Are Porteen Gear's handcrafted camera and commuter bags Grand Rapids' best-kept secret?

Maybe yes. Maybe no. But the facts are that in a little over four years, Robyn Porteen has designed and sold over 9000 handcrafted leather camera bags throughout 60 countries, and her products have been seen in British Vogue, Conde Nast, Hemispheres Magazine (United Airlines), Shutterbug Magazine, and Professional Photographer's Magazine (PPA). Impressive.

Porteen, a professional photographer, started her business in 2010 when she designed and hand-crafted her first camera bag. "I wanted a bag that did not look like a bag," she says. "No one else was making designer camera bags then."  

Working from her Grand Rapids studio, Porteen has access to over 230 fabrics and 100 leathers from which she makes her bags, which she sells through her Etsy store. She also has a "bag builder" on her website which allows a customer to design and order their own customized bag.

Like any business, Porteen has had to adapt to changes in customer needs and competition.    When Etsy changed their policy to allow larger manufacturers to sell products online, cheaper versions of camera bags were suddenly available -- and Porteen says her sales "plateaued."

Reacting to the changing marketplace led Porteen to work with GROW to help refine her business model. Since then, she has launched a new commuter bag. It features the same hand-crafted ethos as her camera bags but opens her business to new customers who are seeking a unique bag to hold their tablets, small laptops and other mobile devices.   Porteen is also working towards participating in the highly curated Renegade Craft Fair, which features only the best in handcrafted merchandise.

Finally, Porteen is working towards securing assistance through Chase Bank's Mission Main St. grant program. With 250 votes, a small business can become eligible for a $150,000 grant. The voting ends October 17, so if you are interested in supporting Porteen Gear's application, you can vote here.

Regardless of the outcome of the Chase program, Porteen is moving forward. "There is not one negative review about my bags," she says. "That is what has kept me going."

To learn more about Porteen Gear, you can check out multiple sites: blog, Etsy Store, Bag Builder and Facebook Page with Chase Mission Main St. Grant program.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

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