A software developer turned bag maker? An unlikely story, for sure, but one of passion, perseverance, and finding purpose — even when the world says tech is the answer.
Erik Holmberg spent over a decade working as a software developer with major brands like Progressive, Blackbaud, and Fuzzco before founding his own web development company a few years ago. But despite an impressive CV in tech, something was missing — his digital creations didn’t fully satisfy his urge to build. So in 2014, Erik listened to his creative intuition and launched his own retail brand, J. Stark.
What began as a line of handmade leather wallets has since expanded into a robust collection of everyday carry products, from hand-stitched pocketchiefs to durable canvas weekenders. He and his partner Jessica Nicoles carefully source American materials and craft everything by hand in their Charleston workshop.
Over the past two years, the duo has released a collection of home goods in partnership with Daydreamer Concepts, the team behind notable brands like Candlefish and Rewined Candles. They’ve forged creative collaborations with chefs and bartenders across the south. And they recently opened their own storefront, a space they’ve used to showcase other emerging makers through pop-ups and community events.
It’s that mix of vision, hustle, and a “rising tide lifts all ships” attitude that has propelled J. Stark into one of the most recognized — and loved — brands in Charleston.
Tell us a little bit about your career prior to J. Stark…and why you made the jump from tech into a product-based business.
When I was in my senior year of high school I had no idea what I wanted to study in college, so my Dad told me that Computer Science would give me the best possible chance of landing a job when I graduated. He was right about that, and after I finished college I worked for about 12 years in different software positions. But I was never completely fulfilled with what I was doing.
I kept trying different hobbies in order to scratch a creative itch and work on something outside of software. It wasn’t until I started working with leather and sewing bags did I feel in my gut that I found what I want to do for the rest of my life — make physical things and connect with people through them.
The year I started J. Stark I also worked on freelance software projects. I finally realized that in order to give J. Stark the best chance of success I had to devote all my time to it and really take the leap. I also knew that if it failed, I would be comfortable with that outcome because I gave it everything I had.
Are there any books or resources that helped you dive into entrepreneurship & retail?
I’m embarrassed to say I’m just now getting into reading about small businesses and trying to gain some mentors. This should happen very early on in your business, if not before the start of it.
That said, I did participate in a small business cohort here in Charleston called Propel put on by the Harbor Accelerator, which was really insightful. I also highly recommend The E Myth by Michael Gerber — so much knowledge to be gained there — and the How I Built This and Masters of Scale podcasts.
#RealTalk: what did you find most frustrating about working in tech?
There was no closure at the end of projects; with software, there is always a chance for modifications and bugs. There was also nothing physical or tangible about it.
Have any aspects of your tech background played a role in building J. Stark?
In creating software, you have to pay attention to every little detail or it can fail. I bring that over to the products we make — we look after every little detail in our manufacturing. Computer Science also requires a lot of math classes, and a lot of math is used in pattern making. Plus, I’ve been able to create our website, which has saved us a lot of money during startup.
How do you come up with new product ideas? Along those same lines, how do you decide which products to bring to life and continue to refine your collection over time?
New product ideas usually start with a function we want to capture in our own way. With the retail shop, we get to talk to people and find out what they need, and those conversations can often lead to new products. We also see people walking by and take note of what bags they are carrying. Our observations have actually led us to start working on a new yoga/beach bag.
We also have a few best sellers that we tweak with new fabrics, and if we find a better way to manufacture we incorporate that.
You now have a physical shop and studio space, even though the haters might say that brick-and-mortar retail is dying. What’s your response to that?
Great question, and probably one we could talk about for days. I think the traditional mall and big box stores are in serious decline. I’m not sure if they will go extinct or not.
We are seeing a rise in newer, smaller, mom-and-pop style retail shops right now. There is a strong desire for connection and authenticity from customers that these types of stores provide. You also are seeing some hybrid shops that try to incorporate a few functions and therefore revenue streams, such as coffee shops with retail.
We’re seeing a resurgence of makers and more of a focus on locally-made goods. Why do you think we’re experiencing a renewed “maker movement,” especially in the South?
I think it’s a perfect storm of people wanting to make a living outside of business or tech, and also shoppers who want a connection with what they’re buying. Until now, I don’t believe there was a time in my life where people cared so much about what they’re buying and the story behind it.
You’ve traveled outside of Charleston with J. Stark — what can the South do differently to keep up with creative cities like NYC and LA?
I think we’ve got to continue to be supportive of each other and challenge each other in a positive way. We have to push each other to progress in our fields.
What’s next for J. Stark?
We are about to expand our shop, doubling the retail and manufacturing space. I’m looking forward to building out more of our mini-factory and also creating a retail experience that’s truly unique. Additionally, we have some really cool restaurant projects in the works and we have a few new collaborations with retailers launching in the Fall.
Photos by Elizabeth Ervin.