Modern-day headlines will tell you that if it’s not a technology startup or a company seeking venture capital, then it’s irrelevant. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes it is the most unique entrepreneurial story that has the greatest impact on other people’s lives. The startup story featured in today’s episode is the perfect example of this.
Modern-day headlines will tell you that if it’s not a technology startup or a company seeking venture capital, then it’s irrelevant. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes it is the most unique entrepreneurial story that has the greatest impact on other people’s lives. The startup story featured in today’s episode is the perfect example of this.
Jeff Biggars is the co-founder of the Biggar Hat Store. Not only is he a hatmaker, but a successful entrepreneur with a unique story as well. In middle school, Jeff lost his father, forcing him to learn the value of hard work and leadership at a very young age. In this episode, we’re going to unpack how he journeyed from riding bulls to creating one of the most unique Western hat brands in the country. Tune in to hear all the value that Jeff is going to bring.
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The Startup Story - Jeff Biggars
Jeff Biggars: This is Jeff Biggars, cofounder of Biggar Hats, and this is MY startup story.
Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.
James McKinney: Welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. If you're new to The Startup Story podcast there is an actual way that you can advertise your business for absolutely free. Yes, you can advertise your brand, URL, or any simple call to action for absolutely free. All you have to do is leave a five star rating and a written review in Apple Podcast and if you do that I will read your review in an upcoming episode for my entire audience to hear. So make sure to plug your brand, URL, or social media account in the review. These episodes live on forever and so will your ad. Again, I'm giving you a free advertisement for just writing a review on Apple Podcast as a way of saying thank you for taking the time to write a review.
With that in mind, thank you to Rosie Pena who gave The Startup Story a five star rating and wrote, "I love your show. You're a great speaker and ask great questions. I have ADD and the way you speak keeps me interested and listening to the very end." Well, thank you Rosie for the great review, the kind words, and the insight into why you connect with the show. I truly do appreciate that. But just a reminder for everyone, if you want to give your brand, URL, or social media account some additional visibility, then make sure to mention them in your review. These mini ads live on for years to come, so if you want your chance to be highlighted just visit Apple Podcast today and leave your written review. Now let's keep rolling.
Every month we hold a private livestream with one A list level founder so that you can get your questions answered directly by them. In July we had Ben Chestnut, founder of Mailchimp, join us and he was so gracious with his time and hung around for every single question to be answered. Our guest founder for August was Julie Bornstein, the founder of The Yes and former COO and board member of Stitch Fix. Julie shared in granular detail how she built massive ecommerce businesses for Nordstrom, Sephora, and Stitch Fix. During our time with her, those in attendance were able to have their user acquisition questions answered directly by Julie as she hung around after we recorded her episode to answer all audience questions. It was an incredibly opportunity for everyone.
Well, if you missed both of those opportunities then make sure you do not miss our upcoming private livestream with Russ Perry, founder of Design Pickle. Russ has grown Design Pickle from an organization with just two employees to now having over 500 employees across the globe. Did I mention that his success came with absolutely zero outside funding? I'm confident there's a challenge you're facing that Russ has navigated through and now you have the chance to get direct mentorship from a founder who is farther down the road than you are in your entrepreneurial journey.
But here's the thing, you need to be a member of The Startup Story Inner Circle to attend these things. Look, if you're not already an Inner Circle member then you missed out on our private livestream with Ben Chestnut and Julie Bornstein. So if this is an opportunity that you would want then all you need to do is join The Startup Story Inner Circle ASAP because our recording session with Russ will be taking place on Thursday, September 10th so don't let this rare opportunity pass you by. Just visit thestartupstory.co/VIP to sign up today so that you can be part of this super private event. When you have been afforded the chance to sit with someone who has accomplished so much within the realm of business and entrepreneurship and receive direct mentorship from them? This opportunity can truly change the trajectory of your business, but it's only for Startup Story Inner Circle members, so visit thestartupstory.co/VIP today. All right, now let's jump into this week's episode.
Our guest this week is Jeff Biggars, cofounder of the Biggar Hat Store. Yep, just three weeks ago we featured the cofounder of one of the largest email service providers on the planet, and this week we're featuring a hat maker. But that is exactly why I love entrepreneurship and the diversity in every startup story. Modern day headlines will tell you that if it's not a technology startup or seeking venture capital then it's irrelevant, and that could not be farther from the truth. In fact, the core reason I started The Startup Story was to bring authenticity and transparency to the entrepreneurial journey so that you would have a complete picture of how non linear this journey truly is.
Aside from the uniqueness of Jeff's story, his episode also marks the premier of a new storytelling medium titled The Startup Story Presents. Thanks to my partnership with the Think Branded Media Team, we will be releasing featurettes on select episodes via Entrepreneur.com, this way you can see a different layer to my guest's startup story visually via video. We're going to also be including that same video on the episode page and Jeff's can be seen at thestartupstory.co/thehatter to see Jeff's Startup Story Presents. Now I know you're going to love his episode and all the value that Jeff Biggars is going to bring as we unpack how he journeyed from riding bulls and horses, to creating one of the most unique western hat brands in the country. But just like every story, we need to start at the very beginning.
Jeff Biggars: You know, when I was little my mom and dad, they were hardworking but we didn't have much money at all. But the one thing I did was I played sports. I played every sport. Every sport I played, my dad was always wanted me to be the leader of the team, the captain of that team, whatever sport it was. I was tiny. I mean, little. My last name is Biggars but I was always the shortest kid, I was always the lightest kid. I didn't break five foot or a hundred pounds until I got to high school, but I played all these sports, and I was really good.
But at the same time I was really shy, extremely shy, still am. But my dad, he wouldn't force me, he would just strongly encourage you have to lead this team, and to do that you have to get out of your shell. So when I would get onto the field, I changed into a different person. I relate that now to being on the field and going to work. If you stop me in the store or somewhere, I probably don't know what to say but if you catch me in my store, I'll never shut up. So I kind of relate that to I guess the first steps towards entrepreneurship is being a leader.
James McKinney: What did your parents do? What did they do for a living?
Jeff Biggars: My dad worked at Dr. Pepper. He worked there for 26 years. My mom worked for the independent school district.
James McKinney: Okay. So coming at the end of high school, we all have this idea of what our next step is going to be. Don't know where you were raised, where you grew up, where you call home.
Jeff Biggars: South side of Fort Worth.
James McKinney: South side of Fort Worth, okay. So coming to the end of high school, what was that natural next step for you?
Jeff Biggars: Well, my father had died in middle school. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, I wanted to be an astronaut, and believe it or not those were attainable. I had some injuries that I'd signed up for the military, I couldn't go. I kind of had all my eggs in that basket. I didn't try, I didn't look for college. So when I graduated I was no direction. So I dropped everything and moved to Mississippi with my aunt, got a job out there working on a dairy farm, and working on a horse ranch. So I built approximately 3,000 miles of fence on this dairy farm and then I was riding colts all day for this other guy. That was the deal.
I loved doing that. I was riding bulls at the same time. The best thing that ever happened to me is I got stepped on and I went into work the next day, and the guy's like, "Hey, son, what happened to your leg?" Here I am thinking I'm cool, oh I got stepped on by a bull. And he's like, "Well, let me tell you something son, you're either going to ride bulls or you're going to ride horses for me, but you ain't going to do both." I sold my stuff right then, I never rode another bull. Never regretted quitting, but that moved me in the right direction for sure.
James McKinney: That's incredible. I want to step back a few things because we covered a lot of ground just to get to that decision point right there. I think a lot of things in our life, they help develop some character in us, some decision making filters that we use as we go throughout life. And I also don't want to pass over massive moments in life. Are you an only child?
Jeff Biggars: No, I have a brother.
James McKinney: You have a brother, so two of you. Are you the oldest, youngest?
Jeff Biggars: No, he's eight years older than me.
James McKinney: Eight years older, okay. I believe there's a lot to be said about birth order so-
Jeff Biggars: Yeah, there certainly is.
James McKinney: Especially since that makes you the baby of the two. When your dad passed though, as a young man who has been taught about leadership and stepping up, do you remember a moment where you thought to yourself about the end of high school, now I need to help care for my family? I can't just go and pursue whatever dream it is I want. And I ask that question because you said you up and moved to Mississippi to work on a horse ranch. So what are some thoughts you remember from that childhood and how it impacted your life to come?
Jeff Biggars: Well I mean right away in high school I was already working, paying bills at the house. I roofed houses in Texas, remodeled houses, I worked at the zoo for a little while, a lot of things. But mostly manual labor.
James McKinney: just to contribute to the family, to help carry some of the load?
Jeff Biggars: Yes.
James McKinney: Okay. So when it came to the end of, again there are chapters in life and one of the most natural ones is the end of high school, right? What was the injury that sidelined your military aspirations?
Jeff Biggars: A hockey injury. I got hit in the eye.
James McKinney: Hockey in Texas. I would have never put the two of them together.
Jeff Biggars: Hockey in Texas, yeah. It used to be a big old deal. Also a trampoline incident shattered my elbow a little bit. Little things. I mean, it wasn't little but it's just funny how little things like that just completely alter your life.
James McKinney: All those micro decisions end up becoming significant to us and how we navigate and what we do with it. But now we jump back to you working on that ranch, given that decision of riding bulls or riding horses. Why did you choose horses over bulls?
Jeff Biggars: Well, guaranteed paycheck. I was at a point, and you know in all sports I was extremely good.
James McKinney: I assume you had to have some fight in you because you kept talking about your size, right?
Jeff Biggars: I had some fight in me and I was the right size, but it was starting to all come together at that point. If I would have gone another six months, another year and really started winning some money I don't think I could have turned that away. But it was a guaranteed paycheck and I loved riding houses. I made $4 an hour.
James McKinney: What year was this? Let's put a time stamp on this.
Jeff Biggars: So '96.
James McKinney: '96.
Jeff Biggars: Or '95.
James McKinney: What did that entail? Most, I mean I'm going to take a guess that I don't think there's probably maybe a handful of listeners that would understand what it meant to ride horses for a job. So what did that entail? What were your daily duties?
Jeff Biggars: I was a barn hand and so every morning giving the horses hay, giving them water, and we had over 350 horses. So that's insane but we have 40 head of stall horses in the main barn. We had over 80 stalls across the street. So in the main barn I'm feeding, watering, cleaning out stalls, and then I started riding. The horses were at varying stages. Some of them had never been ridden, some of them I had 30 days on, 60 days, and so starting a little round pen as big as this room, get them in there, get on them. Then you gradually go up to the arena and then we're going out on the road. And in Mississippi, this is a little narrow road and they have these chicken trucks. Everything in Mississippi is chickens. I mean those guys don't care. There's chickens just hanging off. You're riding a horse that's never seen a truck, right next to that, I mean right next to that. There's a lot of shady moments on that little road right there.
James McKinney: I bet. So again at this point, no aspirations to have your own business whatsoever. It's not even on your radar.
Jeff Biggars: No, no.
James McKinney: If you could think back a little bit to that time on the horse ranch, did you see yourself doing that forever?
Jeff Biggars: I wanted to. I really wanted to. That's what I wanted to do. I totaled my car, rolled it five and a half times, and my girlfriend dumped me. I said you know I've got to get back to Texas, and that's what it took. Came back to Texas.
James McKinney: So horse ranch, car crash, girlfriend left you, you're back to Texas, and this is not a country song.
Jeff Biggars: Not yet, not yet. I didn't start writing songs until later. I get back home, I lived with my brother, and I go to all these ranches. I don't know how many I went to, 50 maybe, looking for work. Nobody would hire me, nobody would hire me. I was making $4 an hour. It's not like I was real picky, but I'm sorry I made $4.50, I was doing such a great job he gave me a raise. But they were paying other people less so I couldn't find a job. So I got a job. My brother hooked me up with this guy that painted custom houses. At this point, I had said roofed houses, hauled pulp wood, built miles and miles of fence on the post hole diggers all day long, and when I painted houses I never felt as terrible in the morning waking up as I did with all those other jobs. It was crazy. I wasn't hauling paint in, I was just painting. Just reaching and what have you. But I just hurt so bad.
James McKinney: how old were you at this time?
Jeff Biggars: 18.
James McKinney: 18.
Jeff Biggars: 18 or 19. I was in shape and it just hurt. It hurt really bad and I saw my boss, one day he fell and he was screaming like a child. This grown man screaming. And I'm kind of freaking out, I'm like what do we do, what do we do? The guys are like don't worry about it, his back went out, he'll be fine, give him about five minutes. Sure enough, he came around. I was just like that's crazy, and that happened all the time. I got a raise with him to $15 an hour and so for a kid in '96, that's decent money. He tells me if I stay on for another six months he'll make me the supervisor of these two crews, he'll pay me $25 an hour. I'm this 18 year old kid and I'm going to be the supervisor of these two different crews that have been painting all their life and I don't know a thing you know? I didn't see it working out, but that's what he offered me. But after seeing the episode of him falling and me feeling the way I felt every morning, I don't want to do this.
James McKinney: To your point, and you've emphasized it a few times, you're 18 or 19, chance to make $25 an hour in the mid-nineties coming off of a job making $4.50, but your body was hurting. I get that, especially now that I'm 43 I understand what that's like. How hard of a decision was that? And then what was your decision? The fact that you decided I don't want to do that and I'm turning down potentially $25 an hour, what was your next step?
Jeff Biggars: So I turned down the $25-
James McKinney: I love when the answer begins with a laugh.
Jeff Biggars: I turned down the $25 an hour and I took $4.75 an hour in exchange for that, so started working at a wester store as a stocker.
James McKinney: Wow.
Jeff Biggars: And absolutely lowest point you can go in a western store, I'm working the back room. But my whole idea and my whole plan is I'm going to work in this western store and I'm going to find a rancher that needs some help, and I'm going to go on with him.
James McKinney: So you did have a plan, and that plan was to get back to a ranch somehow.
Jeff Biggars: Yes.
James McKinney: okay.
Jeff Biggars: You know I'm going to find some ranch owner and get in with him. At that point, I picked up some side work training horses for people, but it wasn't enough to sustain an income. But I was going to find that guy, and he never came in.
James McKinney: So how long were you at that western store?
Jeff Biggars: Four years.
James McKinney: And then what happened from that? Because that's just a retail store at that point, correct?
Jeff Biggars: It was a retail store. I started off as a stocker. Quickly rose through there, assistant manager, second assistant, first assistant. And it got to a point where I could have my own store and I am 22 at this point. I think I would have been the youngest if not one of the youngest ever in this chain, which is a huge chain, but I was going to have to move out of town.
James McKinney: And town is where are we at this point?
Jeff Biggars: Fort Worth.
James McKinney: Fort Worth, got it, okay.
Jeff Biggars: I was going to either have to go to west Texas or South Texas, and didn't want to do that. You know, when I first started being a manager we ordered our own stuff, our own boots, our own hats, we got to pick. We were in that store and we could see what it would do so we had a better idea we thought than they did at corporate. And they took that all away. They did everything out of corporate. I didn't like that. I liked to be a part of the decision. At that point, I was making pretty good money but I was working up to 90 hours a week from September to March. I was never home. Never, never, never. It took a toll on you. It wasn't painting or riding horse, but when you're on your feet for 16 or 17 hours a day it takes a toll on you.
James McKinney: You know it's funny, within the last five minutes I can start seeing some of the entrepreneurial leanings taking shape. Obviously, managing a retail store. As a maker now you have your own retail store as well, but even just the idea that you didn't like corporate or someone else making those business decisions for you. Those are some of the first seeds. Even more so to go back even a little bit farther where you wanted to work in a western store because you wanted to meet a rancher. Again, intention, your will you wanted to exercise. Now at 20 or 22, we start seeing some of these breadcrumbs of entrepreneurship.
But still to this point, even having managed a retail store, you weren't thinking oh I want to create my own business. So we haven't gotten to that point yet but we can start seeing some of these breadcrumbs take place. When you found yourself frustrated with those business decisions being taken away from you at that western store, what was that process? Obviously you're not there now and that's not why we're talking to you now. What were some of the mental processes you went through before you decided it's time for a change? And then what was that change?
Jeff Biggars: I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be part of the deal. But there was a lot of money. A lot more money than I had ever seen. I bought a house when I was 21, a huge house, I'm doing all these things and I'm ready to give that away because I didn't like what was going on. I actually went to another store. I had four interviews with this store, had to take a personality test, had to do all these things and I really wanted this job. And they ended up giving it to someone else that was less qualified but older. That didn't work out. Lasted six months with that guy. So I went to, I had friends working at this hat store in the stockyards. So I go by and visit them, and they made hats in the back of the store. So they came back, like, "Come here, check this out." So I go back there and I see the process and I see this is what I've got to do. I have to do this.
James McKinney: So you're again, you're working at a western store, you're managing a western store, and you come into a hat maker's shop and right there you're like this is what I want to do.
Jeff Biggars: Yeah. I was shaping hats at that western store and boy oh boy did I think I was good, you know? I just really did but ignorance is bliss. Then you get out into the real world and you see what actual places are doing, it was a rude awakening for me. But once I saw that machinery and saw that process, I knew I had to do that. And so I said what's the deal here, you know? And actual, the manager was taking a more, he was only going to work one or two days a week so he said, "We're looking for a new manager." I said, "Well let me talk to this guy." So I talk to the guy. A lot less money, but a lot less hours too. I said this is what I'm going to do.
James McKinney: I'm pretty confident that again there's nobody in my audience right now listening that fully understands all the things inside of hat making, just the idea of equipment. Obviously at Entrepreneur.com we're going to release your video to give people more of an idea of what it is that the craftsmanship behind it and how diverse the entrepreneurial journey is, but what was it? Here you are at a western store shaping, and again I apologize if what I'm about to say is incorrect or offensive, but shaping is different than making.
Jeff Biggars: Oh completely.
James McKinney: Okay. Good. I'm glad I wasn't stepping on toes there. So you were just shaping at the western store.
Jeff Biggars: Just shaping hats.
James McKinney: So what was it about the making process? Because again, I can appreciate craftsmanship of what it takes to make a hat, but I never have a desire to make a hat. So what was it for you in that moment when you said I want to leave this corporate job that I have as a retail manager making however much you were making, living that comfortable life but challenging because you're working 90 plus hours. What was it in that moment that you remember thinking to yourself this is what I want to be doing?
Jeff Biggars: The process fascinated me. I loved hats and I was in love with hats from an early age, but when I'm really passionate about something I want to know absolutely every single thing there is to know about that. I can't explain to you when I saw that first machine, when I saw what it was doing, I was a five year old kid looking at Santa Claus. It was just amazing.
James McKinney: See that obsessive behavior you talk about when you are excited or passionate about something, you have to just understand and learn more. Again, another entrepreneurial leaning. We just start seeing those breadcrumbs develop within you as to where, as a listener, we now know this is how he starts to get to where Biggar Hats is. So I assume that you took this job with this hat maker.
Jeff Biggars: I did.
James McKinney: And as a manager, was that where you started honing your craft on making hats?
Jeff Biggars: Yes I did. We had several employees, but in all actuality we were all learning. This man had bought this custom hat store. He was not a hat maker, he was a boot salesman, old guy. And this one guy said, "Oh yeah, I can teach you." He got all this machinery and so we were not making the greatest hats. We were hat makers and boy we thought we were good, but it was not very good.
James McKinney: But you say that now because now you know what high quality hats are, but when did that realization come to before you that you knew that there's a better way of doing it, there's a better hat to be made? Again, you didn't know anything when you first started so how did you get to a point where you realized what you were doing was not the best to be done?
Jeff Biggars: Well you see other people's quality. We were doing shows across the country. We did 13 shows a year and you see everybody hats, you see all the competition. And someone else is making a better hat, you automatically say I need to be better than that. You've just got to figure things out. Hotter temperatures, longer times, going through the finishing process. You've got to figure it out. You see it right there in front of you, a better hat, and you can't be the best without beating that hat so you've got to figure out how to beat it.
James McKinney: Explain to my listeners when you say a better hat, what is it you see in a hat that makes it a better hat? Again, for myself it's style, how it looks on the person, and that's the extent of my expertise or critique when it comes to hats. So for my listeners, what is it you see when you look at a quality hat?
Jeff Biggars: Well the style, it's really important and that's aesthetically the first thing you see. But as far as a quality hat, there's really a trifecta. That's how stiff a hat is, how thin it is, and the finish how it feels. That determines to a hat maker what a great hat is. There's a lot of components in it, but the more beaver a hat has in it, the longer it will last. All these things I can see from across a room. I can tell you, "Hey, that's a nice hat." I can tell you that's a bad hat. Some people are oblivious to that fact. But one thing we try to do at our store is teach people. They become educated. They get excited about things that like a normal customer wouldn't. Through seeing our videos and keeping up with our social media, when they walk in they have an idea of what a hat is and what it should be, and it makes our job easier.
James McKinney: So I'm anxious to get to the point where you decide I want to open up my own company. So we're right now, you're a manager of a custom hat shop. How long were you there and what was the process for you to get to the point where it's like I want to do this on my own now?
Jeff Biggars: Well I was there for 12 years.
James McKinney: Wow.
Jeff Biggars: I started working there in 2000. In 2003 my boss bought a hat company, a production hat company, that's been around for 100 years. Bank foreclosed on them, walked in got this great deal. The problem was it was down by Houston. So we got this shop and I said I have to go. So every Sunday we would drive down there, every Thursday we would come back, and we'd work Friday and Saturday at the shop. We did that for a year and a half, and that'll take a toll.
It's crazy because a hat factory is full of heat and humidity, and down by Houston it was crazy. I can't explain to people. I've tried to tell them how hot it was and how miserable it was. It just doesn't come close, but it just makes you appreciative of what you have now. It's like oh it's really hot today. Well, it's nothing like August 2003, you know, and you're in there and it's 120 something degrees. That's where I learned the production side of it. Its two completely different things, production and custom, and there's quite a bit to learn.
James McKinney: So you were there for 12 years so that means you left at because you started in '99 I think you said.
Jeff Biggars: Started in 2000 with the hat shop.
James McKinney: 2000 with the shop, so 2012 is when you left. What was that catalyst for you actually leaving?
Jeff Biggars: We moved the hat company back up here. I didn't work at the story any more, all part of the factory, all part of the company. I learned everything. Everything there was to know about machines, you know sewing machines broke down I fixed them. Taught myself how to sew, how to press, how to lacquer. Every single job in there, if somebody was missing that day I could jump in and do it, and my boss did not like that. He wanted me to be in the office to supervise, and I wanted to be in it, doing the stuff. We had just come off of a great market, our best market to that point, and like I said I've always been shy and I was never the salesman that my boss was. Nobody is, nobody could come close. He's a legend. But this market, he was impressed. He was really.
So in 12 years they decide they're going to make me this custom buckle as an appreciation. It was just a big deal and this is what I've been working for. When I got back, he said, "You know, I'm finally going to pay you some money." So I turned down not every single one, but I did turn down some raises because we weren't profitable. It took a long time. Took a long time for us to be and we finally were really starting to show it. I said, "Okay, yeah, I could use some more money," but he wanted me to go on the road and work with accounts, work with salesman, a lot of travelling. Even more travelling. At that point, I was gone you know spread out but a little over two months a year. I was starting off my new family. At that point I already had three kids and now we were working on four, and now I have seven.
James McKinney: Oh man.
Jeff Biggars: But I said, "I can't do that." So my boss, he went to Arizona and roped for six weeks. That's just what they go do, they go and rope. I knew I wasn't going to be able to last that long. We were having other issues and I wasn't going to work for him for 12 years and call him on the phone and go, "Hey, I quit." I said hey, this has got to be a big thing. So call him in there and I told him I can't do what you need me to do. I have to leave. And he said, "What are you going to do? Who got you?" I told him the absolute truth, nobody. I have absolutely no plan. And he looked at me, he was like, "Are you serious?" I said, "I'm not running down the street and getting a job. I'm going to make a career decision, and I'm going to take my time."
At that point, my body was tired, my mind was tired. We only had like 30 employees, but that's a lot going on. Looking back, you don't feel the stress at that time, but look back at it now and it's like holy cow, I was dealing with that daily.
James McKinney: And again, one of the things we haven't talked about, you were there during the worst recession in US history.
Jeff Biggars: Yeah.
James McKinney: Talk about the stress and toll. As soon as you told me you covered that timespan, it's like okay this is going to be an interesting journey here because you got to see what it was like to run a business without all the risk during the worst recession in US history, and yet still we sit here today with you being a business owner.
Jeff Biggars: You know, my boss he went back and he would borrow money, and he would put his house up. He just kept it going. He had this dream to make the highest quality hats and we did it. It was crazy to see how we went because although that company had been around for 100 years nobody had heard of them. Just small, little custom hat shops is who they catered too and we broke that wide open.
James McKinney: So you mentioned married with seven kids, which is an unreal number to me.
Jeff Biggars: It's an unreal number to me, too.
James McKinney: So when the conversation comes to be that it's time for you to leave employment without a plan, what was that conversation at home like? Because now you've got mouths to feed.
Jeff Biggars: Luckily my wife is the breadwinner. She's a nurse and she's very good at it, and she makes a couple dollars. But I just had no fear. I'm Jeff Biggars, I can get a job anywhere I want. I really believed that and so we took a little time off, a week or two, and I was like okay, here we go. Who wants me? And I go to several places. You know what I heard was, "Oh, we would love to have you. This is crazy, yes but we need you to travel this amount of time a year." And I was like, "No, that's one of the main reasons I left so I can't do that." They go, "Well, if you can't travel then we don't need you." So I exhausted all of my western ties. I wanted to stay in the western industry.
Pretty soon, there was nowhere else to work so I was like okay, now what am I going to do? I'm going to have to go outside my comfort zone and to make any money I'm going to have to do this or do that. So I started looking into other jobs. Had no college degree, no college, not a day, and people would not even give me an interview without a degree. Not even an interview. I'm looking at the jobs and I'm like I can do that job easy, but it doesn't matter if you didn't have that degree. So this went on quite a while, I couldn't find anything.
James McKinney: Like how long are we talking?
Jeff Biggars: Three months, four months. I'm like I'm going to have to drive a forklift or something, I have to work. My father in law and mother in law, they owned this trucking company. Really in the beginning they said if you need to come work, you can come work. It was a frack sand trucking company and I know nothing about oil and gas, and even less about semi-trucks. They always say don't work with family, but it got to the point where I had to do something. So they said come on. They kind of made a job for me. I was designing hats. One of the biggest deals with the designing the weaves with the straws is making yourself different, and that's how we catapulted that company was being different. I had a chance to still do that and I did it with one of the biggest companies out there. So I would send off these hats and they would make them and send them back to me, and I would go and shape them. I would get those hats at the trucking yard.
And so one day this old dispatcher said, "Jeff, why don't you just open your own store up?" And I said, "Buddy, that takes a lot of money." My father in law, he's sitting over in a chair and he goes, "How much money?" I said, "A lot." He goes, "How much?" I went, "Oh, you're kind of serious. I don't know but I will tell you in the morning." So I went home and I know how much everything costs off the top of my head, so I put together this spreadsheet, made a very conservative request in and if you want to do it right from the get go, this is what it's going to take. I looked at opening my own deal and it just wasn't going to work without me travelling. I would have to do these shows, it wasn't going to work, I tried. So I take it to him and I say, "What do you think? You think we can do that?" And he says, "Yeah, I don't see why not. Get on the phone." So I got on the phone and here we go, now we're going to open a hat store.
James McKinney: So hold on, real quick. What year is this, 2013?
Jeff Biggars: 2013.
James McKinney: So we're a few years out of the economic downturn that we were. Obviously, being a family, family investors don't have all the stringent requirements that a lot of other investors do, wanting to see what market opportunities are. But at the same time, thinking back to who my listener is right now, how many people might there be that need a hat, that it's worth taking the risk to opening up your own store for it?
Jeff Biggars: A lot more than you think.
James McKinney: Obviously, because we're talking to day and you make an incredible hat and have an incredible business. But going into starting your own business though, not wanting to travel, how did you think you were going to get the word out?
Jeff Biggars: Well, we had done this before and now is a much smaller scale but my whole idea was I was going to make the hats and run the store, and I was going to hire a guy to run the shows. That was the whole plan. So we find this spot in downtown Decatur and just worked out. In the beginning I was making all the hats, I was sewing them, running the front. My mother in law was doing the books. Had an employee to put out merchandise and stuff, but it was all me. I was two weeks behind and now we have about 10 employees and we're four months behind.
James McKinney: Unbelievable, unbelievable. So let's talk about the early days when you made the leap, got your retail footprint, started your business. How did you acquire your first customers? We understand the capital side of it, we don't need to talk about the capital side and how things got funded, but how did you get your first customers?
Jeff Biggars: Well in the beginning we did advertising.
James McKinney: The typical routes that my listeners would think of, Facebook ads, social media ads, or…
Jeff Biggars: Social media heavy, but we also did radio, we did magazines, we sponsored a TV show. That first year, we really just threw money against the wall, see where it would stick. The radio ads were working, the magazine ad was working, TV was not, so we just went with what was working for us. But I mean obviously word of mouth is going to be your best. We're in downtown Decatur. People were talking about us already without knowing anything about us, but when we got all the machinery in and really started making them, it takes a while to make a hat.
So the people coming in are like, "What's going on?" I'm like, "Hey, I make really nice hats. I don't have anything to show you so you have to trust me." Some people did. So when that round of hats came out, when I got those on those people, that's when it blew up. In town is like somebody just put a herd of guinea pigs together and said, "Hey, go try this guy out," and it worked. Here they come. There wasn't a line out the door, but all day long I was taking measurements just off that first delivery of products, of hey I think this guy is for real.
James McKinney: Has each year been profitable for you or was there a downturn?
Jeff Biggars: No, no, no. especially in the first years. Everything we do goes back into the company because in the beginning we're making custom hats and we're selling. I sold everybody hats. Sold all the brands. Over time, it just got to where people just wanted to buy ours. So we went from being this custom hat store to selling only our stuff in the store, to actually wholesaling our hats to other people.
James McKinney: Really? Okay. What year did you start wholesaling?
Jeff Biggars: In 2015, so like I said I was designing straws and I had these new designs, and I wanted somebody to make them. Well, my old boss came to me about that same time and said, "Hey, we need something new. Everybody is always looking for something new." And I said, "This is perfect timing because I got some pretty cool stuff." He's like, "Okay, let's see it," and I go let's talk about money. He's like what? I was like, "Yeah, I'm not giving you these things." Because all the designing I did there, I didn't get paid extra, it was just part of my job. It was part of my job as something I took upon myself to do.
Everything was very basic. People were like I want to be different, and I was coming up with these designs that were just at the time they were crazy. My boss is like, "That is never going to sell. That's the ugliest thing," and I go, "Just let me get samples." It turned out yeah, people did want to be different. So we went from these plain white, conservative hats on everybody to now if you have that on you're different because everybody has these weird designs. But he needed something new so he said, "Hey, let's do something." So I told him this figure, which was reasonable, and he says, "Oh, no, no, we can't do that, we can't do that." I said, "Keith, come on. Go back and look how many millions of dollars you've sold of the styles that I designed. The money is very conservative." He goes, "No, I know, I know but I just I can't do that right now."
I said, "Okay, well that's what it's going to take." So two weeks later he comes in and says, "Hey, times up, we've got to get something to them. Let's do those." I said okay perfect. Money hasn't changed. He goes, "Oh, Jeff, you're killing me." I go, "I'm not going to give you these," and so he walked out. So I told my father in law about it, he's like, "What'd he say?" I said, "He wouldn't pay." He goes, "Really? We'll just make them ourselves." So we were making felt hats at the store, and so now we're taking on making straw hats. It's a whole different deal.
James McKinney: I bet.
Jeff Biggars: We've got to have another location, all the machines, all the bodies, and I said, "Mike, that's going to take a lot of money." He goes, "How much money?" Oh, here we go. So I go home and put it together and I show him, he goes, "All right, get on the phone." So we started putting that together. Like I said, he had this trucking yard and he built the straw factory next to it. It's just kind of crazy how between him and me knowing all the right people to build stuff and everything, all the people that have helped with the store, we know all these people so it works out.
James McKinney: How many hats did you do the first year? I'm going to test your memory year to year, because I want to talk about just the growth of it. Because again, my listener being entrepreneurs, and some listeners I have are probably incredibly frustrated entrepreneurs because they're not seeing growth, they're not seeing traction in whatever their business sector is. You're a hat maker, so when I think of some of the in my mind it's got to be such a challenging industry to really see scale and growth, so let's unpack that a bit and so to the best of your memory how many hats did you sell the first year?
Jeff Biggars: if you're testing my memory I'm going to fail.
James McKinney: That's all right, let's work on ball park.
Jeff Biggars: The first year I think I made a little over 100.
James McKinney: Hundred hats first year. Second, third year?
Jeff Biggars: Second year we doubled it for sure, 250, and then we got up to around 400.
James McKinney: 400 hats. So third year, so now we're 2016 around 400. 2019, how many hats?
Jeff Biggars: We're talking just custom hats.
James McKinney: Of course.
Jeff Biggars: Just custom, at this point we're making production hats, we're making straw hats, but just custom felts we did 750 something.
James McKinney: 750 hats, unbelievable, in addition to the production hats that you do.
Jeff Biggars: Product hats, wholesale hats, hand straw hats.
James McKinney: For my listeners, again I just I have to ask the question how? How did you do it? Year one you threw money against the wall to see what stuck. Obviously the traditional marketing efforts of radio and TV, those are probably not channels that most of my listeners are going to think of when it comes to, even magazine ads they're not going to think of those things. When you look at 2019 and maybe even 2018, what would you say were the huge wins for you on how you pushed as many hats as you did?
Jeff Biggars: Well, teamwork. As far as getting them made, I have three people that used to work for me at the factory and so they're hat makers. They're not somebody dragged off the street and say hey I need to teach you. They know how to make hats. Now I'm extremely fortunate to have an excellent hat shaper and we're teaching him how to make hats too, and I also have my son who has just been a joy to work with.
The thing about my son is there's a lot of secrets in the hat world. It's kind of crazy how people are extremely secretive about their craft. Oh you can't see this. A lot of places won't even let you in the back but with my son there aren't any secrets, to where somebody else I might not show them how to do this, I show him everything. So he's better because of that too. He's 22 years old and at 22 he's one of the most knowledgeable hat people in the world, I guarantee it, test me. But he's right there and he wants to learn, he wants to see it.
James McKinney: That's incredible. Is he out there doing sales or what is his main focus now?
Jeff Biggars: No, he's out there making hats. No, I'm not going to put him out on the road. He's got to make them.
James McKinney: He's 22, he's young.
Jeff Biggars: He's 22. Well I see what I was at 22, but he does, he works the front, he goes to the shows, he does everything. He wants to be a cook but right now he's a hat maker.
James McKinney: When did technology become part of not your operations but your marketing strategy? Because right now everything is social media. It's such a huge component to how people push product. Is it for you?
Jeff Biggars: Social media is huge. We don't do any advertising anymore except on social media. Instagram is the biggest for us, but at any given time we're getting messages on all platforms. Email, Facebook, Snap Chat, Instagram especially.
James McKinney: And as far as influencer marketing, have people approached you for brand partnerships? Have celebrities approached you saying hey I'd love to give you a mention, tag you in a post, whatever? Have any of these tactics that some of my listeners who are in the apparel space or the accessory space, they know this language, they know these tactics. Have you employed any of them?
Jeff Biggars: We have. We have people come at us a lot. Oh if you pay us this amount, we'll give you this, and we're not in a position to really do that. Our advertising budget is very small. We put everything into making hats. So we're fortunate enough to come across some deals where it costs little to no money, and in exchange we get to trade names with these people, and those have been very good things to reach a market we normally wouldn't reach.
James McKinney: When you think back to your journey in starting Biggar Hats to where you are right now, was there anything where you thought to yourself okay we've made it, this is as good as it gets and I'm happy where we're at?
Jeff Biggars: I would never say this is as good as it gets. I'm always going, I'm always wanting to be better. But the moment I would say we kind of made it is we had a video made for us by I think Grandin Media. It was just supposed to be this little promo thing and it turned out to be this huge thing. When it came out, we had like a movie premier at the coffee shop. We had a red carpet, backdrop, I wore a tux with the big red top hat. But to see our customers come out and support that, I'd seen the video but to watch their faces watching this video, that's when I said hey I think we're on to something here. When you see everything culminate to that.
James McKinney: If we were to have a "where are they now" episode in let's say five or ten years from now, where is Biggar Hats?
Jeff Biggars: I want to push the wholesale market further. I don't want to be on every single shelf. I want to be in capable hands. A lot of stores are not capable, and I want to be in those capable hands. My old boss would say I don't want the whole market, I just want 10% of that shelf space. That's where I'm at right now, get a little bit of that store but maintain the quality. You just cannot maintain the quality and be in every single store. You can't do it. I've seen it and I know hats, and I just know it can't be done. So I want to keep under that limit to where we maintain it, we're still making the best hats out there.
James McKinney: How many hats do you think that is a year, before you start suffering in quality?
Jeff Biggars: Well I think it's a percentage on how many people you have. Right now like I said we have all these hat makers. They know their job, they know what to do. Then if you get 50 more of those people, you don't keep those same 50 people. It's always changing. It's very hard to maintain quality with people that haven't been doing it for years.
James McKinney: How much of a great hat though, again as we're talking about scaling and what is Biggar Hats look like in five or ten years, how much of the quality of a hat is the components of the product and materials, versus the craftsman?
Jeff Biggars: Well you have these materials, and we use the highest quality materials right from the get go. The way we get them is a little more expensive but it makes a much better hat. But you can give I always equate it to like you can give a guy that makes like a Ford Taurus, you can give him Lamborghini parts but he's not going to make you a Lamborghini. You give a guy that makes Lamborghini some Ford Taurus parts, he's not going to make a Lamborghini out of that either. So just having the right materials is not all of it. You've got to know what to do with it from there.
James McKinney: You know one of the questions that, as our time comes to an end, that I ask every entrepreneur, and your story is just so unique that I'm incredibly interested in what your opinion is, but do you think about can be an entrepreneur?
Jeff Biggars: I don't think so. I think most people don't want to be. It's not to where… I don't think they'd want to be that way, and that's fine. That's perfectly fine. But no, I don't think anybody could.
James McKinney: What do you think it takes? Why do you say no, you don't think they could?
Jeff Biggars: Well a lot of people don't want that leadership, don't want the responsibility of that. I think that they want to do a great job and that's where they want to go. You look at my employees, they put everything they have into what they do, they love it. I've seen them do it a couple of them 15 years, that's their job and that's what they care about is doing that job, not about running that store or running that factory. It's about making something.
James McKinney: In your journey, has there ever reached a point, a decision point where had you made XYZ decision, it probably would have been to the detriment of the brand? Have there been these forks in the road where you could have taken the brand a certain way but chose not to and it worked out better for you? Or even missed opportunities maybe.
Jeff Biggars: Yeah, we had missed opportunities I think, but a lot of times I want to do this right now, I want to do this right now, and my father in law would, "Oh, let's just kind of wait, we'll see, we'll see." He has a much different outlook on things than I do. He's been very successful for over 30 years, and some of his decisions, I'm like how could you do that? What are you thinking? And it always works out. It's very neat to see the way he operates, the way my old boss operates, and it's completely different.
James McKinney: What is it, because this leads into my next question about gratitude, but what is it about your father in law that makes him an exceptional entrepreneur?
Jeff Biggars: He rarely says anything at all, he just listens and pays attention. He just makes it happen by knowing which way to go. It's crazy how to like when we were looking for a place to be. I kind of wanted to get in somewhere before he changed his mind. I really thought he was going to just change his mind. And so we had these locations spring up and I'm like, "Let's get in there." He's like, "I don't think so, we'll keep looking." That place we got, for two months it was on the market, over two months. It was two months since I started looking at it and we finally, "All right, let's go look." We look and we're like, "Hey, I think this is going to kind of work," and they're like yeah okay. But if we went into any of those places that I had picked out before, it never would have worked.
James McKinney: As we talk about your father in law, the final two questions that I ask every guest on the show, it segues nicely and that first one is about gratitude. A lot of people tend to think and partially it's because the media portrays entrepreneurship is that it's a solo journey, and we get there through our own grit, sweat, hustle and sometimes blood, but that's just not the case. We're where we are today because of the shoulders of people that we've stood on to get here, those who have lifted us and supported us. So when you look back across your entire life journey, who are the people that you point to with such immense gratitude for their contribution to where you are today?
Jeff Biggars: Well my dad first, and then my brother took over that. He was eight years older than me, so he was like my second dad. From there, Keith Maddox is the salesman legend that I followed for 12 years. After that, it's Mike Arlin, my father in law. Without those people there's absolutely no way I'd be anywhere close to here.
James McKinney: That's awesome. The last question, you know as we've been talking to tens of thousands of listeners they've been hearing your story at a macro level. I want to bring it down to the one on one conversation. This is my gift to my listeners, to have this mentoring minute with you if you will. What I'd like you to do is I'd like you to speak to one of my listeners, whatever it may be. Maybe it's the frustrated entrepreneur, the one who has had a business for some time and just incredibly frustrated and discouraged, maybe because of what coronavirus has done to their business. Maybe it's the lack of capital and how things have tightened up. Maybe it's the inability to really get market share in whatever space that they have.
Maybe it's the defeated entrepreneur, the one who has lost their business and tried time and time again, and can't seem to get anything right. Or maybe it's the wantrepreneur, the one who's sitting at their desk working a nine to five, I guess now they're sitting at home working a nine to five, with a book full of dreams and ideas but there's some narrative in their mind that is stopping them from pursuing building this business or brand that they have. Whatever those personas resonates with you, as we close your time here on The Startup Story, what do you have to say to that person?
Jeff Biggars: If you're wanting to be an entrepreneur, I would say to you first of all if you're not trying to be the best then why are you doing it? For me, quality is a huge thing and without it you're just trying to make bucks. I'm extremely, extremely passionate about what I do. And the second is I would just say that it's not going to be easy. I'm extremely fortunate to have the people I have with me, that have helped me. Hopefully that would happen to you. I've seen people do it with way less, I've seen people do it with way more. But if you don't chase what you're passionate about, you just never know. I could be doing 100 different things, but this is without a doubt the one thing in the world that I would most likely want to do. There's nothing else.
James McKinney: Once you've had a few moments to process all the value that Jeff Biggars brought to us in this week' episode, please hit me on up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. And lastly if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs, and one of the most common challenges for all small businesses is to gain awareness. So with that in mind there are two key ways that you can show up to support Jeff Biggars. First, visit biggarhatstore.com and check out all that they have to offer. Their website does not offer the ability to shop online, so don't hesitate to call them to order a hat because they do ship across the entire United States. And secondly, follow them on all the social media platforms. Just search for Biggar Hat Store. Remember, entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs so let's show up for Jeff Biggars and Biggar Hat Store in a huge way as a thank you for all the value he delivered today. All right, now for my personal ask.
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