Entrepreneur Advocates Podcast
Andrei Mincov: Rob, you're the inventor and co-founder of Million Dollar Collar and goTIELESS. You're found on the web at gotieless.com. Thank you for joining us, why don't we start with you telling us what goTIELESS does and what's the biggest problem you solve for your customers?
Rob: I'm not a big fan of wearing ties as men aren't so here's my wedding photo from 13 years ago now. My shirt looked terrible on my wedding day, I hated the way the front crumbled and didn't have any structure so I came home from Jamaica and invented Million Dollar Collar. It is like a collar stay except it's 9 inches long and goes down the front of your shirt. There are two companies which are Million Dollar Collar which is the technology and go TIELESS which is a dress shirt designed to be worn without a tie. My shirts are the only ones in the world that have this structure in the front so you can wear that shirt all day long it will never crumble, it will never fold. You never have to do this all day like that. Most people won't wear a dress shirt when they interview me so you're a brave soul.
Andrei: So how long did it take you to take it from the idea of "Hey my shirt didn't look great" to “Here's how you do it?”
Rob: The original concept went pretty quickly because I knew that something had to go in here and I quickly found that every shirt is made exactly the same. There are always two layers in the buttons, and the holes are there and there are two layers in the collar band and they are all sewn together with a couple of stitches right here. My very first iteration was cardboard. I knew that once I put that in my new bride was like, " I get it, I get what you've been so frustrated about all these years." I knew cardboard wasn't going to last because it had to be sewn into the shirt. If you're standing this is visible the outside is visible. It's actually in between the layers so it's really cool that it is really discreet. You always forget the collar stays, you don't have to do that with this. What took the longest was developing a material that was super lightweight, and flexible but rigid enough to hold up but the biggest thing was the heat that dry cleaners use. They flash-press your shirt at over 450 degrees. All normal plastic will just melt and I ruined about 100 shirts just figuring out the material itself. The design wasn't that complicated but the material was very complicated and that took about 3 years.
Andrei: Wow. You say you have two companies one for the technology and one for the actual shirts. Are there other companies that use your technology or are you the only one?
Rob: We're working with a couple of smaller brands and we have one of our first big brands that are about to jump on board and do a test. There are a lot of exciting things that will be happening in 2024.
Andrei: Alright, I'll take that. This is the usual dilemma of any inventor right? Do I go as my own brand or do I license it to the big guys who have already done it? It looks like you're doing both.
Rob: We've tried to license it for years and these guys... I just got off the phone two weeks ago with a major department store and their buyers are like, I don't want to be promoting your tieless shirts when we're trying to promote a tie society. You can't convince the public... If I go into your store I can guarantee you're never going to get that sale from me. That's fine, we want to work with people who want to offer their customers options. If you can't see that 70% to 80% of men rarely wear a tie and there's a market for this then you're not the right buyer for us so we'll keep moving.
We started the shirt brand as a proof of concept of the technology. We sold over 525,000 sets of Million Dollar Collar directly to consumers. Over 50,000 people have ordered and taken their shirts to their tailor.
Andrei: That's over how long?
Rob: 7 years.
Rob: Over 50,000 people have taken their shirts, they buy my technology, wait for it to come in the mail, take their shirts to a tailor, and have it sewn in. We've done it the hard way for years and then we said let's just make our own shirts, these guys aren't going to do it I'm going to make them pay attention. We'll get them.
Andrei: Awesome! Other companies to do something similar to your Technology or goTIELESS?
Rob: So there's nothing on the market that is even close, everything is around the collar itself. There is no product that goes into this part of the shirt. I've got the patent on that which is right up there and so I've got the only technology that goes inside of the shirt that stays in there. The unique thing of mine is it does go into the collar band. When I was testing I learned if you don't go into the collar band it gets this weird flop right there so if you have this really jagged... Mine goes all the way up to the top of the shirt. It's got this nice smooth straight line. We've got our bases covered, we have a worldwide patent and we're just going after it.
Andrei: The biggest thing is that there are no companies that replicate this because of your patent or because they don't notice you or is there some other reason?
Rob: I think we're still making our splash. I don't know that we're massive yet. It's funny we've met with many brands their product development person will be like I'm working on something like that and now five years later they don't have anything. For as little as I would charge to sell it to a brand at the scale, they're going to buy I don't know why you wouldn't take 2 seconds to not just buy the technology and use the goodwill of the branding we've had for 7 years and just run with it. Corporate gets really wanky when you have to deal with 4 to 7 layers of people to make a purchase.
Andrei: Tell us about your process, I am sure you had trademarks checked. How did you realize that this was something you had to do and how was your experience with that?
Rob: The patent is insanely expensive we're well into six figures on the patent. When I came home from the wedding I started tinkering around the other side when I was trying to figure out the design was there anything out there? I searched the patent trademark office, I searched the best that I could. I have a friend from high school who is an attorney, we hooked up with one of the best patent attorneys in town. I paid him to do an actual patent search. That was the first $2000 check and it really never stopped since then.
Once he did the patent search and we found out that there really is nothing else out there then we started moving full steam ahead on that.
Andrei: That's the only way to protect it right? By now as much as it hurts and stings money-wise that's the only way you have a business.
Rob: I didn't realize it when I was getting the patent but I've been told that is a revenue source. Somebody at some point is going to try to knock it off. If they don't they continue to run with the material or run with the design and sue them and make money off of all of the sales that they are making. I have the patents in all of the major countries that all of our consumers are. Anybody who tries to sell anything that is similar we're going to be all over them.
Andrei: As someone who values the brand what are you doing to protect and grow the brand? You have 3 trademarks that I found in the U.S.?
Rob: I think so yes.
Andrei: What do you do with all that?
Rob: It's just trying to tie the style to the name and we always talk about who doesn't want to look like a million bucks? That's why we came up with Million Dollar Collar and so that's where that brand name came from. goTIELESS name is a spin on another type of brand that has a non-proprietary technology. I always want to use the name of my company to explain what the product is so I never use my name it's always some kind of brand. You can't sell Rob Kessler shirts to Andrei. You have to be Rob Kessler. So I don't like to ever use my own personal name. Part of the branding is the name of the company and that explains the product so we just want to tie those together.
Andrei: It's funny how pretty much any Italian name works really well as a brand for clothing shirts not so much American names.
Rob: You see some stores and you're like you really shouldn't use your real name.
Andrei: How do you promote the brand, is it social mostly or is it paid ads? What's your strategy? How do you conquer the world? We've got a pretty good mix of paid and organic social. When we first launched Million Dollar Collar we knew it was a very demonstrative product. We needed to show what it looked like before what it looked like after and what the experience was. We went right to fashion influencers on YouTube paid them to review the product, and show it to their audience and that blew us up instantly. This gained us a lot of third-party credibility. A lot of those guys kind of burn their stuff now. The influencer world is a totally different game than it was in 2015, and 2016. We went to those guys to demonstrate the product and got a ton of people that way.
Andrei: How big is the team?
Rob: It's still just the two of us.
Rob: My mom, does pack a lot of the daily orders and our stuff for Amazon. Since she is retired it's something very simple for her to do. That gives me a reason to talk to her almost every single day which to me you can't beat. I get to talk to my mom almost every day. We try to keep it tight we invest as much money back into the company as possible to grow it. Once we start growing it we can hire some really solid people and build a team quickly.
We launched our shirts in October of 2019 so for 4 years we really weren't able to do a whole lot for 3 years. We relaunched again last Black Friday we got our shirts in which is this one a bamboo stretch, buttery soft, really nice stretch to them that are just silky smooth. Every time I put a shirt on my wife can't keep her hands off me. I'm not the only one a lot of my guy friends are like dude this shirt is a date night shirt for sure! These shirts are our third iteration, we have them all dialed in, the quality is really great and they're only $70 or 2 for $110. They're really well-priced because we want to get the technology to as many people as possible.
Andrei: It looks great. I wish it was an in-person interview where I can actually touch it but it looks great on camera, absolutely. What is your day-to-day like? All these years after what do you actually do as the owner of the company? What do you spend all of your day on?
Rob: I do a lot of outreach, between companies like Facebook, and LinkedIn, wherever I can find a connection to anybody. I'm always watching for ads and celebrities who have messed up shirts. I shoot them a little note. We're just in the let's just talk to people. I do a lot of the books because I want to know where the numbers are at, I want to know where the sales are coming from, I want to know how profitable it is with inflation and the way things are going now we're really keeping an eye on the margins and making sure things are good. I pack up the daily shirt orders. We're not overwhelmed yet, it doesn't take me that long in a day but again it gives me a chance to understand the process.
I've been in a company where I was the low man on the totem pole and I'm looking up and saying “Guys this is not a good process or a good system” while the guys on top are looking down saying this is how we do it. I really like having my hands in every aspect of the business as it grows so when we pass it on I know we've learned all those systems. Have my ear open when somebody finds a better way to do something and be able to have that conversation and learn how to make the process more seamless. I don't want to send anybody the wrong shirt, we want to minimize exchanges because that's all expenses we want to try and control.
Andrei: That's fascinating, it's interesting a lot of business owners want to get rid of day-to-day and build a team under them. Usually, I do everything by myself is looked at as a problem that needs to be solved. When you're talking about it, it actually makes sense that you're still so involved. That's fascinating.
Rob: My wife and I have done several businesses together and we've tried hiring people out and it just seems to run smoother when we do it. I know that we can't grow exponentially when you do it all yourself. There is that learning curve understanding every step of the process before you are comfortable passing it on and taking notes, That is why I do what I do and how I do it. I know when I pass it on I've given them all the information that they need and they can be successful in that role.
Andrei: You mentioned you have your patent in most countries out there and of course intellectual property is not on a per-country basis which is what makes it so expensive. Do you actually have worldwide sales or does most of come from the U.S.?
Rob: We've had sales in over 135 countries. People are just finding us, they're looking for that solution and countries that I would never even peg as getting an order from we've gotten. That's pretty exciting, I was filling in a world map of we got a sale here, we got a sale here. Yeah, 135 countries.
Rob: The challenge for me in the U.S. is people aren't into tailoring as much. In Italy and other parts of the world, we sell really easily all over Europe because going to the tailor and having a shirt tailored is normal. To them, it's super straightforward. Here people buy it off the rack and if it fits, it fits, and if it doesn't fit they return it. Not as many people get their stuff tailored. That's been a little bit of a challenge.
Andrei: Cool. So your trademark is also international or did you stop at the U.S.?
Rob: I think so, I haven't been that concerned about it.
Andrei: I didn't mean to put you on the spot there with the question.
Rob: It's literally been so long, I don't know. I get a lawyer's bill to pay and make sure that those guys are satisfied.
Andrei: I'm a founder of a trademarking company so that's why I'm asking, that's how my brain works. Always interesting to see how successful companies take care of their IP, their brands, their inventions, their copyrights, and things like that.
Rob: We partner with other people in other countries where they take our website and recreate it in their country and it gives it a local feel. I would rather do business that way. Let me send you the product 3 or 4 times a year and you just deal with it locally. We used to ship everything internationally, now if you come to our website from outside the U.S. it will redirect you to whatever Amazon is closest that we stock. We don't do any international shipping from the U.S. to our website you have to go to a local Amazon that stocks we don't mess with it. So much stuff was getting lost and the cost was getting exorbitant. We just don't even deal with it.
Andrei: You're hoping to have that big announcement for 2024 is there anything else you're working on that you're excited about?
Rob: We're getting a brand new color, we started with 3 colors the first year, and we reordered 3 times so far so we're adding a fourth color. We have black, white, and light blue which are your most basic standard colors that everybody has to have in their closet. We have a really cool white with a navy check pattern that's coming, that will be here just in time for Black Friday this year.
We want to continue to expand the shirt line but if you go to the goTIELESS website you'll see right on top it says the home of business casual. The goal is to get that site to a point where you are going to order from head to toe and know that whatever you buy from there you can walk into any situation and feel extremely comfortable that you're dressed well, put together, and have that confidence. We want to grow beyond the shirts eventually but we need to get shirts to a certain level before we do that.
Andrei: As we wrap this up let me ask you a few questions. The first one is what's your advice to other entrepreneurs and business owners who are trying to build something successful? Something you learned over the years, that allowed you to lead a successful life as a entrepreneur. What would you recommend to them, one, two, or three ideas that they can take away from this as entrepreneurs?
Rob: One don't use your name or your town or anything local because who knows how big it can get. If you're really into it to grow a business then you want to be able to sell that at some point and you should be thinking about an exit on day one. How do I get out of this business at some point? My wife and I have had... We started growing and sold 5 companies now. It's always been, we've got to a point where we've done this, it's fun, it's time for something else. We exited out of that company. I would think about that.
Number two, don't ever use your name like I said but be passionate about whatever you're doing. One of the businesses we grew very successfully was a yacht charter business when we were in Los Angeles. We're both passionate about boating, I had a friend who had a yacht charter business and I saw the potential, we got into it at the right time. We built a really successful business and we were able to sell that. It was fun because we were passionate about the experience and about being on the water and sharing that with other people.
The times it gets super frustrating the passion will help you get through those times. There are days that I wake up, and I'm like what the hell am I doing with my life? That day might be a wash and you say screw it and then you go do something else. Tomorrow you get back in and you're like I'm back in it because I am passionate about it, I'm not chasing a dollar, I'm not just trying to get paid, I'm trying to figure out a solution that is literally going to change dress shirts. There hasn't been an advancement like this since Collar Stays in 1908. It's been over 100 years since there has been a drastic change in dress shirts and it's time. That passion keeps me going.
Andrei: Nice. For the rest of the audience if they really like your shirt and they want to get themselves a tieless shirt where should they go? How should they find it? How should they know how to pick the right one for them?
Rob: goTIELESS.com. The name says it all. We have a sizing chart right on the website so we do use XS through 3XL. We have slim and a standard but there is also a sizing chart that shows you what that small is. We've got free exchanges, and free returns, we want you to be happy. I want you to put that shirt on and be telling all your friends dude you have to get one of these!
I want to make the experience as seamless, easy, and risk-free as possible. Go get a shirt, we're only shipping to the U.S. right now because internationally we can't do exchanges so if you're in the U.S. and you want to grab a shirt just go to goTIELESS.com. Throw two in your cart they're $110, $55 a shirt. It's a $100 shirt for $55, it's the best shirt you'll ever own I promise.
Andrei: Rob Kessler, the inventor and co-founder of Million Dollar Collar and goTIELESS thanks for joining us today. Again he can be found on the web at goTIELESS.com. I think it was a great interview, thanks for sharing. That was great thanks.
Rob: You bet, appreciate it.