This is a follow up story for Ashland Leather. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 2 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
My name is Phil Kalas. I am the co-founder of Ashland Leather Co. in Chicago, Illinois. It’s great to be invited back to Starter Story.
At Ashland, we handcraft premium men’s leather wallets that are guaranteed for a lifetime. All of the wallets and leathers are made using old-world techniques and are designed to improve with age. We are very much a local business in the sense that everything is made in Chicago. We use leather exclusively from the famous Horween Leather Co. in Chicago. Horween Leather has been in continuous operation in Chicago since 1905. Ashland leather started a meer 106 years later in 2011. All of our items are also crafted in Chicago. Leather is a passion for me. I love the sensory characteristics of leather. The look, feel, texture, luster, and even smell of the leather is why I developed a wallet to carry with us all day and every day.
Since we last chatted our business has grown significantly. About 20% from last year. Almost all of the growth has been organic via word of mouth. A lot of this has been from a new effort I am making to put up daily videos on YouTube. Further, Ashland Leather is no longer a side project for me. I have decided to take responsibility as a full-time commitment.
At Ashland Leather, we make small leather goods like wallets, belts, and watch straps from the finest leather in the world, Horween Leather. We have cultivated a nice following of folks that are willing and able to take the time to appreciate what is different about the leather we use. It takes a special person to take the time to look closely at this material, use their five senses (taste only if you are adventurous!), and be able to tell the difference.
Right now our most popular wallet style is our Johnny the Fox. All of our models are named after Chicago gangsters and this bi-fold is what most people envision when you say the word “wallet.”
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
Our business has grown by about 20% over the last year. I believe a large part of this is due to word of mouth. We are a bit over the top with customer service. I show daily photos of most of the wallets that ship out on our Facebook page. I post daily videos on YouTube talking about my obsession with leather and showing off wallets that are shipping each day. We have a new instant message function on our website that goes directly to my cell phone.
Every customer that places an order gets a personal thank you video from me (check out Bonjoro - it's great!). People love getting a personal video sent to them. I get incredible engagement from happy customers. This image below shows that I have sent 2281 videos, 67% of them opened the email, 54% watched the video, 25% clicked a like button, 4% clicked a link to my website, and 13% of them replied to the email. Check out these stats. A 67% open rate seems incredible!
We accommodate semi-custom orders and get customers exactly what they are looking for. I really want to do things that Amazon dot com cannot do. I try to think of our e-commerce business more like a brick and mortar experience where you really get to know the folks behind the website. Folks that actually care about you. For all of these reasons, I think people like to share their positive experience with Ashland Leather and we get a large number of repeat customers and referrals.
Let me share some info on our YouTube channel. I started off the channel just to share more about my passion for leather and not with the intent of getting subscribers. We are now over 1000 very engaged and passionate subscribers. We started off getting about 50 views a day. Now we regularly hit 1000 views per day. We are still a very small channel and 1000 views per day are nothing to brag about. However, we have seen a very large increase in sales from this.
We have added two employees in the last year. One of them is me. I felt the need to put extra effort into the side business. And with the support of my now ex-employer, Horween Leather, have decided to take Ashland Leather full time. Leaving Horween was bittersweet for me because I loved having a small part in making the leather and seeing all of the new colors, textures, and different leather types every day. The tannery is located just down the block from our workshop so I do get regular chances to drop in and visit.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
The biggest lesson that I have learned over the last year is that everything takes longer than I imagine it does. I am learning to be patient and figuring out that I cannot do every project that I want. What ends up happening is that I work about 70 hours per week and still feel unaccomplished. I haven’t yet figured out the solution for this but I am going to try a radical new idea: Scheduling personal time instead of work time. Sort of a reversal from the norm. For example, I want to schedule blocks of time to spend time with my wife, work out at the gym, work on musical projects that I love (my band is called Outrun the Sunlight -- if you like progressive rock check it out), time for video games, time for friends, etc. All of the work activities will have to fall in place around these other interests.
We have figured out in the workshop that we have more good ideas than we have time for. To combat this good idea overload we have a whiteboard in our workshop that has a list of these ideas. Every time a good idea pops up we don’t just talk about it. We write it on the board and review those ideas every week. If it still seems like an idea worth pursuing we leave it on the board. If it doesn’t we erase it.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
The big plan for Ashland this year is to introduce the world to more Horween Leather. Currently, we sell a very large amount of extremely high-priced shell cordovan leather items. The shell cordovan costs about $100 per square foot and, because of that high price, the wallets are $200-300. There is an incredible amount of other amazing leather from Horween that is one-tenth of the price at about $10 per square foot. My plan is to offer more leather goods out of these equally nice leathers and colors at a lower price point of around $75.
The goal has been to evangelize the world with high-quality leather and share my passion for this material to as many people as possible. A lower price point should help with that goal.
As for a five year goal: We currently are having a hard time keeping up with our current demand for wallets. We will need to expand to be able to fulfill the demand for wallets. After that, I feel that we still haven’t fully realized our potential to watch straps and Apple Watch bands. We will grow our watch band and watch strap audience by getting more competitive on price. We have just re-tooled a very nice design for casual leather belts that I find very compelling. I think there is a large opportunity for us with belts, especially with shell cordovan belts. I have yet to design a shell cordovan belt that I am fully happy with but this will be a big, big one once we figure it out.
After we realize our full potential with wallets, watch straps, and belts I plan to venture into the world of leather bags and leather tech accessories. The way I see Ashland Leather in 2025 is similar to how Coach was in the 1970-1990s. If you find some Coach products from that time period you will immediately notice the difference in quality from then and now. I really liked their older products with a more naturally finished, aniline leather. I wish they would bring that back. And if they don’t...I will be there to do it for them.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I have really been into audiobooks recently because I can listen to them while crafting leather, taking photos, and even as a nice bedtime story. I have really been into Malcolm Gladwell again. Back when I was in college The Tipping Point came out and inspired the inception of another local Chicago company: the now-famous Groupon. I was in business school at this time and became interested in him at that point but didn’t read or listen again until recently with the release of Talking to Strangers. I really enjoyed that book and then I picked up Outliers which I enjoyed even more.
I find myself thinking more now about culture, chance, hustle, grit, and just randomness that has put me into a position of owning my own company and, fortunately, being successful at it. Gladwell has given me a small insight into me in “Outliers”.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
I still like my answer from our last interview together. It comes down to philosophy and drives. Why are you starting your business? What can you offer? Do people want it? Are you willing to sacrifice sleep to pursue this? You must have a passion for your project and maintain it (even without results) for a year or more. You will probably lose money. If you aren’t completely driven with a clear path ahead of you, the business will fail. Read books, get inspired, put your head down, and get to work.
If you are looking to start a business please feel free to email me directly. I will be happy to bounce ideas and thoughts back and forth with you. My email address is [email protected]
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are not currently hiring at Ashland. But if you have a passion for leather I probably want to help you and hear from you.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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