This week, we interview Rob Kessler about his invention the Million Dollar Collar. His story regarding testing different materials and undergoing all of the work to develop his idea into something that can be installed at dry cleaners across the United States is incredible! Take a listen to hear some of his incredible wisdom and insight regarding taking your idea and making it a reality.
Rob: Hey, how are you?
Ruthie: We’re doing great! It’s been a little bit of a slow pace morning but it’s been good! We’re excited to talk with you!
Rob: Sometimes you need that. You just gotta ease into the day sometimes.
Bekkah: Yeah so our first question for you is what do you do?
Rob: It depends on what time of the day, I guess! I have three companies that I’m working on right now. One is in the process of being sold which is our yacht charter business. That one’s based in Los Angeles and we should be closing. Although I’ve been saying it for a month and a half, we should be closing in the next two weeks so that one’s almost done. We bought a boat like crazy!
We sold two commercial properties three years ago, bought a 50-foot yacht, started doing charters, and now three years later we’re selling that business. But my main gig is I invented a product called Million Dollar Collar. Think “collar stay” for a dress shirt except nine inches long and it goes down the front of the shirt where the buttons and the holes are.
Since nobody wears ties anymore and I didn’t wear a tie on my wedding day. My shirt looked awful on the biggest day of my life and the photos I have proof to show. I came home from my beach, Jamaica wedding, and started working on this product, took two and a half to three years to patent and perfect, and we’ve been selling for about five and a half years now!
Bekkah: Wow! Yeah, I’m so excited to talk about this because I’ve been just creeping on some of you guys’ stuff, and when we originally were getting an interview scheduled it was like, “Oh, there’s some really cool things on their website!” and then the next time I went back and looked at it again I’m like, “Wow! They’re already like moving so fast in all these different areas!”
Just in the time frame that we’ve been connecting with you we’ve seen growth in what you guys are doing! Our next question is how do you do it? It sounds like this is an idea you had as an irritation so how did you decide to develop and solve this problem? What was the initial invention stage?
Rob: So I’ve had a bunch of ideas over the years and I’ve tinkered around with some of them and this one I think I was able to do because my wife said, “Go for it. Use our honeymoon money and I believe in you and I understand what you’re trying to solve!” So it literally started with like I said, I came home from Jamaica, I cut open a dress shirt, and I shoved a piece of cardboard down the front the part with the buttons in the holes it’s called the “placket”.
I put cardboard down both sides and it just instantly gave structure to the front of the shirt which my new bride was like, “I get what you’ve been – you know nagging about wanting to fix!” and so I knew cardboard wasn’t gonna last inside of a dress shirt so I ended up going around the house and finding every piece of flexible plastic I could find so from milk cartons to mini blinds. We had flexible cutting boards I was cutting up.
I tried everything and so I would wash, dry it, it would work fine, and iron to be fine and I’d send it to a dry cleaner and it would just melt to the shirt. So after I did everything in my house or tested everything in my house I went on to plastics websites and just searched for plastics – high, high heat plastics. I ordered samples of all those. I tested those, I’d send them to the dry cleaner, and those would still melt. So after ruining about 70 or 80 shirts, I finally hooked up with a plastics company and sat down and said, “Look this is what I’m trying to accomplish. This is what I need,” and we developed this material that is insanely, highly engineered.
It looks like nothing! It looks insanely simple, but I think that’s the sign of great engineering. It’s soft enough to be sewn through. It’s rigid enough to hold up the weight of the collar. It’s flexible enough that you don’t feel it in the shirt. It weighs almost nothing so you don’t even know it’s there. It’s rigid but it’s soft, it’s flexible. I mean it has all these crazy properties and that was what took the longest kind of figuring out the material. We also were going to do our own dress shirt so we did a Kickstarter back in like 2014, I think, and we did not get funded, thank god.
What happened was the unequivocal feedback was, “Why can’t I upgrade the shirts I already know and love and why don’t you just license this technology to a brand?” So we went from going to make shirts that were going to cost us you know 20 or 30 dollars a piece and have all this crazy inventory to a universal fitting piece that you know I can fit $20,000 worth of inventory in a shoebox. It changed everything and it was just a really great thing to listen to the customers and be able to pivot.
Ruthie: That’s so exciting! I can imagine when you finally were able to get this product that finally wasn’t being destroyed by dry cleaners and just the excitement! Maybe do a little happy dance! Okay, so when you –
Rob: Yeah you almost don’t believe it! So I sent the shirt a couple more times like, “Wait, no, this didn’t ruin! Oh, we got it!” *all laugh*
Ruthie: They’re probably like, “What is wrong with this guy? He keeps sending the same shirt back!”
Rob: Yeah, I had to teach myself how to sew throughout this process because it just was costing way too much to send it to somebody and you know my mom has sewn so much stuff over the years she helped, kind of teach me. I also owned a screen printing and embroidery business at that time so instead of going from a six-head machine that I could do all these colors and stuff at once, I just had to go down to a single sewing machine. But I could sew! It’s funny watching a six-foot-two tattooed guy that’s pretty muscular walking around with a sewing machine. People always kind of look at me weird.
Ruthie: That’s funny. That’s awesome! Yeah so you’re learning to do all the different things yourself so you can – yeah serial entrepreneur right there. That’s awesome! Once you figured out the design you were already familiar with, what did that kind of patent process look like?
Rob: The patent process started right away. I Googled everything I could find. I was on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website searching for key terms that I would think would be out there, but then the first thing you do is hire an attorney. That’s when you just start writing thousand-dollar checks. It was, I think, $2,000 to just do a patent search. Where I was doing just a surface search they went deep and dug to see if they could find anything and nothing existed.
We’re like, “Okay, this first two grand that was a good investment! We know that there’s nothing else like it. What’s the next step?” And then it’s – the hard part about the patent process one, it takes forever and two, it just costs a lot of money. The next question was do you want to wait six months for a response or six weeks for a response?
If you want six weeks it’s another thirty-five hundred dollars upfront to get them to respond quicker and the way the process is is they write it as large and as all-encompassing as possible. That our patent attorney did and then the patent office wants it as narrow and as focused as possible. So it’s just how much can you get away with and every time it’s – I mean the guy would like read the thing be like 30 minutes, “Oh, that was $285!” for 30 minutes for him to read a response from the patent office. I mean it just is nuts!
We’ve got over six figures into the patent itself and the maintenance costs so it’s insanely expensive. Sarah Blakely is amazing that she was able to pull it off and do it herself! But I wasn’t gonna risk my future on me trying to figure this out, not writing it properly, and having someone come and find some little loopholes. I found a very expensive, very well-respected patent firm in town to make sure that my idea and my future were protected.
Ruthie: It sounds like you need to find a lawyer who can read really fast! *all laugh* Cuts down the cost.
Rob: He was nice enough to give himself a $20 an hour raise while we were doing this –
Rob: So he went from $550 an hour to $570 an hour.
Ruthie: How considerate of him!
Ruthie: Or two!
Bekkah: What made you choose the audience that you did because it kind of looks like you went after installers as an up-charge in the tailoring service through like maybe independent dry cleaners or whatever but then also it looks like you went after name brand clothing as well. What was your first target audience and then why did you pivot to different ones? Tell us about that.
Rob: I am a very, very customer service-focused individual. I learned that from my father who owned diamond stores. I’ve also sold cars and houses so I like to say I sold the three biggest things that people will buy in their lifetime. You have to really be able to take care of a customer to get the referrals but you know they’re spending a lot of money so it’s just the way I do things. Our yacht charter business is the exact same.
I first came out with the product, I would literally mail it with a piece of paper that I printed off because we didn’t have any money so I just printed off paper with instructions and hoped that they could figure it out. People would go to two or three or four or five installers to get this installed so I knew that because it had to be sewn in – not everybody was willing to teach himself how to sew like I did that was going to be the next step. I mean what other product on the planet do you buy in one place and you have to take somewhere else to use? I tried to make that transition easier and said, “Okay, we’re doing decent on sales. Let’s go get these dry cleaners where they’re walking into anyways.”
Plus the dry cleaning customer who typically has 20 to 50 dress shirts and cares enough about the way that they look that they’re paying someone else to clean and press their clothes is probably my customer. Instead of me having to find every individual customer and sell five or ten at a time I can sell them 100 or 200 or 500 at a time and make that process easier on my end as well. It was just – we started going to dry cleaning trade shows. We started meeting with those guys and taught them how to do it.
Basically, developed all of the print materials and all the marketing materials so they didn’t have to think at all. Because I mean everybody’s been to a dry cleaner, you walk in, and you know the girl at the front’s like, “How many pieces you have? Any stains? I’ll see in three days.” I mean they’re not salespeople, so we had to come up with all of that. But to me, that was just the next easiest process I want to make it as easy as possible for the customer.
Then that’s why we started buying the brands too is you know you already know how a Tommy Hilfiger shirt fits or a Ralph Lauren or a Calvin Klein shirt fits, why not just buy it with our technology already installed. I’ve got wholesale accounts. I buy the shirts. I install a Million Dollar Collar. I repackage them back the best I can with like the way they came and then just sell a shirt that they already know and love. Just listening to the customers all the way back from our Kickstarter.
Ruthie: So when you say that you had to develop the sales material and stuff, did you train the people who worked at the dry cleaning places to deliver your sales pitch?
Rob: Yes, we came up with a flyer that they stapled to every outgoing order and that took care of that. We didn’t have to talk to anybody. We didn’t have to train anybody. It was like, “Just staples every outgoing order and it explains exactly what it is.”
Rob: I mean, we’re in 650 dry cleaners. We can’t – there’s no way we’d be able to train all the people.
Ruthie: Yeah, that’s fair.
Bekkah: Well, and I feel like too when I was thinking about that I’m like, “Man, there’s not a lot of diversification dry cleaner can do anyways so this is a really nice up charge service that they can offer that’s relatively simplistic for them to do once they have the process down.” So I can see how that’s been really good.
Rob: Yeah, I mean my first shirt took me 45 minutes to do because I didn’t know how to sew but most of the tailors we talk to laugh when I say yeah it takes like 10 minutes. They’re like, “I can do five or six shirts in 15 minutes.” I mean they said putting a button back on is the only thing that’s easier than putting my product in. It’s really, really easy. It’s a great upsell and that’s our pitch to these dry cleaners.
Bekkah: Yeah, so how valuable was networking in this process for you?
Rob: I’ve always done it. I learned that from my father as well. He joined a country club when he didn’t have enough money, but he knew that being around the right people and the right types of businesspeople were going to get him where he wanted to go. One of the first things that happened to me when my wife and I moved to Los Angeles was, met some girls, went on this business networking hike, met a guy who became not only a mentor and advisor but one of my closest friends and just happened to be one of the founders of a little company called Expedia.com.
Being around that type of person that’s been and done and seen and launched a billion-dollar company is insane. I love to say that I like being the dumbest guy in the room because I can absorb information from everybody. Everybody’s willing to help. Mentors love to help people as long as they do what the mentor has advised. I mean they’ve bought time at this point and they’re successful and they have a limited or, you know, they have more flexible time but time is the most valuable thing to them. So to waste somebody’s time and say, “Hey, I could really use your advice!” and then not listen to them and not implement the things they say, you’re never going to get that advice again. The people that we surround ourselves know that we’re going to go and do what they say that we should do.
Ruthie: I was thinking today while I was driving there’s this quote that Iron Man says about like he just like talking about being the smartest person in the room or something like that and I was thinking like what would be an interesting mentality to adopt is to always assume that you can learn from everybody in the room. I think that that’s interesting that you’re surrounding yourself with people that you want to learn from. On that note, what advice do you have in terms of setting goals that people who are kind of going down this avenue and wanting to invent something, what goals would you advise them to set and what did you learn about that in the process?
Rob: Even the greatest idea on earth takes longer than you think to implement. *all laugh*
Bekkah: Isn’t that the truth!
Rob: So number one, be patient and just know that incremental advancements are all that you need. You know we’ve been selling for five and a half years. It took three years of prep before we started selling. I’m not nearly as far as I want to be but I’m a whole lot further than I was a year ago, two years ago, or five years ago. You just need to make a little bit of progress every single day and keep moving the ball forward. I mean they always say that overnight success has happened in ten years. I’m seven years in! I’m pretty close! You’re gonna know about me soon!
Bekkah: Well, yeah and that’s one of the things that I was gonna say too. I’m betting by this point there are quite a few people that maybe don’t even realize that your invention is in their wardrobe. Don’t even realize it, because maybe their significant other got those installed for them or whatever else so with that being said how do you identify the next target market as you’re taking this to grow further?
Rob: One, we’re always trying to make it easier for the customer. What we have not been able to break into yet is a big licensing deal. We had one on the table, we were very, very close and the perfect storm of terrible things happened all at once and a 2 million unit test order fell apart like almost overnight. You know, the next thing is I just keep trying to find different ways to put this product out there. The newest thing that we’re doing we did start our own dress shirt company called “goTIELESS”. we actually sold out 85% of our inventory during COVID or the beginnings of COVID because everybody stopped advertising so our dollars went four or five times further than they used to.
Rob: We weren’t able to get anything else remade so we’ve got a hodgepodge left of shirts. To kind of separate ourselves I’ve come up with a new idea which is I can digitally print anything on fabric any logo on fabric. Instead of your traditional left-chest-embroidered, trade show shirt I can take your logo, print it on fabric, and actually build it into the shirt. Our newer venture for goTIELESS is these custom printed dress shirts.
Think hotels, restaurants, bars, car dealerships, insurance company, anybody who wears a dress shirt daily and kind of has this dress shirt uniform I can take the logo and build it right in the shirt, inside the collar band, inside the cuffs, I mean it looks amazing. The print quality is insane and I can do any color. That’s the new, fun, little thing that we got going. We’re going to keep continuing to try to get this licensed and just put in front of as many people as possible.
Bekkah: Yeah, well, and when you were talking about how you had previously had a printing company for t-shirts and stuff it’s so cool to see consistently with entrepreneurs how no previous experience is ever wasted. Because I don’t even think most people would have ever thought of that but because of the previous experiences you’ve had you have way more of an advantage now in the business that you’re running.
I had one more question for you before we get to our last question and I was doing a little creeping on you before this. One of the things that I noticed you highlighted in a lot of your material about you was that you worked really well with your spouse. What does that look like to have a significant other be working alongside you?
Rob: It’s some of the greatest days and some of the worst days. I mean we are very, very different. We knew that from the beginning of dating that I even have a tattoo on my arm which is a very loose yin-yang because we balance each other out. When we appreciate the things that we do differently we’re unstoppable, but it’s the things that we do differently that means that we’ll butt heads and kind of hit a roadblock from time to time. It’s incredible. I mean we built this yacht charter business from nothing to an exit in three years less than three years at a crazy growth rate. I mean we’re up 320% year-to-date. We’re up 250% last year over our first year. I mean I couldn’t have done it alone. She couldn’t have done it alone and it’s incredible doing it together.
Ruthie: That’s so awesome. I feel like that’s not always the case with entrepreneurs but it seems like it’s for really successful not really successful but for some successful entrepreneurs they just like had the support system and that’s so encouraging to hear so thanks for sharing that!
Rob: You definitely need somebody that understands because you know when I had the screen printing business and something went wrong or we didn’t get it done right or whatever you know and I’ve got to print shirts until three or four in the morning to get the job done no matter what else is happening, she needs to know that I got to cancel, I gotta stay up, I need to drink 14 Red Bulls whatever it is I have to get the job done because that’s what’s most important. In nine years of screen printing I never missed a deadline and never delivered less shirts than were ordered. That’s unheard of in the industry. If your priorities are right your spouse understands then that’ll make things a whole lot easier.
Ruthie: Put that on a t-shirt. *all laugh*
Ruthie: Our last question that we have for you would be what resources would you recommend to anyone who’s looking to start out with a new product like whether that’s books or YouTube videos or tips.
Rob: Well, yeah, I mean YouTube university is great! You can do as much digging as possible, ask as many questions as possible. I listen to a lot of audiobooks. Because I get distracted on what I’m doing I usually have to listen two or three or four or five times and every time I listen I hear something different because I might be driving and I hear something and my mind wanders off. I’m constantly learning. I’m involved in networking groups.
I’m constantly meeting new people. You know, you have to be able to be vulnerable and tell people that you don’t know and ask a question and put yourself out there to find the answer you’re looking for. I think the ego gets in the way a lot. People kind of get in their own way. You have to also be able to listen to your customer and pivot. I mean if what you think is great isn’t great then you’re not going to sell anything. We’re at almost 400,000 units sold and that’s because I listen to my customers and try to give them what they’re asking for.
Bekkah: Yeah, well, where can people find you?
Rob: The easiest the main thing right now is Million Dollar Collar. We have the Instagram Million Dollar Collar. We have Facebook we have our website obviously milliondollarcollar.com. For international people we have moved everything to Amazon, because it’s just easier and cheaper to ship things through Amazon. We’re all there. If anybody’s got any questions about patenting or has any interest in our new, upcoming, digital, printed shirts you can email me directly at Rob@milliondollarcollar.com.
Ruthie: Awesome and you’ve kept your video on the whole time and we can see that it does look very nice. You’ve got like the collar, it looks very crisp and professional.
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