The History of CheapTotes
CheapTotes was created by Matthew Kvam in 2003. He started in his garage with a small manual screen printing machine and a domain name. He built the website and didn't know which way it would go, but he took the first small steps.
He had previously bought and resold tools from China through a company ran by a man named Zhihui. Ordering containers from overseas, wiring money before you get them and hoping for the best... How nerve racking that must have been.
Through his connection in China, he was able to get tote bags at such a competitive price, he was sure he could make money at it. All the while doing all the work to set this up, he was raising three daughters, Shani, Angela and Erin as well as working full time in a local factory to ensure enough to support his family.
As Matt understood more and more about online sales, tote bags and demand, the business began to grow over the years. Through the help of his hard work and perseverance, he was able to leave his factory job and focus full time towards his online businesses.
Promotional tote bags were really taking off and Matts wheels kept spinning. He bought more equipment in the field of promotional products, a pencil machine, a pen machine, a carpenter pencil machine and a koozie printer. He even ventured into printing on stadium cups, frisbees and key chain flashlights. He would take on anything.
As the business got busier, he had to higher help. He kept with mostly family and friends and had his ups and downs, however I personally feel like he just liked spending the time with them that he could and it was his best way of improvising his busy work schedule and spending time with family.
Again, the business kept growing. In 2013, it was time for a bigger building and he bought the old grange hall in Saint Johnsbury Vermont. In need of repairs, he was the man who could make it happen and was always looking for the right deal, and this was it.
2017 was a very hard year for Matt. He had a serious medical scare with a bloodclot bursting after a surgery in his neck and he nearly died. Than later that year he tore his bicep unloading a snow mobile from his truck he had bought for his grand kids. Very nervous about going back into a hospital after the previous ordeal, the doctors convinced him all would be well and they would take care of him. On January 12TH of 2018 he went in to have it repaired. Surgery went well, however the after care didn't. He was having pain so they kept him overnight to suppress the pain he was having. Somehow, he passed away, in the hospital, that night under the care of doctors and nurses.
Now being the father of 3 daughters, 2 adult and one 11 year old, so much of their worlds were crushed. The middle daughter, my wife Angela, had moved to Maine and grown her family with three boys. The eldest daughter was still living locally and had 2 daughters. The youngest, Erin, had type 1 diabetes and was left most vulnerable.
With SO MUCH uncertainty ahead and grieving to do, the road ahead for all was unimaginable. Especially given that hard decisions always were brought to Matt for his advice. Everyone in and around his life said "what now?"
Anyone reading to this point probably either knows most of this situation, or has a great desire for happy endings and is hoping for one.
So with the circumstances at hand, Angela and I came back from Maine. Not knowing what to expect, i took a leave of absence from my job as a supervisor of a welding crew at Bath Iron Works building ships for the Navy. Packing up our 3 boys aged 6, 4 and 9 months, we came back. We were than in a position where we had to step into a business we only ever knew bits and pieces of from conversation with Matt, but had no idea how it operated.
Upon walking in we quickly realized, even the passwords to access accounts necessary to operate wouldn't even be an easy task. Next we found that he had a container on the ocean from Pakistan with $44,000 needing to be wired to a man who spoke very broken English. Honestly this was a very scary time. I do not want to ruin any business ties he had created, however i cant just trust someone saying "wire the money to this account" I held him off for about 2 weeks while i researched previous wires Matt had made, and total costs for them, exact accounts wired from and to, just to ensure nothing seamed off. Boy, decisions half this serious were definitely decisions Matt would have been involved in.
Next came time to pay it. We went to the bank Matt used for wiring money (North Country Federal Credit Union), and they wouldn't allow Angela and I to touch any funds. Angela had been to court and appointed the administrator, had all the documents to prove it and the bank said they needed their lawyers to review the situation and it would take a month. Thankfully Matt used 2 banks and the second (Passumpsic Savings Bank) was much more willing to work with us or that literally would have been the end of Cheaptotes and all Matt had built in all those years.
After that it remained hurdle after hurdle trying to get to a point we felt we had everything under control. Some weeks went smoother than others, but writing this 11 months after Matt passed away no one can still believe he is gone. There are days it feels like he's screaming the answers on hard questions in our heads. Is it the experiences in the past or him looking down rooting for all his family and friends to keep on keeping on while all he built being something to remember him by and a legacy that can live on for generations.
So now, into the businesses first slow season, We have imported 4 full containers, and have a fifth landing today in Canada and feel ready to get back to it for another busy year ahead. I have to say, of all of the business partners, suppliers, customers, friends, family, community and anyone who ever knew him, i have yet to hear anything but good and no matter what level you were on, he made every one of them feel like a friend first.