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Meet Emily O’Brien of Dill Pickle Gear in Somerville

Today we’d like to introduce you to Emily O’Brien.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Emily. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I always enjoyed making things and looking at available products and thinking of how I could make them better. When I started doing Randonneuring events (that’s a type of mostly-self-supported endurance cycling), I wasn’t really satisfied with the bags that were commonly available so I made my own instead. On every ride I’d have people asking where I got my bags.

My actual education is in classical music (historical performance, to be specific); during and shortly after grad school, I needed an extra source of income so I started making saddlebags for sale. Dill Pickle Gear grew organically out of those first occasional orders. Now, it’s a perfect day job for a freelance musician since I can keep a more flexible schedule than if I were teaching lessons.

Also, bicycling has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember. I love making great cycling gear, seeing the color combinations people choose and the bikes they put the bags on, and being involved with the cycling world.

Because the required machinery and materials are actually often fairly similar, I’ve also been able to offer custom gig bags for historical instruments. This is a big deal in the early music world because these instruments aren’t really standardized and you can’t just go on Amazon and buy a case that will fit them. At the moment, I’m in the process of starting up a stock line of roll-up cases for recorders of all sizes.

So I love that I’m able to serve both of the two worlds I inhabit.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I’ve been very fortunate that I was able to grow my business slowly and reduce my hours gradually at the music shop I used to work for. But it’s never easy running your own business. Doing this does give me the flexibility to schedule rehearsals and gigs as needed, but there are times when I’m out of town a lot to perform or teach and then I have to put in some long hours to catch up on orders when I get back. Space is also always at a premium in this area, so buying new equipment or a new category of materials means figuring out how to cram even more into my already-crowded shop space. And sometimes I really miss having coworkers on long days in the shop by myself.

In general though, I think anyone who runs a small business has some of the same struggles. When it’s only you, you have to do everything – the things you’re good at, as well as the things you aren’t good at and there are some things you really can’t outsource.But in terms of making it work, I’ve benefitted from my deep long-term involvement in the communities where my customers come from, and from the fact that I’ve been able to grow incrementally and learn as I go.

Please tell us about Dill Pickle Gear.
At Dill Pickle, I make saddlebags, handlebar bags, panniers and other items geared mainly toward endurance cycling and bike touring, although some geared toward bike commuting as well. For most items, the customer can custom-configure the bag – they pick the colors and choose from a menu of options for pockets inside and outside, extra straps or windows for maps, etc. Aside from the color choices, all those little details are important because lots of my customers spend really long hours in the saddle.

Something that’s a minor annoyance after six hours on the bike can turn into a really major annoyance after 36 hours. My handlebar bag in particular is a unique design and shape, which lets it go on and off the bike with no tools and no permanently-mounted hardware, keeps it out of the way of your hands, makes for easy access even with gloves on, and weighs only about a pound. What makes me proud is when I get notes from customers that say things like, “I rode in the pouring rain for two days and nights, and my clean clothes stayed dry” or, “Everyone on the ride asked me where I got my amazing handlebar bag”. Of course I spend a lot of time out on the bike with my products too, but it’s always nice to hear that they work as well for my customers as they do for me!

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
I suppose it’s either making music with my family or the sense of freedom I felt from being able to get around town by myself on my bike, even before my friends were old enough to drive. So I count myself very lucky to be able to work as a musician and bike gear manufacturer!

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Emily O’Brien, Philip Stern, Jim Montanaro

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