Why Lyndon Cormack created Herschel to redefine travel, and 10 years later says 'the best is yet to come'

Aug 28 2019, 5:51 pm

Daily Hive’s “Something or Nothing” series features both up-and-coming and established entrepreneurs from around the country and asks them why they do what they do, their biggest failures, success strategies, and more. Know someone who should be featured? Let us know.


For Lyndon and Jamie Cormack, the name Herschel comes from fond childhood memories.

It’s the little town smack dab in the middle of Saskatchewan their great-grandparents immigrated to from Scotland in 1906. It’s where their dad was born and, to this day, it’s one of their favourite places to visit.

So when the brothers created their travel apparel company, it only made sense to name it after something that meant something special to them — especially since Lyndon places a great deal of importance on meaningful connections.

In 10 years, Herschel has gone from a little backpack and duffel bag-making company in Vancouver to global innovators in modern travel, with close to 300 employees pushing them forward.

How they got here had a lot to do with the emphasis Lyndon puts on connections, which influences the way he conducts business, how he measures success, and what types of values he chooses to weave into the narrative of his company’s story.

In between travels, Lyndon took the time to tell us about how Herschel got started, which product he can’t live without, why every single Herschel product designed ends up going to market, and more.

Photo Courtesy of Herschel Supply Co.

  • Birthplace: Drayton Valley, Alberta
  • Place you consider home: Grew up in Calgary, but been living in Vancouver for 24 years
  • Age: 42
  • What you wanted to be when you were a kid: Lawyer or professional athlete
  • Favourite high school class: PE or drama
  • Previous job: Handling sales in Western Canada for Vans Footwear
  • How do you commute: Car
  • What you always have with you: Curiosity
  • Favourite vacation spot: Hawaii
  • What time you normally wake up at: 6 am
  • What time you normally sleep at: 10 pm
  • Normal breakfast: I don’t eat breakfast
  • Reading/listening to right now: I love magazines and any podcast about entrepreneurs like “How It’s Built” from NPR

What’s your elevator pitch?

Every business starts with a problem, and ours was simple: Backpacks were boring.

What was the moment like when you and you brothers decided to start this. Was everyone on board right away?

There were doubters for sure. People say, “Oh, apparel’s challenging.”

It’s hard to paint the picture of what’s in your mind. So before it started, that’s when most of the doubters were there. But we had this painted picture in our mind. We couldn’t find a brand like ours that we were looking for. We were quite well-traveled individuals, so we sort of thought there was a hole in the market globally for a design-driven utility product such as the backpack and duffel bags we started with.

Of course, you deal with the doubters because there’s risk involved, and it doesn’t exist yet so nobody knows what it’s going to look like when it does exist. From the early days, though, we had really good early success, so it sort of really was a motivating factor.

And it was just Jamie and I in the beginning, so there weren’t a lot of other people to convince like that. We just had to convince two guys, so that was pretty easy.

Lyndon Cormack herschel

The Cormack family in Herschel (Lyndon Cormack/Instagram)

Have you raised any money to date?

No, we’ve funded it all ourselves.

We’ve been very fortunate to be able to use the growth of the business and the profitability of the business to continue to re-invest back in it all the time. We don’t know any other way.

Not to say that self-funding is the only way to go. There’s a lot of people out there that can help bring ideas to life, so I’m not negative towards raising money by any means. We’ve just been very fortunate that we haven’t had to.

How has Vancouver played a role in the development of the company?

We lived here when we started, so it was always a beautiful backdrop for us to launch the brand. I believe that Vancouver celebrates multiculturalism really well, so it gives us a really nice at-home feel of other cultures, and how they exist within our own, and how they potentially exist in their home country or at home.

Most people love our city, I’d say. And we’re also quite ambitious about going away for the weekend and on trips, which is also part of our brand. We didn’t necessarily start it to reinvent the high schools of the world, we did it to help people travel better and have a more design-driven, curated approach to travel. If that happens to be traveling from home to school, that’s just one form of it, but we also wanted to find solutions for people who are going abroad or on a weekend trip.

I always say that Herschel likes to take the scenic route and discover things that are off the main thoroughfares. I think that as a brand and as a city, Vancouver always reminds us that there’s a scenic route to take and there’s something really fun to discover, whether it be a crazy waterfall, or a crazy coffee spot, or a new restaurant.

Additionally, the people and the culture that we’re able to pull from in the city is fantastic. We couldn’t ask for a better group of people to be able to work with every single day, who are all motivated around the central goal of being in this sort of industry and working hard, while also having fun along the way.

Where’s the business at today? 

We have 9,000 points of distribution over 90 countries.

We have 72 monogram stores that are operated internationally, two of which are in Vancouver that we operate ourselves. The rest of them are through partners who operate those for us.

We started with a backpack and certainly reinvented that as a category.

We provide one of the best utility and design-driven solutions out there in the world. And now, we are taking that mandate and our DNA and applying it to the more robust travel category as well as with apparel with a very travel-inspired focus.

What’s one of the biggest challenges your team is currently facing?

Making sure people who work with us know that we go to work for them everyday versus them coming to work for us, and trying to build a platform that allows people to have dynamic, exciting careers. It’s making sure they feel connected and motivated. We’ve never been bigger as a company, in terms of sales, people, and opportunity, but the reality is we’re still quite small and there’s such a big opportunity ahead of us. And we’ve been getting into a bit of uncharted territory, which is sometimes nervous and sometimes really exciting.

I’ve always been in uncharted territory, so I’m quite used to it and very well trained in sort of the unchartedness of my career, but I think getting people the understanding that the best is yet to come and if we all concentrate on this, this thing can be bigger than we ever anticipated.

After being in business for 10 years and having a big impact already around the world, how do you still say that the best is yet to come?

For me it’s quite obvious.

We have a passionate consumer group who is asking for more. We’re also still the dominant leader in a category that was underserved. Another reason is modern consumers are traveling so differently than they’ve traveled in the past and we’re finding ourselves in the perfect spot to be able to solve consumer needs.

I think that businesses who are in our category have been around for a long time. I believe their relevancy continues to get chipped away, and I think we’re more motivated than ever to push great design and smart utility design decisions.

Jamie and Lyndon Cormack / Herschel Supply Co.

Knowing what you know now, what do you wish you knew when you started?

We always say “start earlier.” But you never know, maybe it was the perfect time.

We believe that timing is everything, and we need to be on time all the time. But we also found ourselves at that perfect time of the intersection of when this would’ve worked. So, maybe, starting earlier could’ve been our biggest failure.

I think that as a younger 18-year-old, I was probably most afraid of failure rather than contemplating success. There have been so many times in my life I’ve wanted to try to do something and I stopped because I was afraid that it wouldn’t work.

Everything happens for a reason, but some days I wish we had started earlier.

What’s one of the biggest failures you’ve experienced?

As a company, we talk a lot about our wins a hell of a lot more than our losses, but in reality, we’re constantly losing. We’re not bulletproof. We’re not Superman. We do have failures quite often in our business. In fact, today I’ll probably be dealing with some sort of failure.

The question, though, is what do you do from that point and how do you pivot? I would say we’re really exceptional at learning from what went wrong and trying to figure out how we turn those losses into wins.

There’s never been that one failure moment where it’s been disastrous. We sometimes assume too much. Sometimes you assume you’re ready to go into a big market and you assume consumers are ready to go, and it doesn’t work out as well as you want it too. So, you’re kind of left going, “Fuck! What do we do now?” I wouldn’t say those are necessarily failures, they’re just part of the process. Doesn’t matter who you are, nobody gets it perfect all the time.

But I don’t want to paint the picture that we have this complete mess inside, because it’s not. There’s constantly work to be done, and you’re occasionally going to get beat up along the way. You just have to figure out how the hell you don’t get beat up next time. That’s what makes our brand really strong. We don’t use losing as an excuse. We hate losing. We love winning.

Our lives are beautiful chaos all the time of problem solving, but we have to remember to have fun along the way, because that’s why we’re all in this industry. We didn’t get into it because we had to or it’s a shitty job. It’s fun. What we do for a living is really, really, really fun.

When I talk to my kids who love playing sports, we always ask them what’s the most important thing to do, and they say “Have fun, dad.” And then one of my daughters will always say, “Yeah, but remember, winning is way more fun that losing.” It’s that attitude where we say we’re going to have fun, but winning is more fun.

How many products get made that don’t end up going to market?

I would say this is very, very rare in our industry, but for us, everything goes to market. We make every single piece that we ever have designed, even if 20 people bought it globally.

We believe that if we designed and people put their money behind it, it’s our responsibility to produce it for them.

It becomes a manufacturing nightmare, and it’s probably one of those things we should revisit because it’s really, really, really time consuming to do. So there, our biggest failure is maybe really trying to be on top of every single order.

What are you learning right now and why is it important?

I’m certainly in the trenches of running a growing brand. We’re at the size now where it’s a really, really complex business. So, I feel like I’m getting my Master’s degree in running the foundation of a large brand, not a medium-sized brand anymore, and the complexities around running a business and all the things that need to be analyzed on a day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, quarter-by-quarter basis is a lot more strenuous than it ever has been in the past.

Lyndon Cormack / Herschel Supply Co.

You have two kids and a giant little company. How do you prevent burnout?

I think work/life balance is something that our office is really good at, and I would say that it is practiced by us, as well. We don’t really do the whole work until midnight kind of thing and showing up at stupid o’clock. We certainly are busy all the time, and we have sort of this rigorous pace that we have, but I would say our office is almost a ghost town after 5:30 pm.

We want people to work smart, not just hard, and be able to do what they need to do in a reasonable amount of time.

We care about the good times and care about the time off as much as we care about getting the job done. I think we’ve tried to manage that.

As a company and as an individual, what do you value most?

From a business perspective, I’m a big lover of design and good design. That’s something I’m passionate about.

But in general, I’d say I’m probably the biggest cheerleader of my kids.

Is there a quote or a line that’s changed the way that you approach business?

There are tons.

I love some of the simplest Dieter Rams quotes, going “the less, the better.” Or one of my favorite quotes from Dieter Rams is, “question everything generally thought to be obvious.”

Another quote that I love is from Andy Warhol, “art is what you can get away with.”

I think it’s sort of more talking about opportunities, and about the disguise of them as well. And that you should think that success has to be so cookie cutter all the time.

Besides sales, how do you measure success?

Beyond profitability, I think it’s important to look at how we’re helping build a community, both internally at our office and beyond. That’s some of the biggest motivation that we ever get — just watching people and where they go with our products. It’s something that we find really important.

What do you think is the most surprising element of your day-to-day that most people wouldn’t even think of?

Probably how much time I have to spend on legal, HR, and finance.

We talk a lot about how everybody is sort of the star of their own movie, and in their story and their movie of their life, everything’s going to happen in their own themes that are really good for them. So, it’s a constant job of trying to manage to a script that we don’t have, manage to their script, and try to provide the outcomes that they’re ultimately writing.

Herschel’s Vancouver flagship store in Gastown/Herschel Supply

You recently opened up the first company-owned and operated store in North America in downtown Vancouver. Why was it important to do this?

The unique opportunity when you open your own store is that every single thing is under your own control, of course, everything from merchandising to the architecture and art that you decide to surround your products with.

You learn a lot about going to an individual’s home. If you know somebody and you get invited to a dinner party or you get invited over to see how that person lives, you get to learn a lot about what that person cares about.

Maybe people think we live in a log cabin, or maybe they think we live in a loft. Who knows what they think from a brand perspective. The ultimate time when you get to tell your own story and invite them into your home, they discover quite quickly the things you care about.

The most motivating factor about owning retail is the fact that you’re able to teach the end consumer about what you care about, and surround them with things that you’re passionate about.

We’re not just passionate about backpacks or duffel bags.

We’re passionate about art, and culture, and creativity, and individuality, and uniqueness, and a little bit of refined design, a little bit eclectic in our nature. I think that when you walk into our store in Vancouver, you get a quick sense that the brand’s different than you thought.

How many stores do you want to open?

As many as the market will let us.

Stores do take a lot of money to open. And going back to the fact that we are all self-financed, we have to do it in a responsible way. We’re going to go to the key cities that most of our traffic already exists in. I would say in the next five years, we’ll probably have another 50 stores, but they’ll probably be slower in the beginning and ramp up near the end.

Personally, what’s your favourite product that you’ve made?

I’m a huge fan of a bag called the Packable Daypack.

It’s basically a backpack that goes back into a little pouch. I can throw it in my luggage, and if I’m exploring the city, whether that’s rolling around on City Bikes in New York or grabbing one of those love-to-be-hated electric scooters, it allows me to just have a lightweight bag with me that I can throw things in.

Packable Daypack / Herschel Supply Co.

Do you have any mentors?

I have a lot of mentors. I don’t have a mentor specifically to say, “this is my mentor,” but there’s a lot of people in business that I look up to.

I think Brian Hill has done an exceptional job with Aritzia. His focus, his determination, his work ethic, his take on retail, certainly for the woman’s fashion space is something I really love.

There’s another Canadian I look up to named Omer Arbel. He owns Omer Arbel Design Studio, and he’s also the Creative Director of Bocci. He does very ambitious architectural projects around the world. He’s a friend and someone I look up to, with his amazing design rigor and his ideas that I’m astonished by because they’re so amazing.

I also love the vision of Ian Gillespie, another Canadian who is the CEO of Westbank Group.

What do the next couple years look like for Herschel?

We want to be one of the most important modern travel companies in the world.

It’s a category that we can have a lot of fun in. It focuses on the thing that we’re very motivated by, which is getting away, going on trips, and discovering new places.

I think that we’ve got a lot of great work ahead of us, but I think that ultimately when we  look back in five or more years to reflect on how far we’ve come, I think we’ll see that the travel business is going to be something that we’re a big, big part of.

You’ve done some epic collaborations. What’s the dream collab that you haven’t done yet?

There are lots of brands out there that we would be very honoured to work with because there are so many brands doing so many awesome things. We study brands. We love brands, and we love the products and how those products tell stories all the time. So that’s what really motivates us from being a huge fan of other people’s brands as well.

I would love the opportunity for Herschel to open a hotel and be able to celebrate modern travel, to celebrate everything from the food and beverage to the gift shop, to the concierge of how you’re getting people around the town.

I think those kind of things are what modern travel companies will eventually do, and I think that we would give an amazing experience in a situation like that where we had the opportunity to have a lot more control of the touchpoint to make somebody’s stay in a city great.

Do you have an exit strategy?

No, I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise with all my time.

The reality is life expectancy is long these days, and I’m a pretty healthy guy. I got at least 50 years ahead of me most likely of just celebrating ideas and bringing ideas to life. There’s certainly no immediate or near-term exit strategy for this guy.

Have you ever gotten offers to sell the company?

Yeah, there’s always been a ton of interest since the early days.

That comes with having a brand in a space that’s sort of one of the category leaders. You’re going to have a little bit of attention from outside people trying to figure out if there’s anything they could do to help. They’re motivated by what we’ve done, and oftentimes the conversation is around ways they could help amplify it.

At this point in time, though, we’re sticking to status quo.

@herschelsupply / Instagram

Looking back, would you have imagined that Herschel would be where it is today?

I definitely envisioned it being where it is today, but I still think we’re really fortunate that it panned out.

We thought there was a global hole in this space to tell interesting stories through the category of bags, and we thought the opportunity was big. We didn’t know all the variables that were going to come up day in, day out and year in, year out of new brands and new competitors, new this and new that. But yeah, we’re just really proud. We say we’re proud but not satisfied because we think there’s lots more we can do. We had the ambitions to try to make it global, and we had the ambition to try to make it impactful in this space. We’re well on our way to ensuring that the vision pays off, plays out the way we want it to.

How do you want people to remember you personally?

Oh, gosh… probably a mix of smart, and humorous, and fun, and caring.

I think that some of those would be embodied in the work I do every single day. I make smart decisions, care about the people around me, keep on bringing ideas to life, and celebrate that wouldn’t-it-be-cool attitude of you can change and do anything you want and make sure you have fun along the way. Those are certainly something that would embody my character.


Interview edited for clarity

 

Get in touch with Lyndon via LinkedIn and follow Herschel on Instagram at @herschelsupply.

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