How Rob Kessler Invented A Permanent Collar Stay for Dress Shirts
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I am Rob Kessler inventor and co-founder of Million Dollar Collar, the world’s first permanently installed placket stay.
It makes casually worn dress shirts look amazing unlike any other product ever offered. Our customers are image-conscious men and women who know that clothing speaks for them and they hate looking sloppy in a dress shirt.
Million Dollar Collar has already helped people in 100 countries upgrade 200,000 of their own dress shirts, and aims to change the dress shirt industry as a whole just like Non-Iron and Collar Stays did in the past.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I came up with the idea for Million Dollar Collar after looking at my wedding photos and being disappointed in the way of my shirt looked on the biggest day of my life.
It takes 10 times more work, 10 times more contacts, 10 times more money, and 10 times more energy than you ever think it well to start a company no matter how great your idea is.
It was a casual beach wedding held in Jamaica and before I could even say "I DO", my brand new, pressed shirt looked like a sloppy mess. As soon as we returned home from the wedding I started cutting open dress shirts and testing materials.
The first iteration that I showed my new bride was made of cardboard and with surprise, she finally understood what I had been complaining about for years. After testing every plastic in my house, milk carton, mini-blinds, and Zip-Ties, I moved onto the open plastics market.
I then decided to partner with a plastics company to develop a material that could handle the heat of dry-cleaning, be installed once and last a lifetime of any dress shirt.
I have no real background in this industry, I just like solving problems and this one seemed to be an obvious fix for me. I tested and ruined nearly 100 dress shirts while trying to figure out the right materials and design for what is now known as Million Dollar Collar.
I talked to tons and tons of people wearing dress shirts and pursued getting a patent for the idea while I was developing the product. At the time I had my real estate license and was running my screen printing and embroidery business called NEWD, which stands for Nothing Else Will Do, a company I started from a spare bedroom in my house and grew completely organically to $1M in sales.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I’ve never designed a product before so I didn’t really know where to start. So naturally, I started with what I knew, collar stays prevented the collar from curling so I started with the plastic similar to collar stays. While I was testing materials I was also perfecting the universal design of our placket stay.
Every shirt I tested seemed to be very similar in construction which helped in moving forward. We had dozens of designs for what the style of the stay would look like and after doing an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign where we were going to make and sell our own dress shirts we realized that the universal fitting product was what the customers we’re really looking for.
So even after I thought I had the design down I had to make serious adjustments. It turned out that dry cleaning uses extreme temperatures when they flash press a shirt in the final steps. Up to 450°F which would melt and/or deform any standard plastic on the market.
That is why I worked with an international plastics company to develop the material so that it was lightweight, rigid enough to hold up the weight of the collar, soft enough to be sewn through, heat resistant enough to handle the heat of dry cleaning and wouldn’t ruin anyone’s shirt.
Our company actually pivoted before we even launched. Through our Kickstarter, we received unequivocal feedback with 2 questions.
- “Why try to compete with all the other brands” and
- “Why can’t we upgrade the shirts we already own?”
A lot of R&D went into perfecting not only the material but the design of the stay. Since we were also designing a dress shirt which we spent a significant amount of money on a project we ended up scraping.
Patents are expensive. It was a long 2 1/2 year process of back-and-forth with the patent office and our attorney but we finally found out it was approved while on the cross-country move with my wife.
This is a picture of some of the different stay designs.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I had been talking about this idea with one of my friends and clients from my screen printing business and he expressed interest in being a part of it.
We didn’t see it as a failure but as a learning experience and opportunity to gain insight from actual paying customers.
Steve Farina came on early as my co-founder and business partner in Million Dollar Collar. He is really good with graphic design, website development and the side of the business that I don’t really understand, which is why we are great partners.
As I mentioned before, we tried to do a Kickstarter campaign which we did not reach our goal. To us, it was a blessing in disguise because we got the answers that we were really looking for from the general public. While we still sold $16,000 worth of dress shirts, it was well short of our $40,000 goal. We didn’t see it as a failure but as a learning experience and opportunity to gain insight from actual paying customers.
We bootstrapped as much as we possibly could from the beginning and still do to this day. Steve and I both have made decent amount of money in our other ventures, so we were usually able to pay for things as they came up while building and developing the company and the product. As bigger opportunities arose, we accessed used credit cards and other loan types to fund growth.
We officially launched the company in January 2016. Slowly, month-over-month our sales would increase, but it wasn’t until we hired a YouTube fashion influencer, that we really saw jump in sales.
The biggest lesson that we’ve learned from starting this and our previous companies is that it takes 10 times more work, 10 times more contacts, 10 times more money, and 10 times more energy than you ever think it well to start a company no matter how great your idea is. We are now three years into sales and we’re finally understanding who the customer is how to speak to them and reaching out into other sales avenues.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
It all starts with a great product and great customer service.
I am a freak about customer service and their experience so, I will go above and beyond to ensure that my customers get a great product and have a great experience. Which is really hard to do when you’re relying on outside companies to handle the final steps of your product.
But we’ve done the best we can and we try to prepare customers for what they will expect to minimize objections later.
We use Shopify as our e-commerce platform and they have a ton of great apps to help you with referrals and to re-target customers that have visited your website.
We use those fairly well and look to outside consultants to maximize the effectiveness of those apps and the experience.
As I mentioned before we used fashion influencers on YouTube to grow our audience and visibility. There are thousands of influencers on YouTube. We started by messaging them directly to try to get their attention. We soon found that the big ones are all managed by the same group, so we worked through them. We learned a big lesson, the smaller guys are actually more influential. One of the smallest guys we worked with, was actually the most effective. When you have 225,000 subscribers, you’re relatively unknown, so the people that follow you, really care about what you have to say. The guy with 2 Million subscribers has a lot of followers and a lot of haters.
We offered every one of them a revenue share option, but none took it, which is a shame, for them and for us. We would have more videos and they would have made a lot more money. Influencers range from $500 to $50,000 for a single video, and everything in life is negotiable, so see what they are really willing to do. If you don’t ask, the answer is always NO.
For years we tried and tested dozens of different Facebook ads and Instagram promotions but we now divert our efforts to the experts and have hired a great company to assist in that area.
We are currently running ads on Google, Facebook and YouTube along with regular posts on Instagram.
Our product is such a visual product we need to find avenues that really show the before and after to try to relate our product two other things that people think about. Recently, I ran an ad comparing a wrecked car to a wrecked dress shirt and it was very effective for us. Nobody wants to drive around in the smashed up car why would you walk around in a disheveled, sloppy shirt?
We send out a monthly newsletter that does not sell our products or ever mention our product as a unobtrusive way to stay in front of our customers.
We originally hired to PR firms who both took A LOT of our money and ran with no results so I would highly recommend not ever talking to a PR firm, they are obsolete today.
Refer to Mark Cuban’s feelings about PR if you don't believe me. :) https://www.businessinsider.com/mark-cuban-dont-hire-a-pr-firm-2014-12
Referrals and sharing are two big areas where we haven’t focused as much energy as we’d like to but are currently working on those avenues.
When it’s a two-man team sometimes things take a backseat even though they may seem necessary. The customer that is in front of your face, has been to your website or has purchased your product is a lot more likely to share it with a friend and is easier to communicate with than trying to find a new customer.
While I was hesitant at first to place our products on Amazon, it has been a great opportunity for us to get in front of customers we might not typically be able to reach.
They are expensive but the sales and the customers are worth it. We actually saw a decline in sales when we started running ads, so if you list your product properly I don’t think that the ads are necessary.
You have to find ways to reach the customer through Amazon since you get hardly any information. Our product has a little bit different sales cycle than most so traditional follow up doesn’t typically work but we know the mailing address works because they’ve already received the product so we go old-school and send mailers direct to the customer along with promotional materials inside product packaging.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today is insanely exciting. Are we profitable? Not quite, but we’re darn close.
While on the surface our product may look inexpensive, it is anything but. By the time you add up the packaging, shipping, the patent, marketing, and all those other expenses it’s actually quite expensive. But that’s not what most customers understand. So we spend a lot of time and energy building value in what the product does for the consumer, not just in what the product looks like.
I will tell you one thing, if you aren’t making mistakes, that means you’re not pushing the envelope and you’re never going to be wildly successful.
By the end of this year we will be at about 200,000 lifetime units sold, which is pretty exciting. While our sales are down a touch from last year it is because we have shifted our focus to the next phase of our business, which is on the installers of our products. Dry cleaners and tailors, along with custom clothier‘s offer us a much larger growth potential as they see more dress shirts in a day than we ever could talk to, but take a little bit longer to explain the product to an implement.
The final phase of our company will be to sell directly to dress shirt brands and manufacturers to install the product at production. Unfortunately, while we have proven that customers really want the product the old-time thinking, and the antiquated mentality of these businesses it’s making it prohibitive for them to see the opportunity in the innovation.
We are having some very exciting conversations with dress shirt brands in the possibilities for our company are endless. I can promise you we have heard more NO’s than almost any other company but we plug through because when the first yes happens it’s going to be crazy.
We currently operate as a two-man team with me in Los Angeles and my partner in Madison, Wisconsin but hopefully with a good year ahead of us, he will transfer out here as well with his new wife.
Short term goals like next year would be to lock up a couple medium sized brands, grow our installer list from 500 to 1500 locations, open a few international distribution centers and continue to provide an excellent product and excellent customer service.
The long-term BHAG goal for our company is to become the new standard and dress shirts where every quality shirt will have Million Dollar Collar installed just like they have collar stays and many have wrinkle-free fabrics.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I will tell you one thing, if you aren’t making mistakes, that means you’re not pushing the envelope and you’re never going to be wildly successful.
If anyone thinks were going to get into business, do it all right by not making any wrong decisions, wrong moves, or wrong choices is just plain crazy. Innovation and success comes from pushing the limit and trying things that other people aren’t willing to do.
We have been screwed over royally by a number of outside contractors so we’ve learned now that everything is results based. If you’re getting hired by us you better follow through with what you say you’re going to do or you’re not getting paid. We’re too small to allow people to take our money without doing what they say they’re going to do.
Definitely the best decision we made was the YouTube fashion influencers, that and me following through with this crazy idea I had to change the dress shirt forever.
I don’t believe in luck I think luck happens when you work hard and put yourself in the right situations and believe in what you’re doing. I love this quote from Grant Cardone “The harder I work the luckier I get.” The more opportunities you give yourself to succeed the better chance you will have to get in-front of that person that could change your life.
One of my habits is to get fully dressed for the day. Even though I work from home I wake up take a shower and dress like I’m going to meet the next guy that’s going to make my company explode. I also create a daily to do list and make sure that I accomplish one or two big things along with a bunch of smaller less important things to ensure that every day we are moving forward as a company.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We love Shopify so much we use it for multiple businesses. It’s really user-friendly, offers a lot of analytics, and the apps are really diverse.
We rely heavily on different apps from Bold along with Judge.me and the Retarget app is probably the most effective.
Shipping is all done through ShipStation which is all automatic, tied in with Salesforce for CRM and WebGility to get all of our sales into QuickBooks desktop.
Steve and I stay in touch across the country through a number of Google apps along with Evernote and Wunderlist.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
You know that the average successful CEO reads nearly 60 books per year and makes 319 times more per year than the average employee. I don’t want to be average.
I love business and motivational books and have both a large audible.com library as well as a physical library. Some of my favorite authors include Tony Robbins, Grant Cardone, Tim Feriss and Chris Voss.
Some must reads and books include Think and Grow Rich, Good to Great, Blue Ocean Strategy, and The One Thing.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My advice for entrepreneurs is, don’t do it because it’s a cool thing to do, do it because you’re passionate about your thing. It is not an easy road, it is not sexy, and if you are not prepared for it, it will break you. I am very fortunate to have a supportive wife, support a business partner, and supportive family, but it still isn’t easy.
I’d also recommend not raising money. Find a way to make it work within your means. You will know you are passionate about it, if you are willing to sacrifice everything else to make this thing happen. I have given up more than anyone, other than my wife, will ever know to build a successful business.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for talented people to put into the right places. We recently hired a Licensing Person to handle some of the big conversations we are having right now. We also recently hired someone to help us finalize the build-out of our email marketing.
2019 will be the year of explosive growth for Million Dollar Collar and we will be looking to hire some exceptional people to contribute to and support that growth.
Where can we go to learn more?
- [email protected]
Million Dollar Collar has provided an update on their business!
About 3 years ago, we followed up with Million Dollar Collar to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
About 2 years ago, we followed up with Million Dollar Collar to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
11 months ago, we followed up with Million Dollar Collar to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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