Brand Builders: David Riley, Schulz

In our conversation series with founders and industry thinkers, we sat down with David Riley, a lifelong entrepreneur and the co-founder of Schulz Collection, a direct-to-consumer brand offering beautiful, durable, and sustainable equestrian bags. In 2020, we began developing the brand identity and design for Schulz — so we might be a bit biased when we say we're a big fan.

Before Schulz, David built a decades-long legacy in operations at Lowepro, an esteemed camera bag company based in Toronto. His knack for connecting businesses and founders to the talent they need to bring their brand to life is remarkable — and we've been thrilled to work alongside David as he's helped build and manage the Schulz Collection's growth.

Hi David! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Can you start by introducing us to you and your current projects?

My world has always been very entrepreneurial. In my earlier days, I worked for Lowepro — I joined when they were an established company, I got involved and put together other teammates, and we created the largest camera bag company in the world. It was a big company but it was very family-like. It fit very well with my personality. When I left Lowepro about seven years ago, I knew that building companies and creating companies was my passion.

I have expertise in the world of bag design and production. I’m not a designer — I’m not the smartest person in the room ever, but I’m the conductor. I build teams and connect people. My work allows somebody to take an idea or talk about an idea and then I help them turn it into reality. It's about helping them become better — to elevate their level of ability. When I work with people, I’m not into giving advice. If they’re interested, I will provide them with all the knowledge and the connections I have, so they can evolve themselves into something that is far greater than how they started out.

With that startup mentality, it led me to my current project with Schulz, as co-founder and chief operating officer. I bring a lot of connections and a lot of experience in the world of taking a product idea from concept to the shelf.

There are loads of companies that are great ideation companies. But I can pull together teams and I can understand how to look at something that is just a scratch on a piece of paper and visualize the whole process through getting it to the shelf at a retail space, or with Schulz, in the direct-to-consumer space.

The world of product development has evolved a lot in the last decade. Can you talk a bit about the transition from brick-and-mortar channels to direct-to-consumer platforms?

In the beginning, it was tiered distribution channels and brick and mortar, and the online world was just getting started. Most companies were born as brick and mortar and that’s a very different mentality from D2C. For me, learning to work with D2C companies was a lot of trial and error — I had to understand the D2C mentality, learn the back-end, the front-end, customer service, and how you relate to a customer online as opposed to in-person.

For bags, just like fashion, people inevitably are not going to buy something that they can’t touch and feel. In the early days, they might have bought it online — but they would have seen it and touched it in a retail environment or at an event first. Today, consumers are more willing to purchase without seeing it first, and that's because they are increasingly discerning and intuitive about the brands they engage with.

What's your experience with brand building?

I know how to produce a product — how to build a team that can design and product develop it. But now you need to be able to brand it. I had a lot of fashion world connections — but I didn’t have the contacts on the branding side. For me, that was the missing element in what I call creating a turn-key platform: somebody can come to me with an idea and I can walk them through the process of getting that product onto a shelf or a website, and building the brand around it.

I was introduced to Adam Chaloeicheep (Together's Founder and Creative Director) on an earlier project I was working on with higher-end travel bags. I realized that the Together team understood the world from a branding perspective, and the rest is history.

If your brand is going to be successful, it isn’t just magic. It’s not a mystery. There are people that are making things happen — and that’s what separates Schulz from anyone else in the equestrian space. You have the authentic rider with ideas but you also have the people in the background that can make things happen. It means you’re not a one-product company.

As we develop Schulz, we're looking at the product not just from a fashion perspective but from a purpose perspective. And that purpose needs to be, in some ways, pushing toward a product that is both functional and beautiful. It’s going to go to the barn, it’s going to be tossed in hay, dirt, and mud. But at the end of the day, we’re going to get you to say, “Wow, that’s beautiful, I love that bag.”

What excited you most about bringing the Schulz Collection to life?

Schulz is what I consider the ultimate project. Lindsey is the granddaughter of Charles Schulz, and she is a very creative individual — she’s a phenomenal fine artist and photographer. I met Lindsey through her father and it started with a casual conversation. Lindsey literally had a drawing on paper — maybe one day it’ll be in the Schulz Hall of Fame — and her dad, knowing that I came from the bag world, said, “Well, why don’t you guys sit and chat?”

The original idea was to fold the equestrian bag into the luggage company that I was building. But in talking with Lindsey, it became very obvious to me that this was not an extension of somebody else’s brand; this was very much a brand on its own. I say that because the key for me in any project I’ve worked on, there is a founder — and a founder that’s not me.

Fascinating. What is your relationship with the founders you've worked with and what have you learned from these experiences?

As you develop a brand, there needs to be a face of the brand. And I’ve realized that I'm not interested in being the face of the brand. If they’re the right person, they can make a great founder. In the case of Schulz, Lindsey is a great founder. She's an accomplished equestrian and brings a much more interesting story that most people can connect with: a founder with an idea that magically materializes into a product.

What’s missing in most of those stories — and if you delve into every single founder — is a reason as to why they got where they are. There's a partner or someone else behind the scenes making things happen. With Schulz, Lindsey is the creative brainpower; I’m the person who sits in the background and I’m not the least bit interested in being acknowledged, because I know what I do and I do it well. I love to bring people together. I helped connect Lindsey with the Together team and found creative partners where she could interact and express her ideas with people that can actually make them happen.

How did you first get your start in the world of production?

I was a fashion commercial photographer for a lot of years and I had a studio in Vancouver during the 70s and 80s. During that time, the company that owned Lowepro at the time was a Canadian-based company out of Toronto. And I knew one of the partners there since I was a little kid.

Eventually, I decided to walk away from the creative camera side and into the more business side of the bags. I developed relationships with major photographers and got them involved with Lowepro. Even though I wasn’t a designer, I was working with the product design team at the time. I was still a shooter. People respected me because I was authentic and understood the business. I could create win-win situations. I wasn’t just pushing Lowepro; I’d help them with the whole department because I understood the world of photography really well.

Although I’ve been selling most of my life, I’m not a salesperson at all. I couldn't care less whether somebody buys something or not. But in my world, if I create something of value for somebody, they’re going to buy it whether I push it or not.

When I walked away from Lowepro, I left a safe, comfortable world. The initial thinking was I wanted to stay in the bag world — but I wanted to move more into the fashion side and I wanted to play with the best materials. I was still a shooter, but just on a casual basis.

What was it like to transition from a career in photography bags to the equestrian space?

For me, the transition between those two worlds was a lot of projects — I was pouring millions of dollars out into the world and nothing was coming back. If your ego is such that you can accept the fact that you can relearn things and work with people, it allows you to make a lot of mistakes and meet a lot of interesting people.

The transition to the equestrian space would not have happened without Lindsey’s dad, Craig, approaching me. And if he had approached me seven years ago, we’d never achieved what we have so far — at that point, I hadn’t had enough time to deal with the changing world, going from the brick and mortar world to D2C world.

When Schulz came along, it was the perfect storm for me. I didn’t want to be the face of the brand but I had all these connections that I wanted to share with someone. For me, it was a relatively easy transition in the sense that I’m so comfortable with all my bag and apparel experience. I can work with the factories, I know the lingo, I know a lot of the factories myself. In order to succeed, it’s about a team. Lindsey has all the experience with the equestrian world and although I am not an equestrian, I was educated by Lindsey and it was easy to envision.

Can you share more about how these bags developed from quick sketches to dynamic products?

We spent a lot of time with Lindsey and asked her questions: “Why do people care about the boots?” And she said, “They’re very expensive, they need to be polished, you need to look great for those 15 seconds in the ring.”

I realized we're selling a purpose-driven product: boot, helmet, and grooming bags. There’s this idea that everything is pretty and all that — but it became very apparent that the world of horses is not pretty, actually, when you’re messing around in the barn. It’s an environment that is very performance-driven. We knew there would be an ecosystem of bags and we came up with three. I know that people want the most efficient, effective way to carry something — so we developed these three bags that work together in tandem.

The concept of carrying systems is the same with every bag — in and out of the equestrian world. I don’t have to know the equestrian world to understand people’s carrying needs. At the end of the day, people would love one bag to carry everything. People are looking to you to make something efficient.

We had Schulz formed by February 2020, and by March we were working on the bag designs and the Together team was working on the branding. It was very quick.

What was your experience launching in the midst of the pandemic and navigating COVID-19?

COVID had not been a problem up until about June 2021. When working through the final details of a product, a lead designer would typically get on a plane and fly to the sample makers to see the prototypes — and we haven't been able to do that. What's missing is the ability to simply sit in the factory for about three weeks and iron out all the details.

This is where COVID has slowed things down for Schulz and it's become a bit trickier. As good as Zoom is, they dial things down to the little millimeter — but things can still be misunderstood, and materials and selections become a little bit more difficult. It adds a little bit of tension, even though we have a high degree of skill and can work through issues from a distance. We just keep our fingers crossed a little bit — but it shouldn’t stop us from launching this winter.

Lastly, what is it like to work with a brand that is so intentional and artful in both process and craft?

For me, the transition was understanding that what hasn't changed is the emotional connection. I spent a lot of money working on companies that worry about clicks — and even setting up a website in a way that's easier to track and analyze. But we're not making an emotional connection. You can track it all from an analytical perspective — which is great — but we need to get people interested.

The lesson I've learned with Schulz is that I actually don't care so much about clicks. With our Instagram right now, I'd much rather have the right people — and the right people who actually want to come back day in and day out to see the story and connect with Lindsey and our brand.

In the world of social media, it's easier to build that emotional connection. We're able to connect with individuals in the sport who like what we're doing and what we're working toward. That's an authentic emotional connection. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to create an opportunity for an emotional connection — on a website, on social media, you name it. We're not trying to trick or dupe anyone. We want every equestrian and user that comes to our website to have a pleasing experience and to connect with our brand on an emotional level. That's what we're working toward.

Learn more about Schulz here, and view our case study here.

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