The Foam Shop in the Shadow of the Tesla Factory

In the shadow of Tesla’s Fremont factory sits an unassuming business who does specialty foam work for a wide variety of clients. When National Geographic needs a custom case designed to protect equipment from the elements, these are the folks they call.

Bob's Foam Factory

Sitting directly between San Jose and San Francisco, most of Fremont is a suburban bedroom community that serves both cities. But it actually covers quite a wide area and has many industrial sections as well.

When I first visited Bob’s Foam, I still remember the awe I felt when opening the door to the shop area, seeing solid blocks of foam the size of camper vans and saws large enough to cut them.

Minimal backpack foam producer Bob's Foam Factory

I told the guy in the shop who greeted me about my backpack project and the kind of foam I was looking for… something that would hold its shape, protect the contents, and be thin enough to be integrated into the liner itself.

He quickly grabbed a yellow legal pad from the small desk in the corner of the shop and started making diagrams. Despite the fact that I had been researching different types of foam for weeks online, I learned more about foam from him in 5 minutes.

I showed him my prototypes and got out my sketchbook to take notes. 

Minimal backpack foam producer Bob's Foam Factory

There are two general categories of foam- open cell and closed. Open cell is most common and cheaper because a lot of the material is taken up by air. It’s great for many uses like couches but it’s spongy and can break down over time.

In order to achieve the curved back of the Slim Pack, I would need something more rigid. An open cell foam dense enough to do this would be too thick. So he recommend closed cell.

Even within closed cell, there are tons of materials, densities, and even processes used to make it. He showed me some of the ones he stocked and they worked okay but ideally I wanted something a bit stiffer. “Well, there’s also crosslink but it’s way more expensive,” he remarked. 

If you’ve heard of crosslink, also commonly referred to as EVA, it’s likely in the context of shoes since this is the type of rubber used in high-end running soles. It provides excellent cushioning and doesn’t break down over time. It also doesn’t take on any water and can even float!

Outside of $100+ running shoes, EVA doesn’t have many uses which justify the cost so it wasn’t something they carried. But he said if I can find it, they could make the parts I needed for the bag.

As I prepared to leave, I thought he must be the owner since he was so knowledgable. “Are you Bob?” I asked. “No, I’m his son- Rob.” Funny, another second generation family business to add to my partner list along with my printer, die cutter, and shipping house.

My hunt for EVA initially didn’t go too well. I spoke to a specialty foam supplier who did a lot of work for Nasa and when I asked for crosslink she said- “Oh, you want the fancy stuff, huh? No we don’t carry that.” If this stuff was too fancy for Nasa things weren't looking too good!

As I expanded my search I ran across a terribly designed website that seemed promising. It’s funny- sometimes with industrial suppliers a bad website can be a good sign. It can be an indication that they have customers already and they often times have very knowledgable sales folks… which turned out to be the case.

Just a couple days after talking to the foam supplier, a sample box showed up. Opening it gave me a similar feeling of awe as walking into Bob’s Foam… in front of me was a library of foam, arranged by increasing density, much of it even available in different colors. With this arrangement I immediately identified the perfect one… and I could even get it in black.

When I talked to the sales person about the thicknesses available, it took me a moment to realize that he was saying I could get it in any thickness I wanted. But that was because I had to buy a whole block and they would slice or “scythe” it for me to order. They would drop ship it to Bob’s Foam and then they would die cut the parts for the backpack.

Pricing everything out, this would be one of the most expensive parts of the bag if I divided it out by how many we were going to make. I thought it was worth it but I would also essentially need to buy three times more than I needed.

Minimal backpack foam producer Bob's Foam Factory

It was pretty exciting to see my block of foam arrive at Bob’s. There was no way to know for sure whether the final cut parts would have the properties I wanted before we made our pieces, but it turned out to be even better than I expected. It slides right into the liner but maintains the shape. And since it’s closed cell you can also collapse it flat like in the bottom of a suitcase and then it’ll rebound to its normal shape. 

From educating me about the right foam to use to precision cutting the final parts, Bob’s did a fantastic job delivering this custom part that makes the Slim Pack possible. I’m glad to add them to my list of local manufacturing partners and look forward to working with them to bring more products to life.

Which type of minimalist are you?

I originally thought of my product line as slim wallets, but now more and more folks are looking at products like these as just one element of their minimalist lifestyle.

As a designer and someone who’s obsessed with efficient processes, I think I’ve always pretty much been what one may call a minimalist, but what exactly makes someone a minimalist? And are there perhaps different kinds?
Minimize by Jeff Sheldon of Ugmonk
Graphic courtesy Jeff Sheldon of Ugmonk

The terms Minimalist and Minimalism have grown in popularity to the point that folks have actually started to use them to mean slightly different things. And minimalist specialists have emerged for the different aspects.

So let’s explore the three dimensions of minimalism to learn more about the minimalist movement…

This category of minimalism is rooted in the ideas first laid out in Getting Things Done. The GTD method popularized by David Allen systematized many of our daily tasks so they could be accomplished much more efficiently.

From a business perspective, the E-Myth by Michael Gerber has become a go-to source to describe how a business itself can run efficiently with the least amount of resources. This is accomplished by defining processes and systematizing activities so they can be done repeatedly with consistent quality. Sometimes these can even be improved by incorporating technology or by designing a system that eliminates or automates a task entirely.

As technology has developed, many of the time and task management approaches found in smartphone apps build on the GTD method, whether they’re aimed at organizing To Do lists better... or developing routines that streamlines your day.

With more and more folks feeling like they have too much stuff, this is perhaps the fastest growing element of minimalism. From an organization perspective, Marie Kando has provided simple yet powerful systems and approaches to help folks organize their whole house… usually starting in the closet.

Meanwhile, the Minimalists have taken the ideas of paring down to the extreme… extending it not only to all the things in your home, but everything you own. They even get into the psychological reasons behind why we accumulate stuff and suggest that we extend the minimalist concepts into our work and finances.

Whether it’s feeling like they’re a victim of consumerism, or it’s feeling overwhelmed by clutter, folks have found a sense of relief by drastically reducing the amount of stuff they own and organizing the things they have.

Popularized by the book with the same name by Greg McKeown, this is one of the more recent and interesting dimensions of minimalism to emerge. Like Covey does in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he advocates for spending time to define what truly matters most in order to live with more purpose.

But while Covey takes a bit more of a nuts and bolts approach to develop mission statements, McKeown takes a bit more philosophical case, making the point that if we allow distractions to make their way into our lives, not only will we not accomplish things related to our life’s purpose, but we won’t enjoy the experience of living as much because we’ll be stuck spending time doing unimportant things we don’t like to do. So if we can establish firm priorities, it can clarify where we should be spending time- potentially eliminating whole areas of activity. After all, making the decision not to do something in the first place can be the most efficient of all. 

I think there also may be a dimension of Aesthetic Minimalism but I wasn’t so sure it’s completely separable from the others. Maybe when one or more of the elements is combined in the creation of an object, the result is something with minimalist aesthetic qualities?

What do you think… should Aesthetic Minimalism be its own fourth category or exist as the sum of the parts of the other three?

Of these types of minimalist, do you see your self in one or more of them? Am I missing any?

Quitting my day job- I work for you

Many of you have been SlimFold customers or fans since we started in 2009 while others may have just stumbled across the site recently when looking for a thin wallet. Whether you saw me in San Francisco when I set up my first booth to sell wallets and it rained… or you backed a Kickstarter campaign for the MICRO Tyvek Minimalist Wallet, Soft Shell Minimalist Wallet, or Slim Pack, it’s certainly been a journey. I’m tremendously grateful that so many folks have enjoyed using my products.

SlimFold Booth
SlimFold Booth from 2013

But what you may not know is that up until recently I also maintained a full-time career as a mobile user experience designer. It runs counter to the advice most folks give about “taking the leap” into entrepreneurship, but it was definitely the right path for me. And an experience I’m starting to share with others so they can consider whether it’s right for them too.

As the company grew, I essentially had two full-time jobs but was able to manage things by being efficient with my time and getting help where needed. For example, I hired a local fulfillment company to do all the shipping, implemented systems to automatically synchronize our inventory with theirs, and hired some local stay at home moms to help with customer service. But when my son was born almost 2 years ago, I knew I couldn’t do it all… at least not well. So I committed to focusing on Fatherhood and SlimFold.

At first, this was just a trial to see if working only on SlimFold could work both financially and emotionally.

Like any major transition, it took a little getting used to. I remember listening to TGIM (Thank God it’s Monday) and thinking that the distinction between days had indeed faded… that every day was Monday yet every day was Friday. But I was thankful to be doing what I loved each day. Well, most days. This was also during the time when I was trying to produce the Slim Pack and there were lots of challenges with producing that many bags in a short amount of time… and then some major snags we hit with trying to ship the ones we had made. 

Now that all the Slim Packs are shipped and the holiday rush is behind us, I’ve been looking ahead at the coming year and all the products I want to make… and I’m pleased to let you know that I’ve decided to make my focus on SlimFold permanent.

As a designer for major tech companies, I needed to make the best designs I could while supporting their business model and balancing the desires of many stakeholders. While running my own business has a lot more moving parts in terms of the logistics, in many ways the mission is much more simple. Now you’re really the only stakeholder that matters. So in a very real way, I work for you now.

I’m looking forward to continuing to do my best to listen to your feedback and suggestions about the products you’d like to see me make. And am optimistic that if I continue to create compelling solutions, you'll continue to support us.