FREITAG - The Slow Entrepreneurs

A conversation about values, goals, happiness and patience.

In 1993, two young creatives founded a company that made bags from truck tarpaulins. Over 20 years later the two brothers, Markus and Daniel Freitag are launching a new product – fashion made out of compostable materials. Did you never get bored in the meantime?

In the beginning everything went quite quickly: In the fall of 1993, brothers Markus and Daniel Freitag had an idea, to sew bicycle bags out of recycled truck tarpaulins. A few weeks later their first prototype was ready, a short time after that they had 30 bags for themselves and their friends, followed by their first sales event and finally the foundation of a company. In the meantime Freitag employs 160 people and produces 400,000 bags a year out of seat belts, bicycle inner tubes and tarps. All of them based on the first model from 1993, which is exhibited in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Other design prizes have been for their own shops, the communication and the development of their own shelving system. The brand of Freitag is known and sought after, from here to East Asia. And all this, even though the Freitag brothers follow a corporate strategy that is more reminiscent of the traditional middle class than of contemporary creative industries: a small range of products, sustainable growth and low profit margins.

Twenty years after founding the company the Freitags are, for the first time, bringing a completely new product onto the market: fashion created out of compostable fabric, which will be released under the name of F-abrics. The fabric, which is created from food crops and produced entirely in Europe, was in development for five years. It fits into the picture: The brothers have focused on ideas of sustainability since before they could remember: their godmother taught them composting and they often built their own bicycles. To this day Markus doesn’t have a driver’s license. Here he explains how, and why, they work.

“We were sitting in the kitchen of my shared apartment and thinking about business ideas that wouldn’t produce trash – also just to have a bit of additional income. The first two, three years everything was very small, every year we wanted to quit. It was a lot of work and it wasn’t going to make us rich. It was always: ‘We’ll cut the last load of tarps, then we’ll call it quits.’ But then a member of the staff desperately needed a job so we were stuck with it. When did it really start? Never. It was always slow. There were many coincidences. The first was the very idea. The second was that every piece was unique, and that unique pieces were very modern. The third was that environmental awareness continued to be an important idea. The fourth was that we produced “locally” in Zürich, which was also very modern, but we did it because we just had no other options.

“Everything will be reinvested. We work with profit margins in the single digits. It’s not about quickly earned money, rather it’s about sustainable growth. For example, when we needed a new place to wash the tarps, we decided to go for the expensive option. It would take 15 years to pay for it, but we would have more fun while doing it. If we would have been working for money, we would have quit in three years. The drive is to try new ideas – that’s why we want to earn money. Ultimately, you have to try to embody this philosophy. Product development and ideas can be hard to delegate.”

“We always developed new projects, many of them remained behind closed doors. The fashion line F-abrics took us five years. We wanted to develop a new material, but always with the circular thought: for example, are the buttons on the pants removable so they can be used again. If you want to quickly sell a lot of pants, you’re not thinking about this. We think and act in cycles. We believe in the next life.”

“We take a lot of time for exchange, which results in the promise of quality. We toss the ideas around for a long time before implementing them. We dedicate a lot of time to communication and little to the accounting. We always suppress that part of it and figure that the CFO will come to us if it’s important. We take the time to talk, we can’t be brief. A personal resolution would be to talk less and do more. I’d like to take more time to travel, because whenever I move away from my everyday life, I begin to think. But as a young father this is difficult. We  like to travel as a pair in the train. If you are traveling too fast, then you don’t have time to make notes and bring them back.”

“We want to have fun, to develop playful ideas. If an idea doesn’t work out, it shouldn’t tear everything apart. We make an effort, not only to succeed, but also to stay that way. Our personal goals haven’t changed. We don’t have real estate, no fast cars, we’re still happiest when we’re riding around on our bikes. We have families ourselves, and we give to them what our parents gave to us.”

“Our role models are those who aren’t doing things for profit’s sake. For example, Toni Rüttimann builds bridges in areas of crisis out of recycled materials. He developed software to help the locals build them bridges themselves. The person with an extremely small organization, who’s built a hundred bridges, that’s a role model to me. Many companies could take this as an example. We supported him too instead of giving a Christmas gift to our employees. The idea came from our employees themselves.”

Visit Freitag in

  • Zurich - Geroldstrasse 17
  • Berlin - Max-Beer-Strasse 3
  • Hamburg - Klosterwall 9
  • Vienna - Neubaugasse 26

More information about Freitag can be found on freitag.ch or at our 25hours & Friends Page.

This article is part of a collaboration with online magazine Freunde von Freunden.

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