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#132 - Rob Kessler - Inventor of Million Dollar Collar and the Co Founder of goTIELESS

#132 - Rob Kessler - Inventor of Million Dollar Collar and the Co Founder of goTIELESS


Steven Haggerty: Hey everybody, welcome to Founders 365 with me Steven Haggerty today. I'm joined with the inventor of the Million Dollar Collar Rob Kessler.  How are you sir, Rob?

Rob Kessler: Fantastic Steven and yourself?

Steven:  Very well my friend., very well. So first and foremost the Million Dollar Collar I mean that's a fantastic name. 

Rob:  I can't tell you how many marketing companies told me it was a terrible name. I think people generally get it and they like it. 

Steven: It rolls off the tongue.

Rob:  It does. 

Steven:  That's why I think it's a great name.  But thank you for being on the show. I really appreciate it.  Let's jump straight into this, tell me about yourself, tell me about Million Dollar Collar. I know that you are a co-founder of some other things as well.  Just tell me all and then we can dive into the how. 

Rob:  So, I'm in my forties now, you can see the gray hair. I live in Los Angeles, California. I see you have a nice Cali flag over there, oh everything is reversed. So, I invented the Million Dollar Collar after looking at my wedding photos. I got married on the beach in Jamaica and I just hated the way my shirt looked. So I set to work on fixing that when I got home from Jamaica. It took 3 years to perfect and we've been on the market for about 4 1/2 years now. About a year ago my partners and I decided that we were going to launch our own dress shirt with the technology already built-in which is the shirt I'm wearing now which is called goTIELESS.  The first shirt designed to be worn without a tie.  We do that and on top of all that I'm a 50-ton master captain, my wife and I run a little Yacht Charter business out of LA here and that keeps us busy as well. 

Steven: I used to be in the suit business myself as well.

Rob:  Oh I love that. 

Steven:  That's a whole nother story we can talk about, that's a whole nother thing.

Rob:  I have an invention for that, I have to get that one going. 

Steven: Oh really. Briefly, what's the invention of that?

Rob:  It's another one of those why didn't I think of that, why has nobody thought of this?

Steven: It's a problem that actually works well. 

Rob: I don't need 9 pumps for my 40-foot boat.  

Steven:  Exactly.  But Rob Million Dollar Collar started out by you looking at photos that is an incredible story to start off with. Where do you then start?  You look at the photo, you look at the photo and you think I'm not looking as dapper as I can, I could have done better. How do you then go from that to I'm going to reinvent a collar?

Rob:  To me, I would go to a dress shirt when I wanted to look nice when I went out. We'd go out to the bars, we go to hang out with our friends. To me the dress shirt is a guy's staple piece, I can wear it untucked, I can wear it with a tie, I can wear it a million different ways depending on the occasion.  I am a little bit OCD so when this side would hang down I just didn't like the way that it looked when it wasn't symmetrical. So when I got married on the beach even before I could say I do my shirt was tucked under the lapel of my jacket. I just looked terrible, and I hated it.

So I came home from the wedding, I cut open a dress shirt, I shoved a piece of cardboard down the front and showed my new bride. She instantly said, " I get what you've been bugging about this whole time. All these years complaining about the way the shirt looked."  She'd be ready to go and I'm still ironing trying to get this thing to sit the way it should.  Everything else on the market, I googled everything and it was all about the collar. Some collar stay, the magnetics. I like the magnetics, I use them but that keeps the collar in. There was nothing in the placket of the shirt, and there was never any structure here because dress shirts were never designed to be worn without a tie so they never had to have structure. So obviously cardboard wasn't going to work so I went around the house finding every piece of plastic from milk cartons, to mini blinds, to little cutting boards. I tried everything. 

Steven: Your wife was probably thinking you went completely nuts. 

Rob:  Yeah she was super supportive and probably questioned a lot of the things. I had to work through certain stuff, stuff I knew wouldn't work but I washed dried and it seemed to be fine and then I would send it to the dry cleaners. It would just melt the shirt and I quickly realized that dry cleaning ... 

They use 450 degrees Fahrenheit to flash press a shirt for a quick flash and it would just melt any standard plastic that was on the market. I looked at every plastics company, I tried all their stuff and then I finally partnered with an international plastics company to develop the material that is Million Dollar Collar. It's a hundred percent made in America, it is insanely high heat resistant, double the temperature of dry cleaning, it's soft enough to be sewn through, it's flexible enough, and it's lightweight.  Here is what it looks like and here's my new puppy. She's a little attention girl, get down girl. 

It looks like this, it goes right inside of the shirt in here, the cool thing is I found out that every shirt is made exactly the same.  There are always two layers here, and two layers in the collar band. It gets sewn into your shirt once and lasts the life of the shirt.  Looks awesome!

Steven: Amazing. How did it feel when you cracked that when you found that right plastic? When you partnered with that company and you started to see the shirt really form in a commercial manner as well?

Rob:  Well the timing was perfect. While all this was happening I owned a screen printing and embroidery business so I was doing that during the day and working on this when I could. My wife and I had decided to sell everything we had including that business to move to Los Angeles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. So literally within a month or two before I moved we figured it out, we got it all dialed in . That was great and then we took 10 days to move across the country and try to see stuff while we were going and the patent attorney called on that 10-day travel and said, "Hey your patent was approved."  It all fell into place at the right time we had committed 100 percent to doing this.

Steven:  Incredible so what was the next step then? You've crafted the shirt, you have the patent, now you have to sell it?

Rob:We called every major brand we could. My business partner Steve is incredible at cracking into the top level of any corporation. He used to work for SalesForce. That was his job to get to the C-Suite so we talked to Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis and Philip Van Heusen who is the biggest licensee of dress shirts and went to all these ... Proper Cloth, we went to everybody and it was so brand new that they were like, " I don't know if my shirt does this, I don't know if it's an issue, I don't know if it was a problem."  Our pricing was insane because we didn't know what we were even getting into and how many shirts these guys make, and how cheap they can make them for. 

We went back to the drawing board and said let's prove the concept. We went directly to the consumer which is a tough challenge. Think of any product you buy, you can get it from Amazon and start using it. Ours is you have to order from us and then go to your tailor or dry cleaner and have it installed into the shirt just to use it so it is a multi-step process but we've managed to sell about 300,000 sets so far to people in 117 countries. I think people see enough of an issue with the collapsing front of the shirt that it's enough to get it done.  We're all over the place. It's crazy. We're in about 600 or so dry cleaners and tailors and just trying to get it all out there.

Now we've started re-engaging those conversations with the big brands, we're talking to one company right now who wants to do a 2 million unit test.  In the meantime, we started our own dress shirt because they were taking so long and we said we'll just create our own category and make a shirt of our own.

Steven: How does it feel 4 years on that amount of units sold, you proved your concept? Do you still feel the desire to work with those big names? Or are you more on that fence,  we could probably create our own brand and expand and you say you're doing your own shirt now? 

Rob: I'm torn, I think for the success of the company we're going to license and get it into millions, and millions of shirts. A billion shirts were sold in the US last year alone so the market is massive, there are unlimited possibilities with that and if we grow a big brand out of it on top of it then that's great. We're actually 75% sold out of our inventory right now. We can't get anything else made, everything has slowed down because of COVID so we were stuck with the inventory we have with only three colors, and two cuts and normal guy sizes we're almost sold out. We're finally able to re-order. We have 5 new colors coming in, we're restocking one of our original colors and so it's been a crazy ride. Especially in the craziest time in the last 6 months have been insane.

Steven:  Talk to me about goTIELESS then, at what point did you think why don't we create our own shirt? Why don't we do the whole package as it were? 

Rob:  So we originally were going to do a shirt, we did a Kickstarter in 2014. I hadn't even figured everything out with the product yet. We didn't get funded but unequivocally the feedback was why can't I upgrade the shirts I already own and why not license the technology? Why try to compete? So we followed what people said, and we did successfully that way and we heard so many no's from all of these brands and they just came up with the most ridiculous excuses.  We finally just said we would just do it on our own.

Actually, what pushed me over the edge was right before or after my 40th birthday I heard a podcast of Kevin O'Leary from Shark Tank with the UNTUCKit guys and they talked about their story and I was, "Oh God, it's so similar to ours yet they have created this 200 million dollar brand on something that is not proprietary at all." Of course, those are one of the guys we went and talked to because anyone wearing an untucked shirt is never going to wear a tie. Even they blew us off so finally we just said why not do this on our own. 

Within 2 weeks of hearing that podcast, I had a prototype shirt already in hand and we were off to the races.  We did a beta test with people that we knew, friends and family, and current customers of Million Dollar Collar. We offered 200 shirts and we sold them out in 72 hours. We got those all produced, we shipped them out.  Some people liked some things, some people didn't, we took all that feedback and made 3 new shirts which this is one of our blue with navy, our pioneer, and we made 900 shirts off of that run. That's where we are at right now with a couple of hundred shirts left and sold out of 8 or 9 sizes.

Steven: What do you think you were getting pushed back? Is it because you guys effectively... Of course, you invented this but you also are OCD about it, and not every guy in the world is thinking oh my collar is a little bit out of line. 

Rob: The feedback we got and the push back to us has always been a little ridiculous. Some people were I don't think this happens to my shirts, which obviously it does otherwise I wouldn't be selling the product because I didn't make shirts at that time. 

Steven: This one problem is only happening to you, Rob. You're a unique individual. 

Rob:  Then there were the manufacturing issues that my product is insanely easy to add at manufacturing.  Because we were going to make our own shirt we understood that process from the beginning. Honestly, I think these companies are so big and it's so hard to make an adjustment that it's not worth the effort to them. That's why little companies like UNTUCKit and us and Proper Cloth, these small brands popup and become big companies because they see an opportunity that these other guys aren't able to or aren't willing to take advantage of.

Steven:  Yeah, for sure.  What was the hardest part then during those times of that push back even though they were quite ridiculous comments on the push back? For you as a founder still getting up every day, pushing this product, tweaking it, inventing it better, how did you make sure that you yourself stayed motivated? Stayed inspired to carry on?

Rob: I've heard no 10,000 times. I just knew we were onto stuff. People I would meet, and if I was able to do a face to face, here is what it is, here is how we do it, I wear dress shirts every day obviously because I'm always on display.  I have heard some of the most successful business people I know say this is such a great idea and it's going to be such a game-changer that helped motivate me. Hearing from outside people. I knew when PVH like I said the biggest dress shirt licensee when they came out with a stretch collar when we were coming out with this I'm like these guys are 10 years behind the market. Who cares about a stretch collar when you're not buttoned all the way up. 

Steven: Have you already approached them about yours?

Rob:  Yeah, yeah I was talking to them about it, I sent them samples and then they came out with this.  They said we are working on this stretch collar.  The statistics in the US are over 90% men rarely if ever wear a necktie.  You're missing the mass majority of the market and that's why I know we're onto the right thing because nobody is wearing ties. Once I can show them what I do, I have celebrities that will never go on TV without having this in and a lot of fashion people, a lot of stylists are like dude this has got to be in every shirt. We're hitting some of the right places, we're doing it small and eventually, our 10 years of sowing the oats are going to come up at the same time.

Steven:  No doubt. That's a classic example of when a larger company can't maneuver quickly enough in the market place and bring a product to the market. You're small, you're nimble, you can adjust, you can bring new products on super quickly, you don't have to have 6 months of meetings and 6 months of saying yes, no, maybe. You just have your really slick company structure, for you even though when you grow is that something you're aware of, something you're going to carry on, making sure you have that streamline process?

Rob: Yeah, I think you always hope to. We made these first 2 rounds of shirts in Los Angeles because I wanted to be close to the process. I wanted to be able to say, "No this isn't right, let's adjust this" and be able to do it on the fly so I like having that close. I'll tell you the dress shirt industry or the clothing industry is notoriously unpredictable, notoriously you just can't rely on anything. I owned a screen printing and embroidery business. I never missed a deadline in 9 years. I like having control of everything and then I know. I can see us owning our own factory and doing our own thing and being able to sub that out because there's such a market for that.

Steven: Why do you find the industry so unreliable?

Rob: It's clothing in general. I have a bunch of friends that are in clothing here in Los Angeles. They are like if they tell you 2 weeks, it's going to be 6.  I'm like, that will make me insane.  Why? Just do it right, just do it. Just do what you're going to do, that's my whole philosophy and I hate when people don't. 

Steven: I hundred percent agree.  Talk to me about the structure of the business then.  goTIELESS you and your co-founder is it just you guys still? Did you start building out a team or anything like that? 

Rob: So goTIELESS is still fairly fresh, it's the same 3 people that are in both companies. My dad was an investor early on in Million Dollar Collar completely unsolicited so that was probably some of the best motivation. He's like dude I love what you're doing.  I'm like, I didn't even ask you so you know it's really good when he's ready to hop in. We talked about doing the shirts and he said he wanted to be involved. He recently retired from his jewelry business so he has a little bit more time on his hands, he knows how to ... 

He grew from 2 employees to 150 and a multi-million dollar company. He knows how to do that scaling so it's really great to have somebody who's been through all those. He's an in-house advisor for us. My partner Steve really handles the sales and how to distribute and get it out. I am kind of the background, I deal with all the logistics, making sure the orders get out, making sure the production is coming in. I handle all those details, we have our own little things and just try to push it forward.  Once we hit the ground and really get some scale we'll have 9 colors available within the next 60 days. Now we've got a company, we have some revenue, and we can look to expand after that. 

Steven:  I'm curious why you ... What was the thinking behind doing it as two separate brands? Rather than have Million Dollar Collar expand into the shirt side of things? 

Rob: We didn't want to confuse the licensing side of it I think.  Million Dollar Collar is going to end up becoming the B2B business and goTIELESS will be the B2C business.  so it just gives us 2 opportunities to grow goTIELESS into these shirts. We really want it to be head to toe men and women's upscale, casual, business casual defined clothing line.  Million Dollar Collar is essentially just going to be the technology and be able to maneuver how that technology works.

Steven: Yeah fantastic. One of these classic, cheesy, awful questions that I always love to ask but looking back on your last 4 years..... Was there anything glaringly obvious now that you think, "oh why the hell did we do that?" Why did we waste our time on that?

Rob: So when I was coming up with this and learning about the industries and where we could go with it my... What I thought was the greatest idea ever was dry cleaners. The smallest dry cleaner in the US sees 200 dress shirts a day. If you care enough about the way you look that you pay somebody to clean your clothes and make sure you're looking great. To me, that's our customer, who is already going through the front door.  Big dry cleaners are doing 5, 10, 20 thousand shirts a day so the volume was there. 

So we went to a dry cleaning trade show in Vegas, we were inundated with prospects with people wanting to know more information and getting involved.  So I told our ad guy to shut off all our B2C ads because these guys were like .... Everything was coming to fruition. Then almost nothing happened from that show so our B2C slowly died off and then our B2B that was going to be this insane distribution channel ... We had owners of close to 1500 locations that were wanting information, this is amazing, let's do it and it turns out that ... 

You've been to the dry cleaners you walk in, the girl at the front says, " how many shirts you have? I'll see you in 2 days, they'll be ready."  She's not a salesperson so that has been a long process. We developed all of the materials for the dry cleaners. The guys who are on board now, the 600 that we have, the ones that are doing it are really cranking out the product. That pivoted us a little bit, and I thought that was going to be this game-changer.

Steven:  Yeah exactly it's almost a shame it must be for you as a founder and inventor that in one week you have all these dry cleaners super-enthusiastic, super geared up. As you said, you tell your ad guy to stop doing the ads, we've hit the money, we're in the money now and it fizzles out. How did you handle that frustration? Was it uncalled for, was it called for, did you understand it at the time? 

Rob: Well it took time to figure out that these guys weren't jumping on board. We're calling them week after week after week and all of a sudden 6 months have gone by. That show was in July and it's now the end of the year and it's like our sales have leveled off. And now we've been pushing on those guys two more years on top of that. It's super frustrating because number one you had all that excitement.  

Dickies who is a huge brand had a booth done the aisle from us. We had the smallest booth, a 10 X 10, at this huge trade show, people were piling over into the aisles all week. What are you guys giving away $100 bills over there? Why is your booth so insane? Dickies over there is even noticing this stuff. We just thought we were on to this thing and it just has not really gone anywhere since. We're dealing with that and figuring out how to move on and move forward.

We're partnering with a company that is a dry cleaning marketing company. They already have a relationship with these guys. They're one of our best customers as it is, they also run a dry cleaner so they test stuff through their own facilities and then they push it out to their customers. So partnering with them and they're going to take it. It takes it off our plate and they already have the relationships.

Steven: I can't quite imagine what a dry cleaning conference is like. Do you walk in and it smells like dry cleaners?

Rob: No, the machines are insane. The reason the show is 4 days long, which is crazy, is that it takes days to set up some of these monster machines. You can throw in all the bedding from a hotel on one end and it comes out clean on the other. There's no washer and dryer, it washes and tumbles goes down this huge barrel. It's pretty cool, there are folding machines where you can just throw a sheet on and it comes out folded and towels, it uses air and you hear all this depressed air going all over, a lot of noises. There are tons of people, it's not like a party thing. 

Steven: The conversations afterward are wild I bet.  Let's get a double dryer. 

Rob: That's the thing too these guys are spending 50 grand to save .25 cents on a shirt and it's like I can make you $9.00 on a shirt if you just add this. That's frustrating. If that 2 million unit test comes through everybody is going to know who we are and that changes everything. 

Steven: You'll be killing after that. When do you find out about that? 

Rob: That’s the frustrating thing. They reached out to us last October and said we want this, we want to do something. We went in, then one thing happened, another thing happened and then COVID happened. 

Steven:  And 2020 is a write-off. 

Rob:  Yeah and now we're almost a year later and still hasn't gone anywhere. Like you said those monster companies take forever to do anything.

Steven: Meetings over meetings over meetings it's so frustrating.  Let's talk about the future then. Other than that possible 2 million unit test which would be incredible, what else are you doing with the company? Where do you want this to go? I could honestly imagine seeing you on Shark Tank and absolutely killing it. 

Rob: I would love that opportunity. I only know so much, I'm the idea guy. When my partner and I and my Dad get on the phone it can spiral off quickly because I'm talking about... I'm starting to talk and one thing leads to another and then my brains over here and ... I think the dress shirts goTIELESS has a huge opportunity, it's proving that people will buy a shirt from an unknown brand just because of this technology. 

If we can keep expanding on that, it's just going to add more eyeballs to our company. We're looking at other revenue sources within that brand. I think goTIELESS is such a great name, it explains exactly what it is, we are defining business casual. It's never really been defined. think if you've been invited to a business casual event you're like can I wear jeans, can I wear this? We're going to try to define business casual.

Steven:  There is always that one person in a full-on suit!

Rob: Well it's a casual suit it's not my Armani. 

Steven:  It's a linen suit right in the middle of summer. I just got a message from a viewer, boy his shirt does look crisp. 

Rob:  It'll never collapse ... it just bounces right back. 

Steven: One of our final questions, is goTIELESS just in the US or have you guys penetrated other countries?

Rob:  So we're talking to some shipping companies, it's insane.  I order stuff from all over the world and it doesn't seem to be a problem. I'm dealing with FedEx right now.  If I send a shirt to Canada no problem I can get it there for almost the same rate that I ship domestically. But if you want to exchange that shirt back because it's not the right fit it will cost me $70 to send it back. There's no profit in it.

Steven: It's already in people's mindset to order 7, send back 5. 

Rob: Amazon has totally screwed everybody over when it comes to that. Now you have to follow their way of doing things. We just want to provide over the top customer service experience. We can do that easily domestically.  It just gets very challenging logistically internationally. I think we'll get there in a couple of years but for now, the best thing is to order a Million Dollar Collar you already know the shirts that you love, they already fit and you don't have to worry about that. Million Dollar Collar fits in every single shirt, it's easy to install. 

Outside of the US people are used to tailoring and getting things altered to fit right. The US people buy it off the rack, either it fits or it doesn't and they'll throw it away.  I think internationally, it's sold well so people are used to ... no worries I'll just take it to my tailor they'll throw it in no problem. I taught myself how to sew and I'm a knucklehead and so it's insanely easy to do. 

Steven:  Maybe that's what you need to have like a whole info bit on your website about sewing it in yourself.

Rob: I've had a bunch of guys say, I watched your video and you don't look that smart so I bought a sewing machine and I'm figuring it out myself. 

Steven:  I'm not sure if that's a compliment or an insult?

Rob: I'll take it, I like it. 

Steven:  Rob listen, Million Dollar Collar, goTIELESS  I have no doubt you guys are going to absolutely dominate and I'm really looking forward to seeing that growth. Finally question, how do people find out more about it? What are the websites? How can they purchase something?

Rob: So we own all the domains so we have milliondollarcollar.com, we always have that on all the social media.  So, you can find us at Million Dollar Collar. goTIELESS the same thing it's @gotieless so we have all the social media for that and the website.  Amazon we're worldwide on Million Dollar Collar so if you want to order you can get it from almost anywhere or our website.  Yeah, we're everywhere.

Steven:  Love it. Rob, thank you so much for coming to Founders 365, your story is fantastic, Love it.

Rob:  Absolutely, thanks so much.

Steven:  Thanks for everyone for listening and watching this has been Founders 365 from Steven Haggerty.


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