How I Started A Heavy Duty Work Gear Brand After Working On An Oil Rig
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Paul Chittenden, and I am the Founder of Bad Ass Work Gear. Our goal is to make work gear that lasts. Well, at least longer than our competitors. Let’s face it, the people we sell to are hard on their gear!
Our flagship product is a very tough, heavy duty duffel bag specifically developed for the oil and gas industry, but also used by the Army, firefighters, hunters, and quite a few more creative uses.
The oil and gas industry has its ups and downs. We were riding high when oil prices were up and companies were spending money on their employees. We dropped about 80% of revenue in the last downturn. 2018 and 2019 have been leveling off with more retail orders than corporate orders, averaging about $15,000 per month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was born in Houma, Louisiana - a small town about an hour Southwest of New Orleans. I grew up wrestling alligators, fishing and hunting, drinking beer in sugarcane fields, and of course speaking with a funny Cajun accent.
“I didn’t have any clue what I wanted to be when I grew up after graduation. However, I did know I wanted to be an entrepreneur. That was clear.”
Houma is the hub of offshore oil and gas, the key to the Gulf of Mexico with its ports and access to the coast. Because of this, oilfield service companies and related businesses define this Louisiana community. Both my mom and dad worked in the oilfield.
When I was 9, my dad got me a camouflaged bag for my hunting gear. He bought it from a little shop that specialized in heavy duty vinyl bags for offshore oilfield workers. It was tough as nails.
Years later, I graduated from college with a degree in Business Management from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Our mascot is a Cayenne Pepper, and we’re called the Ragin’ Cajuns. This is probably not relevant to the story at all, but it is important to note.
Now, I didn’t have any clue what I wanted to be when I grew up after graduation. However, I did know I wanted to be an entrepreneur. That was clear. I also knew that whatever I did, I didn’t want to go into the oil and gas industry.
About a month after graduation, I took a job with Schlumerger, one of the largest oilfield services companies in the world. I would work offshore on oil platforms and make a ton of money. But wait, didn’t I say that was the one thing I didn’t want to do? Yep. What the hell?
Anyway, I figured I could save up all the money I made to start a business. I heard a story about the founder of Raising Cane’s working in Alaska fishing salmon to raise the startup capital for his first restaurant. I could suck it up for a year or two.
Working for Schlumberger, they sent me to the same little shop that I got my first hunting bag from to get my first oilfield bag. It wasn’t until I started working offshore that I realized how tough these bags really were.
The bag was pretty large, because you have to stuff a ton of stuff in there since you’ll be gone for a week or more at a time: boots, coveralls, underwear, hard hat, etc. I also packed a 12-pack of gloves (one pair per day), jeans for travel days, my own pillow (because I’m a weirdo), snacks, and protein powder.
I’d have a driver haul me to the coast. Then I’d take my bag and throw in on the gravel while I grab all my other gear, a tool box, a hand pump, and some other miscellaneous tooling. Then, I grab everything and head to a supply vessel. I’d dump all of my gear on the back deck of the boat for the 6-20 hour ride out to the platform. Sometimes it would storm and the bag would get rained on and splashed from the high seas. Most times, it stayed dry and baked in the heat.
Once we’d reach the drilling rig or platform, I’d have to throw all my gear into a personnel basket, and be lifted 150 feet from the vessel into the air up onto the drilling rig or platform deck. It looked something like this:
Then, once again, I’d take all my gear and throw it out the basket onto the grating of the platform. The pic above is a drilling rig, so at least here the deck is steel plate and not too rough.
Long story short, traditional bags didn’t hold up long to this abuse, but these heavy duty vinyl bags did.
I was making good money, but the time away from family and friends was taking its toll. I missed holidays, birthday parties, and family gatherings. I took all the money I made and invested it in the stock market, hoping to make my money grow. Instead, I invested just before the stock crash and lost half of it. So much for that stockpile.
In 2008, I took a job with GE in their Oil and Gas division in Houston, Texas. Things were good. I was making less money than my offshore salary, but I was in decent shape. I got to travel, and manage some interesting projects. I picked up a book called the 4HWW and decided to bootstrap something since my savings was still all in the stock market.
I don’t know why, but the bag thing was my first good idea. There was nothing like it in Houston or in the emerging land based oilfield hot spots.
I threw together a quick website with Wordpress. I used Elance (now UpWork) to hire someone to make some product renderings. Once everything was up, orders slowly started rolling in.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Okay, maybe I lied. Orders didn’t really roll in. I didn’t have a way to take payments, so it was really just product inquiries. But, my product was validated.
The problem was, I didn’t have a product. I scrambled to find a manufacturer because of course, I had no idea how to sew a button back on a pair of pants, much less sew a frickin’ bag.
First, I hit ThomasNet and searched for manufacturers. Then I sent them my own bags (by this time I had several) for prototyping, and I had a few mark-ups of my product renderings for slight changes to the design.
Finding a good manufacturer was a pain in the ass.
Most manufacturers wanted a minimum run of 1000 bags per color, per size, per style. I wanted to offer 3 sizes, 2 styles and at least 4 colors. Impossible.
Every company wants the color of their bag to match their uniform. So standardizing color wasn’t going to be possible, and I was at a major roadblock.
I had to go custom and made to order. It was the only way.
I was willing to invest $500 on this project. I couldn’t buy an industrial sewing machine for that.
Eventually, I settled on Craigslist. Houston has a ton of sewing talent so I posted a job on Craiglist. There was a lot of noise, but I also had a few hits from some industrial sewing workers looking for some side work. I worked out a deal to pay per piece, and started testing sewing contractors. It took a while to get the quality and craftsmanship to the desired level, but it worked out quite well. They were sewing from home. After a while, one of my seamstresses got tired of having me stop by the house to pick up orders. She was willing to ship them out for me if I bought her a label maker. Done deal. After that, I did this with the other sewing contractors as well.
Now, I don’t have to touch product. I'm a sales, marketing, and customer service.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I built the website myself using a Wordpress theme. This probably took the longest because I had no idea what I was doing. Though, it was simple enough to learn.
I made my first logo in Microsoft Word. Take a look at that bad boy!
It took about 8 weeks from my first inquiry to the time that I had manufacturing figured out. I invested $500 in vinyl, industrial webbing, zippers, and sewing materials for my team to start manufacturing.
I had a product page up with my mock-up images. Instead of taking the customer to a payment page, it redirected them to a contact form so I could collect their email address. I had a few dozen emails on my waiting list so the next step was to contact them and let them know we were open for business.
I got my first bulk order, selling 200 bags to a oil and gas contractor for their employees, in my 2nd month of operation. We have been profitable ever since.
The biggest lesson here is to just start.
There is a good quote from Richard Branson, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes - then learn how to do it later.”
Get started, be determined, and persistent.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Branding has been our key differentiator. I wanted to think of something really manly, tough, and something that would resonate with blue collar workers. Something Bad Ass.
Bad Ass Work Bags stood out to me. Here’s one of our earlier slider images.
We later re-branded to Bad Ass Work Gear.
Our initial growth was driven by word of mouth. Guys wanted a “Bad Ass Work Bag.”
Since I was in the oilfield, I started hearing people talking about these new indestructible bags. There were similar, less Bad Ass bags out there. I’d hear stories from friends and family in the field saying that guys were joking around with people with these “inferior” bags that theirs was Bad Ass!
We included Bad Ass Work Gear stickers in all our orders. I had friends sending me photos of our stickers in galleys and drill shacks from remote places such as Alaska and North Dakota.
Best of all was when I started seeing my bags in airports where oilfield workers frequent.
Eventually, our SEO efforts started taking hold, we started receiving a steady stream of organic traffic. We really dialed in on our initial keyword research, and built some initial links. Unfortunately, the tactics we used back in 2013 won’t work today!
All our vinyl duffel bags are made right here in the good ‘ole USA. Unfortunately, that means our margins are pretty slim compared to some of our competitors outsourcing to low cost Asian manufacturers.
The low margins made our attempts at paid ads unprofitable. We still haven’t figured this one out.
Customer service is critical. People recommend us because we offer “Bad Ass” customer service. I’ve had one truly unhappy customer in seven years that we couldn’t rectify. Other than that, our customer service turns even upset customers into raving fans.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
2018 was our best year yet, and we are currently on track to beat last year’s numbers.
In 2015 - 2017, the downturn in oil prices put a serious damper on our growth. Companies stopped buying bags, oilfield gloves, and other extras for their employees and our revenues dropped by 80%. The price of oil is pretty cyclical, and we can expect to see these drops every few years.
We saw a big need for diversification in our business, and we began researching other occupations which are in need of tough gear. We didn’t have to do a lot of researching. I mean, the answer was already right in our face. Firefighters were already buying our gear bags even though they weren’t specifically made for that purpose.
We spent the better part of 2018 designing a new line of firefighter bags. It’s been a slower process than I had hoped, but we plan to release the first five designs before the end of August.
Product photos are finished, and the next step is to simply load them on the website.
Our plans are to continue diversifying our product lines and build a stronger company.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We were definitely blindsided by the downturn in oil and gas.
We were having record growth every year until things dropped off. I wish I would have seen the need for diversification sooner so that we could have planned for it. Luckily, our lean structure helped with weathering the downturn as our competitors folded.
Starting a business is hard work. Often, it is lonely work. You have to be persistent. A lot of people give up, just before their business is about to take the next step.
We learned the importance of brand. Our customers do not flinch at paying more for a high quality, made in the good ‘ole USA, Bad Ass Work Bag - even when competing bags are half the price.
Our name speaks for itself. Of course, the quality HAS to live up to the name. I could only imagine if our product was crap, how fast people would be making fun of us everywhere. Our bags are tough, like our customers. We constantly get emails thanking us and some great stories (bags flying out trucks with only a some scuffed vinyl).
We utilized product reviews for social proof. When people see all the positive reviews from fellow oilfield workers, it's a no brainer to purchase from us.
Our reorder rate is awfully low when compared with other businesses. With such positive reviews and excitement around our product, it took me a while to figure out what was going on.
- Our product is very niche.
- Our product lasts a long time.
I can run through a bag in a year, but evidently others aren’t as hard on their bags as I am. In fact, I got an email from my very first customer 5 years after his first purchase. It said,
“After you read the below messages from way back when, and revel in how quick five years flew by like I did, I want you to know that I am STILL running the same bag and have never had a lick of trouble with it. Impeccable quality, unrivaled toughness, and a true,top-notch, BAD ASS bag.”
Our products are lasting too long! I see why the electronics industry invented planned obsolescence.
If I started a new ecommerce company today, I would pick a broader niche and choose a consumable product so that I could increase our customer lifetime value.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Wordpress with Woocommerce for our shopping cart. We have AppSumo to help capture emails which in turn are added to our Mailchimp ecommerce flows. After a purchase, our email flows end in a review request utilizing Stamped.io.
We’re a big fan of Sumo to capture leads and then utilize Mailchimpfor our ecommerce email flows.
For SEO, we have a subscription to AHREFs.
We’ve hired for various services with UpWork for larger tasks (blog writing,etc.) and Fiver for smaller tasks (image editing, etc.).
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris - This is the book that made me make the jump to start Bad Ass Work Gear. I’ve also designed it to be low workload. I can literally run Bad Ass Work Gear in 4 hours per week, but I typically put in more because it is fun.
Ezra Firestone - Simply get on Ezra or SmartMarketer’s email list. You’ll learn a ton about ecommerce and how to scale your online store just from their free material.
Ecommerce Influence Podcast - Great content on e-commerce here as well.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
A lot of new entrepreneurs are looking to make a quick buck. I think the most important thing is finding something that interests you. Maybe follow your passion, or find something that interests you enough that it has the potential to turn into your passion.
Starting a business is hard work. Often, it is lonely work. You have to be persistent. A lot of people give up, just before their business is about to take the next step. Working around your passion will keep you interested longer and set you up for success.
Find a mentor. A mentor isn’t necessarily an old rich guy willing to take you under his wing. Books, podcasts, masterminds, Facebook groups, can all be good mentoring opportunities. Some of my best mentors are people I’ve never had the chance to meet. I’ve just pursued the biggest experts in relevant topics and followed them.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for writers with oilfield experience.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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