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256: Finding your path to Growth with Rob Kessler of Million Dollar Collar and goTIELESS

256: Finding your path to Growth with Rob Kessler of Million Dollar Collar and goTIELESS

It's the eCommerce Master Plan  Podcast here to help you solve your marketing problems and grow your eCommerce business.  Cutting through the hype to bring you inspiration and advice from the eCommerce Center and beyond. Here is your host Chloe Thomas 

Chloe Thomas:  Hello and thank you for tuning in to the show. I'm Chloe the host and in this episode, we've got our second repeat guest. The 2020 eCommerce Master Plan-Growth Series sponsored by Omnisend. The series is a set of nine episodes we're releasing throughout January. Numbers 249 - 257 if you want to catch them all. In each, I am to bring you a guest or guests who can uncover a different side of the challenges of growth. 

In the first few years of an eCommerce business or any business to be honest, there is often a lot of toing and froing trying to find the right pathway, the right products, the right path to market, the right marketing methods. There is a lot that has to be tested and of course optimized. That is what today's guest is joining us to talk about. Four years ago, he designed a really clever new product that solved a frustration for many people around the world. When we caught up with him two years ago he was busy testing different ways to market. Online sales vs licensing to manufacturers vs. selling wholesale to tailors and dry cleaners. 

In today's episode, you're going to find out how all of that has been going, the marketing testing he's been doing and how he's ended up creating a whole new brand as yet another route to market. Some of the lessons of how he's done all of this are priceless. The business he's building is still a work in progress and in this episode you get to see very candidly behind the scenes to hear how he manages all the different ideas and how they all start coming together to create the platform from which growth is I think just about to go crazy. Before we get stuck in please take a moment to listen to our lovely sponsors.

Chloe: And now to introduce today's special guest, Rob Kessler is the inventor and co-founder of Million Dollar Collar.  He creates fashion accessories for men which create a classy, polished appearance. Rob launched the business in January 2016 and they've now sold over 250,000 units in 111 countries to over 18,000 customers. We last chatted 2 years ago so I'm really excited to find out what Rob's been up to, to get the numbers so high. Hello Rob.

Rob:  Chloe hey how are you, good to talk to you.

Chloe:  I'm good, it's lovely to have you back on the show again. So thanks for getting in contact to make this happen. Like I said I am very interested to hear what's been going on. So how have the last 2 years been?

Rob:  The last 2 years have been crazy so we focused a lot on our dry cleaners and tailors since our product needs to sewn-in we're now in about 600 locations mostly in the US but we just hooked up with a bunch of guys in Australia, New Zealand, starting to build out Europe a little bit. Yeah, it's been fun, it's been crazy.

Chloe:  Cool we should probably explain what the product is because people might be going tailors, dry cleaners what on earth are we talking about.  So tell us about the Million Dollar Collar.

Rob: Yeah we can back up a little bit. So Million Dollar Collar is the world's first placket stay.  Most guys these days don't wear a tie with their dress shirt and I hated the way I looked on my wedding day.  My shirt just collapsed, it was brand new, it was freshly pressed and it just looked terrible on the biggest day of my life. So, I always wondered why there wasn't any reinforcement in the front of the shirt where the buttons and holes are. Everything else has been built around the collar, collar stays, and things like that. Nothing really addressed the real problem which to me was where the buttons and holes are, that's the part that crumbled. So, after my wedding, I came home and started cutting open dress shirts and 3 years and 100 ruined dress shirts later I perfected and patented Million Dollar Collar.

Chloe: Excellent and hence everyone's going that's why tailors and dry cleaners.  

Rob:  Right. The beauty is that every dress shirt is made almost identical.  There are always two layers where the buttons and the holes are because that's a tugging point so they want to build up the strength of that part.  So, since every shirt is made exactly the same, the instructions are the same, they open a couple of stitches, wear the placket meets the collar band they slide Million Dollar Collar in and sew back together right through the material. 

Once it's inside of the shirt hidden discreetly it lasts for the life of the shirt. So, it's really cool that shirts are all made the same and that it can hide inside of them. That was part of the challenge of the 3-year development because it had to be soft enough to be sewn through but heat resistant enough to deal with dry cleaners and soft enough and rigid enough and it had to meet all kinds of crazy criteria to work and it does and it works amazing.

Chloe: It's paying off all that effort isn't it? Because well I think last time we caught up you had just in the process of starting the journey of getting into the tailors and the dry cleaners. And it sounds like that's been the strategy that has paid off for you?

Rob: Yeah, it's been good.  It's a very funny industry, it's contracting so the stronger players are rising to the top and eating up a lot of the little guys. And at the same time, we have this great product that is new to the industry and it seems like such a battle to get to these guys and get them to understand what the opportunity is.  The reason why he deals with dry cleaners mostly is that the smallest guys do 200 dress shirts a day.  Most stores don't sell that many in a month.  So, to have a store that has 200 a day and there are 40,000 dry cleaners in North America there's a huge market for us if we can get them to understand what the potential is.

Chloe:  And I guess the contraction of the market is a good thing and a bad thing isn't it?  It's a good thing because if you can get into one of them that's huge volumes but it's a bad thing because the gateway to get to the right person to convince them is so much more challenging.

Rob:  Yeah, they're becoming more corporate. One of the guys we deal with has 180 locations and they're expanding and that's Proctor and Gamble's Tide cleaner's so they're expanding their footprint. And there are guys that have one location and they do a lot of routes so they mainly have one physical but they'll pick up and drop off at your house or your office or wherever.  So, it creates different challenges to have different messaging for each of those types of customers. So, the opportunity is there I mean the biggest guys do 60-70,000 shirts a week so yeah.

Chloe:  There's plenty of potentials there in the market isn't there?

Rob:  Oh god, yes. I mean a billion shirts were sold in the US last year. 

Chloe:  Wow, and you've stopped working on the licensing side of things cause you were-- When we talked you were also trying to see if there was traction in getting shirt manufacturers to put in your placket at the beginning of the process.

Rob:  Well, I'll tell you what happened. We kind of pushed the brakes on that because it was a challenge to find the right partner. So, we decided let's make our own dress shirts and prove the fact that we can outsell other brands with my technology built-in. We figured if a company can make shorter dress shirts with the non-proprietary technology and do hundreds of millions of dollars in sales that my proprietary technology should take us that far if not further.  So, last year we actually launched, we did a soft launch to friends and current customers of our new company called goTIELESS. It's the first shirt to be designed without a tie.

Chloe:  It's a great name.

Rob: Yeah, it's fun.  We had 200 shirts for that only and we sold those out in 72 hours.  We got feedback from -- we really had a great focus group on those 200 people who bought.  What did you like? What did you not like? What would you like to see? What did you hate, whatever?  And then we went back to the drawing board, made a bunch of tweaks and perfected the shirt and it took us 7 months to get it fixed and the way we wanted and so we just launched a couple of months ago the brand goTIELESS with 3 colors, all the fabrics have 3% spandex so there's a nice stretch to them so they move with you during the day. Million Dollar Collar's built-in obviously, they all have contrast cuffs, plackets, and collar bands. You have a nice little pop of color and we actually removed the top button on the shirt itself because we are fully committed to a tieless look. So there's not even a top button to button all the way up. 

Chloe:  Oh I love that, there is no choice you are wearing this without a tie whether you--

Rob:   You know I actually have a pretty big neck so to get me to have a dress shirt that fits I can't have a neck that closes.  I don't know how many times in life that you're ever in a situation that you're in an emergency and you have to put a tie on but if you had to slide a tie all the way up you could.  

Chloe:  Yeah, you don't necessarily need the button there to do it do you?

Rob:  Usually, when you leave the house in the morning you know if you need to wear a tie or not.  So if you had to in a pinch obviously you can cinch it up and it will be fine. It was designed not to be worn with a tie.

Chloe:  I love that you didn't just go -- We have a product let's crowdfund it and just release 200 and see how it goes and then just buy more stock. You had a real strategy around that first 200 or the first beater which sounds to me like -- Let's get the product into the hands that we know appreciate the Million Dollar Collar and then use them to help us create an awesome product. A lot of people would have missed that feedback step and I think those 7 months you spent dealing with the feedback are going to turn out to be priceless over the coming years. 

Rob: I'll tell you going from my product which was complicated to design I have one SKU, it's one size, it's one set and it's how many do you want to buy is my option. We have three colors, we have S to 2XL, we have a slim cut and a standard cut. And then the variables with sleeve length and this and that and stitching. It's insane how many more variables are involved which is why we were so hesitant to do shirts in the first place. During all of that process one of the big brands we were talking to reached back out to us and said hey what's going on with the Million Dollar Collar let's talk and so we've met with them at their corporate headquarters. So the licensing may end up coming back full circle and going through this whole process of creating our own shirt may have actually worked in our favor.  So we're still negotiating, it's a massive deal. It's ten times as many units as we've sold in the last 4 years in a single test. So they're a huge brand they have a huge market place and it's a massive opportunity that we've working 7 years for.

Chloe: But I suppose the thing is about that creating your own shirt, the goTIELESS brand, is that everything you learn in that process and then the customer feedback, and the sales results you achieve will help you with the licensing product as well. Because that's just extra information you can use when you're talking to the shirt manufacturers extra proof of concept.  It's got to make the licensing play more straight forward or more likely to happen.

Rob: We have conversations when we're talking about construction aspects and what we learned that works and doesn't work and it definitely gives us a lot more credibility going into the conversations. Instead of saying, throw this in your shirt and figure it out.  We know how the manufacturing side works now and it's a massive headache I can tell you but it will all be worth it. 

Chloe: Let us talk a little about goTIELESS. What made you decide to do it as a new brand and not just the Million Dollar Collar shirt?

Rob: We want to prove that a brand stands alone. We actually have larger goals for that. I don't want it to just be shirts. I feel like it could be a full head to toe men and women's brand. Honestly, it was a year ago in December I heard a podcast from the Untuckit guys with Kevin O'Leary from Shark Tank on his podcast. I listen to this thing and I think they are no different from us. What are we doing? Why aren't we in that realm and we were actually talking to those guys about licensing our technology to them. They're vertically integrated and they make their own shirts and sell them in their own locations and online. There are no middlemen like some of the other brands that we had the challenge with. I figured man if those guys can do it and all they have is a shorter shirt that's not proprietary. 

They've done some amazing branding obviously they don't have anything proprietary so they're rolling out all kinds of stuff and their UNTUCKit name doesn't really stand anymore because they have jackets and shoes and pants and all this other stuff.  We really thought about the name goTIELESS and tieless is more of a mentality. Living on your own terms, it's casual but still looking sharp.  The funny thing is if you say dress business casual for this event, nobody knows what the heck that means.  So we're actually going to define what business casual is and have an entire line of clothing for men and women that you could wear any of our stuff and fit in with business casual and looking probably better than most people in the room.

Chloe:  Very cool, I like that. I always like your ambition Rob and it's really nice to capture with you 2 years on and hear how all the things that you're planning start solidify down but also at the same time expand out into new and other exciting projects.  One thing that we really haven't talked about at all is eCommerce which we probably should mention. In terms of selling online is Million Dollar Collar still on the same platform it was on and have you chosen to go with the same platform for goTIELESS?

Rob: Yeah, we use Shopify for both. It's a really nice feel to pop back and forth.  The integrations are great, we use a lot of the apps and yeah goTIELESS is on that.  Million Dollar Collar is going well. I think we just had our 8 or 9,000 sales through our Shopify site so it's awesome. The only thing that Shopify is really not figured out is exchanges which we found out with the shirt. You send a guy a medium slim he's like oh I really need a large slim it was just a little snug. Shopify doesn't have a very easy way to take that shirt back in exchange and get it back out which is really bizarre.  You just have to work around for it. It's just not as easy. 

Chloe:  There's probably a couple of people listening right now that they're saying oh I've got an app for that.  I know the app you need so guys if you do get in contact with the Facebook group or Twitter or drop me a note via the website and I will make sure that information gets onto Rob because I'm sure --

Rob: It's a pain, I had a guy actually he ordered our 3 pack bundle so he got all 3 shirts and he ordered a small slim and he needed a medium slim.  I ended up trying to go through those steps that someone suggested and I refunded this guy his money all of it and his new shirts were on his way to him so I potentially was out 3 shirts plus shipping plus everything. Thank God he's a good dude and I sent him an invoice and he paid it and we got it squared away.  It's really a pain to do an exchange on Shopify.  

Chloe:  You definitely don't want to be in this situation where you've spent all the time and effort and the additional postage dealing with the exchange and then you go and annoy the customer by going by the way I gave you the money back.  Can I have it back now, please?

Rob: He said no I haven't seen it hit my account. I'm like oh boy here we go I'm going to be out $300.  

Chloe: Joy, thanks.  

Rob:  So, it worked out. 

Chloe:  So what's the team looking like now?  Who's working in the business?

Rob: So, right now it's still my partner Steve he ... I don't know if he had left the time we had talked last time.  He was full time at SalesForce, one of their top sales guys, and so he left that and has been with me full-time now so we're partners in both businesses. My Dad was an early investor in Million Dollar Collar. He's since retired from his jewelry business. He's on the team for goTIELESS.  He's got a new project in front of him, it's pretty exciting having him around and his wisdom. He borrowed $700 from my grandpa in 1980 and left town and ended up getting in the jewelry business. When he left that business they did $35 million his last year he was there. He built an unbelievable brand totally opposite so it's a challenge being in an eCommerce company talking to a guy who's bricks and mortar.  But he definitely gives some good hindsight and perspective and it adds a lot to the team.

Chloe: Yeah, at the end of the day they are still customers even though you can't see the whites of their eyes.  They're still quite similar beings as the ones that actually walk into a store, aren't they?

Rob: Yeah, I learned from him customer service is number 1 and anytime anyone has an issue on our site we are on it, I'm on it right away. I had some people say oh my God this is the best service I've ever gotten.  It's weird for me because obviously I was obviously in the jewelry business with him, I sold cars, I sold houses, it's all face to face and to be able to try to convert that kind of customer service online it's not easy but when it works it's the best.  Raving fans, it doesn't matter if we're face to face or not.

Chloe: Very cool, are you outsourcing anything, or are you doing everything yourselves?

Rob: We have a guy in Australia who helps out with some of the coding that we need. We use Upwork from time to time for certain projects. We have a copywriter that we have regularly and we're just starting with a new Facebook Ad guy hopefully we're going to ... He is going to be performance-based so the better he does the better everybody does.  We've been burned by too many people, my advice to anyone out there is if somebody is not willing to work performance based then I think they're lying to you. We're in the six figures of people saying they could do stuff and not and basically stealing money from this.  If they're not willing to work performance-based I don't hire them. 

Chloe: I'm not going to second that cause I think it is a good practice when you're early on.  I know there are a lot of awesome people who do, do what they say. So I can't second your advice on completely only paying for performance. 

Rob:  Point them my way because I've found all the people who can't do it.  I'm really good at finding the guys who can't do what they say they can do. 

Chloe: It's one of the most difficult things I think for businesses just going into outsourcing.  Working out how to do things like Google Ads and Facebook Ads because you need to know an awful lot about them to hire someone effectively that can do it for you. Bigger companies get around that by either hiring someone themselves or they get around it by going to a reputable agency where internally there should be all the checks and balances in place to make sure good performance comes from it. But of course, that comes at a higher ticket price. This usually is not something one can afford, going pay for performance as you learn what to expect from them and all the results are a good idea early on but I can't completely go with the only go pay for performance.  But it certainly does make that a lot more relaxing to do when you're in the early stage.

Rob: Yeah, we're coming out of a deal with a guy -- with a huge firm here in Los Angeles, $5,000 a month retainer, $5,000 a month ad spends and they managed during the busiest shopping time of the year Christmas, the holiday season they only sold 4 shirts for us.

Chloe:  Oh that's shocking. 

Rob: Yeah we've got the greatest technology, we've got an amazing new thing and they couldn't sell anything. We thought exactly like you let's go to the big company route, they're going to be reputable, they're going to be someone that they can stand behind and they drained our company and now goTIELESS is fluttering trying to figure out what to do so it's been a struggle.  We've gone big, we've gone small, we've gone all across the board so do your homework is the best I can say and hopefully, you can get a referral from somebody who has had a good relationship with somebody who knows what they're doing.  Otherwise, I don't know how to find someone.

Chloe: It is scarily easy to get burned with Facebook Ads, Google Ads, and the SEO side of things. But there are some great people out there but recommendations help. It's also good to try and find someone who has sold a similar type of product. Especially when it comes to Facebook.  I think there is an awful lot to learn in the niche and if you can find someone who has tackled something similar in your niche before.  

If you're out there selling dog food and you're about to hire someone who has only ever sold fashion on Facebook and it's probably not the right person I would say. 

Rob:  I think our problem was almost that we were so small for them they put the least experienced people on our account because it was the pay grade we could afford.  So there was that balance too.  It was just kind of a weird set of circumstances and we'll recover obviously because we never give up.  It is certainly frustrating especially when you talk to other business owners that say how could they not sell more. It's appalling.

Chloe: That's quite impressively bad. 

Rob: That's not the first time I've heard those exact words.  Impressively bad.

Chloe:   It is impressively bad I mean there are whole case studies on ... I don't know how they would manage to do that.  Anyway, I'm about to lose myself in thought that neither you nor the listeners need right now. 

Talking about marketing, the marketing method we talked an awful lot about last time was influencer marketing so that was something you were using a lot to get things off the ground. Is that something you're still doing a lot of?

Rob: Yeah, we've learned another lesson on that is we went with a guy who was our first influencer. He was very reasonable; he had 225,000 subscribers when we first worked with him. Now he is at 4.2 million subscribers and we thought oh my God this is going to be incredible. We are going to need to order more fabric, we're going to sell out of these shirts. The problem is when guys get that big is they have a lot of poser followers.  So my advice in that realm is still 250-300,000  or less is where you want to be. I would rather have 25 micro-influencers send them all a free shirt, get all the content from those guys plus what they're able to put out to their people.  Because if you have 5,000, 10,000, 25,000 subscribers it's not because you're popular it's because you're saying something that's resonating with people and they care about what you have to say. When these guys get to 2, 3, 4 million followers it's not as much about what they have to say it's just that's the popular guy lets follow him because everyone else is following him.

Chloe: Yeah, the message gets lost doesn't it? The influencer will price based on the size of the audience but actually the impact drops off the bigger it gets.  

Rob:  4.3 million subscribers and we have maybe 100,000 views on his video so it's like what's going on. The original when he had 200,000 subscribers that one has 750,000 views so it's been out there for a few years. I think that the smaller guys have a better bite and a much better relationship.  They're probably not putting as much content as often so when it does come out it's exciting and people watch it. This guy is putting out stuff every single day and he's trying to do his own brand and it just muddied the waters a little too much for us.

Chloe: Yeah, from what I've heard from people on the podcast talking about it and other people I've seen when I'm out and about is the passion of the micro-influencer comes across hugely to the content they create as well. You get even better content then you would otherwise get which I think helps things too.

Rob: That's the bonus, you can only create so much with your circle of friends. Photoshoots get expensive too and have different types of people all over the world with their pitch.  Maybe some influencer is going to say something about your product that you never even thought of but it's the exact right messaging. There are multiple benefits from expanding out your reach and having more people talk about your product.  There's no way to lose I don't think. Some of these guys are so small that all it takes is a little product.  Some of them it's $50, $100 or $500.  Instead of spending $5,000, $10,000, or $20,000 for a post, it's a lot riskier. 

Chloe: I love this section because it gives us some ideas for taking a business to the next level.  So Rob you've given us lots of great advice already I have to say, huge amounts in this show so thank you. But are you ready to give us some more advice in the top tips? 

Rob:  Sure let's rock. 

Chloe:  Okay, the book top tip if everyone listening to this podcast agreed to take Friday off and read a book to make their business better, which book would you recommend?

Rob: So I'm a huge Grand Cardone fan, 10X  to me is as you've heard I've got big goals and as I feel like I'm getting closer to the goal my goals get bigger again and that's Grant Cardone's 10X.  It's never quite reaching your goal and setting these massive projections and trying to get there.  I love that and the other one that I would tell you is called the 3-minute Rule, it's by Brant Pinvidic.  He is a producer, he came up with The Biggest Loser and a bunch of other shows and he broke down how to pitch your idea within 3 minutes. And if it takes longer than 3 minutes then you don't know what you're talking about.  It's an amazing book. I met him right before I went to the pitch with that huge brand and now we're talking about 2+ million unit deal.  It was a lifesaver, it was the perfect timing so it was spot on.

Chloe: I think that is one of the strongest recommendations for a book we've had yet. 

Rob:  Cool. It was pretty incredible, Brant Pinvidic.

Chloe: Nice, okay the traffic top tip. Which marketing method do we think is the prize of all others or think it doesn't get the press it deserves?

Rob:  For website traffic is definitely the influencers and then having a strong email campaign.  I have a couple of other brands that are in the goTIELESS space that I just register for their email list just to see what they're doing.  It's free money and it takes time and if you spend 15 minutes a day generating emails it would go a long way. Staying in touch with your current customers is a much stronger base than anything else that you can use at all. 

Chloe: Cool I love it. The tool top tip, maybe a collaboration tool or social media plugin, a phone app, or just a way of working. Is there a cool little tool that you use that makes you and your team more efficient from day today?

Rob:  Well we're all spread out. My partner is in Madison, WI,  I'm in Los Angeles, my Dad goes back and forth between Milwaukee WI  and Palm Springs Ca so we're very rarely in the same room we've been using slack a lot, the free tools on slack and we use Google for all of our emails and slides and all that stuff inside.  Between those two it pretty much has everything covered for us. 

Chloe: Then the growth top tip.  If you met someone today who's focused on growing their eCommerce business from 100 orders per month to 1,000 what would be your number one tip for them?

Rob:  It's follow up it makes people feel that you appreciate them, it goes back to the email campaigns. It's not always about buying my product, buy my product, and recommend it to a friend. I think really following up and caring about how the order went, did it arrive on time, how are things going.  That personal touch, like I said my Dad and I come from face to face sales and to try to make it feel like that online is difficult but if you can do it. They're going to be more likely to share your product and the experience with you if you make them feel warm and cozy.

Chloe: Rob yet more great advice. I think this is one of those episodes that listeners are going to be listening to a couple of times so they get all the bits and pieces we've talked about today because we've packed it in. So before we say goodbye though could you let the listeners know where they can find you and your businesses on the web and social media, please?

Rob: Yeah we have all the handles for both of our names. Million Dollar Collar is two long on Twitter although we don't use it on Twitter so it's @mdollarcollar on Twitter. We're Million Dollar Collar on Instagram, Facebook.  goTIELESS is @gotieless we have that handle on all social media. I'm at Rob@milliondollarcollar if you have any questions or anything about patenting or any of that process or if somebody knows how to do exchanges on Shopify.  Yeah that's it we're all over Linkedin and everything. 

Chloe:  Awesome. Thank you, Rob and thanks so much for being on the podcast today. It's been so nice to catch up with you and hear all the new directions your business is heading in.

Rob: Thanks Chloe it was awesome catching up, great talking to you.

Chloe:  I can't believe how much we packed into this interview. You have lessons galore on the testing and optimization of the big ideas that create a business.  You've got Facebook Ads outsourcing advice, outsource team advice, brilliant influencer tips, and much, much more. I love the way you can get from this episode how in those early stages, the first few years, the ideas expand and they contract. You find a little bit of traction here and you chase that down. Then a challenge comes along and you have to change and do something else and just the constant optimization of every level of the business. 

If you would like to get your hands on the notes from today's show including the top tips, links, details of all the related episodes including the first one that I did with Rob then do head over to ecommercemasterplan.com/podcast where you will see a link for this show. It's great to have heard another work in progress great story as part of our 2020 eCommerce  Master Plan Great Series.



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