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Inventing The Million Dollar Collar - PixlFeed Radio #096 - Rob Kessler

Inventing The Million Dollar Collar - PixlFeed Radio #096 - Rob Kessler

Pixl Feed

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Christian: Rob, how are you doing today?

Rob Kessler: I'm doing amazing, how are you?

Christian:  I'm doing alright.  For those of you who don't know Rob is actually the founder of a brand called Million Dollar Collar.  How long has the brand been around Rob?

Rob: So, I came up with the idea on my wedding day and we've been selling since Jan 2016.  

Christian: That's awesome.  I can understand why you came up with it on your wedding day because I'm sure you went through the same thing that I did.  Trying to get all fitted and get ready for the wedding.  Before we get into how you started the brand and all that good stuff and how you scaled it let's go back a little bit.  Let's go into your background, were you always an entrepreneur growing up, or did you come from the corporate world, how did it all start?

Rob: No, no corporate world for me.  I think I started when I was 12, 13 years old cutting grass.  I just did it and I wanted to make sure I was the best grass cutter around and get my neighbors to cut their grass because they would pay me 2 or 3 times what my dad would pay me.  I cut that grass like the world was watching and I think that's where my journey started.   I went to business school, got a marketing degree, I've always had my hand in something business-wise.  I can't work for anybody else.

Christian: That is so funny that you bring that up.  you're probably at least the fifth person that I've had here who has started a successful business that started cutting their grass for the neighbors and stuff like that and grew it into a business and sold it or they moved on to other different things.  You have the marketing degree, right after you got the marketing degree this was your first brand?

Rob:  No, no I came out of college I ended up going to work for my dad who is a jeweler and I learned customer service like you wouldn't believe.  I worked for him, but that ended not great. I know I can't work for anybody if I can't work for my own father.  I went off and got into real estate, which is really doing your own thing.  I was with the biggest brokerage in the state, you're really on your own in real estate.  During that time I started a screen-printing and embroidery business called NEWD clothing. It was N-E-W-D, standing for nothing else will do.   It started out as a clothing brand and then I was jacked around on screen printing so I ended up meeting a guy, bought some equipment, learned how to screen-print, built a million-dollar screen-printing business out of it.  I just kind of followed what customers were looking for and built that screen-printing business.  I had an eCommerce store with my clothing store NEWD that parlayed into Million Dollar Collar.  I started that when I was doing the screen-printing, it's just been one thing after another, after another.  

Christian:  So that's a big jump, it's an apparel business but it's two completely different niches.  I'm curious to see how it worked out so for the screen-printing business what type of clients were you dealing with? Did you have a website for print on demand for designs that you came up with or did you do the local like for sports teams?

Rob:  It was all local stuff.  I had the website for my clothing company, which was NEWD clothing company.  I had a parallel company NEWD custom printing but most of what I did was bars and restaurants and smaller jobs.  The smaller jobs that the big shops did not want to do.  I actually started in my basement so I didn't have room to do a thousand shirts.  One thing I did was I priced everything all-inclusive because I hated it.... Well, it's $2 to print a shirt, well it's $20 to set up a screen for each color and this and this.  I felt like I was nickel and dimed all the time.  Mine was all-inclusive pricing which Custom Ink came out doing the same kind of thing with.  

That was my niche, all-inclusive pricing, I folded every single shirt individually.  The biggest thing that I did with that was I cut out the label of whatever shirt came in and I originally started screen printing my own label on the inside.  Then I got a heat transfer machine and I pressed my name on the inside of every single shirt.  So hundreds of thousands of shirts went out with my name all over them.  That was its own built-in marketing because I didn't do the same crappy 100% cotton crappy shirts that everyone else did.  I usually did a 50/50 shirt.  People were like, Man this feels really nice.

Christian:  That was one of the things that drove me absolutely insane.  When I go to a concert, or an event and then you want to get some merch.  The last time I went to see Metallica Live I went in there and it's those crappy Hanes, Gildan.  I understand you're trying to make as much money as you can, but I don't even want to wear it.  I loved the design but the shirt just sucks.  You look like a guy who works out, I work out too.  I like my shirts to be fitted, comfortable and soft.  They just don't look right.  I am so glad to hear that you did that.  That's why you were so successful at it right away.

Rob: I avoided Gildan with the plague.  I just made sure I was doing things a little bit differently.  Ironically the 50/50 shirts were a little bit less expensive but I think some people didn't think the ink took as well.  We were in the time of 2006-2010 Ed Hardy, really gnarly designs.  I was going for that worn-in, beat-up old-school-looking shirt.  I didn't want it to be 3 layers of white ink on a black shirt.  I would say let's do this light gray ink on a black shirt and give it that vintage feel.  Customers just loved that.  

The big success I had selling was.... You go to a bar and you have $20 bucks, does the bar want you to buy a t-shirt that they paid $8 for out of that $20, or do they want you to buy 3 beers? They make money selling beer so I said don't think of this as an income stream.  Nobody is buying $20 bar shirts, selling them for $5 bucks, lose $3, and having 1000 people walking around town with your cool bar design on it, something they're proud to have.  Who is buying a $20 bar shirt?  

I had one bar that was 2200 square feet. I think they sold 3 or 4,000 shirts a year and it was Brewer's season so we had a yellow and blue shirt and with Packers, we had green and gold shirts.  We just did stuff throughout the season that was timed right.  People came in and bought all those shirts for $5 apiece and they lost $3 a shirt but you can't buy advertising like that.  Shirts were everywhere, they were called the Monkey Bar.  They had a cool little design, their shirts were freaking everywhere in town.

Christian:  That's amazing, I never even thought about that.  That's your marketing degree right there, that's genius right there if you think about it.  Sell it for nothing and then everybody is wearing your shirt around town.  That is amazing.

Rob: The shirts that you love the most are the ones that you earned.  The free shirt you got from going to whatever.  I got a hat when I chipped in on something and it's one of my favorite hats.  I wore it out in six months.  I couldn't even wear it anymore.

Christian: I think every dude has those shirts you stacked away and we will not get rid of them no matter what, we got them free somewhere at an event, bar, or something.  That is so true.   I am assuming you sold the business at some point, correct?

Rob:  Sold the business in 2015 to move to Los Angeles, my wife and I were on what most people saw was on cruise control.  We had a duplex that we lived in for free, we had a commercial building that we had tenants that were paying our mortgage on that.  Our businesses were operating for free, we had a boat, we had two cars.  We could do anything we wanted and we said time to make a change.  We sold everything.  I took her to Los Angeles for her 30th birthday.  We came home from that trip and we said, “let's do it.”  I said, “ine when?”  She said, “by my next birthday.”  So in less than a year I sold the business, sold the house, sold the boat, sold everything we had, and moved cross country and knew nobody and started over completely.

Christian: So where did you go after that?

Rob:  We went to Los Angeles, we went from Milwaukee to Los Angeles and spent  5  1/2 years there.  My wife ended up becoming a stuntwoman, she's a Hollywood stuntwoman, she's super badass. I was working on Million Dollar Collar and so we did that.  I knew being in that environment I was going to be around people I wanted to be around, like influential people.  If you look at my phone right now, most people's mouths would drop with the connections that I have. That's because we gave up everything and put ourselves in the mix. The most business and the most creativity was happening.  We just left there 6 months ago and live in Atlanta now but onto the next adventure.

Christian:  How do you like Atlanta?

Rob:  I'll tell you what I love about the space I've got 5 acres. I just cut half the grass this morning and it took an hour and a half. I love it.  I own the house we rented in Los Angeles so we own this house, we're doing a ton of work on it and I'm getting to use my hands again.  Buying all the new tools, when we moved to LA I gave everything to my brother-in-law because we lived in apartments and I didn't need tools and didn't have any extra space.  It is so great, I love it.

Christian:  You sound like me, you pick up and say let's go, that's it.  I could get rid of everything right now and pick up and go if I wanted to, which is cool.  I have done it a few times actually.

Rob:  My wife was working here for 7 weeks, she found a house on Feb 28th we closed on March 11th, I had the truck packed up on March 13th and drove out to Atlanta.

Christian: That's crazy.  That's cool, Atlanta is a cool place. I have a couple of friends that live there so I go once a year to visit them and we hang out.  It's a really good time and great food too.  So let's talk about Million Dollar Collar.  You had the idea on your wedding day so I'm assuming you were trying to get ready and the collar wasn't working on the shirt.  So what happened, how did that come about?

Rob: On the video over my left shoulder is actually a photo from my wedding day.  This is before I even said I do. You can see how sloppy my shirt looked.  Brand new, freshly pressed shirt, biggest day of my life, got married on the beach in Jamaica.  It was a very casual wedding and I hate wearing ties and I was just adjusting all day.  We flew the photographer down, he's a friend of ours, he took like 2500 photos.  The next day we're flipping through photos. My shirt just looks like crap and I hate it.

Christian:  It drives me nuts too.

Rob: I came home from Jamaica, I cut open a shirt for those on audio think collar stay for a dress shirt except 9 inches long and it goes down the front of your shirt to prevent the front from collapsing under the weight of the collar.  So I cut open where they meet, those two parts of the shirt meet, slid a piece of cardboard down both sides showing my new bride and she was like, "dude I get it now, let's go." She was 100 percent behind me.

Christian: So the next step, you came up with the idea so proof of concept.  What did you do next to make sure it-- it's a great idea already that you're telling me about it and someone who wears dress shirts all the time.  You still have to make sure that it's something that people want so what was the next move after that?

Rob:  So it took me 3 years to develop the material that we use and the design.  So we were going to make our own shirt.  We did a Kickstarter and everything, Kickstarter was hot in 2014 let's get out there, let's throw a shirt up.  A sweatshirt company had just raised 10 million dollars or something crazy.  So we can sell dress shirts. We're trying to do $40,000 . I think we got to about $18,000 and the unequivocal feedback was why are you trying to compete with all the brands and why can't I upgrade the shirts I already own.  

I went back to the drawing board, changed the design to be a universal fitting piece and we've sold over 410,000, fits in every single shirt, everywhere on the planet, doesn't really matter.  It's a universal fitting piece. I've ruined a 100 shirts trying to figure it out in those 3 years because I was testing every single plastic I could find on the market.  I would wash it, I would dry it, I would iron it.  I would bring it to the dry cleaners and they would press it and it would melt.  I found out that they flash press shirts at 450 degrees.  I needed a plastic-like material that could handle 700 degrees because I didn't want to ruin anybody's shirt.  These things cost $2 a piece, I don't want to put it in your $50, $70, $200 shirt and replace it because it melted to the shirt.  I was very diligent and made sure the product was right and that is what it was.  That is what took the longest amount of time.

Christian: I can believe that, that makes sense because these are the little things you don't think about unless you are the one coming up with the idea and proof of concept and all that good stuff.  Kickstarter is interesting, I've done one Kickstarter campaign and it was very successful but I did it with a team for a product that already existed, it wasn't my own product, it was something else.  When you went to Kickstarter what was the process like?  Obviously, you go one there and set up your page, how did you get traffic to the page to start raising that money and how long did you have to do it?

Rob:  So I had built a client-based from my days in real estate which wasn't a huge client base but my screen printing company was live at that time so I had a client base from that.  When people would come into the shop I would talk about it, this is what I'm working on, what do you think?  You wear dress shirts, what do you think, what's your thought?  So we started with that but let me tell you Kickstarter is a full time job, we needed to spend a lot more time and get a lot more activity but I thought we did pretty good, we did $18,000 on an unknown company.  

Christian: That's amazing.

Rob:  I'm glad it went the way it went.  Most people would be like, oh that was a failure.  Dude I didn't want to stock dress shirts.  My single piece I can fit $20,000 worth of inventory in a shoebox. Twenty grand of dress shirts would take up half of my house.  I'm glad it didn't end up being that way.  It worked out for the best, we took and pivoted and listened to the customer.  These were paying people when you talk to your friends and they say "yeah it's a great idea." 

Christian: They lie to you.

Rob: They have no money or stake in the game.  These guys were committing, I think we did $60 or $70 shirts out of the crack and then we had packages.  People were putting real money into this so we listened to them and that was the real feedback.

Christian:  I tell people all the time, I love my friends but I never listen, I never ask for their opinions or listen to them.  

Rob: They still give it I bet.

Christian: They want to be supportive, they want to be like, "Yeah I like it, I think it is a great idea."  I learned a long time ago in my teenage years not to listen to my friends.  Listen, $18,000 on Kickstarter by yourself is not a failure whatsoever man.  Again I was part of a Kickstarter project and it had a huge team behind it but the amount of work that goes into it to make it work it's a lot of work.  $18,000 raised you did the right thing, it's like I got $18 grand. People want this. I just have to make it happen the right way so I can bring it to them and make it happen.  Once you get the Kickstarter done and you figure out the product and all that I am assuming the next thing was to build the website right?

Rob: We've been through probably 6 or 7 different versions of the website to date just trying to get the message across as clean as possible.  We went and built out a website.  I have a partner, Steve. He's actually in this photo here.  He's really good with Shopify, he built out all our Shopify stuff.  The way we look at our eCommerce is as an employee, a really cheap employee.  If you think about it, I think we spend 12 or $1500 a month on our website with all our automation and all of our follow-ups, and all of our email stuff.  $1200 a month is a really cheap employee, it may be a really expensive website when you think of it when Shopify starts at $79 a month but to really get it to do what it needs to do you have to invest cash.  We've slowly built that up over time, we have upsells and cross-sells all that stuff.  We test different things.

Christian:  That's what I wanted to get into, the website looks really good.  That's one thing that I explain to people and teach them on this channel all the time. When you're launching a brand it doesn't stop after the first week.  For example, I launched a new brand back in October, and still to this day we're making changes.  We're watching videos, go in there and watch a hundred videos a month, once you're established.  You're going to find a little bottleneck here and there that you missed somehow or something breaks.  What was the process for you guys like?  Was this your first eCommerce site? 

Rob:  I had a lite one with NEWD clothing, selling my shirts online.  This was definitely more intense than what I had dealt with in the past.  My problem is being creative if I see a shiny new thing I'm like, let's go try that, let's go try that.  It ends up setting us back, we test things out and I like to find stuff and I say to my partner I just saw this thing, what do you think, can it fit?  He kind of vets those things and he'll say here are 3 other options of that same kind of style that have better reviews.  We'll test stuff out and always do a backup before we add in anything and then back it out if we have to.

Christian: So did you have an ah-ha moment when you were building this store, that you found an app that blew your mind?  I find it sometimes, I've been doing this for over a decade, and still to this day every once in a while something will come along and I think how did I not know about this.  You make a little change like the color of the Add-to-Cart button and then your conversion rate goes up.  Did you have any of those ah-ha moments when you guys were starting out? 

Rob:  Yeah, one of those companies, the biggest company that's one Shopify is Bold and they've got great ideas but their apps are horrendous, they are so intertwined and they eat up so much code.  You have to buy two or three apps to get one function to work and they update one of those apps and the other stuff breaks and they had to shut down for a month.  It's bad.  Originally when I started a new product I didn't know about cross-sells and nut sales. Once we added that from bold I think our average order volume went from $14 or $16 to $34 almost overnight, almost overnight. 

Now you're getting that traffic and this is starting to be it, we're over 40 now because we added some higher ticket things.  It’s getting there and it's just playing with things.  You don't want to overwhelm people.  We have 4 different things that can do a pop-up and you have to make sure that's all clear.  It's a lot of going back, when are they going to get this email, when are they going to get this notification, now we're getting into SMS and some of these other things.  You don't want to overburden people but also want to stay informed and top of mind.  It's a tough balance.

Christian: That's the other thing I was going to get into.  So once you get the store up and you have it looking good and the pictures look great.  Now you have a store and you think now you have to bring traffic to it.  You're a smart guy so I'm sure you didn't say we have a website we're going to be rich now.  You're like now we have to bring traffic to it.  What was your move right there, where did you guys go for traffic right away?

Rob: Our product is very demonstrative, I can explain to you all I want but until you see our before and after or my wedding photo you don't really get the full impact.   So we said let's not do Facebook ads. We went to fashion influencers on YouTube.  So I went to all the biggest guys and sent them product and paid them to do a review of our product but between the first 3 or 4 guys, they had over a million followers, maybe two million.   It went on you basically a 2 or 3 or 4-minute commercial where they're talking about it and why you want it.  That gave us instant credibility that a Facebook Ad could never give you.  We went right to the influencers that are how we got out there.  

Christian: Did you guys run any Facebook Ads after that to take advantage of that traffic?

Rob: I played a little bit with that, we're totally bootstrapped and self-funded so there wasn't always cash to do all those things you would want to do right out of the gate.  We just went with those and followed up the best we could.  Using the automation within Shopify I think we probably did well.  We didn't have the follow-up ads that we should have probably had.

Christian:  Did you guys do any... Influencer marketing is very, very powerful. We use it every day too, any influencers or YouTube personalities or anything like that, Instagram.  Did you guys start working on SEO or anything like that at all after that or not?

Rob:  I knew a little bit about SEO going into it.  I ended up hooking up with Stefan Spencer who is the king of SEO apparently through a networking group that I was in and he gave me some really great tips.  Some of them are as simple as everyone one of my photos file names describes everything.  Everything is searchable on google and most people don't know that.  While we were in Los Angeles we bought a yacht and started a yacht charter business and that is a totally automated system.  We haven't spent a dollar on ads since April of last year and we're one of the number one booked boats in the marina.  I attribute it to the SEO that we've done.  Every single photo is of a LA yacht charter, boat rental, luxury...  All these keywords that are searching.  If you go on boating you're definitely looking at photos and so we come up all over the place on those photos.  Definitely learned about SEO and I tried to nudge my partner on that one but he would send me over a photo with png27 or something.  So I renamed everything and put it back on the site but even if you look up collar stay on google we're in the top page images and we sell color stays but we aren't a color stay.

Christian:  That is so cool, that is one of the things that most people overlook when building a site. Naming the images properly so Google can index them and then you're easier to find.  The next step is obviously your email marketing.  Did you guys start taking advantage of your email list right away by sending campaigns weekly?  Did you set up all your flows and all that stuff or was that later on down the road?

Rob: That built over time, we got into mail chimp and started messing around with that and someone turned us onto Klaviyo so we've been using that.  We're at 20,000 emails now so we've got a really good base.  That's working really well right now, but that took a minute for sure.  I ended up going back later and banging out a weekly non-salesy here's a  fashion kind of thing.  I built an eBook that was really, really well received, "7 Style Tips that Most People Won't See But Will Improve Your Confidence."   On the eighth day, you would get a few more tips that came that kept people engaged.  I had a cool 2-week campaign that came after you got the eBook and that led to quite a bit of sales.

Christian:  That's because you were offering value, people say okay I kind of like the content from these guys, let me check it out and then they'll buy from you at some point.  That's really good. So what's the next step for the company, where do you think you're going to take it from here?

Rob:  So a couple of things we are working on, we've been trying to license this technology to a major brand.  We were as insanely close as we could be and then the perfect storm of horrible things happened in October of 2019 and you know what one of them is.  The brand is Express, which is very, very ironic that I got married n express shirt, when I'm in this meeting in Columbus we went through this whole meeting, 45 mins into this meeting they are like oh this is great I really love it and I said do you want the biggest piece of marketing gold you'll ever have?  I reached into my briefcase. I pulled out my wedding shirt and I slid it across the table and they're like oh my God.  It was an Express 1MX. 

Look at how cool this would be to come full circle and me standing at my wedding day and now I'm sitting here 6 or 7 years later after coming up with this product and I'm sitting across the table from you guys.  They had samples made, they were ready to go then it came to Les Wexler who's the owner was the number 1 guy who funded Jeffrey Epstein, and then that was bad and it turned out that they were trying to sell off half of Victoria Secret and then COVID hit.  

There was a 2 1/2 million unit test order that they were ready to place.  We sold 400,000 units, this was a 2 1/2 million unit test order.  They sell 30 million dress shirts or some crazy number like that.  We were right there on the verge and it just died.  We really want to land a brand obviously.

Christian: I hear you man and I actually own a few Express shirts and I've been buying them for a long time and they're good shirts, man I want you to get in there.   So have you tried to talk to them again at all?  Is the person still there that was your contact?

Rob:  Yes, they were on a special development team, and then it gets passed on to the actual buyers and those people.  That development team had marketing people and design people from all different departments.  They were 100 percent onboard but it gets patched out to New York and those guys make the final decision.  He kept trying to push for us but there was only so much we could do.  We follow up every once in a while and shoot a message so we stay top of mind and see if anything changes.  Our point is right now if you're going to come out of COVID with any kind of leg up, you can't sell the same shirt that you've been selling for the last five years.  You need something that is really unique and at the end of the day, almost 90 percent of men's dress shirts are worn without a tie most of the time.  And no one is addressing this issue that there's no structure in the front of the shirt.

Christian:  It drives me, insane dude.  It drives me insane.

Rob:  Phillips Van Heusen, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger, and all came out with a stretch collar.  I was talking to them days after I got my patent.  They're like no we're doing a stretch collar thing.  Why? No one wears a tie, what are you doing?  That's how far behind and how slow these guys are to change.  It's a tough battle but we'll get a licensing deal soon.

Christian: Especially Express shirts, not all shirts but Express shirts the edge of the collar whatever you call that part right here it curls in after you get it dry cleaned and more than a few times.  Even if you have those plastic things in there it still doesn't work correctly.

Rob: I use metal collar stays.

Christian: Absolutely insane. 

Rob:  I like the metal ones, they're stronger, they don't curl, they're heavier which means there's more weight that's going to collapse the collar and collapse the placket.

Christian: That's why you have the solution right here, I love it.

Rob: The other thing that we're doing is I have the coolest shirt so if you can see on your camera it says Make-a-Wish in there.  We can digitally print fabric.  So I can take any logo, print it on fabric and then we cut and sew those pieces into the dress shirt.  So think of a nice hotel, restaurant, bar, car dealership, bank, any of that instead of having a left chest embroidery afterthought trade show looking shirt you can have this super clean, super subtle very classy dress shirt with your logo built-in.  It's in the cuffs, it's inside the placket.  The quality is off the charts, they're amazing.

Christian:  My best friend who's a financial advisor will love that. All those guys love their initials somewhere or their logo.

Rob: It's a 50 shirt minimum so it's gotta be a company or who's a brand.  We're talking to a bunch of wealth managing guys.  Imagine giving that as a gift with a really subtle logo and your client is walking around and someone says, "that's a great shirt where did you get it?"  "I got it from my wealth manager. let me tell you how awesome he is."

Christian:  That's really cool.

Rob:  That's going to get you more clients.  Remember how I talked about how the bars shouldn't sell shirts for $20 this is how my mind thinks.

Christian:  Genius, it's a super genius idea I can't believe more people aren't doing that. It makes sense the other thing I noticed here that you have on the site is that I always roll my sleeves up, 90 percent of the time unless I'm wearing a suit then they're down.  Going out for a normal casual dinner they're always rolled up and I noticed that you have the flex cuff here on the site, tell me a little bit about that?

Rob: I never go without them if you can see them on the camera. It's an elastic band that connects from the button to the buttonhole so instead of rolling your cuff all the way up you can keep that contrast on the outside.  I haven't touched my cuffs once in this interview and they stay right there.  They come in 6 different colors they're amazing.

Christian: That is so cool man.

Rob:  We also have, one last thing, we do have an entire marketplace of branded shirts so Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen from $30 to $100 we have a huge selection of dress shirts on the website that I bought we've sown million dollar collar into and you just go buy and wear.  It's a brand you know, it's a size you know, it colors you love and you can experience Million Dollar collar right off the bat.

Christian: You have Michael Kors, you have Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Calving Klein, you have all that good stuff.  This is good if you're like me and you know your brand and your sizes you don't have to worry about it, you just order the size that you know fits you.  It's amazing.  Listen, Rob, we're out of time man but I really truly enjoyed our conversation, I love the site, it's not just oh I'm going through another product out there.  You actually solve a solution to a pain that's why you're successful.  

Guys check out the site it's milliondollarcollar.com and Rob where can everybody find you?

Rob:  Shoot me an email to Rob@milliondollarcollar.com, we're on LinkedIn, we're on Instagram but we're not overly active on there and on Facebook.  Find me on LinkedIn or Rob@milliondollarcollar.com if you have any questions.  I'm happy to help anybody who is in the process and in the fight.

Christian:  Go to the site and get your shirt.  Thank you so much Rob and till next time I appreciate you being here and all the links will be in the description.


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