Tracy Miller: Today I am excited as always because we have Rob Kessler, the inventor and co-founder of Million Dollar Collar and goTIELESS. Rob also has experience in a number of high-dollar industries including diamonds, real estate, and automotive sales which provided a unique blend of backgrounds for him. His ability to look at the world through a different set of lenses than most people has led him to be successful in the businesses that he owns. Rob welcome.
Rob Kessler: Hey how are you?
Tracy: I am so good. It is sunny up here in Montana. We are starting to get a little bit warm so with that my mood gets better.
Rob: It's why I left the Midwest, that seasonal depression is a real thing.
Tracy: It is so real and everybody around me I just want to hand vitamin D to people like candy. Hi how are you, have a little vitamin D. Where are you at right now? I believe you are down south correct?
Rob: We are south, we're originally from Wisconsin. My wife, Linda and I, not totally on a whim, but kind of on a whim, sold everything we had in 1 year and moved to Los Angeles, so we did the sunshine, sunny every day with mountains in the background and palm trees. We did that for 5 1/2 years and she became a ridiculous amazing stunt woman so she works in film and TV. She doubles people like Taylor Swift and Jenna Elfman and she's crazy, she's amazing. She's awesome. While she was doing that I was growing Million Dollar Collar and started goTIELESS. We grew and sold a yacht charter business called Bella Boating and we just do all kinds of stuff, can't really sit still.
Tracy: Gosh Rob. Because of your business, the goTIELESS, I am going to have to convert my podcast to YouTube as well so people can see your collar. It is looking fresh.
Tell me all about goTIELESS.
Rob: I got married on the beach in Jamaica. My shirt looked awful. It was a brand new freshly pressed Express 1MX which is the number 1 selling dress shirt in America. I went out on the beach, you know it's humid, my toes are in the sand, no tie. It was a nice chill wedding. Before I can say I do, and you can see in this picture over my shoulder but that is an actual picture of my actual wedding date before I even said I do and my shirt was just this crumbled sloppy mess. I came home from Jamaica and I just did a bunch of internet searching, how do you reinforce this front part?
The part to me that was the problem is called the placket, it's the part with the buttons and the holes. There was nothing out there on the market that fixed that, that reinforced that, all this weight in the collar was working against gravity and there's just not enough interfacing, not enough material that you could put in there. So I took the idea of a collar stay and made it 9 inches long and shoved it down the front of the shirt to show my new bride. She said, "Oh my God, I finally get what you've been complaining about all these years." I really like the symmetry of the shirt looking good, if you are going to put on a dress shirt it is because you want to look good not a sloppy mess on the biggest day of my life.
I took 3 years to play with every plastic on the market and designs and materials and ended up patenting and coming out with Million Dollar Collar which is an aftermarket option. So you can take any dress shirt that you already own and buy Million Dollar Collar, and have it sewn in, once it's in it lasts the life of the shirt. That's incredible, we've sold half a million units to people in 130 countries in the last 6 years and that's a hard way to do it. It's an extra step because you have to go and get it installed. We have been trying to license the entire time and all these brands are like, I don't know, I don't know, maybe. In the meantime, I have sold a half million units the hard way. We said forget it, let's just make our own shirt and we have the only shirt on the market that is actually designed to be worn without a tie, with Million Dollar Collar built in. That's goTIELESS, the only shirt designed to be worn without a tie.
Tracy: Fascinating, I have so many little follow-up questions. First of all, when I first read your bio I thought, I'm female so I don't wear a tie, so I don't get it. Now that I think about it, the one factor that changes the flashing of a men's shirt even a T-shirt is the collar. The crew neck, and the low-cut V-neck style change drastically how buff a guy looks. How his jawline looks different, it's kind of like a good-fitting pair of jeans for the guys looking at the lady's rear end. For women it really does matter, the collar line on a shirt matters, and looking at the difference, I'll post pictures for listeners, so they can see. To see the difference from left to right on your display it is completely different.
Rob: To me especially if you're not going to wear a tie, wearing a tie was some focal point, you can wear a pattern or whatever and that's what kind of drew your eye in. Without a tie on this front, it's kind of weird but you're mounting your head. It just draws attention to your face. Me, I have a little bit of OCD and I would iron and iron and iron and she was all dressed up ready to go out and I was screwing around with starch and ironing.
I came up with these goTIELESS shirts. We've done a couple of iterations trying to figure out the right material and the right design. We actually took the express shirt and used that as the base. We have a soft bamboo stretch, wrinkle-resistant fabric. The fabric is amazing, Million Dollar Collar is built in. We added a convertible cuff so if you want to wear cufflinks with the shirt, you can just throw cufflinks on. it's the right length to wear tucked or untucked. With the wrinkle-resistant I wore this shirt the other night to dinner, put it on the hanger after and I just put it on this morning, it looks amazing. To me, I just want to look good. I just want to throw on a shirt, I don't want to have to think about it.
We have the basic colors: white, light blue, and black. They are $70 bucks so they are not super expensive, I think they are a really great value. Right now if you buy 2 they are $110 so you save $15 a shirt. They are guaranteed if you don't love it, send it back. The only question we'll ask is why didn't you like it and we'll make it better the next time.
Tracy: Feedback yeah. You answered the question I was going to ask about the cost of each unit. Talk to me about being an inventor. I was just talking to a young lad last week and he is in the process of creating something that he's trying to bring to market. He's using all of this terminology and the process to me seems daunting and overwhelming. I think of great ideas but I wouldn't even know where to start if I had something I wanted to create. What are the resources? What does the basic process of inventing look like? Who do you call? I am trying to envision you cutting out and using this material and then from there where do you send that? That can't be how it really works. What does it look like?
Rob: To me, it was a simple process of trial and error. I want a collar stay, I know that they make built-in collar stays so it's got to be heat resistant to handle wash, dry, iron, dry clean. I started looking up what that material was and it turns out that they make that material PVC or HDPE. I go on an internet search and try to find what I can. I found that Target sold flexible cutting boards which were a HDPE material.
The very first thing of Million Dollar Collar iteration was cardboard, and I knew that wasn't going to be it. I knew that wasn't going to be it but I wanted to see what a little bit of structure did and so I played with the design of cardboard. It's cheap, it's easy to use and it's easy to manipulate. I started with cardboard and then I started testing plastics so I would wash it no problem, dry is 135 degrees, iron is 200 degrees. I was like so I need a high-heat iron-resistant plastic that only goes to 250 or 275 degrees. I found out after ruining 100 shirts...
I would get past the first 3 steps and then I would send it to the dry cleaner and it would melt to the shirt and totally destroy it. I found out that dry cleaners flash-press your shirt at 400 to 450 degrees. There is no high-heat plastic on the market that can handle that. It went into conversations and I happened to be talking to a buddy from high school and he said oh I work with a plastics company I can introduce you and they are local and they are right here. I think when you're passionate about something and when you're trying to build something and you talk about it passionately the world is going to put the right people in front of you. That's exactly what happened to me, I don't want to say it's luck because I talk to 1000 people as much as I can and this guy happened to know somebody and they got me in touch and we ended up developing the material that is high heat resistant to almost double what dry cleaners use. It's soft enough to be sewn through, it's super flexible, it's super lightweight, and yet it's rigid enough to still hold up the weight of the collar.
I call it this magic material, it's crazy that we were able to develop this thing. One thing led to another and if that didn't work, what can I try? If that doesn't work, what can I try? To me that's the inventor process, it was very simple what I did. There are a bunch of more complex things out there but I do what I did.
Tracy: Sewing this yourself, I see a sewing machine in the background so you don't have anywhere you're sending this off and asking somebody to produce it for example?
Rob: I did the first few and then it was like they charged me $15 or $20 to try to sew it in and then I ruined a dress shirt melting it so my mom always sewed stuff when I was growing up. The hardest thing about that is how to thread and follow to put the thread in. She showed me how to do that. I can sew the 1 inch that you need to put Million Dollar Collar in, is it. I have jeans I'd like to hem, and there are other things I'd like to sew but I have no confidence to do any of that. I can sew just to put Million Dollar Collar in.
Tracy: Then after you get the right material put together what does mass producing look like?
Rob: Once we figured out the material and the design I had a die made. So the material I have made is sheets so it comes in a roll that's 450 yards long and then this material is made on a roll. It gets cut down and die-cut into the actual final piece. It looks kind of like a hockey stick so it's just 8 / 9 inches long and it's got a little hook on the end. That hook is what stops it, it stops at the button or buttonhole depending on what side of the shirt it's on.
Once we started cutting it, its packaging and we just developed it. It's just one thing after
another. It took 2 1/2 or 3 years to patent and perfect that process. it's just trial an error and I wasn't on a timeline so I was just working my way through the process. Once it got there we hit the ground running.
Tracy: What were you doing for income while you were taking 3 years to develop this great idea?
Rob: I had a screen-printing and embroidery business which I started in my basement. I grew that while I was doing this.... Right before we got married we bought a 6000 square foot building so I moved that screen printing business out of my basement and I ran 100,000 shirts out of my basement. I would feed things through the window and with a little flash press dryer and a tabletop press. I went bare bones to get that business started and I was finally ready to move out. so we bought the building, my wife had a gym, I had the screen-printing business and we rented half. I was doing real estate, I had my real estate license, I had a screen-printing and embroidery business, and I am futzing around with Million Dollar Collar and inventing that. Helping my wife with her fitness business. I look at things and...
I heard a girl say the other day that I was just born with that attitude. Since we moved to Georgia I built a building, I put up a fence, I put up all kinds of stuff. It makes sense in my head and somehow I get it from my head to my hands. It doesn't always go smoothly but I always get the job done eventually.
Tracy: Has that been a gift that you've had since childhood or is it something you developed later in life? Tell me about that.
Rob: I was a pretty wild little kid. I'd break stuff and cause a ruckus, but instead of getting into trouble, I figure out how to fix things and try to get it fixed before Mom and Dad found out what I did. I got to tinkering with stuff pretty early so that I would stay out of trouble at least a little bit.
Tracy: That makes total sense. Tell me about your past, have you ever been an employee or have you always been a business owner in some capacity?
Rob: I think the best thing that ever happened to me was one of my first jobs I had some friends... I played soccer very competitively. I had some friends who worked in a little soccer/volleyball store and they got me a job there and I walked in and the owner said here's a key to the store, here's the code to the alarms, you're part of the team. He made me feel like it was my business and I worked there junior and senior year of high school, I worked full time once I started college. I would go in the morning to help open the shop, work a couple of hours, go to a class or two, go back to work for a couple of hours, go grab a couple of classes, and then close the store at night. It just felt like mine from day one. That gave me that business sense.
I was an employee there, I worked for my dad twice, and the second time he fired me. I knew that after that I really wasn't a good employee. I was always looking at how we do this better, how we improve the process, and it's very customer-centric. I sold cars for a while, man can I make this process easier, can I make it better, a better experience? At 22, or 23 years old nobody really takes you seriously. I did really well because I loved cars. I have been on my own since I was 23 or 24 I think.
Tracy: So what did Dad do that you were working for him, it sounds like he must have had his own business too.
Rob: Dad started a jewelry store with $700 he borrowed from his grandpa and turned it into $35,000,000, the third-largest independent jeweler in the country. It was incredible working for him, I was a top salesperson but I was always like what's next, what's next? Once I got to be good at sales I needed more, he would always say you are going to take this over some day and I would be what is the next challenge because I am getting bored sitting here waiting for people to come through the front door, I need to be stimulated.
I would sit around and get bored and get myself in trouble at work and he was like let's just be a good father son and you go do something else. I had this screen-printing business already going so I just moved back into that full-time. We're still good.
Tracy: Did you get your very hot wife a nice ring, a good deal on it?
Rob: Yeah she's drowning in diamonds, I just got her for our tenth-year anniversary three-eternity bands totaling 10 carats of diamonds, it's obnoxious. I got her hooked up. I met a couple the other day. She is like my dad owns hardware stores and I have a $2000 faucet. I was like I will never have a $2000 faucet, my wife has a lot of diamonds because I have the connection there but I am not buying $2000 faucets for my kitchen.
Tracy: That's super interesting so you do have a little bit of an entrepreneur background from Dad obviously he had a wildly successful from the ground-up type of business and you're following in the same shoes, doing a lot of the same. What is next for you business-wise, I know you're still developing goTIELESS but you have other ideas. Are you going to rock and roll with this for a while or are you bored?
Rob: It's been a while so I started this in 2013, it's been 10 years since my wedding day which is where the concept came from, we've been selling since 2016 so we're in our 7th year of sales. it's still exciting, it's very frustrating I can't tell you how many times I hear no. At this point to have sold a half million units to people that literally have to get this product and go find someone to install it for them. These big brands don't want to license the technology, it's super crazy. I keep bashing my head against the wall but I'm like a stubborn mule. I just keep going. I'm super excited about the shirts because now there is no extra step, there's nobody else who has a shirt like this and to me, the sky's the limit. We're working on a few licensing deals for Million Dollar Collar which is exciting but I think the idea of the shirt, we're calling goTIELESS the home of business casual. If you really think about it no one has really defined it. This event is business casual so what do I wear? We kind of want to build a site where if you want to wear jeans, nice fitted dark clean non torn jeans with a nice shirt and a belt, etc.
Right now we are starting with three shirts and we'll see where that brand goes. We've already had to reorder and we've only had stock for less than 90 days. We're moving quite quickly, we've only had a few exchanges and one or two returns. Out of all of that inventory, it's been really good feedback. We really try to test with our friends and use those relationships the best we can to make sure we are putting out a really great product. We appreciate everyone who has supported us to this point and know it's time to go gangbusters. I really would like to grow it, my goal is 1000 shirts a day and maybe we'll sell the company at that point but who knows?
Tracy: Fabulous! So to wrap this up our show is a lot about purpose in life. I can tell you have an extreme passion. you're obviously going to serve people in a capacity that gives something that can better their lives, that's amazing. Do you do anything else in your life that's noteworthy or you would like to talk about what's on the personal side? Do you have any hobbies, charities, or anything like that?
Rob: We've done some stuff with the charity I'd like to get to that point. To be honest I am barely paying myself as it is so not even having a lot of excess cash is a challenge to kind of get into that charity work but it's something important to me. My dad was one of the top donors of the Make a Wish Foundation in Wisconsin. I love that side of it, what he gets being part of that is way more than you can put a dollar amount on. I love that, and it is definitely in my goals, and in my plans.
My wife is a horsey girl so I've spent the last two years since we've been here building a fence, and a tack room and I just started on the stable. I'm learning about horse stuff, I've been around it a little bit but she's been riding since she was 8 and it's been her dream to wake up in the morning and see a horse running around in the backyard. I spend most of my free time helping that fantasy become a reality.
Tracy: You are screwed, horse lady [inaudible].
Rob: She just sent me a property yesterday. We've been here 2 years, and she's like this one has 20 acres. We have 5 that is plenty, the horse isn't here yet we don't even know if this is going to be a horse-at-home thing, this is still an experiment and she says, no this one has 20 acres, oh this one has 40 acres. Someday, maybe.
Tracy: You are going to be running a horse sanctuary before too long.
Rob: For sure, there's no question.
Tracy: That is awesome Rob, anything you want to leave the listeners with in terms of a little kick of inspiration for them or a final message?
Rob: If you're passionate about what you're doing it doesn't matter how challenging it is you're going to have the passion. Even with this there's been plenty of days I am sitting on the couch and I'll be like what am I doing with my life? I am second-guessing all of my decisions but I know that this is a long-term thing. My wife fortunately is very successful as a stunt woman, which helps sustain our lifestyle. It will flip shortly when the shirts start really selling. Definitely being passionate is going to help push you through those hard times.
If you're just chasing a dollar it's easy to say that dollar is good...
We started a yacht charter business on a whim and did $800,000 in sales before we sold the boat. We built a pretty incredible little business out of it in Los Angeles so we were passionate about boating, we really loved that lifestyle. We sold our commercial real estate and needed to put our money somewhere so we bought a boat, started this business, and sold that. But in everything I've done I have always had a customer-centric passion anyways so I feel like in any industry if you are really good to the customer you can grow a business. We are now on our fourth business that I have grown from zero to a million dollars in revenue. It's all about making sure the customer is getting way more than they think they're getting.
Tracy: Absolutely, value for the dollar. People oftentimes are buying the person, they're buying the dream, they're buying the belief in the product rather than the product itself. You're a walking example of that because you are so passionate about what you're doing. Where can people find you, Rob? I'll put this in the show notes as well but where's a good spot to find you on social or website or both?
Rob: I would go right to goTIELESS.com which is where you can find the shirts and we're just firing up our social media again. We actually originally launched in October 2019 and you can guess how that story went. We sold through most of our stuff and then we couldn't get anything remade so we had to reboot a couple of times now the site is clean, and the product is amazing. We do have milliondollarcollar.com as well and those are probably the two best places to check us out.
Tracy: That sounds amazing Rob! Thank you so much for your time and energy you're an inspiration. I am excited to go check this out and order one of these for my very handsome husband to have him looking dapper everywhere he goes.