting the small businesses that are vital to the economy. “Tomorrow’s titans are small businesses today. Small business have the latitude and flexibility to take chances and drive innovation.”