A Range of Possibilities – Part 1: An Audio Interview with Leather Virtuoso Kyle Koster

The day before Halloween was filled with mad dashes through the candy aisle of overstocked grocery stores in attempts to avoid trickery on All Hallows Eve.  While many of us were considering the rapidly dwindling stock on the shelves of those temporary Halloween stores as our only means to costume contest salvation, Kyle Koster was taking time out his busy day to speak with me on life and his consideration of all things leather.


The road he took to start Range Leather wasn’t direct.  He’s lived in Hong Kong, Mongolia, and Chicago on his journey, and now finds himself splitting his time between Spokane, Washington and Wyoming.  He is a busy man, so we’re grateful we had a chance to speak with him at length on all things of life, leather, and the pursuit of happiness.

The audio of Kyle’s answers are included at the end of each question.  The text has been edited from the audio for clarity in reading.  As I interviewed Kyle at the Flour Mill here in Spokane, Washington, you’ll occasionally be treated to the background noise of passers-by as they do their shopping on a lazy Friday afternoon.

On a final note, we got so much material in this interview that I’ll be splitting it into a few parts to make it more manageable to read through (or listen to) in one sitting.

BL: How did you get started in the leather business?

KK: So, it’s a little complicated. I’ll give you a quick back story here. Three years ago I started a guitar accessory company and created a couple different locking mechanisms to quickly interchange your strap on and off your guitar and created that through injection molding, created a design. It’s produced in an injection mold; it’s a separate company. I was making a nylon strap.

Kind of the idea was, when you get customers, they would say, “Hey, I’d love a leather strap with your strap locks and your quick-connect system.” Kind of just started thinking about leather.

I started taking some lessons from this old cowboy at Tandy, kind of picking his brain, stopping in there. This was a little over a year ago, just coming in, just learning and trying things.

I just always had this fascination with doing something with my hands. I have always liked building, I have always liked design, and so I was looking for something tangible. So I thought, that would be a great way to make these leather straps and put them on a product we already have that we’re selling.

In January we ended up licensing that product out, the guitar accessory site out. It’s all licensed to a large company.  It’s going to hit here at Christmastime. It will be public and get picked up through distribution.

So once I had this skill, then I could not technically make the straps. I kind of foresaw that, and it wasn’t going in a direction where I would be making the straps, so I just started making things myself, made a wallet, did a whole bunch of designs. I really enjoy designing, and just started using it.

Then I had some friends who said, “Hey, I’d love one of those.” It kind of just kept rolling. I gave some away, some more here. It’s actually our minimalist that we started with which we did the first Kickstarter for.

I was home last Christmas. I grew up in Chicago. So, of course, I thought I should go down to Horween just to see it. I took a trip down with my wife. We went to Horween and walked thru. They’re great. I was just so encouraged about their desire to work with small companies.

One of the guys, Johnnie, told me how Timberland was one of their first customers and struggled to meet purchase orders and stuff, and they worked with them and worked with them. Now they’re huge. He just has this desire to work with the smaller companies. They started Tannery Row that is their side if you’re familiar. It’s kind of like they’re focused on the smaller company side, but you can still get Horween leather thru them.

I was able to get a bunch of leather, came back and started. Pretty much since day one I have only used Horween leather, which is, pretty spoiled for that reason because I absolutely love it. I have seen some other stuff. It is super premium for anything you could find out there.

That’s just kind of how it started, and then we launched that first Kickstarter.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: What were you doing before you decided to devote your working hours to the leather trade?

KK: Absolutely. Crazy story. I graduated from the University of Illinois with a finance degree, still haven’t used it per se.

Right after I graduated I actually applied to be a youth pastor at a bunch of different churches, and I got a position in Hong Kong. I got on a plane and moved over there as a youth intern in a youth ministry. Lived there for 2 years, learned a lot about manufacturing. Living is crazy expensive in Hong Kong.

One of the families who hosted me had an extra room, and I was fortunate enough to be able to stay with them because it is crazy expensive for an apartment and stuff.

Anyway, a lot of what people do in Hong Kong is do logistics for someone who wants to make something in Southeast Asia, the US, or the UK. He works with a bunch of kitchenware companies as his primary. So I learned some stuff about that just kind of on the side.

I ended up moving to Mongolia (laughing); bear with me. Moved to Mongolia for just a short period of time.

The guitar accessory company is actually called Hogjim Guitar Gear. Hogjim is the Mongolian word for music. Kind of bridged that gap. I worked with some missionaries there doing food distribution and a bunch of stuff just for a short period of time.

Then I moved back to the States, moved back to Chicago. Kind of had that reverse culture shock going on after being abroad 2-1/2 years. Moved out to Wyoming. My cousin lived out there, moved in with her and her husband and their 4 kids. Got plugged into Wyoming really like that. Lived out there for a little bit. That’s where I actually started Hogjim, and everything, the LC is based out of there. My wife and I are going back there in December. We’ll kind of be in between Spokane and Wyoming for a little while.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL:We discovered you through your Kickstarter campaign for the Range Mug. Have you used other Kickstarter campaigns in the past to help build your business?

KK: All of them, yes. I launched Hogjim Guitar Accessories on Kickstarter. I launched Range on Kickstarter with the minimalist wallets. That did fine. I think Kickstarter is such a great platform, just to really help you get some working capital within the company, even if you don’t necessarily like as a company make money.

Everyone sees these Kickstarter projects, and they see them going to 20, 30, 40, 50, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that becomes your bar you have to reach. I don’t really see that as a need for Kickstarter. I just see it as a great way to essentially get a little bit of working capital and get people interested about your company. You have to continue to innovate. You can’t stop. We did a Kickstarter, and we just expect their company to be a successful kind of thing. I really see it as a great avenue to do that to reach an audience that would be interested in the products.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:



BL: What do you have in the works right now?

KK: We do a lot of shows around town, different craft shows and stuff. A lot of the time we’ll just be listening. At least this last 8 months here I’ve just been listening to what people want, different products that would essentially fit your market. Hearing what the consumer wants is really great especially in your area. That definitely helps me get ideas for where I am going to go. I love designing.

The reason I love leather so much, and the disconnect I saw with the guitar accessories was that when you create this injection molding, basically to understand it, it’s just 2 slabs of metal coming together. It’s a mold, and it pumps liquid, some sort of material. It hardens, and it opens. Then you have your piece.

So you don’t get to physically do the hands-on work of creating a product. You do all this design. When we come to a guitar accessory product it may take a year or 18 months before product is at idea to taking that all the way to completion and actually to market.

But that’s one of the things I love about leather. For someone who likes to design and for someone who likes to create something, it is just an awesome medium to work with. Once you understand the trade and get skilled in it, you can literally sit down and make anything. That’s kind of what I’m excited about as we move forward into the future.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: Aerosmith sang in their song Amazing about life as a journey and not a destination. Is Range Leather about the journey or where you see yourself ending up?

KK: A lot of people look at the destination as a goal to be successful or the long-term effect in terms of will they have a ton of money or have a proven established company.

I honestly just like the crafting. The idea of working with your hands is, I think, fulfilling within itself, and at some point, as companies grow you always could say, well, if we were only this much of a company, if we were doing 2 million dollars in sales, and then you get to 2 million dollars in sales, if we were doing 3 million dollars in sale, and so there is always this benchmark that keeps coming up that I think is a hindrance for people to enjoy and kind of a trap that we often fall into. So I really enjoy the process and being content in that. I think I would be totally fine making leather products all the way until I am like 90 when my fingers can’t move.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: In the last decade, there has a been a resurgence of interest in the leather craft. Do you worry that there will be a glut of competition in the market making it harder to be successful in this trade?

KK: Even maybe to back up a second. I totally see that as a resurgence of the craftsman or the tradesman in America, something that was essentially looked down upon in generations not too long ago who were what built this country. I’m excited to be a part in that resurgence of the tradesman. Like you said I think we’re seeing that with all the leather companies that are out there.

I don’t ever look at it as competition. I think there is a great community, and you probably found this as well, within leather companies of people working together, people sharing ideas, people sharing products, and from Horween leather addicts Facebook page, different things like that and groups. I think it’s just people enjoy the process, and that’s part of what’s fueling that resurgence of the tradesman.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL:  Where do you see Range Leather going in the next year? In the next five years?

KK: A lot of the time when I look at goals I often don’t set them because from my viewpoint it basically says here’s my plan, and I’m going to lay it out, and from my beliefs I like to just say whatever God has in store I’ll follow. That’s just kind of a prerequisite for my thinking. So  I often don’t lay this is in 5 years because there’s kind of a disappointment when you maybe don’t reach that, or there’s a pressure to reach that where you even sacrifice time with your family or different things because you have to reach this goal.

But, on the more practical side definitely wanting to do a shop here pretty soon, potentially in Laramie, Wyoming, which is where we are moving back to. So, looking at that and looking forward to that to having just a store  front because the way the world works with ecommerce and all that the store front is essentially a workshop, and I think all leather workers are going to be going to this model if they’re not there yet. Basically you have a shop where it’s a store front, it’s your work space, it’s your storage area, kind of all things in one, where the customer can come in and view everything, watch you work. We’re definitely seeing customer experience being important as products and markets move, just kind of the consumer process moves that way.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


The Setup

BL:  What about leather work recommends itself to someone looking to start a business who may not have a lot of space (or money)?

KK: The best part about leather is you literally just need a flat space that’s sturdy.

My sister was here last weekend visiting us. She was interested in the process. I was sitting down, and I made a bunch of wallets, would call her over every time because I’m doing volume, do one step all the way through. She was blown away by how many steps there were. Just all the way to the burnishing process there are so many little steps all the way through. All you really need is a flat table to work, a large one, cause you’re cutting full hides. You’re looking at 6 feet, but a big flat table and then a cutting mat. Then you’re going to get all of your tools and stuff.

We’re blessed in Spokane because we have a Tandy Leather which has a ton of good tools. It’s right off Monroe. I think honestly if that wasn’t there I would have never progressed as a company as fast as I did. That first 6 months of learning would have taken maybe a year or two because I would often go twice a day when I was starting just because I would run into a problem. These were on just personal craft projects as I was learning the trade. I would run into a problem, and I would drive down there. They have been absolutely great to work with. They will sit down. They let you open products and tools and just make sure it’s what you want. They’re awesome. I highly recommend them.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: High-end leather products aren’t cheap and can make some potential customers shy away from making the purchase.  How do you educate your customers about the costs of creating quality leather goods?

KK: When a customer looks at a hand-crafted leather piece, regardless of what it is, one of the things they are going to see is naturally a higher price tag. I think the first step in education is understanding, one, that it’s made here in America, two, that it’s made by hand, and then the time that it takes to go into that, and then you’re also using quality material. Most people don’t know what Horween leather is, so you can’t just drop, “Oh, I use Horween leather.” Even the types of grade of leather to different things of educating people, and that’s why I really really have enjoyed doing shows.

We did probably 8 shows this summer, and they were great because you get your customer in front of you. You can actually talk to them as opposed to on a web site it’s a struggle to really convey the same thing, whereas I bring hides to all the shows that we do. I let people feel the difference between say a veg tan and a chrome tan piece of leather, or a Horween Essex and a Horween Chromexcel, like they’re going to feel very different. People love that, and it’s really easy. So building on all of that, people understand, “Oh, wow, this is a lot of work.”

Then I’ll put tools out at a show. They’ll ask me what’s that. I’ve had people come at shows, take off their belt and ask me to punch them a new hole because they’ve lost weight or gained weight, like if they see the tool there, “Oh, that would punch a hole in this.”

I think all of that stuff brings into educating your customer about the trade.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: How do yo take an idea that is rolling around in your head and translate it into a finished product on the workbench?

KK: That’s actually a great question. My wife always makes fun of me because when I’m designing, the design process is what takes so long. I’ll sit there, and be like, “Oh, I’m never going to get this.” You often have to go through 3, 4, 5 times just to get down to the mm exactly how you want especially when you’re working with card slots and folding of leather because the thickness of your hide can change the design. If we do different products and different thicknesses I may add a couple mm here.

The whole process on the front end seems to take so long. It’s challenging. At some points my wife is saying, “You’re so frustrated.” Then all of a sudden 2 hours later, “Look at this!” You see this final product 4 hours later, however long it takes. I just keep going. You may have to make 3 or 4 mockups of something or even more than that depending on what you’re making.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:



BL: Is it just you running the business, or do you have hired help there to keep things running smoothly?

KK: [When we have gotten some larger orders I have hired part-time help. I have done that. My wife helps sew. She is awesome at that. She really likes that which is a huge blessing for me because she enjoys working with me, and that helps a lot, when you’re working long days and either trying to get ready for a show or need an order. It really helps to have other people.

My idea for the business is, I think, in any business having a good balance of wholesale and retail side is really helpful for sustainability of a company. I know you take obviously half the price on a wholesale order. But with the loss of margin essentially you gain sustainability, and you gain relationships with businesses and other things like that.  I learned that from the guitar accessory company because there is no way to sell small guitar accessories on line. It’s really hard to do volume just you to your site, especially in a short period of time, and I’m sure a lot of other leather workers run into that. How do I get people to my site? How do I do sales? One of the things I see is it’s really necessary to have a balance of wholesale and retail.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: How do you respond to someone when they come to you with a question on the ethics of using leather, i.e. animal skins, in creating products that could be classified as “luxury goods”?

KK: Absolutely. This comes up. I’m probably not as gracious as I should be towards people who do have those concerns. I often find it’s very hard for a person like that to not be hypocritical. If you are going to take one stance on that it has to apply to all areas of your life. People will ask, and I will be patient and talk about – I think there is a value of animals that has gotten probably higher than it should be. I totally respect animals. But I think the value on them oftentimes puts them equal to human beings. I personally disagree with that. I believe animals were essentially made for us, to eat, and to kind of rule over essentially is what we see in the Bible. I don’t really have any problem with that.

I often find that most arguments are self-defeating when that person is then choosing to do something similar and kind of contradict their statement. But there are people who totally hate it. That’s fine. I try to be as respectful as you can be to those people.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


And that’s where we’re going to wrap up for part one of our journey with Range Leather.  If you liked the format of this interview, drop us a line and let me know.  If you have comments, questions,or even criticisms on the article, let Jerry (me) at [email protected] know. I’m always looking for ways to make our interviews as engaging as possible.  Until next time, when we’ll talk about their first holiday season, the pitfalls of having little working capital in the leather business, and much more.




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