Welcome to The Edge Podcast, your weekly playbook about the inner game of building a successful business making you a happier, healthier, and richer business owner, and here's your host Brandon White.
Brandon White: Hey Rob.
Rob Kessler: How are you?
Brandon: Good, how are you?
Brandon: Million Dollar Collar is looking like a million dollars.
Rob: Yes sir.
Brandon: Thanks for joining this morning
Rob: Yeah, absolutely
Brandon: I just ordered a whole bunch of Million Dollar Collars.
Rob: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.
Brandon: Well it is a big problem when you don't have that it really makes your shirts look awful.
Rob: It's a night and day difference that's for sure.
Brandon: So Rob, how did you come up with this idea?
Rob: It was on my wedding day actually if you could see that photo right there that was 30 minutes after I put my shirt on before I could even say "I do" and my shirt was just a crumbled sloppy mess. We had hired a photographer, our buddy came down and shot it so we were looking at wedding photos the next day and I am like this is a disastrous, the biggest day of my life, and my shirt looks terrible. I came home and started cutting open dress shirts and away we went.
Brandon: Your wife doesn't look happy in that picture?
Rob: I know, it could not have been staged any better, and it wasn't staged. That's why it's so awesome because it was an actual photo.
Brandon: I saw that photo on your website when I was checking it out the other day and she just looks disgusted.
Rob: I labeled that photo of my wife's disgust actually. Actually, she's still my fiancé at that point because I hadn't said "I do" yet.
Brandon: I guess at least you're communicating with one another.
Rob: Oh yeah, we're good.
Brandon: This isn't your first rodeo as a business, you had a business before this that you sold to fund this idea didn't you?
Rob: So, when I got married I had a screen printing and embroidery business and so I had a little bit of clothing knowledge I would say. My first real job, ` I worked at a soccer and volleyball store and we did jerseys and screen-printing for people. I understood that process and I ended up starting a screen-printing business later in life. While I was doing the screen-printing I was trying to come up with Million Dollar Collar so I sold that business. My wife and I sold everything we had and moved out to Los Angeles, on our 10 day out to LA we got word that the patent was approved so we thought it was pretty serendipitous and that we were doing the right thing by moving out to LA.
Brandon: Where did you move from?
Rob: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Brandon: Why did you think moving to LA for the Million Dollar Collar was the ticket that was going to change the business?
Rob: We would go out once or twice a year to visit and hang out and party and do things. We'd always come home from LA and say we just met the most incredible people this weekend. Just being there for 2 or 3 or 4 days we would just meet incredible people. We just didn't feel like Milwaukee was the right place for us, as far as business and opportunity. I took her out for her birthday one year. I took her to the premiere part for her favorite show, American Horror Story. We came home from that trip and she said let's do it. I said, "Okay when?" She said, "By my next birthday." Within one year we sold that screen-printing business, sold the house, sold the cars, the boat, all of our furniture. If it didn't fit in the back of my F150 we didn't bring it. We completely started over, we knew nobody in LA.
Brandon: It's sort of strange because I know people come to California to start businesses for different reasons whether that's LA or Silicon Valley. Did it dawn on you that moving to LA was going to probably be 4 or 5 times as expensive as living in Milwaukee?
Rob: Yeah, we joked because my duplex, our two cars, our 6,000 square foot commercial building, our boat, and all of our life cost less than our rent did in our 800 square foot apartment in LA. I was fortunate to sell that business and we had enough money that I was able to tell my wife we have 18 months worth of burn. If neither of us makes a $1 we can spend 100% of our time working on whatever we're passionate about. She didn't know what she was going to do at all. Originally she was going to work at Beach Body corporate, she's absolutely shredded and has been in fitness and fitness modeling for a while. She's done some stuff for Beach Body and so we thought that was what she was going to do and then that fell through.
Since we didn't know anybody we started hanging out with the kids that leased us our apartment who was 15 or 20 years younger than me. They had a big dog, and we have a Rottweiler and so we were out on a hike one day and they said, Linda what are you going to do? She said, I don't know I've done fitness and I want to do something really active but I don't want to be a trainer anymore. This guy was like one of my former residents was a stuntman. Do you want to meet him? She was like, sure. We met him and went and worked out with him one night, we became fast friends, he's like here are all the terrible things about the industry and she was like, cool let's do it. We just started meeting people, she's got a business degree, she always says it's show business.
People would say go here and train with this person, go there and train with that person. Within months she was an active stunt person. It was, she did exactly what everyone said to do, and then she'd come back to them and tell them she did what they said. They were like, what no one ever does what I say and it was literally the path. She's now five years into stunts and has done I think she has 60 or 65 credits which are absolutely ridiculous. Nobody does that until 10 years usually so she's a successful Hollywood stunt woman and I've got my business and we just do it.
Brandon: Well that's crazy. Can you talk about the screen printing business... I know it as when I read your story, something that came out of a clothing company that you had. Did you start a regular "clothing company" before you started the screen-printing business?
Rob: So this is 2006 and Ed Hardy is selling $80, $90 graphic t-shirts and I said I understood screen-printing a little bit and so I'm not a graphic designer. So I have a bunch of friends that are artists. Instead of having to sell a $2,000 painting why don't we take your design and put it on a shirt and sell limited edition $50 t-shirts? I'll pay you on each shirt sold, you'll promote them and you can sell a bunch of t-shirts and then make as much as you did on the painting maybe. I had to have those printed so I went to a couple of different screen printers so I was totally getting screwed over with all the setup charges and all the stuff.
I'm the kind of guy that thinks if I can't afford to pay somebody else I have to figure out how to do it myself. After spending a few thousand dollars on other printers I decided I wanted to learn how to screen-print. I did a set of shirts for a radio station, the two DJs were celebrating their 1 year anniversary and I was talking to one of the DJs and said, I want to start doing some screen printing on my own. Oh, my buddy Scott who is in the band that's playing tonight he's talking about buying screen printing equipment. Totally but it was in the universe and it totally happened.
I met Scott and two weeks later we bought a starter base set and I ran that thing into the ground. I literally printed 40 or 50 thousand shirts on a starter tabletop, four-color, two-station press with a flash dryer. It was the most basic setup you can get, he taught me how to do it and I started telling friends, I have equipment if you need any shirts printed just let me know. All of a sudden, instead of me buying $1000 or $1500 worth of shirts and printing them and holding that inventory, people would say hey I need 50 shirts. I'd buy the shirts, I'd print them and two days later I was paid for the whole thing. I don't really want to be a screen printer but this cash flow problem works a lot better with screen-printing than owning a clothing company so I just followed the money and followed the process on that.
The two things I did differently was one I screen printed my label inside of every shirt, so every shirt that went out was a marketing piece for me, and I thought somebody would find me hopefully. Then I also individually folded, I got a little flip n fold thing, every single shirt. If you've ever done any events and got any shirts they usually bundle them by the dozen and you pull one out and it's just a big mess in the box. I don't know what sizes are anymore. Individually folded so you could stack up all the mediums, larges and just pick and pull and hand them off. I think I just started to hang tagging them all too and just adding a little bit of marketing to each one as well.
Brandon: You think the folding and the presentation was different when they got that... It is true we used to get shirts printed all the time. You literally peel it off of one another in this big pile. They fold them in half basically, throw them out there, and turn into a disaster. Your room if you're filling orders turns into a disaster and before you know it you have a box and you can't remember what size is in there. So that folding, it's a little extra labor but that flip n fold thing is...
Rob: It's really quick. My mom was retiring and she needed something to do and I was able to spend 5 days a week with my mom for 3 years. That is time I will never, ever get back and it was amazing to have that much time to spend with a parent and she's still with me. She actually fulfills the daily orders for Million Dollar Collar so I still talk to her several times a week if not a couple of times a day. It was little stuff like that. The other thing I hated was the pricing. If you go to order shirts it's $2.34 a print and then it's a $20 setup fee and then this fee and that fee.
I was like screw that tell me what the number is. I just want to know. It turned out I ended up charging more than most places, it was just a simple clean number. if you need 20 shirts with a two-color print it's $9 a shirt. I know what that number is, I just had clean straightforward pricing because I hate negotiating and I hate being nickel and dimed, just tell me what the number is.
Brandon: You were doing printing for other people but did you also keep an inhouse brand?
Rob: So I ended up paring off two brands, the original brand was NEWD Clothing, Nothing Else Will Do. What's funny with that progression was I started with the graphic t-shirts but everybody really liked the shirt that the print was on, they didn't necessarily like the print but they loved .. I found a really good company that made the blanks. I took my logo and embroidered it on the side so it was out of the way, so instead of a left chest embroidery it was down on the left side and so I would sell the blanks basically just clean. I really don't like graphic t-shirts, they were just nice clean high-end t-shirts, $35 t-shirts, crewnecks, V-necks, and things like that.
I found one artist that ended up coming to work for me, Johnny, and we took his designs and put those onto graphic t-shirts, a more basic t-shirt and it was nice and soft and we called that urban clothing club and so we took his designs. We still did a little bit of printing and I would do shows and try to sell through that inventory and we had our website going. It was the screen printing business that was where it was all at.
Brandon: Would you share what shirt you had because my brother and I had a similar experience to you. Our idea was we were going to build 12 brands and we were going to just put them out there and figure out which one would bubble to the top. Originally we were buying inventory as you know, buying inventory is tough. Is the prediction of something going to happen? Ultimately we went to high-end heat transfers so we could do on-demand. We didn't quite do the ink as you did, I don't think we were ready for that possibly or had the room.
Rob: I started out with Alternative Apparel, I really did not like American Apparel, I did not like the owner so I avoided American Apparel at all costs. For my custom screen printed shirts that I did for clients I always used the Jerzees 50/50 and everyone thought they were way softer and they didn't shrink and they felt a lot better. The company where I got my branded stuff was called Blanks Plus. I think I started with TQM which was the original name and then they merged with Blanks Plus. I wanted to have a men's line but we don't have a lot of choices so I literally had a crew neck, a V-neck, a tank top, a Henley but women's I had all kinds of dresses, tank tops, and V-necks. I had a huge selection of women's stuff which is funny because I was not looking for a women's line but they just have way more options.
Brandon: I appreciate sharing that, we're geeking out about shirts but when you're in that business.. We were using ultra cotton and then eventually for one of our lines we designed a mix that we had made in China and brought over here that was polyester and some stretchy stuff and cotton and it just lasted a long time. You get particular, we were very, my brother still is particular about the neck, if the neck doesn't look right at least for us we won't wear the t-shirt. Do you think there's still money Rob in t-shirts out there?
Rob: Yeah, you see these companies pop up that are just selling packs of t-shirts and I think God I should have been doing that years ago. Everybody loved the shirt that I sold, now all I wear is Bella/Canvas tri-blend V-necks. If I'm not in a dress shirt I am in a tri-blend V-neck. I literally have 50 of them in five different colors hanging in my closet, short sleeves, and long sleeves. I don't wear crew necks ever, I don't like anything too close to my neck. I'd take those shirts and throw a label on them and I don't buy any branded anything.
I happen to have a Tommy Hilfiger shirt on because it's one of the things that we sell. I don't spend very much money on clothing, if you want the best-branded dress shirt you can buy you go to Costco and you get their dress shirt and spend $15 getting it tailored to fit you and another $10 getting Million Dollar Collar installed. That is an $80 Nautica shirt, it comes off the exact same line as Nautica and it's labeled for Costco for $17.99 and you want the best value that's the best dress shirt you can buy for the money.
Brandon: Well that's good advice. Just finishing up the t-shirts, I was thinking about t-shirts because I got this print catalog in the mail that said 80s t-shirts and they're selling these 80s t-shirts for $9.95 and I know it's a cheap t-shirt so their cost is maybe $3 or $4 but you have to print a lot of t-shirts at $5 to make any money don't you think? There's this whole idea out there that printing t-shirts you can print money but it's really a volume game if you're going to do low price t-shirts.
Rob: Yeah, at $9.95 you're right it depends on the volume. You can get a blank, white t-shirt for $1 so again it depends on how much your printing cost is, if you're doing it all in-house then it is what it is but you can make some money at $9.95 you have to have some volume. I took the business that the big screen printers didn't want, I was a thousand and under, usually under 100 shirts. For me it was easy, it was quick setup, quick cleanup, and print. I did a friend of mine in Chicago, I think I did 2500 shirts, it was a two-color front and a one-color back. When you start doing the same print a couple of times in a row that's where it gets lame. That's when I had to remind myself that every time I swiped that squeegee it was $1, $1, $1, $1.
I liked to create things and run the screens and I liked going from the printed to the final product as I enjoyed processing and doing the small runs, which meant that I got to do that more often. The biggest order I did was 5500 shirts for a Firemen's Union. They did fill the boot for MS it was and they would stand out on street corners and people would donate money so they could donate to MS research and stuff like that and that was 5500 shirts to the firefighters union. Other than that it was mostly smaller run stuff.
Brandon: You're literally printing money.
Rob: When I thought God this sucks I would always be like remember what I'm doing, a $1 every time I slid the squeegee.
Brandon: Listen to music and print money. I will warn our listeners out there cause I've done it, it's not hard in that sense but it's not easy because it's repetitive in that sense all day long. If you can think about it like you're thinking about it Rob then it makes it a little bit easier to think that. Did you think you were going to be an entrepreneur when you were a kid?
Rob: I think it was always a little bit engrained. I was cutting the grass when I was 12, 13 years old. I remember literally walking behind that lawnmower and thinking to myself I'm going to cut this grass so good that the next car that drives by is going to say, I want you to cut my grass. Nobody ever did but I started cutting my dad's grass and I would get $5 to cut the grass, the neighbor would pay me $10 and the next neighbor would $12 and I had 4 or 5 neighbors I would hit once a week and I would make a chunk of cash.
So I like the process of doing some labor and getting fully rewarded for how hard I worked. It started with that. In my very first job at the soccer and volleyball store the guy that owned it, Tim, handed me a key to the store and the code to the alarm on day 1, I was 17 years old. He made it feel like it was my business and I could go anywhere within the business. We had two stores, we were just opening the second store at a soccer complex and I got to do all kinds of stuff. I got into ordering, I would help figure out how much inventory we were going to buy, I was playing around with some of the finances, okay we have this much cash in we can spend this much on that. I would grab a couple of friends at night and we'd go there at 10 o'clock at night after the store closed and repaint stuff and rearrange the whole store and drink a couple of beers and stuff when I was in college and it just made me feel like it was mine.
From that point on I think that was the predetermined path. I went to work for my dad after that because Tim had a partner and they parted ways. Tim went to work for my dad, I went to work for my dad selling diamonds, which I tell you at 20 years old when you're sitting there behind the counter trying to sell a $5,000 engagement ring that's a tough place to be. Even though my name was on the sign because it was my dad's store, it wasn't the easiest sales job ever. I ended up leaving there, so I sold some cars for a while. I worked for other people but I never really felt happy because I needed a constant challenge. I needed my mind to be working. I liked the first 60 days of a new job because you're learning so much new stuff. But after that, it just got mundane and boring.
I don't know what I meant but it was determined for me.
Brandon: What did you learn from selling diamonds, then I am going to ask you the same question from selling cars because I don't want to say there is a trick but that's really in the sales world a hard challenge. I don't know what to say. It's hard to sell diamonds and cars in general.
Rob: My dad's whole philosophy was relationships, it was as much about selling the diamond, it was finding out who they were. How did you guys meet? What's the proposal going to look like? What does she like? You talk a lot more about the other stuff. My dad took a little different approach to the diamond industry and that's why he was so successful. After 1991, 11 years in business he stopped negotiating. He never had a sale after 1991, there hasn't been a sale in his store in 30 years. He put the strongest warranty in the industry behind his products, where everybody else says you have to come in every 6 months to check it out and that's their loophole to get out of the warranty. I don't care if I don't see you for 6 years. If the diamond falls out, bring it back and I'll take care of it.
I remember a lady got a 3 diamond anniversary band. She was doing the dishes. It fell off her finger and went down the garbage disposal and she turned it on and heard that gut-wrenching sound of her ring getting chewed up. She came in practically in tears, I looked her name up in the computer and said okay I walked over to the case and slid a new ring on her finger and I said have a great day. Let me tell how many people that lady told that story to, she's never ever, ever going anywhere else for her jewelry. Margins in jewelry were good so we were probably still up a little bit on the deal even though it was 2 rings and picked up a customer for life. You can't buy any advertising that will get a customer like that. Learn from that process until you learn about some of those things that are actual differentiators.
The other thing is color and clarity in a diamond don't mean jack because they are quantifiable most people sell on. This is a G color diamond or an S2 or a VS... So what? Diamonds sparkle because light enters the top and exits the top not because of the color and the clarity. Once you start showing people how it all works and we bought all of our diamonds based on sparkle not color and clarity you can find real value in some of those. Most people would have high color diamonds, my dad sold a lot warmer diamonds, KLMs in those. Get them out of the jewelry store lights, we would let people take the diamond outside by themselves. Go out the front door and look at this thing in daylight and tell me if you can tell the difference between one that's technically yellow and one that's technically white and they can't. You start building trust with the customer and they trust you and that's how we kind of did things.
Brandon: It sounds like some of these things you learned from your dad you brought into your t-shirt business and we're going to talk about Million Dollar Collar in a minute. Folding those shirts, it is not a big thing but it makes a big difference in how the customer responds and how the customer responds and feels about you. It differentiates you and all these things you're talking about are crowded markets. Selling jewelry, selling t-shirts, selling cars, screen printing, these are very competitive markets.
Rob: I think it was Wilt Chamberlain that said, "Do more than people ever expect of you and you'll get more out of it." So I always try to provide more to my customers than they expect. My wife and I also own a yacht charter business in Los Angeles. On our boat when you come on there's a little charcuterie board and there are some pistachios and there's a pub mix. We have bottled water and soda and cups and ice. The really the only thing you have to bring on our boat is what you want to drink specifically. Look, you're renting a boat for $1000, $2000, $3000 for the day. I don't want to have to lug all this stuff with me. All the other boats might have bottled water and that's about it.
People come on and see that charcuterie board that costs $8 and they are like, oh my look at this presentation. It literally costs nothing in the realm of a $2200 charter who cares if you spend $10. We just did 3 memorial cruises over last weekend, we buy a dozen roses we pop the heads off so it's all petals and we have this big stainless steel bowl so you pour the ashes in with the flower petals and then when you spread them in the ocean you can see where grandma is because the petals are mixed in. I had to get another boat to help me with one of them because there were too many people. He was like, we just have the people buy their own flowers. Literally, a dozen roses is $10, why don't you just provide that, it's one less thing that they have to think about. That's the way we do everything, I did learn that from my dad for sure.
Brandon: I just want to ask because selling cars is fascinating. Was there anything from selling cars that you remember?
Rob: I went to that industry because I loved cars. I love learning about cars, and this model and that model and all of it. When it's time to buy a new car I deep dive in so I get the right thing with all the right features and I wanted to know if I could take what my dad did to jewelry to the car industry. I knew within a month or two that it was totally doable but I was 22 years old, and I wasn't going to be buying a car dealership at any near time.
Cars were tough, I was a Saab salesman so it was a very niche market and they're very quirky cars but really really over-engineered and I love that fact of Saab. The dealership also had BMW, Porsche, Mercedes, Volkswagen, and Mazda. We had a great selection but usually did crossover brands. But if you had a Saab guy it wasn't even selling, my lease is up, what's the new one, give me the new car. It was fun, I liked cars. I would definitely do something with cars in the future if I could.
Brandon: You bring back memories because some people listen to this, if they are younger they won't remember the Saab. But the Saab was like a cult following back then, it was a cool car. I think I was in college when they really hit and people were sort of like Jeep people. That's what they were going to buy.
Rob: It's funny the way that they looked at things as if it benefited society they didn't want to patent it. They came up with side-impact door beams and so if someone is in an accident we want this in every car because we don't want people to get hurt. They didn't look at it as the competitive advantage they looked at it as... They came up with seat warmers and air conditioned seats and things like that, just weird things like that. The ignition was in the middle because if you were in a bad accident anyone in the car could turn the car off. The other reason is if you have it hanging from a column if you're in a frontal and your knees smash in, people have so much cracking from their keys, you can do additional knee damage to yourself because you have so much stuff hanging from the keys. When it was in the center console you couldn't do that. Weird little stuff that they would think about that I loved.
Brandon: That's cool so you go from working in a soccer and volleyball store, you go to selling diamonds with your dad, then you do a short stint as a car salesman, and then you move into the print business, and then ultimately decide that living in the east of the Mississippi is not where you want to be. You pack up all your things, you sell everything because you're going to move to LA, and build the Million Dollar Collar.
Rob: You missed my real estate career there too, I had a 10-year real estate career while I was doing all that stuff.
Brandon: You had a 10 year real estate career selling homes or commercial real estate?
Rob: Homes, residentials.
Brandon: Any tips for selling homes? I had a friend who owned a real estate company and he told all the agents that don't get caught up in each person, care about each person, but basically, if you can show 31 homes, every 31 homes you're probably going to sell 1 home. That was what his advice was.
Rob: I listed a few homes and I hated that process because I couldn't control it. I tended to work more with buyers. I loved helping them find the right house. My problem was I was 24 years old and my circle of influence was in my mid-20s. My first house I sold was $125,000. I made a $1500 commission and the lady sitting next to me is selling $800,000 houses and making 5 times the amount of money doing the same amount of work. My circle of influence at that age was tough.
So that made it more work but I ended up becoming one of the top 10% of agents in that company and they were the largest in Wisconsin so I just stuck with it. I did like that, my one buddy was an architect and he would say I want to see this house, I want to see this house. Finally, after a while, I said, "I'm going to put together a tour and then they were fighting over 2 or 3 of the houses that I found for them and showed them and they ended up buying this split ranch and they're still there now. I sold them a house in Madison, Wisconsin. Way outside of Milwaukee I didn't care where the house was, I'd drive anywhere. I sold 2 or 3 houses in Madison and sold him a house in Wisconsin with his new wife. I think they've been there for 10 or 13 years now.
I wanted to do architecture but the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee was the number 2 architecture school in the country when I was going there. It was way too competitive and I was not a good student when I was going there. Within 6 months, I was like this is not my career path so real estate got me into architecture without being an architect. I lived on the east side of Milwaukee so all these houses were built in the 1920s and 30s and on the lake mansion. My house was a 1927 bungalow duplex so all that incredible woodwork, I just loved it. I loved the detail, I loved all that stuff.
Brandon: So you have a ton of experience in sales but in the volleyball and soccer company it sounds like you got an inside into the economics. Are you just as good at operations as in sales? Or do you enjoy the sales more than the operations?
Rob: Oh, I hate sales. I like the back end of it. I sit on quick books a couple of hours a day making sure that all the orders are in properly. I have to track down fractions of a penny so I know what everything costs with shipping like a label, an envelope, and every little aspect is in there. I love the nuts and bolts and making sure everything is right and we're profitable.
When we first got the boat we were like, let's go to this destination, how much gas did we burn, how much food did we use, how much water did we use. My wife and I budgeted out every little thing. I like that aspect of it a lot.
Brandon: So you basically break everything down from the envelope to the inside packaging to whatever you do and you calculate all that? I think it is important, I think some business owners that get into business in the early days and actually get away with it for a while but if you don't get diligent about that stuff and that's where a lot of people make a mistake so I find that interesting about you, Rob. So far we talked a lot about sales but I think that's good because I think if you can be a salesperson and match the back end then at least you won't go broke with having a million ideas.
Rob: Yeah, you have to know your numbers, if you watch any business show they always talk about knowing your numbers. You may think you're profitable when at the end of the day when you factory everything in you're really not.
Brandon: Don't you think a lot of business owners are scared of the numbers that they don't want to spend the time in quick books or excel spreadsheets?
Rob: For sure. I don't know if they're scared or what the reason is but I always just knew that quick books were going to make or break. I want to know what my numbers are, If you don't have goals you don't know where you're going. I want to be improving every month, I want my sales to go up every month and go back and track and say okay we were profitable this month, we weren't this month, but we had this big bill. I spend a lot of time on quick books. Probably too much time but I just want to know what's going on.
Brandon: Let's continue your journey. You sell everything, you pack your car, you're driving to LA. When you're getting married your wife gives you this not you, the look of horror to your collar, you design this. How did you design this and how long did... It looks simple but everything simple is hard. How long did it take for you to actually fix this problem?
Rob: The design came fairly quickly within the first year or so. The material was the challenge, it ended up taking 3 years to perfect Million Dollar Collar. The reason is dry cleaners use such extreme heat when they flash press your shirt. I didn't want to be in the world where I sold you a $2 product and it ruined your $100 shirt and I had to replace $100 shirts. I had to play it down to the lowest level. What can a guy actually do with his shirt? How rough can he be on it and this product still last and not ruin the shirt? Ball it up when you're done, throw it in the hamper for a week before you wash it, send it to the dry cleaners.
I started out with a piece of cardboard, that is what I shoved into the first shirt, I knew that wasn't going to work. I started going through all the plastics in my house. Zip ties and mini blinds, milk cartons, and I had these flexible cutting boards we had gotten from Target. I was trying everything, so once I found out I would wash it, dry it, iron it, it would be fine. Send it to the dry cleaner and it would melt to the shirt. I started going out and looking for high heat plastics on the market, what was out there, none of those worked.
I finally made a relationship with a dry cleaner and he's the one that told me that we flash press at 425 degrees. So these high heat plastics only work to 275, and so I was quite a ways off. I ended up connecting with an international plastics company and they helped guide me and we developed this material. It's really bizarre but it is very flexible but rigid. So it's rigid enough to keep the collar up but flexible enough to have some flow to it. it's soft enough to be sewn through because that's what holds it in place, but it's a little bit brittle because it's got to be rigid. It has all these crazy features and it can take heat to 700 degrees before it fails. It's more than double what they do at a dry cleaner or close to double, that's what took the longest figuring that out.
In the process, we were originally going to sell our own shirts. We did a Kickstarter which was the most popular thing at the time, the sweatshirt company had just come off like a 10 million dollar Kickstarter. These guys can sell 10 million dollars worth of sweatshirts. I think we can sell 40 grand worth of dress shirts. If you're going to do a Kickstarter I will tell you it is a full-time job, 40 hours a week, pumping it, pushing it, sharing it, spreading it. We got to $18,000 by the time it ended. Unequivocally the feedback was why are you trying to compete with all the other brands, and why can't I upgrade the shirts I already own.
We took that feedback and totally pivoted the company and instead of making dress shirts that were going to cost $20 and sell for $60 or $70 and adjusted the material itself as just an after-market kit. I had to totally redesign the stay because my design was to be built into the shirt and know it was going to be added to any shirt. We totally pivoted and changed the direction and now it was an after-market thing and that is what we had for the last 5 or 6 years.
Brandon: And you're sold over 413,000 of these things?
Rob: Yeah, to more countries than I even... sometimes I'm like whoa Brunei and crazy countries. There are people there who wear dress shirts, okay cool.
Brandon: That's fascinating. I was thinking about it when I bought them, I haven't installed them yet because I was thinking man is this thing going to be able to withstand the heat of some of the things I get dry cleaned and some of the things I just press myself and it sounds like it will. Another question, how big of an alteration was it from being built into being an after-market product? Did that take another year?
Rob: I just trimmed it down. I ruined about 100 shirts figuring it out so I've got a lot of... The part of the shirt where this goes is called the placket. That's where the buttons and the holes of the shirt are so the beauty is every shirt is made exactly the same, there are always two layers in the placket, there are always two layers in the collar band. So, you open up a couple of stitches where they connect, slide this in, and sew it back together. When you sew this back together you go through the stay and that's what holds it into place. So when the fabric of the shirt shrinks and the stay doesn't it doesn't matter because there are only three stitches, there are only three holes that are holding that into place. I just had to refine the design, the design that was in the shirt would not be able to slide in like this. Like you said we've done 413,000 units and there hasn't been a shirt that this doesn't fit in.
The crazy thing is we came up with a polo pack earlier this year, if the simplest, smallest pair of scissors you can cut this to length. So, the placket on polo is typically shorter. Just cut this thing down to length so it's soft enough to even cut with simple scissors. So, it's super versatile, it goes into every single shirt. The alteration is about as easy as anything you can do. I've talked to a ton of tailors and they're like only putting a button back on is easier than this thing. If you can sew a straight line for an inch you can put this thing in easily.
Brandon: Is the polo pack different from the main shirt? I am only asking because I ordered both. I know in the polo pack you give a little stitch I don't know what they call it, stitch cutter?
Rob: Seam ripper.
Brandon: Seam ripper. Is there a difference in the product or is it that the seam ripper comes with the polo pack?
Rob: The product is the same so I love it after having clothing companies too many SKUs make my head roll so I try to have as few SKUs as possible. It's the product, just cut it to length depending on your polo, and pretty straightforward that way. It comes with the seam ripper and instructions for polos specifically because it's different from a dress shirt unless you have the nice polos that have an actual placket and a collar band and a collar like an actual dress shirt.
90% or 80% of the polos are that single layer collar and then just a placket that stops and so the installation is a little different. You literally pop a couple of stitches on the inside and cut the thing to length and throw it in. You don't even have to sew it back together. I have had it in polos for a couple of years, tons of washings and this thing doesn't come back out. It's really easy to do, the stitches don't come out any further when they are put together right. It works well.
Brandon: So you don't have to stitch the polos necessarily back together?
Rob: No because the way that it's in there the placket is big enough. You just have to feed it in, it's not coming back out. I have washed polos like I said hundreds of times and it doesn't come out and the stitches don't come out either.
Brandon: Well I have to tell you when I first learned about you and the product I was super excited because I bought these $90, I could be exaggerating, lululemon polo shirts and the stupid collar look like hell. I love the material, I love the fit for me but if the collar doesn't look right, I'm hoping that it can fix these for an extra few bucks. I am thinking you should just license this to these other companies because I've never seen a polo shirt in general... What I do Rob, which I've been doing for years, I press the living crap out of them, to try and get that thing to stand up but by 3 hours later moving around it sort of sags. You obviously know that.
Rob: People always, the haters out there will comment on our ads, have you ever heard of an iron? Have you ever heard of starch? Yeah, see that shirt it was brand new freshly pressed with starch and that was 30 minutes. The starch is for wrinkles. If you talk to anybody in the dry cleaning industry, starch is for wrinkles; it is not going to give structure to the front of the shirts. The collar band is too heavy and there is not enough structure in the placket. You can starch it to death and wear a piece of cardboard if you want but it's not going to fix the problem. Ironing is just not going to do it. I have a ton of friends who have that nice shirt Robert Graham or one of these nice shirts.
I have a couple of buddies who said, you brought these shirts back to life. After you wash them a few times, the little structure there was in there goes away and they flop even more. He said, " I have these $100 shirts I could not wear anymore because they looked so crappy but this is for $10 bucks and I have my shirt back and can wear it again."
Oh and you mentioned licensing, we've talked literally to every single brand. We've talked to everybody, the funny feedback that we get constantly, I don't want to make it seem like my other shirts are subpar. the iPhone comes out with a new phone every year, you have to improve. Dress shirts haven't improved in 100 years, they're still made exactly the same. The only thing that has really come out in 100 years is non-iron in the 1950s so it's time for something new. Around 90% of dress shirts are worn without a tie most of the time, and nobody has a product that addresses the issue like ours does. This can be so easily added during production that it's not even a blip on the radar when they're making the shirt. We keep continuing to have the conversation, we have an account with one of the biggest dress shirt wholesalers in the world.
We have Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Van Heusen. We have a whole bunch of shirts that we buy from them and install Million Dollar Collar. It's a brand that you know, you should know the size, you know the fit, and you can try Million Dollar Collar in a shirt that you already know. Once you get the one shirt you will be like I have to finish the rest of my closet. I know it's a pain in the ass to get Million Dollar Collar installed but once you experience it once you'll know that effort is worth it. We sell a ton of shirts and then they come back and buy a 10 pack, or a 20 pack to do the rest of their shirts in their closet. Always try to find the easiest way to have the customer try the product, that's my goal.
Brandon: I find it ironic that they're worried. I find it interesting that it will differentiate their other products, they introduce new colors every year and that's their intent to say their old product is crap because you want the new color and the new "design". So whatever but all of the shirts have that problem and I am going to try it myself just to see how hard it is. It can't be that hard, I watched your videos and for listeners out there who are interested in Million Dollar Collar Rob's got two, one for polo and one for dress shirts, and it's really not super complicated. For a dress shirt maybe it would be better for the tailor because they need to stitch two or three little stitches back in. The dress shirt probably needs to be stitched back would be my guess.
Rob: I wanted to make it as easy as possible so this is not like an advanced seamstress thing. I talked to a ton of tailors and they said only putting a button on is easier. While I was going through this process my mom used to sew tons.
She made my sister's Halloween costumes and stuff and curtains and she'd always be doing stuff. So she taught me how to sew because I was spending a fortune having other people sew it in and test it. I was testing all these materials. I was like you do it one time on a shirt and you ruin the shirt now I have to do it again.
I wanted to make it really, really easy so basic sewing skills. If you can sew a straight line for an inch you can put this in. You open an inch of stitches, slide it in, and sew it back together. Most people, most tailors can do 5 or 6 shirts in under 20 mins. It takes me 6 or 7 mins because I'm not that skilled at it. If you do a VIP pack and you mail me 5 shirts you're mailing them to me, and I'm sewing them, and I'm doing the best I can to make sure it looks incredible. I just had a guy send me 10 brand new Indochino shirts in the package. I know those aren't cheap shirts, I take my time and I put them back together. It's really, really easy to do.
I was very hesitant to do this VIP pack because literally if you search for alterations near me you'd be shocked how many tailors and dry cleaners are around you that do alterations. Every order comes with really easy instructions, it's 3 steps, it's really not hard to do. Sometimes the hardest thing is convincing a tailor to alter your shirt with a new product. Tell them you know it's going to work and you're happy. With 414,000 sets of Million Dollar Collar going out and zero shirts ruined. I promise you it's not going to ruin your shirt. n The tailor might ruin your shirt, but I'm not going to ruin your shirt.
Brandon: What is this VIP package I'm looking for on your website right now?
Rob: Like I said, I always want to make it as easy as possible for someone to try my product. So what it is for $75 I mail you a bag you put 5 shirts into they get mailed to me all prepaid. I upgrade the 5 shirts with Million Dollar Collar and I fold them back up, put them in a box or a bag and send them back to you. No work, you don't have to leave your house or anything, just put it in the mailbox, they go out, they come to me, I upgrade them and send them back to you.
Brandon: Wow, I missed that and now I'm looking at it. That's as easy as it can get, probably as easy as a tailor, especially since you provide the box and everything. A question for you Rob, people come out with products like this and it's an incredible idea that can help change whatever that is. In this case, fix your look, which is worth a million bucks. How do you promote this thing when it comes out? Are you selling most of these things online? You're obviously, you're 3 or 4 years in now, you're getting on podcasts and things like that. What's really the avenue to drive... Selling 413,000 units feels like QVC level volume. That's a lot of units sold, how are you doing that?
Rob: Well we knew ours was a little different as we were coming out with it so because the product is so demonstrable we wanted to do a video. We figured let's go-to people with authority, so we went to YouTube Fashion Influencers to launch the product. Antonio Centeno from Real Men Real Style, we went to Jose Zuniga from Teaching Men's Fashion and Alpha M. Those are the 3 big guys, we sent them a bunch of products and said share this with your audience and see what you can do.
It did two things. One it gave us authority and since it was being reviewed by a third party it gave us some credibility and it gave us a video that we can use. Look here's the product, here's the before, here's the after, here's a guy talking about it who is really into fashion. That's what we did to launch the product, and that's what got us on the map right away.
Brandon: Did you just email these influencers? Do you go to YouTube look them up, you go to their website or how do you get a hold of them and get these people's attention? The people that you're talking about I've heard their names, I don't watch them all the time, but they have hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers.
Rob: A lot of emails, phone calls, they are paid to do these things. Depending on the size of the following will depend on how much it costs to do. We didn't have a ton of money so we got to these guys fairly early. We might be one product in a video of 5 products. That helped make it affordable for us.
I'll tell you what we did learn, the smaller the following if you're 50,000 to 200 or 300,000 those are people who care about what you have to say because you're not known enough to be this popular dude that everybody knows. When you talk to 50,000 people that follow you, the majority of them are listening and paying attention to what you have to say.
One guy we went to had 225,000 subscribers when we first did his video and then he had 4.5 million when we went back. When we did 225,000 that video still gets more plays, it still is drawing in more traffic, still selling more products than when he had 4.5 million. When he was 4.5 million he was doing a video every single day, he had the numbers were great. Fewer people watched when he had 4.5 million than watched when he had 225,000. That's my advice, quarter of a million or less and you're in a good place, it's much more effective financially and people are more responsive I think.
Brandon: I think that is great advice and I appreciate you sharing that. Were you doing flat rate placements or are you doing affiliate programs for these folks?
Rob: They don't want to do affiliate, they want to get paid and that's it. We would negotiate and try to get the price down as best we could but I thought affiliate would be good. You have upside, if you had 50 products and you were making a little bit off of every product that you promoted over the last 5 years, that would be a way better payday for me than taking a one lump sum and being done and having to chase down some more money. These guys it's just not their MO.
Brandon: How long do you see the conversion rates, did you do the math and say a quarter of a million followers 50% of these people are going to watch the video? I really don't know the stats on YouTube. Instagram you're only reaching 7% of your followers or something, maybe in YouTube it's more. Did you build a waterfall model to figure out on a per unit basis what you thought the cost was?
Rob: No we didn't get that far in. Obviously, when the video first came out we saw a huge spike in traffic but the beauty of YouTube for me over Instagram, yes it's always out on Instagram but you have to search for it. YouTube if you're searching for the right keywords this video will pop up as if it came out yesterday. Depending on how the search terms were to me YouTube is just better, it's better, it's forever out there, it's easier to find and it's a reference point. So we have a page on our website that has all the videos from all the influencer videos that we had. I think we had 4 or 5 million views for all the videos so far. It's just a good reference point.
Brandon: And now the influencers sort of kicked you off. Are you doing paid advertising on Facebook and Instagram or are you relying on SEO or how's that? Obviously, you're doing PR. Maybe that's part of the strategy as well.
Rob: We do Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn ads and we have those retargeting ads if you come to our website. We're in 650 dry cleaners and tailors too so it's working off of their customer base, our customer base. I think we've had 20,000 or 30,000 orders over the years. A lot of them are Amazon so we don't have the access to the market directly to people who are on the order through Amazon. People who come through our website have all that information. We have a company that does all those ads for us, and it's finding different ways to be relatable and talk about the product. I love doing the podcasts to have a chance to do the long format.
I can't do a scripted thing, it's just not natural for me. When we get new shirts in I upgrade them and then we shoot a quick video and it's always the first take, even if it's not perfect it's so much better than 2, 3, 4, and 5. I have to feel what's natural, I have to talk about it if I get all the information great, if I don't it's just a quick video. It's like checking out this new shirt and it's on to the next one.
I am very natural and I can talk but if I think about it too much I can't even say my own company name without fumbling the words I try to keep it natural.
Brandon: I think people like the authenticity of being real and not a script. There's a time when we're going to do a 7-minute piece. You probably have to have some scripted things to make sure you get all your points. I think that in today's day in age, especially now people aren't interacting as much with humans, that this alternative form of having a conversation and a listener to drop in and listen to our conversation becomes more interesting. I think it's interesting to me as well. I know that I don't think Joe Rogan invented it, obviously the long-form of conversation has been around since the dawn of man. I think it caught on from people realizing... Maybe it is that everyone got sucked into the internet Rob and forgot about radio and talk radio which talk radio is not that old. I grew up on talk radio and talk radio was really where you dropped in on that conversation. I think that people get to know each other better.
Rob: Yeah absolutely.
Brandon: Well I appreciate you. Are you still in LA now?
Rob: Nope, you know my wife and I like to change things up. She came to Atlanta to work on the Miss Marvel TV show for 7 weeks, it was the longest we ever spent apart. After the time was clicking away see if you can find something to rent and maybe we can bring the dogs and we can go bicoastal because we love Los Angeles. With 125 lb Rottweiler and a 65 lb Pitbull mix, it's hard to find a place to rent. The rents were getting too close to where we were paying in LA and so my wife came to an open house. It came on the market at 7:30 in the morning on Feb. 28th. Came to the open house. There were 50 people here, we were one of ten offers, we won because of my real estate background, I had a few tricks up my sleeve.
We closed on March 11th and by March 13th the house was packed up in LA and I was driving across the country to a town I'd never been to, a house I had never seen, and we moved up and moved in 12 days from Los Angeles to Atlanta. We're now in the movie-making capital of the world so she can work. I just got back from Columbia, she was working in Bogota for 3 weeks so I got to see Columbia for a little bit. A little bit sick now from back and forth and travel, it's just the flu, it still exists. So now we're in Atlanta, it was half the price it was in LA and I'm on 5 acres and I love it.
Brandon: That's cool. There's a lot of movies being made, I guess a lot of things have moved to Atlanta for movie making so for your wife that makes complete sense I guess that would .... You sort of went from North to West Coast, Southern West Coast, and now you're on the Southern border of the East Coast. How has that transitioned then just out of curiosity? For your business it probably really doesn't matter, it's all virtual and your moms filling orders back in Milwaukee right?
Rob: Yeah. We went to LA and wanted to meet as many people as we could and I got really fortunate. We ended up meeting a girl that was going on a business networking hike and so I ended up meeting this guy who ended up being one of the founders of Expedia.com. I went into this men's networking group and met my phone is full of numbers that I could never have imagined. People I could call up that are at the top of their game. One of the guys is Nolan Bushnell who started Atari. I ended up meeting all kinds of crazy people. We did what we had, we have a ton of friends and a ton of connections back there and now it's on to the next thing.
We like to do things for 3, 4, 5 years, and then it's like let's go do something else. We're both on the same path when it's things like that. I love it here, I love that there's no smog, there's clean air. I have tons of land. It takes me 3 1/2 hours to cut the grass and it's like my freedom. I get away from my desk, I listen to music and I just let my mind wander and that's where I come up with my creative ideas is where I can get away from my computer.
Brandon: I think that's good advice. I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to come and share your story. I'm super excited about the Million Dollar Collar because it's going to revitalize my closet of shirts that I couldn't throw away because I like them but I couldn't wear them because they looked like crap. I'm looking forward to getting that. Rob, you've had a really interesting career so far. Do you have advice for fellow business owners out there that you could offer from all of your experience thus far?
Rob: I've been the most successful when I've followed my passion. In our yacht charter business, I met a guy when I got to LA he was a captain and had two boats. My wife and I had a little ski boat when we were back in Milwaukee. We loved being on the water, her parents had boats her whole life, my uncle had big boats. We loved the idea of being on the water but we couldn't afford to buy a big boat. I said, let's just do this charter thing, let's try this. We sold our two commercial buildings, and this business has exploded. We are in the process of selling it right now but it grew beyond our wildest dreams, we wanted to do enough charters that it would pay for the boat.
Basically, we have a free boat. If we do 3, 4, 5 charters a month, we have a free boat and we did 35 charters in July and that's with other captains doing it and that's with not doing that much during the week because my other captains ... It's a competition to get a captain as quickly as you can. That mostly weekends and that was our biggest month by a long shot. But 35 charters in a month that's more than we thought we would do in a year. We were very passionate about being on the boat, providing a good experience and that business has exploded.
Real estate was the same way for me, to be in the top 10% at 25, 26, 27 years old and I'm in a massive nationwide real estate company. I loved real estate, and I loved helping people find their houses. Following your passion will help you get through those really tough times. There's been a lot of times with Million Dollar Collar. It's my invention, it's my idea and I'm passionate about it. Those days when I say what am I doing with my life, I know that there's a longer end goal there. What's really great is when I'm having down times my wife is usually on a high and vice versa. She's like what am I doing with my life? I'm usually on a high and so we help balance each other out at times. You have to have someone who understands that and you have to be passionate about what you're doing otherwise it's never going to last.
Brandon: I appreciate you sharing that. Where can our listeners buy the Million Dollar Collar?
Rob: So in the U.S. the best place is milliondollarcollar.com because we have some upsells and things and you can get better pricing on our website. If you like Amazon you can always go to Amazon and then worldwide anywhere else we ship through Amazon. In the last 2 years, the postal system has gotten paid all over the world so we don't ship anything outside of the U.S. just because so much stuff is getting lost or taking forever. Amazon got that network figured out so just order through Amazon or our website if you want something in the U.S.
Brandon: Cool we'll put that in the show notes check it out at milliondollarcollar.com. Rob thanks a lot for joining us.
Rob: Thank you it's been a blast.