Jimmy Hickey is the Founder of Findlay Hats, a store that sells hats that have useful and customizable laces and hidden pockets.
In this episode you’ll learn how he drove $28,000 from a single post on Reddit that went viral.
In this episode, we discuss:
- How to validate a product on Instagram.
- How to balance life as a freelancer while launching a product business.
- What are "magic moments" and how to create them for your customer.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
Felix: In this episode, you’ll learn how an entrepreneur drove $28,000 from one Borrow Reddit post. In this episode, you’ll learn how to validate a product on Instagram, how to balance life as a freelancer while launching a product business, and what are magic moments, and how to create them for your customers. Today I’m joined by Jimmy Findlay Hickey from findlayhats.com. That’s F-I-N-D-L-A-Y-H-A-T-S.com. Findlay Hats sells hats that have useful and customizable laces and hidden pockets. It was started in 2013, based out of Portland, Oregon. Welcome, Jimmy.
Jimmy: Hey there, Felix. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Felix: Awesome. I’m glad to have you on. Tell us more about your story, and what are these hats that you sell? Tell us more about some of them.
Jimmy: Got you. You hit it on the head already. Basically we have this patent pending lace technology that’s unlike anything else on the planet. In a world that’s super saturated with hats that basically haven’t really evolved for years, we’ve brought something new to the market, and that’s with our lace technology. To describe to the listeners, basically it’s a lace that goes across the front of the hat that can be tied and styled at different styles, so for example you can put a red lace on a black hat, a blue lace on a black hat. Basically your hat can have many different looks, but past the fashionable side of it, it also has a functional side where the lace that goes on the front of the hat can also be brought down around your chin. Basically that will help keep your hat on your head through good times, and that’s what our brand’s all about, making headwear that’s designed to go out there and be your travel buddy, go out there on some adventures with you and just tag along on those good times.
Felix: Very cool, yeah. How did you come up with the idea? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hat like this before. When I see it, the image that comes to mind is probably those navy style hats where there’s a lot of decorations on the brim itself, but how did you come up with this idea? What were you looking at to arrive at this idea of combining a hat with laces?
Jimmy: It started when I was I think 12, 13 years old. I was rafting down the mighty Toutle River, if anyone from the Northwest is familiar with that river. It’s just a little iconic river that got washed out by Mount St. Helens when it erupted, so you’ll be rafting, and you’ll see these huge semi trucks that were taken out by the water or taken out by a flood from the mountain. Either way, I was rafting, and I lost my favorite hat. It was this beautiful Burton hat that had this quilted front, and I just was really bummed out about losing that hat. The next time I went rafting, I was wearing a hat, of course, because I feel naked when I’m not wearing a hat.
I took the laces out of my shoes and cut a hole in the side of my hat and jimmy-rigged this … I called it my water hat, and I just wore it every time I went rafting, and any time I was in the water I wore that hat. I kept the idea on ice for years. People always asked me like, “Dude, where’d you get that hat? That’s so cool.” It just had stayed like that for a good 8, 9 years until we started getting traction, started Findlay Hats.
Felix: You added this feature to your hat. What was the function, the reason for it? Was it to make it tighter, to make sure it doesn’t fall off? What was the …
Jimmy: Yeah, exactly. Sorry for the viewers or listeners at home. You really got to see a picture of the hat to understand where we’re coming from, but it’s basically a lace that goes down around your chin, and so what that does is that helps keep the hat to stay on your head. If you fall out of a raft, if you’re in a high wind situation, really any scenario where your hat could blow away or be lost forever or even just fall off, this lace will help it stay there. That’s the main intention, is just to help it stay. One of early models is just it stayed through some tests and whatnot showing what our hats are capable of handling.
Felix: Awesome, makes sense. What’s your background? How did you get involved in e-commerce or actually going from taking these hats that you made for yourself to actually wanting to start a business out of it? What was your background?
Jimmy: My background’s actually completely unrelated to hatmaking or running an e-commerce website. I’ve been shooting professionally photography. I’ve been a photographer since I was a 15, 16 year old dude. I started just with actually taking paintball photos, if you can believe that, at the paintball field, and it grew to portrait photography. I actually went to school in Seattle for commercial photography where I ended up making a decent living over the past few years after that doing commercial, portrait, and sport photography. That’s my background, a good mix of photo stuff. Photography is super saturated now, and I’m sure any photographers listening to this knows the pain of just how tough the photo market is right now and how the people who have been in it for a long time are having a really difficult time making money with it.
Clients just don’t have anywhere near the budget like they used to. In fact, the only client I’ve ever worked with that actually paid anywhere close to what I was taught a commercial photo shoot should be worth is Nike. Every single other company I’ve worked with just does not have the budget to pay anywhere close to what a photo shoot used to be worth or should be worth. With that in mind, I needed another project to work on, something to stay busy, especially through the off season, which is pretty much for me December through spring, and that’s where Findlay came into play. I had a couple different ideas, and this hat idea was just always in the back of my mind. I had so much reinforcement from friends and even random people who just really liked the idea behind this functional hat, it just went from there.
Felix: People, your friends and random people liked the idea of the hat, but you said that you also had other ideas to pursue or that you were thinking about pursuing. What else came up? What else were you thinking about? What other factors were you looking at to nail down that the hat was going to be the main thing that you were going to focus on as a side project at the time?
Jimmy: Oh, man. That’s a great question. As far as a couple other ideas, there was still an idea that I’m keeping on ice because I think it’s a good one. I’m not going to dig too deep into it, but it’s basically a company that makes plates, like plates you eat off of. That was one idea. My girlfriend and I kind of ran a jewelry company that she made everything by hand, and then I helped her with the marketing, so that was another thing that we were just put more energy and time into it except I was just not really passionate enough about the jewelry. I just enjoyed helping her push it.
Those are some of the bigger ideas that we’re looking at, but what I did to really decide on Findlay was, and I wish I could remember the name of this book, but it was basically a questionnaire that I highly recommend anyone listening to this that’s torn between a couple ideas to look into where you basically lay out your 3 or 4 top prospects for ideas, and then maybe there’s a name for this chart. I’m sure it’s nothing unique to just this book, but you list out the 3 or 4 things you’re most interested in, and then on a scale of 1 to 5, you list which one has the highest potential and for each one the potential for that. Then the next chart you do or the next … Sorry, losing my train of thought here. The next section is for how good you are at it, and the third is what its maximum potential.
You basically go through, and you list them from 1 through 5, and whichever one has the most points, has the highest potential, you’re best at, and has the largest market cap, and maybe a couple other factors that I’m forgetting, it’s been a couple years now, but basically the one that has the most points might be your best bet. It might be the one that has the highest potential for you. It might be worth your time, and for me that was Findlay Hats by a long shot. That was the deciding factor in why I decided to move forward with it was that [inaudible 00:09:06] chart that I definitely butchered the description of. Sorry about that.
Felix: No, I think hopefully we can find out what that chart is, but that makes sense that you took a really analytical approach to deciding what to pursue, and I like that just because it removes a lot of the risk. Can’t remove all the risk, but helps at least derisk some of the part of deciding what business idea to pursue. When you mentioned that one of the factors was to determine which business idea you’re best at. What does best at mean? Is it best at marketing, best understanding the customer? What did that mean to you?
Jimmy: I think in this department it was more so something I was actually passionate about, maybe not best at because skills-wise, at the time at least, a lot of what it takes to run a business I’ve had to learn. I’ve ran a photo company, but that’s completely different from being the product versus selling the product. I think it definitely had more to do with my actual passion for it, not that I’m passionate about fashion or passionate about headwear in particular. It’s just it’s something that I can relate to. I said earlier I feel naked without a hat, and honestly I put on a hat 2 minutes into waking up and take off my hat as I lay down to go to bed. I just wear a hat all day, and it’s something that hits close to home, and I’ve always been … I just don’t feel right without one, so I think that was one of the bigger driving points as far as something that I’m good at or passionate about.
Felix: Makes sense. You did this, took this analytical approach, determined what product to focus on. You’re already a professional photographer, but this is something you’re doing during the … You’re working this project in the off season, so tell us about how you got started. You knew this was the idea you wanted to pursue. You had some time on your hands. What were the initial steps to getting a business off the ground?
Jimmy: Some of the first steps after the idea was validated, another thing I did was post on my personal Instagram to see if people liked the hat. As far as some of the early steps was just to learn the different parts of a hat and the whole sourcing side of the business. Our hats have something that no other hats have, so I had to literally learn the names of what these little holes on the side of the hats are called. Are these eyelets, are they grommets, are they metal washers? That was just, it was more or less an invention that went along with the hat.
There was just a really steep learning curve with getting all the proper stuff lined up in order to launch: finding a place to straight up buy the hats from, finding a place to embroider the hats, finding the machines we need to grommet the hats or make the … Our hats also have hidden pockets on the inside, so we had to figure out how to sew. Just a lot of little things like that. Those are some of the early things we had to work on and get it off the ground.
Felix: Yeah, and because you had to learn so much and the learning curve was so steep and there was even just the product itself, forget about running the business, but the product itself had a lot of technology that you had to learn, did you ever feel like just saying like, “Screw this. Let me focus on my photography business”? Did you ever feel like maybe you should … Did you ever run into these kind of roadblocks and want to just turn back and to get back to what was comfortable?
Jimmy: Honestly, early on, absolutely not. Back when those were the problems we were having, it was all I was so motivated, and I believed so strongly in what we were doing that there definitely wasn’t a time back then. Fast forward a couple years, there’s been a couple times where there’s been some rough patches, but back then no, none of those problems were … It was more so the opposite, that I had more issues with my photography business and the fact that I poured my heart and soul into these trying to run my business and just it being extremely difficult and not really consistent enough to live off of.
Felix: Yeah, let’s talk about this then because there is this honeymoon phase that everyone goes through with their business where they’re super passionate, and they’re just living off of that passion. Any kind of work, any kind of problems they can overcome because, again, it’s still very glamorous in the early stages, but then obviously over time that wears on you, and eventually you hit a point where you can’t rely so much on just the natural early passion. When you do run into the issues nowadays where you do run into roadblocks and you don’t have the kind of, again, natural passion that came on early on, how do you ready yourself or correct yourself mentally to stay in the game?
Jimmy: Honestly, the amount of good things that have came from this company and the amount of love and support that we’ve had from the tribe that’s based around our brand, the Findlay Force, a shout out to anyone on the Findlay Force listening to this, that is so much more powerful than any of the darkest and negative things that we experience here. Just the very fact that this little silly hat that we make has spread around the world, and we have people wearing our hats doing activities they love and share photos with us and share stories of running into other people on the Findlay Force.
It’s not even a daily thing; it’s an every couple hours thing where we see a new photo of our hat in action, or someone e-mails us saying about a great experience they had, so even on the worst days, it’s tough to stay mad or bummed out for too long because I don’t know if that’s cheesy or not to say, but the good feelings from creating something that people actually enjoy as part of their life far outweighs the negativity.
Felix: Yeah, I think what you’re getting at, too, is look at the kind of impact you’ve had with your business, with your product. Look at the customers, look at the kind of joy or benefit that you brought into their lives as a way to keep yourself motivated. You almost look for those external things rather than look internally and think about, “Why am I doing this for myself?” Look at what you’re doing for others, and I think that helps you keep going during those times where things aren’t as easy. I think that that’s exactly what you’re getting at. Before we move any further along, I want to talk about the way that you validate it. You said that you went on Instagram and tried to get feedback that way, so tell us about that. How did you introduce the idea on Instagram? What did you post? What did you ask your audience on there?
Jimmy: I took a picture of my girlfriend, Sarah, who’s our co-founder as well and a huge, huge part of the company. I took a picture of her wearing just one of my original, at the time I called it my water hat. I took a picture of her wearing the water hat, and then I took a picture of it, one with the laces down around her chin and then one with the laces tied and styled on top of the hat, and I just posted it Instagram. I said, “Hey, I’m thinking about making this hat. If I did, would you buy this?” For a personal Instagram page, that one post definitely got a surprising amount of traction in about 45 minutes, I think.
After, I don’t know, between 30 and 50 comments or so, I just decided to delete the post and take that as there is enough interest in it. Backtracking to I think a more interesting reason why I decided to move forward with it is I think a lot of photographers can relate, and I think anyone who has ever pushed something that might go against the status quo or something that they truly believed in, was just the faith in my own direction and the idea that it would be accepted. That comes a lot from my photo background in that I do photo projects and come up with an idea and just hope that people would get the message I was trying to convey and get where the theme of the whole project or the underlying message to everything.
It takes a lot of, I don’t know what the right word is. You have to be brave in that sense, in that you’re going to put something out there and hope you don’t get judged, hope it doesn’t get torn to pieces, and hope it doesn’t get destroyed. When you’re doing photo stuff like that, it trains you to be ready for that, especially when you’re doing conceptual documentary work or anything like that. Having that experience behind, even when it comes to portraits, like when you’re taking a portrait of someone, and you’ve been shooting them for so long you know this is going to be a good portrait. You have no fear when you show them the photo and that they’re going to like it, even if they’re a really tough client and they feel like they’re … “I hate myself in photos. I always look bad.”
You have to learn to just trust your gut. I think photo and my photography background helped me train for, “Okay, I’ve had a lot of people tell me this idea is a good one. I’ve been asked about it all the time whenever I wear it, and it was just validated by however many people on Instagram. I think I’m going to go out there and bring something new to the market.”
Felix: Yeah, I think to develop that courage that you’re talking about, you just have to exercise it like a muscle. You just have to continually put yourself out there. Going back to what you were saying about how being a photographer helped train you to be that way because you’re constantly putting creative things out there and putting it in front of people and actually being there waiting for their feedback. I think the more you do it, the more you realize that it’s never actually going to be as devastating as you imagine in your head, and once you start getting that or having that realization, it becomes a lot easier for you to just put yourself out there, if you have an idea for a product, for a business, put it out there.
Don’t worry so much about what’s going to happen, because the worst that’s going to happen is people say they don’t like it, and then you just go back to drawing board. Speaking of that, what if people did come out and say, “We don’t like this”? I can’t imagine people would do this, especially people that are following you on Instagram, but if you did get negative feedback, did you believe so much in the product that you would still continue pursuing it, or what would you have done?
Jimmy: It just depends on what the feedback is. For bringing something new to market, we’ve really run into such little roadblocks as far as acceptance it’s been surprising. As far as if we were to have received bad feedback early on, I think like you said earlier that you take it back to the drawing board. Analyze, see if they’re coming from the right people and the right sources and either say, “You know what, that demographic, that person, whatever’s wrong. I’m right,” or “Okay, maybe they have some great points, and we should go back and figure out how we can fix X, Y, and Z.”
It really just depends on a couple factors on what the feedback would have been, and we would have played it by ear from there. As far as overall, any feedback we get, good or bad, we definitely bring it up in a meeting, and definitely if it’s something worthwhile, we’ll make changes as needed.
Felix: Makes sense. You were launching this on the side, and I’m assuming at one point there the 2 businesses, the photography business and the Findlay Hats business, were competing both for your attention. Are you still now still running the 2 businesses, or is it all your time, attention, focus on Findlay Hats?
Jimmy: We’re about 90/10 right now, 90% Findlay Hats, 10% photo. Luckily photo does branch over to doing photo stuff for Findlay, so that’s always a good time to mix the 2, but yeah, it’s actually been surprisingly … I think this is the first full year now that it’s been a 90/10 split. I’ve really stopped a lot of the old commercial jobs that would barely pay anything for a full day’s work or just be tedious, family portraits or anything like that, I’ve really cut back, and now I really cherry pick the few photo jobs that I do, which is a good feeling. That means I’m either doing a shoot because I enjoy it or doing a shoot because it’s paying well enough for me to enjoy it.
Felix: Makes sense. I think there are going to be at least a few listeners out there that are in the situation that you were in which is that they’re either contracting or working part time for themselves while trying to launch a product-based business. What was it like having to have these 2 competing businesses at the same time? Did you ever feel any point that you’re just spread so thin that you feel like you’re about to lose everything? What was the experience like when both things were going well and keeping you super busy?
Jimmy: Honestly, they were never competing too hard against each other. With my photography schedule, I generally for portrait bookings would have had an open schedule and had clients choose based on scheduled days that were best for me. Then with Findlay, since it’s the only other thing I do all day, there’s plenty of time in the day to make both of them work. I guess I’ve never had any experience trying to balance 2 competing options there.
Felix: Right, makes sense. I think one of the other issues as a self-employed person, as a freelancer, as a contractor is that when someone puts money in your face and say, “Hey, do you want to do this, and here’s money for it,” it’s I think people that are less experienced are ready to take anything. Any time anybody puts money in front of them for projects, for whatever it is, they’re ready to take it on. Do you have any sense, or do you have any experience on how to say no and how to evaluate what’s actually going to be worth your time?
Jimmy: Yes, absolutely. Saying no is super important. There’s times where out of desperation you just, you can’t say no, and with my photography company I said yes to pretty much everyone, even if that is a 15 hour photo shoot paying $200, plus another 10 hours of editing the photos. I would do the lowest paying photo gigs possible just because I needed the money. The tipping point for that was actually I did a indoor photo shoot for an indoor triathlon, and before the shoot even started, it was a full day shoot, before it started I broke I think a $1,200 lens immediately off the gate, and so that whole day’s labor didn’t even pay for 1/2 of the repair bill. That was the tipping point, but yeah, saying no, even with Findlay is extremely important, too.
We do a lot of custom hats for different companies and things like that, and we’ll occasionally run into someone whose requests are just … You can tell immediately after that first e-mail that we’re just not going to be able to make them happy. You get used to it after so many transactions, but being able to say no and even lose a little bit of money off the sale but save a lot of time and no frustration is just extremely important. It’s difficult, especially when you need the money, but it’s tough. You have to weigh if the stress and the time is going to be worth the dealing with that person. What if they don’t like the product, or what if anything like that? We generally try to say no before it gets too far down the road or just upcharge until it’s we’re at the point to accept it.
Felix: Yeah, definitely. Everything has a price, I guess, where it makes sense. Maybe another way to ask this question, too, is have you ever run into a situation where you have said no to something and then looking back on it you regretted saying no to it?
Jimmy: Ew, good question. Nothing comes to mind immediately, so I feel like if there was a big thing like that, I think it’d come to mind a little easier. There’s definitely been ones where in the opposite where we said yes, and we should have said no. There’s been plenty, like that photo shoot I gave you for example, but as far as where we said no and we should have said yes, I’m sure there’s plenty, but none of them come to mind immediately.
Felix: Yeah, I feel like once you have a business and you begin getting some levels of success, the more often you say no the better because the thing is once you have success, opportunities are going to come, and if you don’t focus on seizing specific opportunities, you’re going to eventually run out of them because you’re going to be inundated with all these things that you’ve taken on. All of a sudden you’re stalling out because you’ve taken on too much. The reason why I was asking that question was because I find that most entrepreneurs will answer the same way you did, which is that there hasn’t really been a time, because again opportunities are coming and then it’s your decision. It’s up to you to focus on specific ones rather than just say, “Give me everything,” because that’s only going to remove focus from you, and that’s never good for a business.
One thing you were mentioning a couple times was about this Findlay Force, so I’m assuming this is your community of fans, of customers. Tell us a little about this. How did you create this Findlay Force? How did you name them? What was the genesis of training this Findlay Force?
Jimmy: First off, alliteration is huge. We had to find a way that was a Findlay f-something. We didn’t know what, and I think we probably played with 10 or 12 different words before we realized force was just the perfect combination. It rolls off the tongue right, the Findlay Force, but either way, that’s the tribe around our brand. That’s the wearers, the people who wear our hats and go out there and adventure and have good times with the people they love. That’s the Findlay Force. That’s who they are. How we formed them was by really just we tried to … Another one of early mottoes were, “We’re your friends at Findlay Hats.” All of our e-mails, anything talking about us, it’s like, “Your friends at Findlay Hats.”
We really try to have a very, what is the word here, transparent relationship with our customers, with the Findlay Force. We show them behind the scenes, our story, and the struggles that we’re going through, and the extreme highs that we deal with, and the lows that we deal with. We’re on a very one to one basis with the Findlay Force in that we have people Snapchatting us all day. We have people talking to us on Instagram all day. We have people messaging us. We’re on a first name basis with a lot of our most popular or most largest fans. It’s just a community. We are very open with that. We’ve tried to have that from the beginning in that we want people to just feel like they’re a part of something. I know we’re just a hat company. We’re not doing anything major, but it’s cool.
It’s just like an extended family in some way. I mentioned it earlier, but we hear stories often of someone wearing a Findlay hat and seeing another person wearing a Findlay hat out in the wild. There’s a, “Oh, nice! You’re Findlay Force!” That’s the thing. We wanted to build a really strong tribe around our brand, and we didn’t want it to feel like just another company out there that’s just trying to make money off their customers. We really want to be an outlet for a community to be built. Surprisingly enough, there’s a lot of people on the Findlay Force who are in this community now.
Felix: Yeah, I want to talk a little more about how you built this because if I were to wear a, I don’t know, specific pair of shoe sneakers and I saw someone else wearing the same sneakers or same brand, I wouldn’t really feel compelled to be like, “Hey, look. We’re wearing the same sneakers.” I wouldn’t approach them and feel like I belong, that I’m like them or that I’m a part of some community or tribe with them, but you’ve been able to create that around hats. What is it about what you guys do on a day to day basis or that you do for the community that makes them not just connect with you but want to connect with each other?
Jimmy: That’s a darn good question, and I wish I could fully answer it to its full potential. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people like supporting the little guys, and we’ve made our brand around being the small garage-based company. There’s people who’ve been with us from the beginning who saw when we were doing everything out of our living room. They saw that we started with 80 hats, and they’ve seen the story progress. It’s a little bit of spread word of mouth. I wish I could fully answer that. It’s just a lot of it has to do with luck. I think a lot of it has to do with being completely transparent and open with our customers and doing what we can to create that feeling of community. I know I’m just circling here, but-
Felix: I think you have a point about people want to help the little guy win, help the guy that they know almost personally, the brands or the company that they know personally, help them succeed. If they’re a part of that early on especially, they feel like it’s their baby, too, to some extent. I think what you go back to is that you are very transparent with your customers. You are to some extent vulnerable, too, with your customers. Why do you think being proactively transparent or proactively vulnerable is so important for you or for anyone else out there that is thinking about building a brand?
Jimmy: I think it’s important for us just because it’s definitely, on top of having a unique product, we also have a unique story. We also do a very large part of the production out of our garage, which not a lot of companies, at least in our space, do. There’s plenty of T-shirt companies that screen print in their garage. There’s plenty of other do-it-yourselfers out there, and I know the industry’s filled with that, but as far as headwear, there’s no one really doing what we’re doing. I think that is definitely one unique aspect of it that has helped us in that sense. Another good thing that I left out of the answer to the previous question that I think I want to bring up right now is how we’ve been able to create such a strong bond with our company is not only the one to one interactions but something I kind of stole from Disney, so please don’t sue me, anyone from Disney listening here, but creating magic moments.
I read about how at Disney Land supposedly, maybe I’m wrong here, but most, if not all, of the employees at Disneyland have exclusive permission to make magic moments for their guests. The story of that that struck me was a girl was in the gift shop, and another girl was getting head to toe princess outfit made for her or whatever, bought for her. This girl whose family obviously couldn’t afford that was watching. She’s like, “Mommy, why can’t I get the whole princess dress or setup?” A Disney employee heard this and long story short got that little girl set up with a head to toe princess outfit as well, and I think got to have her go meet one of the princesses after the parade. Long story short, they created a magic moment for that kid.
Keeping that mind with Findlay, every interaction I have with a customer, be it in person, or online, or on social media, or customer service or anything, I try to do what I can to create that magic moment, create that positive experience where they’ll look back on it and be like, “Oh, yeah, that was the company that I told them I needed a hat for my son’s birthday that is in 2 days and they overnighted it to me and gave me a free pair of sunglasses with it.” Just every little interaction, we try to do what we can to make it at