Sunday, November 14, 2010
Originally published in the Dallas Morning News and written by Cheryl Hall
Earlier this year, a group of poker buddies were playing Texas hold'em at a home in Lakewood when talk turned to what they would do if they became unemployed.
That got Drew Hamilton thinking: Could a half-dozen guys with diverse skills start a company with almost no money and make a product that people might actually buy?
In early July, he invited six of the poker pals to his house and challenged them to bring an idea or two for a quick-hit business.
He made sure all the bases were covered: two attorneys specializing in business law and intellectual property protection and pros in manufacturing, marketing, importing, distribution and sales.
All are 40-somethings making six figures-plus. So this was more for sport than serious gain.
"We're all creative guys," says Hamilton, who was president of Which Wich Superior Sandwiches at the time. "It was, 'Let's actually get together, throw ideas on the wall, see if there is one of them that we can do something with and let's make it happen.' "
"One idea was specialized software," says Mike Shore, an intellectual property attorney at Shore Chan Bragalone DePumpo LLP. "I filed a patent application on it and found that it would take years to get to fruition.
"We talked about doing a restaurant with a whole wall of crazy wild spices you could put on food. You had to get food permits and put up a lot of capital."
Michael Hasbany's idea was a bearded ski mask. No, he doesn't ski. But he thought of the idea while watching the University of Texas get creamed at the Rose Bowl on TV. "It was a super-random thought," he says. "But like most people, I just sat on the idea and did nothing with it. When this group got together, I pitched it."
"All the other things had serious complications," chimes in Mark Platt, who owns Kendall Creative, a brand design firm. "I go, 'Let's do the masked beard.' It's fun and whimsical. And it's simple. You have to laugh when you think about it. And it doesn't cost a lot of money to make."
Five months later, Tripleye Holdings LLC is hitting the market with Beardski, a ski mask with a beard that would make ZZ Top proud.
Tripleye stands for three i's – idea, incubation and implementation.
The process has been a lesson in quick thinking and structured teamwork.
"The learning curve came into play in a hurry," says Hasbany, whose day job is selling data storage hardware and specialized software for EMC. "How do you go to market? How do you form a company? All the things you don't think about.
"We tried to compress all that into a two-month period while doing it part time on nights and weekends."
"It was a trial-and-error project that got legs and started to run," says Heath Malone, chief operating officer of Max Furniture, a furniture importer and Internet distributor.
Hasbany was elected "el jefe" (boss in Spanish).
A better title might have been cat herder.
"Keeping everybody on task was the big thing," Platt says. "Everybody was coming up with ideas to lead us off into so many directions. It was hard to focus."
Initially, Hasbany thought it was best to do everything himself. "Then I realized I just couldn't. Everyone pitched in to do whatever they could do. Heath took over the logistics. Joe [Motes] did the corporate work in establishing the company. Mike did the protection of trademarks and came up with ideas, too."
"We all had to put ego aside and work for the common good," Malone says. "When Michael says, 'I need to get this done,' you need to stop and do it. It's not six people doing it their way, which is what we're used to doing."
They each kicked in $2,000 for the first shipment – that's about all they've spent thus far. They figure their professional expertise has saved more than $100,000 in start-up costs.
"That's the crux," Hasbany says. "People who say, 'I have a great idea. I don't know where to begin,' they need to leverage people they know. It's amazing how far you can go if you do that."
Their first 3,000 masks, which should be here by the end of this month, are already sold. The masks will retail for $35 to $40, depending on the amount of faux fur.
"We underestimated demand, so we under-ordered," Malone says. The factory in China is squeezing in a second order of 10,000 ski beards that should be here in early January.
That means this season is a soft launch. Next year, they hope to really hit the slopes.
Snowboarders are being targeted as a natural fit.
Shore, who has contacts with the United States Ski and Snowboard Association, used members of the U.S. snowboard team as a focus group. "One guy puts it on and just goes nuts. He takes pictures of himself with his iPhone and e-mails his buddies. This was a guy who doesn't know us from Adam. It proved this is not just a beer-fueled idea."
The masks got a similar reaction when Hasbany sent an unsolicited batch to Amazon. "Within days they called and said, 'These are hilarious. We're all wearing them in the office. We want to put them online.' Amazon legitimized the product."
Brad Douglas, owner of Doug & Lynda's Ski Shop in McKinney, has a 30-year reputation for spotting cool trends in skiwear and accessories.
When Hamilton called for an appointment, Douglas wanted to know what the product was. "So I described it, and it was literally crickets chirping on the line," Hamilton says. "I told him, 'I promise, give us just a couple of minutes. When you see it, it'll make sense.' "
Douglas admits he tried to dodge the meeting. "I thought it was going to be a hokey deal. But once I got my hands on the product and met the people, it was a slam-dunk."
There's nothing like it, and it works, says Douglas, who hopes to have Beardskis in stock early next month. "It's functional, fits right, it's made well and it's warm. I think they're going to be a catchy thing."
The group envisions an endless array of masks for spectator sports. Why not a Minnesota Vikings mask?
Hasbany and his 10-year-old son wore Rangers-red Beardskis to aWorld Series Game at the Ballpark in Arlington as a dig at San Francisco's bearded relief pitching ace Brian Wilson. "Everyone was laughing that I had a red one on, borrowing it and taking pictures of themselves."
And he says the Dallas Stars are interested in green ones for the playoffs, when hockey players have a tradition of not shaving.
Shore says he's protecting the idea. "We have multiple trademarks on design and utility patents filed. If somebody tries to rip us off when these are wildly popular, we've got redress."
They hope to ramp up production by setting up a small-business loan or attracting investors.
Motes, a partner with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, says he's amazed at the power of teamwork. "I wouldn't have known the slightest thing about getting something made in China. The aha for me is, 'Wow, it actually worked! I can't believe it.' "
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