On this episode, we talk about how the “Field of Dreams” approach sets you up for failure, the not-so-glamorous part of being an entrepreneur, the things that entrepreneurs are scared of, and so much more!
From selling handmade leather belts and wallets out the back of his Chevy Station Wagon to becoming one of the top businesses for handmade leather hats, it’s safe to say Gary Watrous (our founder) doesn’t mess around.
He’s been perfecting his expertise for nearly 50 years and with the help of his son Garth, his daughter-in-law Hannah, his wife Merry-Lee, and several other family members who have been integrated into the business, he has been able to take American Hat Makers to new heights.
Today, Garth has assumed command and is shaping a new direction for the hat company as we know it. In 2017, Garth was elected president of the Headwear Association and has used this position to impact the worldwide hat industry.
Also known as Monterey Bay Hats, Head’N Home, American Hat Company, and American Hats, the American Hat Makers continue to bring the most durable, high-quality, handmade hats to the market.
And when we say there’s a hat for any occasion, we mean it.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
If you’re enjoying the show, we’d love it if you left Honest Ecommerce a review on Apple Podcasts. It makes a huge impact on the success of the podcast, and we love reading every one of your reviews!
Before we get started, if you're enjoying this content, you can do us a favor by subscribing to our YouTube channel and ringing the bell.
That will let the algorithm know that you like this content and it will help us produce more.
Pressure is a privilege. And I'm very, very privileged
Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game.
On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating real results.
I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.
Let's get on with the show.
Hey, everybody, welcome back to another episode of honest ecommerce. Today, I've got a really interesting interview for you.
Normally, we're talking with founders that you know, a run through the startup phase of their business. But today we're talking to a second generation entrepreneur. This is their 50th year in business.
We're talking to the chairman of American Hat Makers, Garth Watrous. Welcome to the show.
Oh, thanks for having me man. This is exciting.
I'm excited. So where does your story begin in the hat making game?
So yeah, as you can see, I don't even have it on. But I've gotten a lot of [samples here] for that. So my... So [my] father started this back in the 70s. I was born in '75. So clearly it started before I was alive.
And there are pictures of me 2 - 3 years old in the booth, on the road doing shows with dad. The first time I was 15... First time I did a show by myself, I hired my brother to drive me.
Older brother. He took half of the money that the commission for doing the show. I fired him shortly after.
And at 16 I was driving around this country with 400 or 500 hats in the back of a van setting up a booth doing festivals. So what was that? [Maybe] 1990.
Absolutely. And so the way to scale the business, the way to sell the products back in the 90s was completely different than what you guys are doing.
Now, obviously, I don't want to jump 30 years in history. But do you remember what was going on with the business when this whole internet thing happened?
And then what you guys thought about it back then?
Well, so I will touch on this because anybody that's been around this long, I think, can identify here that...
We'll fast forward 30 years here in a second but I'm going to use it as an example to compare it to back then, where our roots are based on direct-to-consumer.
But it wasn't direct-to-consumer on the internet, it was direct-to-consumer in person.
So we traveled to this country with 500,000 hats in a vehicle. We had set up a booth for 3 days. Talked to 1000s of people trying to sell them hats. Not [that] different, really.
If you think about it, fast forward to today, we have the same premise. And so when COVID happened --and we really had to rethink every shift, the business model and where we were going to commit to the next 50 years-- We...
I actually sat there and used the example in my own head and really compared it to... And direct-to-consumer has really, really worked for us. I have to learn how to do that today under this new pretense or this new opportunity.
But the actual root of the behavior isn't any different. And so a fun fact, I've never heard anyone else talk about like that we are a unique business where we started with direct-to-consumer. We've been a manufacturer the whole time.
We then converted to [the] B2B premise. And then of course, now we're a modified of all of it predominantly. We can get all the numbers later. But to answer your direct question, like "Where were we? What was happening when the internet was coming around?", I use an example of one of my friends' parents in the hat game.
His dad and my dad were both very ahead of their time. My dad was producing websites in those first couple years. We were from Silicon Valley. So even... I think he had what was called an iMac 2 or some colored... I don't even...
I'm not an Apple guy, so I'm probably butchering the whole thing. But my dad was super ahead of his time. And so we were creating some really cool websites. But the funny thing is, so he created this website, and then he would go do a show.
He'd come back, manufacture some ads, go do a show, and then in his spare time in the evening, or whatever he would work on these websites and... So that was my dad's example.
But the friend of mine, his dad, figured out that "If I created a website, but then I did internet marketing, it actually could be a business."
And I just watched the evolution of how he performed with the internet marketing side. Not the "Field of Dreams" style, where "If you build a website, they will come." He actually did internet marketing where we didn't.
So for 25 years, we built many, many websites, but never did any internet marketing. Zero besides maybe an email, right? which...
...to me is not quite internet marketing. So now, today, fast forward, literally, as I sit here and I analyze the metrics on Semrush and such, I'm comparing us to them because they're still around.
And I'm looking at, like how hard it is for us today to now go try to get market share from these competitors and be one of them.
So anyways, it's full circle. We are direct-to-consumer at our core. The only difference is we use the internet now.
Absolutely. So you kind of teed me up for my next question is, so you said over the course of the last 20 years or so you've had various forms of websites and none of them really seemed to work? What changed because it obviously it's working now?
Well, I think the premise is that without traffic, none of it works, right? Like, you can't (laughs)... You can't sell anything if you don't have people. And so it was like... In the early days of social...
And if you built a Facebook page, and you throw a post up, you'd get a bunch of traction. But as soon the algorithm changed, and all of a sudden that wasn't the case anymore. Well, the same thing happened with websites.
Early on, it was like we would pass our cards out at the show... It was pretty obvious you would run out of friends and family and no longer be able to sell online. So we think first and foremost, which is kind of a given but we kind of laugh at it because we were...
Back in the day we had zero traffic. So traffic is number one. I think that's what's changed today. But technology has changed immensely too. And we've been on almost... You name it.
If it's Magento, Bigcommerce, WordPress, we've had them all over the years and we drank the Kool Aid with Shopify.
They've made it pretty easy for a company our size. We don't have developers in-house. We don't have the resources or the manpower to be able to constantly be editing the site. It comes back with its drawbacks and it clearly has...
The company has scaled probably faster than they can support and we can get into that if you want my honest opinion.
But the fact is, it's game changing for me because I can now operate a pretty nice website at a reasonable rate.
But yeah, the biggest difference today is clearly being willing to invest in online marketing to acquire traffic.
Absolutely. And you said something earlier about the "Field of Dreams" model of a website which I thought was funny because we always...
It's like one of the first questions that I ask people when they work with us and they're like "Alright, we want to do a really really awesome website you know it makes it really cool, unique, fast..."
Whatever buzzword they want to throw at it. And I'm like "That's great. We can do that. But how are we getting people to see this thing?"
What's the plan after that? So it's like you know, a very easy way to think about it is like you can build the best physical retail store ever.
But if it's out in the middle of the country with no directions to get to it, who's going to visit that thing?
You're building in a town of 10,000 people and maybe 67 of them actually like your product it's been very hard for you to maintain. More scale, let's call it. And today...
You want to get... Let's get into the fun stuff. Okay. Paid [marketing] right? So what we're finding on the paid side...
And we leaned into it heavily after COVID. It's pretty hard to be profitable on the front end. It's tough manufacturing in America. You gotta tough margins.
I'm willing to break even on the front. Push, push push as hard as I want. But then I learned it's just... Do I have everything else in play, right?
Do I have all of the retargeting, customer retention... What's my LTV if I don't know my numbers, so on and so on.
This game is about tenths of points. Not whole numbers, right? If I can get a ROAS up a 10th or I can get my conversion of a 10th, I can be profitable.
So, the conversations over the last 3 years have changed immensely. It's not just about traffic anymore. What am I going to do with that traffic?
And I'm probably jumping ahead on this conversation. But this is the challenge that I'm having now. It's no longer about "Can I get traffic to my site?" Because, I can do that.
Because that just takes money. I throw enough money at this, I can get as many people as I want to my site. Now to get them to buy and get them to come back and buy again, a whole another conversation.
Absolutely. So this is something that comes up all the time, with LTV as a calculation, I think it's unique to every business. How do you guys quantify what your LTV is? Do you have... What's your secret magic formula?
So LTV today... The fundamentals for me, obviously, is how many repeat customers and I can get really granular and get down these rabbit holes. But I tend to look at average order value, I tend to look at the repeat...
When they're buying again, are they buying 123? We have about 30% LTV, 30% Repeat, $100 - $120 average order value based on time of year. And so it's not very hard...
Because our numbers are... Anytime I'm working with a number of 100, it tends to be pretty easy to figure out your calculations. But that's 50 years of history.
I think one of the challenges that we're having is as we push into a new market as we scale the company, what's that going to do to LTV? I'm literally acquiring a brand new customer. I don't know if they're gonna love me. I don't know if they're gonna want a second hat. We always...
We also run into a challenge where our hats are really good quality and they last a while and so somebody doesn't need a second one in a month. It's not supplements.
I wish my dad had started a supplement company. I might be interviewing you. But anyways, LTV I think is a very important bar. And I think the harder question is, "How do I increase my LTV?"
"How do I increase my average order value much more than what it is specifically? But yeah, knowing your numbers, I think in this game... [If] you ever want to be profitable long term, you better know your numbers.
Sponsor: Electric Eye
If you're struggling with scaling your sales, maybe Electric Eye can help.
Our team has helped our clients generate millions of dollars in additional revenue through our unique brand scaling framework. You can learn more about our agency at electriceye.io. That's E-L-E-C-T-R-I-C-E-Y-E.io.
Mesa is the easy to use answer for automating the everyday challenges of running a Shopify store.
Find more "aha moments" when you're spending less time in the weeds and can focus on the bigger picture.
With automations, you have all the power of code without the learning curve. You can easily customize how Shopify and your apps work with one click integrations.
From auto tagging orders to sending order details to a Shopify customer database, Mesa connects your data where it's needed most.
To put it quite simply, Mesa is a better way to work. So find your peace of mind and kick up your feet with a simplified workload to manage the everyday stress of running your Shopify store.
Search for Mesa, that's M-E-S-A, in the Shopify app store and download the app today
Free plan available with a no cost setup included.
Our partner, Rewind, can protect your Shopify store by automatically backing up your business critical data.
Rewind should be the first app you install to protect your store against human error misbehaving apps or collaborators gone bad.
It's like having your very own magic undo button.
Trusted by over 100,000 businesses from side hustles to the biggest online retailers like Knix, Paul Mitchell, and Pampers.
Best of all, visit rewind.com/honestecommerce to get your first month absolutely free.
Getting an online business off the ground isn't easy.
So if you find yourself working late, tackling the to-do list that's a mile long with your 5th cup of coffee by your side, remember, great email doesn't have to be complicated. That's what Klaviyo is for.
It's the email and SMS platform built to help Ecommerce brands earn more money by creating genuine customer relationships.
Once you set up a free Klaviyo account, you can start sending beautiful branded messages in minutes thanks to drag and drop design templates and built-in guidance.
And with Ecommerce specific recommendations and insights, you can keep growing your business as you go.
Get started with a free account at klaviyo.com/honest. that's K-L-A-V-I-Y-O.COM/HONEST.
Yeah, I mean, here's my quick spiel on LTV. So over the agency we've got 3 numbers we care about and it's conversion rate, lifetime value and sessions.
Well average order value but average order value lends itself to time value anyway.
So to increase your AOV, your average order value, it just comes down to bundles, cross-sells, and upsells.
It's basically your offer at the end of the day.
So it's... You know your product better than me, but it's like "How do we get more on this cart? Is there something that goes well with the hat purchase?"
I don't think people are gonna buy two hats at once, but maybe there's a care kit or better box to keep it in, etc. Those are things... I'm just spitballing here.
But you know, getting that AOV up on the first purchase and every other kind of substantive purchase that comes after it, that's going to be how you increase that LTV over the long run.
Yeah! And I give you... I don't know who's all listening to this, but one of the things... A couple of years ago, I'm hanging out with a lot of guys on the subscription side and they were willing to break even on the front and even lose money on the front of the subscription.
My clientele is a little bit older, and hitting them with an $8or $14 charge a month, like I already knew that was gonna be a customer service's nightmare in chargebacks and all that.
I didn't feel that that was where we wanted to go in building a brand long term. But I took the concept and I applied it on the front end. And so I...
We sell 2 things, Rush My Order, $7.77 and Lifetime Refurb, which is so interesting, because our hats are already guaranteed for life but because it's free, there's no value there.
So we started charging $11.77 for Lifetime Refurb and our take rates were about 4% with about 98% - 99% margin on that. So you can do the math.
It only increased our average order value by 6% - 7%. But increased our margin considerably better, much more than that.
Yeah. But I can use your words back to you just now. You said "This isn't a... This is a game of tenths."
That was a huge win.
Yeah, game changing win. And it's game changing in the bottom line, not so much the top line.
But as the saying goes, "It's not how much you make, it's how much you keep." And so little tweaks like that where I was "Eh... Subscription? I don't… I'm not feeling that."
But how can that apply to my business and what are the little tweaks I could make? And people fascinate me. I'm not not much of a shopper myself. People love to throw shit in their cart, right?
Because they want to add shit. And so giving them the ability to move to the front of the line with this order for $7 - 8%, they're like...
Can't add it to the cart quick enough. But again, finding those little tenths here and there are game changers.
Absolutely. And I think it's funny that, you know, people love to love to shop, like you said. and I don't know if you've gotten much into the rabbit hole of apps like Hotjar or any of those where you can watch people interact with your website, the way people interact with your website.
And this is [for] anyone listening, not just you, Garth.
They're using it in a way you never thought possible or never even considered because it's just so goofy, how people interact with these things sometimes.
And it's just because we're so close to it. And obviously myself, I'm broken. All I do is look at Ecommerce websites like so I can figure out how to buy something on anything. So I'm like the worst person to test.
But for your average shopper, the way they interact with stuff, things that they think should be buttons that aren't, or things that they think should expand or won't, it's wild to see.
So you can find a lot of really cool insights on those things.
Yeah, the one that always fascinates me is the rage click right?
That's it. (laughs)
Oh it's the best, right? You end up finding... Yeah. You're like, "What? This guy is pissed, right?"
Okay, why is he pissed? How can we solve this in the future so nobody else has this problem?
Yeah, it is funny, because it's one of those areas that I haven't taken a lot of time to sit and watch. My attention span is like 37 seconds.
And so it's really hard for me to watch somebody else surf around the internet. But, I've seen enough examples of rage clicking to go "Oh we should probably make this a little bit more friendly."
And it's also I think, just as we become more and more mobile, that the majority of the site's today really just aren't... They didn't...
They said they were mobile compatible but weren't mobile first. Even our site, we built it 3 years ago, we weren't mobile first, we were mobile compatible and there's a huge difference.
And we're even entertaining, we're back to the website build, but we're entertaining a new site again, because we built it on a damn tank.
Just because it's on Shopify doesn't mean that the theme is sweet. So we picked the best theme and in turn, we're talking about building those sites.
Absolutely. Going back to... You yourself took on the role of interim Digital Marketer at your business to help get the Ecommerce stuff off the ground. How did you tackle that?
Because I'm assuming there's a lot of listeners out there that would love to hire someone smarter than them but it's not in the cards just yet.
So how did you educate yourself and learn the ropes with helping to bring real qualified traffic to your business?
God... Fire... Hire fast and fire faster. And we've probably gotten through 20 agencies overall and that's not... Those aren't all paid agencies.
I think that you're bringing in team members. One, they might be smart, but are they compatible? I'm always crowdsourcing and so if it's... I have a lot of friends in the space. And so I ask them all the time or I just watch what they do.
And, you know, I also have my right-hand guy here. [He] is a crowdsourcing as well, but he does it through digital forums. And so we complement each other. I don't get mine from written material. I get mine from verbal. And so I'm always asking.
I think that's the number one thing. I think most people are just scared to ask, scared to talk, scared to admit fault or failure, or...
We fail miserably. I can't tell you how many times we've spent $10,000 on shit nothing.
We write that check and go "God, scrap it, that is garbage. Get that thing out of here. Get it off my site." Or whatever.
Where I think back in the olden days, $10, whoopses, we just didn't make them. In print ad and wholesale, B2B side of the business outside of maybe doing a trade show and failing, you're really...You don't have those catastrophic failures.
You don't build a site, three years later, you want to build another one, which is a huge amount of money in the game. But I think failing..
I think hiring, like I said, you are going to have to take a chance on somebody, and you're going to have to clean the house when it fails. Yeah, I guess those are the 2 biggest ways to learn.
But I'm also a curious kind of guy. I like to be intelligent, I like to be educated. And so I tend to... We're going to spend more this year on marketing than our gross sales 3 years ago.
And so it was kind of common sense for me to say, like, "If I don't engage in this side of the business, it could bankrupt us literally in a 90 day period."
The amount of money flushing through the marketing department is so substantial that I don't know that you get to claim back out if you mess up for any period of time. 30 days, maybe you're fine. 90 [days], you start getting into some big cash flow issues.
And so I knew right away that it's the amount of cash that had to go through the marketing department to scale the way I wanted to scale. I needed to be involved. But I needed to be involved...
I needed to know enough about marketing, to engage in the conversation but I needed to learn cash flow. I need to learn lead times. I needed to learn global supply chain. I need to learn logistics...
All of the sudden, the role of me changed in the sense I needed to add all of these tools, not just the marketing because that scale was sudden. I needed to be good at all these other areas I just mentioned.
I mean, you answered the question, my next question that I was gonna ask. So you wanted to be comfortable enough to be able to talk about it, but I'm assuming you're delegating a lot of this stuff off your plate, right?
Oh, we have just hired a CMO, I hired a Director of Growth. We have multiple agencies we work with. I got four SEO partners.
So yeah, at this point, we're well connected in the community, trying to then... Now I'm trying to hire internal. So that's the...
I'm literally talking about hats I wear and like a part-time recruiter. And literally, I shouldn't even say part time, I'm a half-time recruiter.
And as we all know, in this space, it's highly competitive now and everybody... The demands. Everybody wants equity. I'm like, "What?" So it's comical. 50 years are handed on equity. I don't know.
But it's obvious to reach my goals. And I think that some of my mentors would have helped me accept the reality that, one, I can't be the smartest guy in the room. That's a given. Now, I'm not lacking intelligence. And so that hasn't been easy.
And this probably sounds egotistical, but it doesn't... It's not easy to hire somebody that is smarter than I am unless I'm willing to break the bank. But the company can't support that today.
So now it's like, "How do I bridge the gap? I can't hire him for today, because the budget doesn't support him today. I have to hire them for tomorrow and be willing to stomach that pain short term to get to that to be able to afford them."
And I think when you're a startup, that's a very hard equation unless somebody's Silicon Valley and then something like PE Money or something that's just handing out millions of dollars. Well, that's great. But everybody else doesn't... Really that's not really their story.
And so how do I bridge this gap and bring it as a talent to get me to the next level when I really can't afford them.
So American hat makers is the 50 year old startup.
Well, we laugh about any... I've heard this for years. So I surely didn't create this line. But yeah, the overnight success, it just took 50 years. My dad had done a really, really, really good job to keep the lights on. Really good job. These lights didn’t turn off for 50 years and so you have to own that and commend that. But those weren't my goals.
I don't come here to keep the frickin lights on. It better be on because I want to reach these goals. And so now how do I do that? What would be the next step in the journey? Am I willing to risk it? Am I willing to beg, borrow and steal to get there? And I think that at the end of the day, I'm...
I have pretty big shoulders. And I'm built for the pressures that it's going to take us to grow at this rate.
Let's talk about that real quick before we go. The stress of being an entrepreneur and running the show.
People like to talk about the glorious parts of being an entrepreneur: Working for yourself, making your own hours.
Usually making quite a bit of money. But there's also the other side to it. Then the "not-so-fun" side: You have to, you have to show up every day. You have to pay bills when they're due, you have to make decisions that are hard.
Yeah. And not be an asshole.
People don't want to work for a bummer guy. And so you got to handle all of that and be present and loving and supportive.
And empathy is not my strong suit but at the end of the day, I need some of that. So people want to be part of the team. They want to be on the team. They want...
I want them to tell their friends they're comfy on the team. And I think I think that's overestimated sometimes that culture really, really matters. If you want to build something that's sustainable, talent is the way you build it.
And the only way you attract good talent is to have somewhere that people want to come. And people can tell they walk in the facility, they're like "You're good or you're not." You can't hide that. Energy is real. I'll just touch a little bit on the...
The struggle is real. This isn't glamorous, I'm the last one to get paid. My hustle is substantial. And so the hats themselves weren't enough. And I'm hungrier than that even though I'm over here 40 - 50 - 80 hours. Then I got my side hustles, man.
I'm working nights and weekends on real estate and stuff. And so I've been blessed with more skills than just to run this company. But that also has created more pressures and responsibility outside of here.
But I've been gifted or blessed that I've been willing to take those chances on my off-hours to go out and get that side hustle that then has taken some pressures off the hat.
The luxuries of having multiple streams of revenue have created a lot of flexibility for me and taking the pressure off of cash flow allows us to scale at this pace.
So what I can tell you is that you probably want to get a side hustle, especially early on to accumulate some cash, because you're gonna need it if you want to scale.
That's some pretty good advice right there. Garth, is there anything that I didn't ask you about that you want to share with our audience today?
I'll Just touch on family, man. I got a 2-year old, it's our third kid. And I'm trying to do all of this and be present for my son. And it's hard, man. I'm drained, man.
I'm up at 3:30 or 4:00 AM. And by the time the day ends, like how do I then love him and be present for him? And I just put a shout out there. I don't have it figured out. Surely don't have this thing whooped. But it's definitely...
I'm discussing it and having this opportunity to become a better father. Because why are we doing this if it's not for that?
No, I think that's a sage words. I think it's humbling that you can admit things like that like "I don't have it figured out and we've been doing this quite a long time."
I think a lot of the listeners out there will find themselves in that statement as well and knowing that they're on that same path with you.
Yeah, it's health and food and gym. Yeah, I got a Coke before this interview and I haven't had breakfast. So anyway, you know, I don't have it figured out.
I'm a super driven individual. And if I apply that to all areas of life, then I run out of time.
But again, pressure is a privilege. And I'm very, very privileged.
Absolutely. Now, if people are curious about the product that we've been talking about, where should they go?
American Hat Makers. Americanhatmakers.com. We've got you know, every... You can... If you're watching, you can see some of the hats up on my wall. They're my samples. They're my personal collection.
But everything from cowboy, to top hat, to sun hat, straw hats, Fedoras, felt... All kinds of felt. So [we have a] very wide range. We [have a] price point, multiple price points, so we really have something for everyone.
Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the show today, Garth.
Alright. I can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us.
We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes.
Make sure you head over to honestecommerce.co to check out all the other amazing content that we have. Make sure you subscribe, leave a review. And obviously if you're thinking about growing your business, check out our agency at electriceye.io. Until next time.