How We Created A $150K Panama Hats Brand While Traveling The World
Hello! Who are you, and what business did you start?
It all started in 2007 when we moved to Ecuador.
We dreamed of traveling the world as a family, creating things we loved, and making the world a better place. I didn't bring any hats and was horrified to find that all the local hats looked terrible. Here I was in the motherland of Panama hat production without a hat, so I designed my own at the local hatmakers. And so it began.
Over the next year, everywhere we went, tourists would stop and ask me where I bought my hat. I slowly realized I had become a hatmaker.
Our dream was to create original weaves, rich colors, and beautiful designs and bring this art form back into the world. We geared the business to sell online to the global market, and specialize in hats that no-one else made. It became quickly apparent that selling online was not going to work, so we started doing lots of popup stores.
With a seasonal summer product range, we always needed to be somewhere warm and sunny (not Melbourne). Thus began a ten-year cycle of summer in Australia, then summer in Europe, France, and Hawaii. It was a beautiful party, but after opening 30 stores it started to wear thin, and we missed our forest home - so we sold up in 2018 and moved back to our mountain cottage, our community, chickens, old friends, and a slower pace of life.
Since then we have been developing new products and focusing on opening a local store, to house our creations. Our niche fixation on Panama hats has blossomed into a new line of beautiful things, which we are launching next year.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Imogen and I have worked together for over 20 years - meeting first in a sleep laboratory, then building a music venue together in the mountains of Melbourne. It was an intense roller coaster, embroiled in the lives of many people and dealing with a lot of very drunk Australians.
After four years, we felt trapped in it. Having parties 7 days a week for 400 people takes a lot of energy and it just wore us out. Getting out was convoluted, and for another three years, we tried unsuccessfully to escape.
Then we discovered Abraham-Hicks. We made a vision board, kept our thoughts clear and positive, and within 14 days was sold. It felt miraculous like everything had lined up and we were off on a new adventure - and so we were.
Arriving in Ecuador, there was a massive release of stress and overwork. We knew we had two years to find our next career, and that it would be perfect. Two months later, I awoke at 2 am with a powerful urge to find a perfect hat.
At the end of researching all night, I realized they didn't exist. That the world was in a drought of good hats, and that I could change all that. Essential to our plan was that we would be free to roam the world, working as locals, and enjoying this beautiful planet. No more permanent locations, and running the company as lean as possible.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I visited the local hatmakers, and after a few poor starts, finally found someone who would make a hat for me. It was rough, but everywhere I went people stopped and stared. I got used to people saying ‘great hat’. I started to take things seriously, did intensive market research, and finally worked out a plan.
You can become a world expert, in pretty much anything, in just a few years.
I would make only one hat, but it would be just right and would come in twelve different colors and weaves.
Being on extended holidays, we took our time and slowly learned how hats worked, what people liked, and most importantly, how to ‘see’ a hat.
Our first order was for 12 hats ($140), which we lost on a bus ride through the Amazon jungle. Truthfully our early hats were pretty odd. The process of learning how to ‘see’ a hat, took a while to refine. It is a subtle, delicate process of working with a very powerful and obvious clothing item. Like the cut of a suit, the subtle lines and details make all the difference in how it looks and performs.
In the early days it was obvious that most hats looked terrible, but working out why took a lot of practice. When we got it right, business flourished.
Strangely enough, after years as a hatmaker, I discovered that my grandfather was one too. He was making and distributing Stetson through New Zealand, and manufacturing hoods for the international hat trade. I believe that all the experiences of our ancestors are stored within us. My passion was born from an old ancestral leaning, that was waiting to be activated - and so it was.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Returning to Australia in 2008, Imogen was heavily pregnant, and we placed our first big order. Drawing against our mortgage, we bought $15,000 of hats and waited patiently for them to come - delay, after a delay, taught us about the realities of working with 3rd world artisans.
When they finally arrived, it was Christmas eve. Two days later, we opened our first pop-up store in beachside Sorrento and began selling our creations. It was a crazy ride - we met so many people, learned how to style, reshape, fit, and sell hats - and felt incredibly supported by everyone we met. I refined the website, designed flyers, printed signs, and organized additional markets.
Our biggest lesson was that most people just want a simple good hat, that fits properly. Our initial product range evolved rapidly until three years later, we had more than 150 models and 5 stores on three continents.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The most important thing we learned was that people felt uncomfortable buying hats. That they had experienced bad hats for so long, that it intimidated them. Our task was to hold space for them, to buy a hat that they genuinely wanted. It is almost a therapeutic process, helping them let go of past hat trauma and opening up to the possibilities.
No one walks into a hat store, without the desire to buy a hat. Actually getting them to commit to a great hat, requires a complex process of addressing their fears and concerns, and most importantly you must show them that the hat looks good.
Some customers have the confidence to trust their judgment, but most people need encouragement and proof.
Initially, we focused on doing online sales, but that was way ahead of its time. It was apparent that we needed to have highly trained professionals and very credible stores. The only complication was that it is a very seasonal product, and permanent stores were only possible in places where it was summer all year - Hawaii was the answer.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Stopping traveling had a significant impact on our life - no more running around the world, and a shift in focus to online and wholesale. Then COVID-19 kicked in and collapsed global tourism and retail - the challenge has been to regear as an online business. With an IT and marketing background, it has surprised me how much the world has changed in the last 3 years - a fully digital landscape.
We are currently opening a new store near our mountain home in December 2020. Expanding our product range into other products that we are deeply passionate about. Our summer Panama hats will behalf of our business, and we are really excited about the need for new product lines.
For 12 years we were absolutely focused on just Panama hats, and it was never really enough to keep us excited. Our niche fixation didn’t really matter to our customers, but we got stuck in a single passion which ended up being a great limitation. Now we feel free to expand into new exciting things.
Even more exciting is that we dont have to travel to another continent to run our business. Remotely managing multiple locations across the world is no fun at all. Driving five minutes down the road and doing it in our beautiful mountain community, with our family and friends is infinitely more satisfying. When the urge takes us to explore the world, it will feel more like an adventure than a chore.
If everyone thinks it is a good idea, then you are probably too late. If they all think it's crazy, then you may be onto something great.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
My most important lesson has been that you can become a world expert, in pretty much anything, in just a few years. The trick is to approximate the large things and move the ideas along. Rather than waiting for the full official version, just run with a reasonable approximation - then you can change it, and shift where you genuinely need to go. It gives you time to learn without blowing all your budget.
I have watched 98% of my competition fold in the last ten years. They have great concepts, but they don’t change because they have invested so much in what they thought was the answer. They get stuck there and then it all falls apart.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My favorite tool is my Katamasa hat sizing calipers. Exquisitely crafted to last a lifetime, and beautiful to boot. My Jiffy Steamer is fantastic too - unchanged since 1948, it is excellent industrial art.
Truthfully all of the software and business tools are not an exciting part of our life. They get the job done but feel like a chore to administer. Directly connecting with our customers is the best part of our job. Our website is a bit clunky, but it provides an elegant platform to engage with people all over the world.
Email is my favorite. I love getting to know what people are really after and helping them through the process of choice, sizing, and styling. Hopefully, this will move to more of an online fitting process, using video and direct customer contact. It’s getting there, but COVID has awoken the global customer, to other possibilities
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I see all my life as an exploration of consciousness, and so most of my reading and research involves the nature of being. This has expanded vastly in the last 13 years, although the more you learn, the bigger the inner challenges you take on.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Trust your inner excitement - it is an indicator of how good your idea is. Then do a lot of research, and write a plan. If everyone thinks it is a good idea, then you are probably too late. If they all think it's crazy, then you may be onto something great. But it could go either way, and you may be crazy - but the research will show you.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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