Bags to Riches: The Saddleback Story

Dave Munson lives the quintessential American dream: A wife, two kids, a home in Texas, and the owner of a wildly successful small business. But he says he’s just an ordinary guy doing what he loves.

[Slideshow: The Soft Side of Saddleback] In 1999, Munson traded in his quiet American life for one in Juarez, Mexico. He lived in with his dog Blue in a $100/month apartment with no hot water for three years. But the drab conditions didn’t weigh on him because he loved every single moment. That’s because it was the place his American dream became a reality. Roughing it for the Dream While working as a volunteer English teacher in Mexico, Munson discovered a need for the perfect bag: One that wouldn’t tear, one whose zippers or buttons wouldn’t break, and one that could withstand a beating or two. Munson never could have known stumbling into a small leather goods shop would change his life. The man whom he met there crafted Munson’s vision for an ideal bag. Once he received it, Munson knew he had to share the bag with the world. He said he took his new bag back to the U.S., and is not exaggerating when he says he got three or four complements on the bag every day – and the more he carried it, the more people wanted to know where they could get one of their own. If a bag was what the people wanted, a bag is what Munson was going to give them.

“I remember saying once, ‘Okay, if I ever sell like $10,000 a month worth of bags, I’m going to retire, or I could just stop and go and do whatever I chose to do for the rest of my life,” he said. “I didn’t really think it would (be so successful).” His first shot at selling the bags to the public was hawking them from the back of his Land Cruiser. He started with eight bags, all of which sold in just about three hours. It was then Munson knew he was on to something. So after some time, he gathered members of his family, including his father, two sisters, sister-in-law, to help run what would later be known as Saddleback Leather. But as it turned out for Munson, working with the ones he loved wasn’t the best business idea.

“It was a real mess,” he said. “So I went out and got a business consultant…and he helped us get organized and squared away, get structure, because we had no structure. (The whole business) was depending on me, so he taught me how to delegate and that’s helped me out a lot.” And thanks to the help of his business consultant, Munson’s company is as efficient as ever. His biggest advice – and biggest lesson as a first-time business owner and entrepreneur – is to build your structure with wise people around you. He said ask for wisdom, and the rest falls into place. “I've heard horror stories of lots of small and successful businesses who, driven by greed, try to become giants and fail. In the pursuit, they either shut their doors or become nothing more than mundane and mediocre. We aren't like that. We are and will maintain our family of leather owners with love,” Munson wrote on his website. It’s a business model Munson prides himself on: Providing his customers with the utmost respect and satisfaction for customers. “If our goal were to sell something to everyone, we would no longer be selling to shepherds; but only to sheep,” Munson wrote. “We'd lose our edge and our designs would lose their originality and charm. We don't want to be a common name in everyone's home, but certainly in a few.”Saddleback (and Love 41) Gives Back Munson said the point of his company is not to ‘make Dave rich,’ but rather to give back to not only his Texas community, but the world in which his kids and grandkids will grow old. Munson and his wife Suzette, alongside Saddleback Leather, launched a second company a few years ago called Love 41. What started as a way to use scraps of leather from Saddleback’s designs quickly morphed into a thriving business of its own which aims to help fight genocide and poverty in Africa. All of the proceeds from the online store’s sales go to support the work of Africa New Life Ministries, where Suzette now sponsors two boys whose lives were torn apart from genocide, as well as JDRF, Mercy Ships, and a handful of other organizations. “You hear a lot about people going to Africa: You have to help the poor people in Africa, (they say). But once you go to Africa, you go to the house of a child-led home where the parents are dead and you have a  15-year-old taking care of his five siblings, and there’s no furniture or mattresses, it really rocks your world,” Munson said. Munson said a lot of the money made at Saddleback and Love 41 goes to help those in need. Through social media, Munson, his wife, and their teams document their trips and help raise awareness, and get other people involved in their efforts.