Sarah Giblin, one-person startup and designer of the first secure, “backwards” RiutBag.
Currently live on Kickstarter with her new range of secure origami backpacks.
Born in Scotland, raised in commuter town Reading, Sarah left home for the first time to study political philosophy at University of Manchester. She moved to Paris and Berlin thereafter and got a taste for travel. She worked as classical singer, translator, interviewer, lawyer and in financial services. It was commuting through between London and Berlin that she realised all backpacks are the wrong way round, and set about redesigning the rucksack. She lives and works as a digital nomad, but has bases in Berlin, Manchester and China.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
Five years ago I founded a company called Riut – sounds like “Riot” – to design, manufacture and sell a new kind of travel backpack online. I had never designed, manufactured or sold anything online before. I left my secure financial services office job, took my savings and started prototyping because I spotted an unusual problem in the world: all urban backpacks are the wrong way round.
Let me explain: the person behind you can open your backpack. This doesn’t really make sense in our busy urban spaces where we commute and travel with millions – seriously, millions – of people we don’t know. So I made a small change to the conventional backpack. I removed all the outer zips and put them instead against your back. So every time you put your RiutBag on, it’s already secure without you having to do a thing.
It sparked a new global anti-theft backpack industry and it’s making many people feel more confident and secure every day they travel in the city.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
If I ever did, it certainly didn’t go to plan. I did well at school and university because I didn’t realise not doing well was an option. Then, after university there was a moment – when you’re meant to use your shiny new degree to get a serious job with a big company – that I just didn’t get a job. I did a masters in political philosophy, went to New York, moved to Paris, got a taste for not living in England and then moved to Berlin.
I was doing odd jobs along the way to pay for rent. In the holidays I worked in shops selling bacon sandwiches. At the weekends I’d work for a silversmith in London. As a student I studied politics but worked as a classical singer for the BBC. Arriving in Berlin, I did English language interviews for German publications and was generally writing, translating and working for magazines. I left Berlin because of a sense that I was meant to be doing grownup things like being a business person and wearing a suit. I went back to study law in the UK and started working for law firms. I used my new law degree to get a job working for financial consultants who were helping retail banks understand the tonnes of new regulation they needed to implement. If that isn’t grownup, I don’t know what is.
It was then that I had the RiutBag idea. And it changed everything. As soon as I gave it a moment’s serious thought, the rest of my life made sense. I didn’t have to try to be someone else. I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I could just be me trying to make an idea that I had using everything I already was.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
It turns out having the RiutBag idea, sketching it out and leaving my job was the simple part. Five years on, after 3 Kickstarter campaigns, 22 trips to China, 13 productions, 16 designs, many failed prototypes, hand-checking 18,000 RiutBags, making a few decisions that were nearly fatal to the company, having a 2 year burnout, deciding to return to designing and do it all again, I’m still here, I’m still learning and I’m still glad that this is what I’m doing with my life.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
I have one very simple belief: if others can do something, I can do it too. If someone else learnt to drive, then I must be able to learn this too – no matter how hard it seems before you try. I might not have manufactured anything in China before, but people do it every day, so it must be possible. I just have to find out how.
Having a totally “new” idea, all of which has never been done before, is very rare. Perhaps even impossible. That’s what makes even surprising innovation still possible. I’m not trying to belittle innovation. It just shows that of all the incredible things that are created in the world were doable. Otherwise they couldn’t exist.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
As a one-person startup who lives as a digital nomad, it’s a lonely existence. It’s fantastic when everything is going well. And it’s hard when it isn’t. If I could change one thing about the last 5 years, I wish I’d found a mentor I could have spoken to – even just once every three months. It’s a check-up. It’s being able to say “I think I just made a huge mistake” and to hear how someone else dealt with their own problems. Instead, I kept it in my own head and allowed myself to go under. Don’t do that.
I encourage every new business owner to find a mentor. Right at the beginning. I’m still looking. I’d certainly be willing to help someone else.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?
It might be possible to change the system from within. But I didn’t discover a way to do it. After just 3 to 4 years of the daily corporate grind – working, money, solving someone else’s problems, clients, stress, eating out, compulsory drinking with colleagues – I’d nearly forgotten my deepest held beliefs about gender parity and all matters of justice. That’s also part of the reason I left. All too soon I was obsessed with money, pleasing bosses, fitting in and climbing the ladder. To win on their terms means playing their game. And it’s all encompassing when you’re there every day.
I believe stepping out, carving out your own path, on your own terms, learning the ropes of the international system of trade where you are seen as a client – not a woman or a man – is where I feel at my freest. Free to make mistakes. Free to do nothing. Free to do great things. I get to be and explore who I am, what I’m capable of, I get to create products and communicate with people without reinforcing the structures and ideas I find so harmful.
Oddly, I feel I’ve done more for promoting gender parity in my five years of Riut than I ever achieved arguing with people about gender. I demonstrate, silently, every day the idea that it is normal to buy a durable, high-quality laptop backpack from a one-person startup designer who happens to be called Sarah Giblin. With all the ideas that brings with it. There are still some people who are surprised I can even get on a plane to China on my own. But most of my customers realise that I’m a human who can do stuff and whose work can be valued. I think that has a positive impact over time.
Once you’ve spent a few years learning what is inside you, what you can do, what you’re capable of, you can perhaps return to those heavy corporate structures and make a change. But arriving there without experience in your twenties is unlikely to bring about much change in my view.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
I had no idea what people meant when they told me to choose a career. It seemed too arbitrary. It seemed to have no consequences. I didn’t know what it was for. I wish someone had said this to me at the age of 13 or 14:
“If you stay alive for long enough, you will one day have to pay for everything in your life – your clothes, your bus tickets, rent, bike, electricity, music, phone, haircuts, holidays, water, shampoo, curtains and petrol. Someone else pays for all of them right now.”
We live in a society where you need to be able to make money to exchange for other things. That’s what this “career” is about. That’s what a “job” is. And all you need to do, is find a way of making enough money to pay for everything you need or want to do.
You can make this money in any way you like. There are endless ways of doing it. If you are good at singing, you can sing for your money. If you’re good at playing computer games, making birthday cards, reading, gardening, running, football, driving, cooking, thinking, being funny. You can do any of them. You can even invent something new and make it. It’s really up to you.
I run my entire company from my phone. I draw the ideas that are in my head on to paper, show my factory, they make a prototype and we make them. I have to pay them to do this. I have to sell them on my website to get the money to do it.
Too often girls are still told to try to do something amazing, but if it doesn’t work out just get someone else to pay for it (what’s implied is a rich husband). It seems like hard work. But there’s nothing greater than learning how to stand on your own feet and then make choices about what you do with your life, your ideas and your body. It’s worth it.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
5 years on, I’m back designing. I asked my customers: what impossible thing you do you wish your backpack could do? More than one person said something like this: “I know it’s impossible, but I wish my backpack could be bigger when I need more space and smaller when I it’s empty.” I smiled when I read it, and thought it was impossible too.
I was busy prototyping a much larger RiutBag for secure global travel. I was frustrated with this enormous thing taking up my whole desk one evening and just wanted to put it away. But it was so big! So I folded the top of it inside itself and slipped it down the side of my desk. After a second I thought “..wait a minute..” and the new RiutBag X35 was born: a laptop backpack which folds and unfolds from 10 litres to 35 litres in seconds. It’s taken me 5 rounds of prototypes, sleepless nights, I had to move out of my home, move country and learn a new martial art – aikido – to get it done, but it’s done. And it’s on Kickstarter right now. We’ll see what the future holds after this. But for now, I’m searching for travellers who want to travel secure, calm and confident with this flexible, origami backpack. If you know anyone, send them my way!