Founder and Design Principal Kyle Ellison helps clients create and perfect products that get people outdoors.
Officially launched in 2018, the Austin-based boutique product design studio stems from an unsavory staple of everyday life: job turnover.
“When I got laid off, I spent like a day feeling sorry for myself,” says Ellison. “Then, I realized I had been doing this for so long — at that point, it had been 14 years, or something like that — I realized that I had the actual experience, that I could do all of these things on my own.”
Having digested the transition, Ellison gave it a go. Within a year, he invested fully into his new future. As a result, Trailside Creative has since carved out a nifty role within the industrial design world: liaison.
In addition to synthesizing business ideas into blueprints to be used by manufacturers, Trailside also researches and recommends manufacturers to businesses. “We’re the person you need to talk to between your lightbulb idea and the manufacturer,” says Ellison. “We help you take your idea to the manufacturer.”
For the majority of their work, Trailside works on the front end of a project — before things are set in stone, before a product has reached manufacturing. By doing so, Trailside can be a part of bringing a product, an idea, to life — and ensuring that their expertise is properly utilized. Occasionally, Trailside will take on a project that requires being taken across the finish line — or even top off a run of accessories — such as their work with PAKMULE Designs. Other customers include Archer Components and ZUP Boards.
“Typically, a client comes to us and says, ‘We want to make a bike rack or backpack’ and we start going through the design process. We look through the research front end, and then we do two-dimensional sketches, then three-dimensional CAD,” says Ellison. “We create technical drawings and CAD databases and then work with the manufacturer — whether they’re down the street, across the country, or across the world — we work with them to make sure that the product they make for the client meets the specifications and guidelines and design criteria.”
As part of its role as liaison, Trailside also spends a significant portion of time acting as educator for small businesses. Ellison promises entrepreneurs in the weeds a thorough road map of the manufacturing process, as well as to set proper expectations for product launch.
“In a lot of cases, our job is to be liaison and educator,” he says. “For many clients, they don’t know where they should manufacture something. They might say, ‘It has to be made in Texas or the United States, it has to be local.’ It turns out that the U.S. Commerce Department has a fantastic database for suppliers.”
Inside its Austin workshop space, Trailside brings theoretical concepts to life — complete with comprehensive blueprints specifically drawn up for the manufacturer to use and follow. “We try to get physical as soon as possible. I believe in thinking by making: we think with our hands. We do a lot of work by building a physical thing and then realizing it didn’t work or function for a particular reason, and then revising it.
“In-house, we have a full prototype shop, where we can do all 3D printing and multiple types of materials — whether it’s filaments or resins. We have a soft-goods shop space where my sewing machine addiction is on display. We do a lot of cut and sew work, and we’re working on building up our fabric welding capabilities.”
Challenges: Ellison is a tinkerer and maker. Before launching his own business, he had put well over a decade into being an industrial designer. But part of the deal that comes with tinkering and making is having tools — lots of them. And physical space is finite.
“I don’t have enough space for all the toys — I mean tools — that I want to have,” Ellison says with a smile. “Those laser cutters and sewing machines have to go somewhere. So, in the next three-to-five years, we’re looking at where that growth happens. We’re able to purchase a piece of land, maybe we’ll put a new shop space on the property. We’ll have to see what the economy does, how the business grows, and all those things.”
Opportunities: For a fortunate some, the pandemic functioned as a moment to reorder life priorities and lay the groundwork for business plans. For Trailside Creative, it was a chance to jump on new business plans ready to launch.
“For us, one of the big opportunities is exposure to the people that need to buy design. In the sales world — where we’re selling design to a client, and the interesting thing about the role we play throughout the process — the companies with good long-term vision always invest in design, even when the times are slow.”
Needs: Despite having found a distinct niche, Trailside is still in the process of consistently finding the right audience for its business. “One of our big needs is reaching the right customers,” says Ellison “A lot of time, people will say, ‘I have an idea for a new widget, it’ll be the best idea ever.’ The first question I ask is, ‘Does $150,000 in tooling make you squirm? How about $500,000?'”
He adds, “We are in the process of building better communication tools, so that entrepreneurial clients can better understand the process of design.”