Our business guest started out like many of us. He graduated from college and took a job but one day, he had a brilliant but simple idea. He became obsessed with it. It took over his life and he refused to stop until he brought his idea and his business to life. His invention could be called the most dramatic enhancement to collared dress shirts in the last 70 years. When you hear about what it is, you too will say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Welcome, Rob Kessler to the show. What was your invention? Let’s go back to when you were in college and what you would do in there, what happened in the junction between getting that job and then having this idea?
I grew up playing soccer and a bunch of my friends worked at this little soccer and volleyball store. I ended up getting a job there and that’s what changed my whole perspective on life. At sixteen years old, I walked in the first day, I’ve got a key to the store, I’ve got the code to the alarm and all this responsibility was put right on me from day one. It was like, “I know these other guys and I think Rob will be a good fit.” That responsibility gave me this dedication to the company. As the years progressed, I ended up doing all the marketing. I was doing all. I was doing books at eighteen years old as a freshman in college. They’ve allowed each of the employees to find what they were good at and they’ve supported us doing that. That’s what started it.
Two years into college, I almost dropped out because I was like, “I’m making $14,000 a year. Life is great.” Thank God I didn’t do that but I ended up catching up. I was a little behind. I worked every summer and spring break and every chance that there was, I tried to catch up. I ended up graduating in four years, the first person in my family to graduate. I had a full-time job, 40 hours a week of work during my junior and senior year.
What was that like? Were you thrilled that you finally got a full-time job and here you are fulfilling the family’s destiny and you’ve got the big reward, which is the job?
The job is for my dad. He’s in the jewelry business. I was a salesperson in the business and the talk was, “Let’s groom you to take this thing over.” That started in college and it was good. I get a little bored. I’ve worked for several different companies. I always say I’ve sold houses, cars, and diamonds, the three biggest things that most people buy and working for other people just ended up being a challenge. Even working for my dad, we decided it was better to be father and son than employee-employer. That didn’t last, the plan didn’t go the way that we thought.
We live a little bit of a parallel life in that respect because my stepdad and mom also had a jewelry store in Brooklyn, New York. It was called Jaymar Jewels. It turns out they sold giftware like fine china and sterling silver dinnerware and all types of home gifts. The center of the store started with my mom and one small showcase. Eventually, it took over the whole store and it turns out that they morphed into a full-blown jewelry center, if you will. They moved to another location out off of Coney Island Avenue down to Sheepshead Bay.
I had the same dilemma that you did, “Mitch, come on into the family business. Become an owner of your own business and work in the jewelry business.” The thing was you say you were bored. I hated it. I couldn’t stand having to deal with one more retail customer. It’s funny because later I ended up having a quarter million customers. At that time in my life, I just felt like, “This is going to kill me if I have to go into this business.” I declined and as fate would have it, my path led me out of New York and into Massachusetts, where I still live to this day. Let’s now talk about how the idea came about and then expose exactly what it is that you figured out.
I worked for my dad. I left and did a couple other things and came back. When I left the second time, I had already started a small screen printing and embroidery business out of my basement. I grew that up and while I was doing that, I met the love of my life and got married. On the beach in Jamaica is where it all hit me.
What was it that hit you and how did you respond?
It was a beach in Jamaica, the wedding was chill. I’ve never liked wearing a necktie. I’m more of a T-shirt guy and hang out and chill. When I dress up, I want to put on a dress shirt. For men, a dress shirt is a step up. If you want to look a little bit better, you want to present yourself a little bit better, you wear a dress shirt. Since I don’t like wearing a tie, I would spend a lot of time ironing my shirt and trying to get the front, not the collar, but the front where the buttons and the buttonholes are to sit right so it had a nice V, it was symmetrical and it would stay up. What happened on my wedding day is my brand new, freshly pressed shirt, was a crumbled sloppy mess before I could say "I DO." I felt like I looked like a beach bum and a slob and not the Thomas Crowne cool that I was going for. On the biggest day of my life, my shirt let me down. That was the inspiration.
Did you have the idea during the ceremony, before the ceremony or did it come to you later after everything was over and you’re chilling out?
We flew down the photographer. He’s a friend of mine. We were looking at photos the next day of our amazing day. It kept glaring in my face. I remember tugging at my collar all day, trying to get my shirt to sit up the way that I thought it should and it just wouldn’t stay. Two, three minutes later of just moving around, it would just crumble again under the lapel of the jacket. It was literally the next day I saw it I’m like, “This is crazy.” As soon as I came home from Jamaica, I cut open a dress shirt. I shoved a piece of cardboard down the front where I thought the stiffening or the reinforcement needed to be. I showed it to my new bride and even after I was explaining to her when she saw it she was like, “I get it." It’s such a visual thing. In when she the difference she was like, “I 100% totally understand what you’re talking about.”
To be specific, what you created basically was a stiff piece of plastic that attaches to the inside collar of the shirt, so instead of the collar flattening out, the collar stands straight up, is that right?
The placket actually, the part of the shirt with the buttons and the button holes that goes down the front of your shirt is what I saw as needing reinforcement. The collar stay was fixed in 1888 when that was patented. Collars are great. The problem is dress shirts were never designed to be worn without a tie. When you take off the tie and you unbuttoned one or two, the weight of the collar collapses the placket. I took the idea of a collar stay. I extended it and I put it down the front of the shirt. The beauty is every dress shirt has two layers of fabric where the buttons and the button holes are so between the edge of the shirt and the button or the buttonhole, my product, which is a plastic-like material, not plastic, goes in, it’s sewn in. Once it’s in, it lasts for the life of the shirt.
When a person buys your product, they need to be able to have some sewing skills so they could show it in?
They don’t need to. There are 100,000 tailors and 40,000 dry cleaners that would be happy to do this for you. Not all of them will do it, but the ones that do, are happy. It takes less than five minutes to install. You could just show the instructions and every order comes with detailed instructions, literally three steps open the hem, slide, and sew back together. It’s super easy. I taught myself how to sew. I can do any shirt in a few minutes. It’s easy.
The thing that’s interesting about this is that we tend to overcomplicate things, even in business, even in life. What you created was a simple solution that is crazy obvious to anybody who even looked. Was there ever that moment where you had this self-doubt that says, “It’s a great idea, but starting a business and all of what it takes and who knows how to market this stuff.” Did you go through that mental process or is it full speed ahead for you?
There’s always a little bit of self-doubt. Then you just think back to if it was easy, everybody would do it. With the support of my wife and one of my best friends who’s my partner, we plugged along. We didn’t quit everything we’re doing and dive into this full force. I was working the screen-printing business during the day and when I’d have a little bit of time, I’d work on Million Dollar Collar. As it progressed, I got more and more confident and that just helped fuel the fire. Unless you have a ton of money to just quit what you’re doing, you have to do that double duty and just make it work while you’ve got the full-time income coming in.
Let’s get into a little bit about the way that you got revenue or you built this sales channel because it didn’t sound like you were in the retail clothing business or had anything to do with clothing manufacturing, yet none of those things seem to be impediments or obstacles. Tell us what you did, how you got through that, where you started and also tell us a little bit about what the obstacles were and how you overcame them.
The obstacles were many. I still overcome them now. The company actually pivoted several times even before we launched. You go in thinking, “We’re going to do it.” What we thought was, “Let’s do a Kickstarter. Kickstarters are hot and everybody’s talking about them. Maybe we can get some traction.” In my days of being in business, I ended up meeting a lady that is a consultant in the fashion industry. I had contacted her and said, “I’m looking at doing this, do you know any dress shirt manufacturers?” We had connected with a company in India. We were making some pre-production samples. We are ready to make a shirt we set off on our Kickstarter.
In 60 days, we raised $16,000 of our $40,000 goal. We didn’t get funded but unequivocally, the feedback was, “Why are you trying to compete with all the other brands? Why not license the technology? Why can’t I upgrade the shirts I already own?” We took that. Some people would say, “You didn’t get funded. This is the worst thing ever.” It was great. As expensive as it is to make a dress shirt imported and deal with all that, we ended up not having to go down that route because of the feedback we got. We listened to what the customers and the people that were interested were saying.
It’s similar to the FedEx story, which Fred Smith got a C-plus on his Master’s thesis. It turns out the only thing about his idea turned out to be the hub. The hub system is what became Federal Express. You’re absolutely right. It’s the feedback that makes all the difference in the world and I guess Kickstarter enabled you to get that feedback, which is awesome. For those of us who know what Kickstarter is, can you just explain a little bit about it?
It’s a crowdfunding platform. People, entrepreneurs put ideas on the platform and try to market it and then they raise money preselling or even sometimes you haven’t produced the product. They’re using this platform to get people to buy before they even have a product. The nice thing for Kickstarter and for the buyers is people who had pledged $16,000 worth of orders, their money was refunded to them because we didn’t hit our goal. It’s a lower risk way for someone to buy a product and an unknown company in an unknown situation and there’s a little protection for them. It’s a cool way to learn about new products and support a company if you believe in what they’re doing.
Rob, you finally decided that the new business, the idea was instead of reinventing the entire shirt, it’s just to stay itself or the collar support system that you had created. Where did you go first to try and sell it?
Like everybody, we started a website. We knew that it was a very demonstrable product. As I learned from showing my wife way back, it has to be seen. We initially thought, “Let’s go and talk to YouTube fashion influencers. These guys are going to do a video. They already have a following. They can show the before and after. They’ll talk about the benefits, talk about style and looking good.” We thought that that was the way to get to where we needed to go. It worked for us and it was one of the things I will say about YouTube is once it’s out there, it’s always there. I still get discount codes from our first video. I always put out a new discount code for every show or everything that we do so we can track how things come in and we still get codes from two years ago.
It sounds like YouTube, which is probably not the first thought that many people would have, is a great marketing platform for something that could be easily demonstrated. Instead of trying to launch your own YouTube channel, I love that you found influencers first. That’s pretty darn brilliant actually. That idea is worth gold. You found these folks and said, “Why don’t we put this on your show? Why don’t you talk about this?” It works. It’s classic. It’s smart.
We have a pretty niche product so there had to be people that are in that niche. I’m friends with the guy that invented the Coco Jack. It’s a way to open a coconut without losing a finger. He’s got a pretty niche product and he’s found all these YouTube influencers and they can show how easy it is to pop a coconut open. If you have a niche product, that works. If you have a more general product that might not be the route, but as most people know, YouTube is the number two search engine on the internet, why not go to number one or number two if you can?
It makes all the sense in the world. These folks make it their business to showcase new products and to bring great ideas onto their show. That’s their status. That’s how they get lit up by finding you. This is a fantastic interview for me so far because I’m learning a lot. I never considered YouTube to have the power that Rob is describing here. Phase one was basically getting the word out and you did that with YouTube. Did you use any other platforms?
We tried Facebook, we tried Instagram. We could never figure out how to monetize Instagram. There are so many extra clicks it takes to get. If you have an Instagram influencer and they post, there’s so much content going on Instagram once it’s passed. It’s hard to find and if you find an influencer and they post, then they have to click to your page and then when they’re on your page, you have to go to your profile. When they are in your profile, they have to go to your link and then that takes you to the web. To us, it seemed like way too many clicks to try to get it to convert. We run Facebook ads to support the YouTube videos and drive traffic, but that’s the one that we’ve done. We haven’t utilized Twitter and Pinterest. When you show a before and after picture once, you showed a thousand times. We’re niche because it’s one thing.
Let’s continue on marketing channels. Are you getting 100% of your business from YouTube?
We get a significant amount, but not 100%. Our Facebook ads are very effective as well. I would say those are the two big ones, YouTube and Facebook.
What about working with retailers and opening up channel? Have you tried and does that seem to work for you?
We would be looking at a Jo-Ann Fabrics or Michaels type store, maybe Bed Bath & Beyond, because the product needs that extra step. Our focus is on dry cleaners and tailors. We’re trying to put the product in the hands of the people that actually do the installation. A dry cleaner sees way more dress shirts in a day than we can ever talk to. Partnering with those guys and giving them the opportunity to have a nice unique upsell product is where are our focus is.
This would be a great product for Men’s Wearhouse. It would be great if I could walk in there and buy a shirt and have somebody hold up a placard showing the before and after, “Mitch, do you plan to wear a tie with this shirt?” “Heck no.” “Take a look at what would happen if we installed this for you on your shirt. It’s only an extra $10. You’ll always look like Tom Jones on stage instead of a shlep, running around with a broken, messy collar. What do you think?” I don’t know what the price range is, but I’d probably say yes to that. As soon as you see it, you know.
Men’s Wearhouse is a huge place. They have 2,000 locations between them and JoS. A. Bank. They sell dress shirts, they have tailors in every location and they have salespeople. We’re having that conversation. When you’re a new company and you’re trying to talk to somebody that big, you need some stats behind you. We’ve got those stats. We’ve shipped 150,000 units to 92 countries. We have those numbers and we’re staying in front of them and keeping that conversation going, definitely. It’s $10 installed. You’re buying a $60, $70, $80 dress shirt and for another $10, you'll always look great. You can still button up and wear a tie if you choose to or if you ever need to. This is for the guy who is going to go typically two buttons undone. It keeps the shirt together a little bit better. It’s not ’70s Travolta, but it keeps the shirt up and it looks great and you’ve got a nice little V. It frames the face for an extra $10.
I’m reflecting and I’m channeling Mr. Wonderful here. Is there any reason why you hadn’t approached some of the shirt manufacturers to license this to them directly?
That is exactly what we did when we first got our patents. Three years after I came up with the idea, our patent was issued. Actually, my wife and I sold everything we had to move to Los Angeles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to put ourselves in the thick of creativity in business and insanity. On our ten-day cross-country drive for, the attorney called and said, “Your patent was approved.” We knew we were on the right track. We definitely went out and talked to the manufacturers right away.
For the people that we talked to, they are looking to save money and not add benefits. We haven’t found the company that is. Even ones that you would think would be obvious, “We’re innovative or this or that,” even those guys, it’s such a different product even though I don’t think it is. It’s been a somewhat frustrating avenue. We pushed that aside. Plus, the production time is typically twelve to eighteen months out. They’re looking at styles for next fall. We needed to make some money to pay our bills and survive. Those conversations are happening, but they’re slow.
Rob, I’m going to put my business consultant hat on here. I’m going to ask you the same questions that I would ask in a general consult with my clients. If I brought in a new client and in fact, if it was you and we had the product that you had, there’s a blessing in disguise here. The blessing is that you didn’t license it. The blessing is that you didn’t put it through retail. Why? Because you have the name and address and hopefully email address of virtually every person who’s bought one of your products. Is that right?
Even if you didn’t have the product to acquire 15,000 name list or user list, knowing exactly what they care about, that is an incredible asset and I’m sure you realize this.
The way Facebook works is you can upload those emails in and design ads around who those people are and their profiles. It’s amazing what you can do with targeted advertising. That information, most people don’t think it’s that valuable, but it’s insanely valuable.
I would forget the product and focus on the list. Truthfully, there’s another element of this, and I’m going to push you a little bit here because this is important. No one I work with ever gets away with having one product. My advice is never release anything to sell unless you know exactly what you’re going to sell that same customer next. I’ll put it to you. What are you going to sell me after I bought your product?
We did add metal collar stays as a complementary product. The beauty of our product is, and this industry is from our calculations, about 100 million new dress shirts are made every year. Typically, guys keep the shirts for three to five years. Over the next five years plus what’s already in people’s closets, we’re looking at ONE BILLION SHIRTS, with a B. Our market is massive. People are always buying new dress shirts. There’s always more to come. Our focus has been on the dress shirt, getting this product right. We’re tweaking it a little bit to offer a version for polos. Because the market is so big, this is where our focus is.
Have you investigated the type of material that you can use a hot iron to attach to the inside of the shirt?
We certainly thought about that. The challenge is one, there are millions of patterns. Two, both sides of the placket are visible when your shirt is worn unbuttoned. You’re going to either have some clear looking material on it or something that doesn't match at all. I didn’t like the way that the final product would look. We thought that everything else out there was a Band-Aid on the problem. Every other product focuses around the collar. This is the first one that focuses on the placket. Since every shirt is made exactly the same, it takes five minutes to install. Why not you do it right, put it in and be done with it? It’s hidden. It’s invisible because every shirt has two layers. It’s just inside of the shirt.
At least from what I’m hearing is that your upsell is to get a discount on quantity of the same unit. Maybe somebody bought two or three or five of them and you write back 30 days later, you said, “How’s it going? Did you get them installed in your shirts? What do you think?” You could do all kinds of fun stuff. You could run a contest and say who has the craziest shirt that they’ve ever installed these on and have people send in photos of their shirts from the ’70s. It could be all kinds of fun that you could do with this. It can turn into a nationwide contest. You can get PR around that. There’s some cool stuff you could do once you get people engaging with the product.
We’re at that point where we’re playing with the follow-up and we definitely follow up. We have a lot of reorders. We sell five, ten, twenty and fifty packs. A lot of guys have maybe ten dress shirts, so if they get that ten pack right off the bat, which is our number one seller, they’re set for a little bit. I get people all the time that are either friends or customers that if they get one shirt done, they’re like, “I can’t wear any other shirt.” Once you experience the before and after, you’re judging everybody else, “Your shirt’s sloppy,” because it’s conscious, but it’s totally subconscious. People know that the problem exists, but they dealt with it because it is what it is. Once you are conscious that there’s a solution that works, it’s going to be blatantly obvious to every dress shirt around you.
What is the product sell for?
You can buy the stays, we have five, ten, twenty and fifty packs anywhere from $2 to $3 per set from us. You’re going to pay about $8 to $12 for installation. It’s anywhere from basically $10 to $15 per shirt installed. Unless you go to one of our places on our map that already carries the product, you’re going to be about $10 installed directly from them.
I’m pretty excited about it. I will probably head over there and pick up a pack after because I happen to hate the way these shirts look without those stays being straight and flat. It’s a great idea. The reason I love what you’ve done, Rob, is because you’ve overcome some pretty big obstacles. Let’s talk about the next stage of your business. You sold 150,000 units in 92 countries. You’re probably generating enough revenue at this point to not have to work another full-time job.
I was fortunate when my wife and I sold everything we had. I sold my screen-printing and embroidery business and the revenue from that is what has paid for me to be able to focus on this 100% for the last two years. We’re at that stage now. I’ve been able to focus and fast forward a little bit because I sacrificed and lived as low and below means, as I possibly could to focus all of my time and energy on this.
That’s a great strategy. I’ve duplicated that strategy in my life as well. You burned the boats in a sense, you basically sold the business and you said, “There’s no going back here. It’s either going to work or it’s not, and we’ll pick up the pieces if it doesn’t. If it works, it’s because we’re totally focused on it.” I believed that that’s a great strategy. What’s next for you? Where is the next step up the ladder here?
We’ve gone the end-user route. We’ve done the YouTube videos and Facebook ads and that thing. That is going to continue. The focus is our dry cleaners and tailors. There are about 140,000 locations in North America of dry cleaners and tailors. There are a lot of conversations to be had. We want to make it as easy as possible for our customers to upgrade their shirts. We’re in about 600 locations and mostly in the US. As that grows, we can expand that internationally. It’s tweaking and making sure that we can help these dry cleaners grow their business. We can help the tailors grow their business and make it super easy for our customers to upgrade. We’re having a lot of conversations with those guys.
If you are a tailor or a dry cleaner and you hear this show, get in touch with Rob and he can get you set up. We’re at the point in the interview where I have a question for you and it’s my favorite question. It’s the question that helps define my guests the best way possible. Who, in all of the space and time, would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch or an intense conversation with?
That was a tough one. I had to think about that a lot. I have other ideas. I’ve had other invention ideas in the past that I’ve not followed through on. Talking to da Vinci would be cool. He invented a lot of stuff and was way ahead of his time and I think that would be a great conversation to have.
Let’s take a walk with Leonardo da Vinci. You had to make an appointment to hang out with the guy because 4:00 AM is his prime. He’s still working. You show up at his studio and the place is a mess. It’s filled with half-done projects and he’s in the middle of working on a sculpture and that sculpture is about to become the David. At that point, you sit down with him. What do you say?
When you start with a big huge block of stone and you can see inside of it, that is super interesting to me. You look at products or things that come out to find out how do you see inside and how do you look at something so basic and turn it into something so beautiful, that would be super interesting to hear.
The grand finale, the change the world question. Rob, what is it that you’re doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to literally change the world?
Other than changing dress shirts forever, as of late, I have become a big believer in integrity. It’s a huge thing for me. There are so many times in my life in the days when I’m walking around and I just think there’s just been a lack of integrity of people lately. It would be great to see that come back. The integrity of "if somebody’s not looking, I’m not going to pick up that piece of trash or I’m not going to pick up after my dog." Those types of things are making me crazy and I think the world would be a better place if that integrity was a lot stronger part of our lives. I don’t even know how to start with that other than talking about it and holding my friends accountable and holding myself accountable and starting from there.
That’s a great place to start. We all can use a little bit of accountability in our lives. Rob, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. I enjoyed our time together. I can’t wait to end the conversation so I can go buy some stays. You’ve got a new customer absolutely guaranteed and probably one or two extras as well because of those guys and even those gals who have shirts that they just don’t like the way they look head over to Rob’s website. I can’t wait until we get a chance to talk again soon.