Alpha One Niner’s Evade is an old favourite here at The Perfect Pack: our editor Nathan appears on the bag’s product page, and it featured as our very first review. The pack scored well but, like so many others, wasn’t quite perfect. After taking in heaps of feedback from different sources, a new revision – the Evade 2.0 – has been produced for a limited run. Ahead of the pre-orders’ release, Alpha One Niner’s Helmie Ashiblie spoke to Jon Custis to shed some light on the Alpha One-Niner brand, the evolution of the Recon Nine Evade, and what the future holds.
Jon:What was the spark that kicked off your web gear endeavors?
Helmie: September 11, and not by choice either. If you have never met a refugee from 9-11, you just did. I ran a design studio for the fashion/jewelry industry at 29 John Street in NYC for years. Unfortunately it was 2 blocks away from the old WTC. When that came down we lost everything, moved to VA where my wife was from, picked up a CZ75B ‘cos I felt the sudden need to go back to shooting, joined IDPA, and noticed how dated the range bags were. The rest is history.
Jon: I am a big fan of the ATS RAID pack, and used it on a couple of deployments to OIF and OEF. When I saw the form and function of the original Evade, I could see the same brilliance in the basics and sensed the potential to be what the RAID was 15 years ago, and the Eagle A-III in the 90s. It is capable of facilitating low-profile movement into an operational area and can transition right into the action. How long did it take to get it to production, and how many units have you sold?
Helmie: So I’m not a designer and do not have the skill set to be one. What I am is a product developer and something I’ve done for years including a stint at DKNY back in the 90s. A good product developer should be smart enough to realize that there is always a pool of talent and ideas out there to be sourced from and that’s how we got the Evade 1 underway, by crowdsourcing on the EDCF since I was a sponsor on the forum. It took the better part of a year and maybe a half dozen or so samples before we finally got it to production. To date I’ve had about 900+ produced and sold, not a lot by most standards to be honest.
Jon: In a short span of time, you solicited feedback from customers and the gear review crowd, and initiated an effort to design a better pack in the 2.0. What are some of the challenges you faced in balancing customer input against some of the realities of the manufacturing process and controlling costs?
Helmie: You will never be able to affect all the revisions requested. You will never be able to satisfy everyone who has chipped in. As long as you make that very clear from the get-go and simply DO NOT beat around the bush when it comes to what can or cannot be done, the guys are smart and reasonable enough to understand. If you decide to make a change and it’s not based on any of the revisions requested, get straight to the point and let everyone know why. You’d be surprised how accommodating and supporting others can be, and more importantly all parties walk away learning something from it.
Jon: You’ve described the limited run of the Evade 2.0 at a maximum of around 150 orders. Will total production be capped at that quantity?
Helmie: For now yes. Unfortunately A19 is a personal project of my own and not my 9-5 gig. It’s a labor of love and one that I am willing to put in a couple of hours of work each day. It allows me some distraction from my regular job of running SERT which has offices in SE Asia focused on LE/Mil sales. I plan to hold it at that until we get into 2019 and possibly after SHOT, before re-visiting it to see if we can make a permanent run for it.
Jon: It seems like every day there is a new Kickstarter-funded pack under development. What do you make of that phenomena? Will the market hit maximum saturation and just collapse at some point?
Helmie: KS huh? Well that’s how A19 got started, with the iPad caddy that we launched in 2014. That got funded, that got delivered on time and we started a following. Personally, I love KS, it’s a product developer’s dream come true. Do you have any idea how many projects are available at any given moment especially where bags, cases and packs are concerned? There is so much info to look at but you gotta know how to sieve the chaff from the wheat. Some design ideas are so far fetched you have to question whether it will ever materialize. Some are funded a crazy amount for a design so simple I have to scratch my head and say “Huh?” Regardless, it is always interesting for someone like me whenever I log into KS, there is always something new to look into. As a funder it’s a different story. I’ve been lucky to date with the projects I’ve funded but there is one current project, the TRAK 2.0 Kayak, that has taken longer than usual and it ain’t cheap, close to $3k with most options checked. Even so, the tech involved is intriguing and when that folding kayak ever gets in, it would be a thrill for both the kayaker and product developer in me.
Jon: Do you have other crowdsourced projects in mind?
Helmie: I will probably have another one (maybe 2) for Q1/Q2 2019 and it would be a covert weapons case which is the bulk of what I do. I’ve been doing weapons cases since 2003 and it was probably my second crowdsourced project where I started soliciting feedback on the High Road forum sometime that year (2003). Everyone was on it, from Denny Hansen and Rich Lucibella (editor and publisher of SWAT magazine respectively) to Rob Haught (not sure if Rob has retired from his long time sheriff duties). That rifle case, the TCC, is now in Gen 5 and is my best selling product to date under the SERT brand. Thousands have been produced over the years with less than 0.05% returns for warranty. I will be crowdsourcing for as long as I am allowed too ‘cos there are waaaaaay too many guys out there with great ideas and much smarter than I will ever hope to be.
Jon: The hot topic around pack and EDC forums is GoRuck’s pricing scheme, and it has spawned a lot of comments doubting their ability to stay in business as a pack manufacturer. From your perspective as a competitor, have those decisions influenced your business model?
Helmie: Nope, not one bit. GoRuck is an icon and it has a significant following. That said, I have seen icons come and go in the 17 years I’ve been in this sector of the industry. When I first started with I-SHOT, everyone said I would last 6 months and I had to go up against giants of the industry of those days including Eagle Industries, Bagmaster, Green Mountain, etc. Where are these brands now? I am not saying that GoRuck is headed that direction but the price increase is a red flag and we will never know exactly what the company is going through internally. I would rather not speculate here. As someone who has spent time in the luxury industry (13 years) with a start selling Tumi back in 1989, I’ve seen many a brand come and go. I’ve also seen those selling bags in the 4 figures continue to flourish while others selling at 2 figures disappear. A brand or a product’s longevity is just as much about how the business is being run. Trust me, I have made many mistakes and I’m just lucky I have not sunk the boat. Capsized? Yes, but never sunk it thanks to the help and assistance I’ve gotten from many who’ve helped re-set my compass……especially my wife. So as far as GoRuck is concerned, I hope they will be around for many, many more years to come.
Jon: If you could point to one signature thing, what sets Alpha One Niner apart from the competition?
Helmie: Dogged determination not to suck.
Jon: So you’ve served as an infantryman in the Singaporean Armed Forces, worked as a male model featured in GQ Magazine, and are now a successful entrepreneur with a respectable share of the tactical web gear market. What’s next?
Helmie: Dude, you did your homework alright. Well there’s much more there, I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s been a roller coaster ride and if I had to do it all again I’d retrace the same path but tweak some of the decisions I’ve made. At 53, my primary focus is my family and my health. 50 is the new 30 and I’m out to prove that only because I think I’ve much more to offer in the years to come. While A19 is a much welcomed distraction, I am responsible for all our employees out there in 4 locations across SE Asia and I am also responsible for the sales of selected US brands in the region. I bet you did not know that SERT is one of the LE/Mil distributor for Vista’s Federal, Speer and Blazer ammunition brands in Malaysia and Indonesia? Yup, I’ve got my responsibilities and my work cut out for me, but more importantly I need to make sure our guys and gals continue to get the support they need from the US side.
Jon: One last question, if you had to take on a squad of ISIS, who would you round up to go with you, pirates or ninjas?
Helmie: Between just those two? I would say ninjas ‘cos the pirates wouldn’t cut it. I was there in Irbil 2 weeks after ISIS took Mosul. I had been contracted to explain the use of NVDs to the Kurd SF. When ISIS over-ran Mosul, I’m sure you read about the gear they grabbed from the retreating Iraqi forces. Among the gear was Gen 3 NVDs and they were using those to target Kurd operators lighting up IR on their older devices. It was not a pretty scene. Anyway I can’t see the pirates getting much done in such an instance but I’m sure the ninjas would have a field day! Sneaky bastards are necessary sometimes.
In closing, I would like to say that without the feedback and support from everyone on the forums and FB, Alpha One Niner wouldn’t be what it is today. Would we still be around? Absolutely but the Evade certainly wouldn’t have been the same.