Profile: FOUNT Founders
A very Cleveland story of passion, hard work and high quality
By Heather Tunstall
"An abundant source of desirable quality." That's the meaning of the word "fount," as well as the essence of the handcrafted leather accessory business of the same name owned by husband and wife team Phillip and Jackie Wachter.
It all started when the couple began making wallets and necklaces out of their apartment a few years ago as a hobby. Then, they received a few custom requests from friends and family. Then a few more. Their work was starting to get noticed.
In an effort to speed up their operations and start selling their popular accessories more regularly, they purchased their first industrial sewing machine off of Craigslist--a 1944 Singer 111, which was used to sew parachutes during World War II. With a burnt-out motor. That couldn't reverse stitch.
"It was terrifying," Phillip laughed.
They fixed it up and designed their first leather tote bags, which they brought to The Cleveland Flea, and quickly started selling everything they had on hand. That's when it occurred to them that this could be a legit business venture.
We sat down and chatted with Jackie and Phillip--who were adorably finishing each other's sentences and excitedly sharing their vision for the future of their business. Here's (part of) their story.
Q: Tell me about the concept of FOUNT.
Jackie: Our whole pull was to produce quality-made goods here in the United States so that people can have less stuff, and you have things that are made to last. The goal of FOUNT is to design classics so that whatever bags we design, we want to have them around for 50 or 100 years.
Phillip: Simple designs that really can just showcase the materials that we're using. Because the leather itself is so beautiful that if we can create the right proportion in a simple, timeless aesthetic, then that's kind of the goal of the designs.
Jackie: We let the leather do a lot of the work. Because the quality of the leather is so high. And in addition to that, we try really hard to have a quality workplace for our employees where we all love coming to work every day.
Phillip: And when we started FOUNT, it was right at this time where the American-made movement was really swelling, and also Cleveland itself was--so much pride for Cleveland was just erupting in this city. And so the timing was amazing.
Q: You partner and share store space with other organizations that share your values. Can you talk a bit about the other products you sell in your store?
Jackie: That's one thing we're very passionate about: made-in-the-USA products. And on a grander scheme, we're more passionate about ethically-made products. Most of what Americans are wearing today is highly disposable. Bags break, necklaces break. Your shirt comes unraveled. And people are so used to things lasting for a very short amount of time.
Phillip: Six months, a year.
Jackie: Right, as opposed to how things were when our grandparents were alive. They had maybe five, six things that were higher-quality, so they didn't need as much. That's kind of the essence of FOUNT: We want people to get back to that. So we have curated a group of artisans in the store that also support that. And they're all made in the USA, and they're all made to last a lifetime. We have high-end facial products out of Oregon that are all organic and sustainable. Our leather conditioner's all natural. We have jewelry that is gold-plated or solid brass and other things that are meant to last. We've got a potter out of Lakewood. We've even got made-in-the-USA chocolate out of Brooklyn.
Q: What is it about Cleveland that made your dream of opening FOUNT possible?
Jackie: Cleveland is just the best place to start a business. We just can't get over how supportive Cleveland has been. We're all in this together in Cleveland.
Phillip: It doesn't feel like there's competition. It feels like we're all supporting each other.
Jackie: And it's so affordable, too. The amount that we were able to rent our studio space where we make everything is very affordable. Whereas I don't know if in New York or Chicago we could have afforded the rent to be able to take the risk to start a business.
Phillip: That is an amazing thing for an entrepreneur: to be able to find a warehouse space for a really affordable price. For us specifically trying to launch an accessories brand, we're very fortunate to have many resources at our fingertips. An hour and a half south of here is the Amish community, where they do so much leather work, and they have one of the largest leather supplying companies. They've taught us so much. And in the beginning, they gave us the rundown of what kind of machinery we should get. And then along with that, because Cleveland does have this rich history in the garment industry, there are a lot of these older guys in the area that have been in the business who have taught us so much about sewing machines.
Q: You pitched your business on LeBron James' show Cleveland Hustles. What was that experience like?
Phillip: By January of 2016, we looked back on the last couple of years and were like, "We've doubled our sales every year. We're growing. This is really good." And then we end up getting this email from this guy Vinnie, out of Los Angeles, and he's like, "Hey, I'm with a production company called Magical Elves. We're shooting a reality TV show with a celebrity that's involved." And we're like, "Well this sounds like a scam." So we literally ignored the emails. And then a couple of months later--
Jackie: He came out to see us at the Cleveland Flea and he's like, "Hey, I've been emailing you." and we were like, "Oh, you're real." So then we Googled Magical Elves and we were like, Oh my gosh. They did Project Runway. They did--
Phillip: Top Chef
Jackie: The Amazing Race. They have these huge shows under their production name. And we're like, "Oh, we probably shouldn't have ignored those emails." So he comes and shoots a video interviewing us to see if we'd be good candidates for the show and next thing you know, we get this email back saying they'd love for us to be on the show.
Phillip: Cleveland Hustles originally started with 100 businesses that they approached, and then they whittled that down to like 28 businesses who pitched, and then that was whittled to eight businesses. And those eight businesses went on to be filmed for the rest of the show. We were fortunate enough to make it to the final four.
Jackie: And if you were in the final four, then part of that was that you had to open a storefront. So we were like, "Okay, we'll do it. This is amazing. It's a national TV show with LeBron James. Okay. We're gonna do it." And so we just dove in head first and did it.
Q: How did having a storefront change your business?
Jackie: Opening the storefront ended up being the best thing that ever happened to us. Because women love to come in and touch and feel and smell their bag in person, rather than ordering online. It's a high-end purchase, so they want to feel connected to it. And they're all one-of-a-kind because of the type of leather we use. It's not top-coated with paint. So we'll have ladies come in and we'll lay out four or five of the same style for them, and they'll pick their favorite one.
Phillip: We now have a manufacturing studio in Cleveland and a storefront in Gordon Square. And then, six months after opening the storefront with Cleveland Hustles, we did open a second store in the Short North neighborhood of Columbus.
Q: Your signature bag is the tote. What makes it so special?
Jackie: Every bag I've ever had, the straps have broken. That's the number one thing that breaks on them. So our goal was to design this classic bag for a woman that would be your work bag, your diaper bag, your school bag--whatever you wanted it to be, it would be strong enough to do that. So we set out to design a strap that was indestructible, and it worked. So when we were on LeBron's show, we pitched him. We filled the bag with 12 bricks and--
Phillip: To prove its strength--
Jackie: Right, to prove its strength--
Phillip: How much weight it could hold--
Jackie: And you just show it with these 12 giant bricks in it.
Phillip: It would be able to handle more weight. We just couldn't fit more bricks in there.
Jackie: So when people ask, "Can it support my laptop?" We're like, "Yes."
Q: What's next for FOUNT?
Jackie: Our next big move is to invest in a couple of machines that will make us really efficient. And then potentially, looking at spaces that could allow us to create like a tourist destination here in Cleveland where people can come and watch us work every day. Because it's one thing to say "It's made in the USA," and it's a whole other thing to see it being made in the USA. Most people today don't sew. So for them to see someone sew, let alone handcraft a leather handbag, it's fascinating.
Phillip: And I think, long-term, we would love to continue to grow an online presence. We want this amazing tourist destination here in Cleveland of showing how we make our bags. And we want to keep as much of the manufacturing as possible in Cleveland and grow that. And then the hope is to continue to open some stores around the country, whether that's six or 10 stores, long-term.
Learn more about Phillip, Jackie, and FOUNT here.