Devin Miller: Hi Robert
Rob: Hi how are you?
Devin: Hi how are you doing?
Devin: How's the day treating you?
Rob: Good I was just getting this set up and my computer unplugged by accident while I was just trying to connect to this call so...
Devin: Sounds like an eventful time.
Rob: Hey, it's not crazy then we don't know what's going on.
Devin: That's right. Perfect well before we jump in and start the podcast interview any initial questions? Anything I can answer for you?
Devin: Alright, well perfect well then what we'll do is I will do a quick intro on myself, the podcast, and do a bit of an intro on you and then we'll dive in and talk a little bit more about your journey and go from there. Does that work?
Rob: Sounds excellent.
Devin: Alright give me one second to get things all ready to go and then we'll jump into it. One more thing and then we'll be good.
Rob:I'll make sure that my computer is on, do not disturb since it just shut down on me.
Devin: Okay, whenever you're ready just let me know.
Rob: Alright should be good.
Devin: Okay we'll dive into it.
Hey everyone this is Devin Miller here with another episode of the Inventive Journey. I'm your host Devin Miller, the serial entrepreneur that has founded several startups that are now in 7 or 8 figure businesses as well as the founder and CEO of Miller IP Law where we help startups and small businesses with their patents and trademarks.
Today we have another great guest on the episode, on the podcast, Rob Kessler. Rob has been in sales his whole life. He started out all the way at 16 selling some soccer and volleyball equipment and then he basically had the guy that was running the store turn over the keys to him, tell him have a good time and he did a great job at it. Then I went through school and came out and after college worked with his Dad, I think he said with diamonds for a bit of time and then business wasn't good moved over to doing car sales, house sales and then married a stunt woman which is interesting. I always find it interesting when there is a stunt person involved. Then as they were getting married had an idea for a product which was in RND for 3 years plus and now is doing that as his business and having a great time at it. With that as an introduction welcome onto the podcast, Rob.
Rob: Hey thanks so much good to be here.
Devin: So I gave kind of the 5-second quick run-through of everything but maybe now take us back in time and tell us a little bit more about your journey and how it all got going for you?
Rob: Yeah. It started with... I started working where you can at 15 and 1/2 and the only way to get a car at my house was to have a job so I could pay for the insurance. Was playing soccer and found a job at a soccer/volleyball store and like you said day 1 the owner gave me a key to the store and a code to the alarm system like the other employees and he just put his full faith in all of us and it really made us feel like owners from day 1 and I was 17 years old. He really gave us the confidence and the support to follow our path within the business and help it grow and it was an amazing foundation for me.
It started there, went off to college and I was going to quit after two years of college because I was making $14,000 a year and thought I was in heaven.
Devin: I'm rich, I'll never know how to spend all this money.
Rob: $1200 a month holy cow. About two years in I said I'm going to do this... I'm a real goal-oriented guy so I hunkered down and took summer schools and everything I could to catch up and graduated college in four years. First-person in my family to graduate college and did that while I was working for my dad. In my junior and senior year, I was working full time in the jewelry store so found time for classes, found time for work, and did that. Kessler's Diamond Center is the 3rd largest independent jeweler in the Midwest or in the country, with 7 stores now. I did that, helped him open one of his stores out of town, it was in a really small town in Wisconsin and I just didn't really like that small-town life. My dad is the business is number 1 and he didn't really anywhere to put me in one of the stores so he said if you're ever going to work hear your whole life and run this business someday you should have some outside experience so I had a passion for cars so I went and sold cars for a while.
Devin: Jumping in on that really quick so there could be a couple of ways you could take that right? Dad fired me, now I have to go find a job or Dad loves me and wants me to grow so which way did you take it or how did it turn out? So did Dad fire me? I have to find another job or hey that was so kind of him and I appreciate him looking after me?
Rob: No that was totally my decision. I didn't want to live in that town anymore and he wasn't just going to make an arrangement for me because I was his son in one of the other stores. There wasn't a position for me so it wasn't a firing at all. I really had to get out of that town, I hated it. Did that and sold cars for a while and then I moved over to Los Angeles for about a year with some friends. Since I worked full time through college I didn't get to do any of the spring breaks or summer breaks or every time there wasn't work I was in class or I was working. I lumped it into a 9-month party in Los Angeles.
I came home and got into real estate which I loved, I had my license for 15 years, did a lot of real estate there with the biggest firm, First Weber Group. Then while I was doing that I started a screen-printing business cause I was working on a condo project, graphic tees were like the hottest thing. If you remember Ed Hardy and all those $125 graphic t-shirts. I knew from my soccer and volleyball days a little bit about screen printing.
I started a little clothing line, the screen printers were charging me way too much so I figured out how to screen print and started a little screen printing business which overtook the clothing line business. I sold that five years ago, so my wife and I could move out to Los Angeles. Also bought a 600 square foot building that my wife moved her gym into and I had my screen printing business in and sold all this stuff, got married --
Devin: One question before we go off to screen printing and it has nothing to do with screen printing. So you did mention your wife was a stunt woman so how did you meet a stunt woman and I know it's not completely not your journey but it's interesting because stunt anybody always sounds interesting. So how did you meet her? And what does she do? Is it as interesting as it sounds or is it a lot more boring?
Rob: So she did that, that happened after we got to Los Angeles. We got here 5 years ago, we've been married for 8 years in February. She was a corporate person when we met and I encouraged her to follow her passion for fitness so she started training people after work and in the summer one year by the end of the summer she quit her corporate job because she had so many clients and we bought that commercial building.
We sold all that stuff, sold everything we knew, and moved to a town we knew nobody in and she happened to meet a guy, the one person we knew had a dog. One of the leasing guys in our apartment building, we were walking our dogs one day and she didn't know what she was going to do and he's like there's a stunt guy that used to live here. Do you want to meet him? She said, "Hell yeah that sounds great."
She met him and she did everything he suggested and he introduced her to all the right people and she was in Captain Marvel as one of the scrolls, she doubled Taylor Swift in a music video, she's working today on Reno 911 so she's been all over the board, she's worked more in the first 4 years than most stunt people do in 10 and she's got a business degree and she understands how to hustle in the business side.
Devin: The last question on that, is being a stunt woman or stunt person as exciting as it sounds?
Rob: When she's working, she called right before this and said we're stuck. They're doing all the stuff over there and we're sitting around and it's kind of boring. She can spend a 12 hour day on set and work for 45 minutes. It just depends on what point of the day she's in. When she's working, she loves it. She would do it for free if we could afford to live in Los Angeles without ....
Devin: I don't think you could find a way to live in Los Angeles for free. That was a complete aside. It was one that I never met anyone who was a stunt person or knew any stunt people. So I thought I would have to at least dive into that slightly.
Now getting back to your journey which is.... You guys moved to Los Angeles, she was doing the stunt woman gig, you were running the screen printing gig and then from there you shifted or made adjustments. Where did you go from the screen printing?
Rob: So back up a little bit, we got married in 2013 in Jamaica, I hate wearing ties so it was a beach wedding and I had no shoes. Before I could say I do my freshly pressed shirt was a sloppy mess, it made me crazy. I came home from Jamaica after looking at the wedding photos from the biggest day of my life. I said I have to fix this.
I Googled everything I could find, there was nothing out there and so I started working on it. We stepped into the IP realm of our first $2000 to do the patent check and that's the beginning of our multi-thousand dollar checks that we were writing to get this patent. So we started doing that, there was nothing out there and I dove headstrong into it, and like you said it took 3 years of R&D to get it right. Now we've been selling for about 5 years and it's been crazy.
Devin: That 3 years of R&D is it as simple as you lead on? When you're doing the R&D were you... Was this your full-time gig? Were you doing it as a side hustle at the time or how did you make ends meet while you're doing the R&D in order to get the product up and going?
Rob: So that was in the screen printing days so I had the screen printing business doing all day so when I had time I would work on Million Dollar Collar. I had a lot of friends with an old dress shirt that they were willing to give to me so I tested every plastic I could find on the market, everything melted at the dry cleaner. I ruined about 100 shirts figuring this out so if you see all the ... I have a picture of all the different designs that I had come up with over the years. It worked in one shirt one time and it looked really great and then it was awful. Fortunately, I found out really quickly that all dress shirts are made essentially the same and they have a lot of similar characteristics. Enough that I could make a universal design for my product.
Devin: One of the other things that I thought was interesting when we talked a little bit before the podcast. Early on in your journey when you were doing the R&D and I can't remember exactly when you said but originally you said we were kind of going to make our own shirts and I think you did a Kickstarter campaign you reached half your goal and so obviously you didn't reach your whole goal so you don't get the money at least on Kickstarter. But you did that and you said okay but you wanted the feedback and people were saying why sell the whole shirt when you can just do the part that fixes the collar. Maybe dive into that, how did that go? How did that go, how did you decide to make that pivot?
Rob:Yeah when we first got into this we figured let's just make a dress shirt right? That makes sense. So we did the Kickstarter, we got about halfway to our goal but the unequivocal feedback was why are you trying to compete with all the other brands. Why not just license the technology to them and why can't I upgrade the shirts I already own?
We changed the design of the product to be universal after that and listened to what people's feedback was and when people are willing to give you money it's a lot more honest feedback than asking Joe Blow on the street that has no vested interest in.
Devin: Or asking family, they're never going to give you an honest answer because they don't want to hurt your feelings.
Rob: Yeah, exactly. These people put up $18,000 of our $40,000 goal and that was their feedback. We listened and followed what they said. So we have an aftermarket version now.
Devin: So before you go beyond that. One of the things a lot of times your startup or small business or anybody. You start to drink your own Kool-Aid or buy into your own idea that this is the best way to do it and I know what I'm talking about. You can get a bit of a narrow vision that you don't take feedback. Oh, they haven't spent as much time, or they don't know the market or anything else.
So how do you avoid it as you're getting that feedback from Kickstarter? By that point, you put in some time and effort you obviously have an idea and a concept and a product. You're doing that, how was it to say okay I need to step back and I need to pivot. Was it as simple as hey I missed the mark and I'm going to adjust or did it take you a bit of time? How did you actually take that feedback?
Rob:It was pretty obvious to us, this was right at the time where Kickstarter was as hot as it ever was, probably 2014 I think. We were really early in the process and a hoodie company had just raised $10 million dollars. Dude, we can do a dress shirt for $40,000. It was a pretty good slap saying, you're not on the right track, we couldn't hit our goal that was so much lower than what we thought we would be able to get to. I think if you watch any episode of The Shark Tank you'll find that a lot of entrepreneurs, especially inventors get in the way of their own product, their own success. I wasn't going to fall down that path at all.
Devin: I think that's insightful, I think that's a good thing when you're in business. You just need to realize we may need to adjust, we may need to pivot. It's not that somebody is trying to be rude or offensive or anything else. They don't have any skin in the game, they're just trying to say this is my feedback of why I would buy the product or if I were going to give you money. I think it's a valuable skill to say hey we need to listen to the feedback in the market.
Kickstarter, I used to think it was really cool but now it's evolved into more of hey we're going to launch a product it's almost a presell thing as opposed to helping people get their company going which loses the appeal to me.
Back in that day, Kickstarter was really people who wanted to help out business, they wanted to get something up and going and so I think it's a good thing. The other thing is to get that feedback early, you don't want to .... Earlier you can get the feedback, you can get people that are willing to give you money or that feedback the better rather than waiting too long in the process. By that time you have now run out of time, you run out of money and you can't do it anymore. Got that feedback you made the pivot now how was it taking it from the idea of making the pivot redesigning it to actually get it into manufacturing and selling it?
Rob: It was back to the drawing boards on the R&D front. We had to get that design to be universal and then we had to figure out how to explain to people how to get this put inside of their shirt. Unlike a collar stay that goes in and out easily mine is sewn into the shirt. There are always two layers here in the placket, there are always two layers here in the collar band. So you have to go to the dry cleaner, tailor, open up a couple of stitches, slide it in, and sew it back together. That is a process and an extra step that almost no other product has, think about any other product on the market you buy one place and have to go somewhere else just to use it. There just isn't that out there.
That was the next test that we had to overcome but it opens us up instead of selling 1,000 dress shirts we're selling to tens of millions which turned out to be in 2019 a billion dress shirts were sold in the U. S. So it opened us open to a bigger market. I can fit $20,000 in inventory in a shoebox instead of an entire warehouse of dress shirts and sizes and colors and fits. It's a logistical nightmare to do dress shirts.
Devin: I think that's a good point, hey let's make a simpler product. Otherwise, you have to deal with all the different skews of every size of an individual and how big or small and what size your neck is and how long their arms are and if you can take the same idea and make it much more universal. I think it was a much more beneficial pivot to your guys' company.
Rob: It helps to... You have to think about costs if you only have the money you're putting in, it was definitely a deciding factor. Let's just keep that overhead low and see what we can do about the marketing and get it out there that way.
Devin: Absolutely. Now you guys have finally got through the R&D, you made your pivots, you got it up and going, you got a manufacturer and you guys are a real business now. What're the next 6 months to a year look like for you guys? Where are you headed and what are the next plans?
Rob: So We launched in 2016 online, direct to consumer, we sold about 315, 000 units worldwide. We're really focusing now on licensing deals. We went on day 1, my partner worked for SalesForce so he knew how to get into the biggest corporations and work his way up that corporate ladder which was nothing I had to deal with so he got us into meetings with all the biggest brands. We talked to all the guys early on. They said, It seems like a good idea but we just don't know if our customer wants it, or needs it.
We went directly to the consumer to prove the concept and we've done that now and we're going back out to those guys and saying it's time. Especially in the days of COVID where you really need to stand out to get somebody to part with their money. Just a standard old dress shirt isn't going to do it anymore and we have the one innovative thing that's going to help these brands stand out. We're really working to the mass and getting it into a ton of brands, and into a lot of shirts.
Devin: Okay, that's cool, that's awesome. Now we talked a little bit about your journey. I'm going to jump to the two questions I always ask after we get towards the end of the podcast. The first question I always ask is during your journey what was the worst business decision you ever made and what did you learn from it?
Rob: So we were going directly to the consumer, we were about two years in and it was going pretty well. We had decided that dry cleaners were going to be the way we wanted to sell this, it was going to be our distribution model. We went to the Clean Show which is a dry cleaning trade show in Las Vegas. We got such an unbelievable reception at that trade show. Dickey’s, massive Dickey's brand was down the aisle from us with a huge booth. We had this little 10 x 10 booth and they were like what are you guys doing over here, why are their people spilling into the aisle trying to talk to you guys.
We had all the attention on the show and we had gotten the contact information for the owners of 1500-1700 dry cleaner locations across the U. S. We thought this was the greatest thing, we're going to make a fortune, we're going to love it. At that show, we decided to turn off our direct consumer advertising because we thought these guys were all going to pick this up instantly and we're going to go. It really threw off our cash flow for quite a long time. That was not the best decision ever but if you were there at that moment seeing these people lining up, handwriting up their information, giving business cards, giving us anything they could to contact us you would be like guys you hit the gold mine.
Devin: In other words, you turned off where your cash flow was online and .... Did you ever get the sales? Did it ever come to fruition? Did it not end up working out?
Rob: Those guys have good intentions, not always the best decisions, not the best businessmen. They know what they know and they don't know what they don't know. We're in about 650 dry cleaners so we've got into a lot of those guys, into a lot of those businesses. Our customers and their customers that take advantage of our product really love it. We try to make it as easy as possible for our customers to get the product. It's working out, it's just a little slower than we thought.
Devin: Working out but didn't catch on fire as quickly as you thought.
Rob: No, no.
Devin: I think that's a good lesson to learn, don't turn off your cash flow until you actually got the purchase orders in hand and the money coming. Second question, If you're talking to someone just getting started with a startup or small business what would be the one piece of advice you would give them?
Rob: Be stubborn. I never ever quit, when it looks like this is a terrible idea or you hear no for the thousandth time you just have to persevere and keep going and keep pushing. It only takes one time, you can quote Edison and all these other people and Colonel Sanders but it really only takes the one time for it to blow up. If you stop then you'll never find out that one time.
Devin: You talked about Edison did you know... I assume you used WD40 right?
Devin: Do you know what the 40 stands for?
Devin: I think WD is like water dissipating but the 40 is it took 40 different formulations before they got on the right formula. It took 39 failures of figuring out the wrong combination in order to make what is now WD40 which everybody uses. That's like another one of those stories of almost to your point of keep on it. It's not going to be easy but if you don't give up too soon if they gave up on 39 or whatever you wouldn't have WD40. I just like that because now every time you see the 40 it's a reminder.
Rob: I love that. That might have to go back here on my wall. I'm starting to build out an inspiration wall.
Devin: I could help you now with your decorating, you can get a big WD40 sign.
Rob: I have a WD40 can.
Devin: Now as people want to, they want to buy your product, be one of your distributors, they want to be an investor, an employee, your next best friend, they want to reach out to you..... Any or all of the above, what's the best way to connect up with you?
Rob: We have all the social media for Million Dollar Collar, you can get us on Instagram or Facebook. Directly Rob@MillionDollarCollar.com.
Devin: Alright and I think your website is MillionDollarCollar.com as well if they wanted to purchase right?
Rob: Right. Who doesn't want to look like a Million Bucks! It will never fold, never fail, looks like a million bucks all day long.
Devin: Everybody wants to look like a million bucks.
Rob: Viagra for your shirt man, Viagra for your shirt.
Devin: I appreciate you coming on. It's been a pleasure, it's been fun to hear your journey and everything that you have going on. For all of you who are listeners and you have your journey to tell and you want to apply to be on the podcast. Feel free to go to inventivejourneyguest.com and apply to be on the show. If you're a listener be sure to click subscribe so you get notifications for all the new awesome episodes come out. Last but not least if you ever need help with patents or trademarks feel free to reach out to us at Miller IP Law.
Thanks again Rob it's been fun to hear about your journey and I wish the next leg of your journey even better than the last.
Rob: Thanks, I appreciate it.