Wake up when you want, slowly roll into the office, lean back, and sip your coffee. Sounds excellent being your own boss, with nobody telling you what to do. But, reality? Nope, that is not the reality of being your own boss. Let’s talk to Paul Cunningham, veteran U.S. Marine and entrepreneur who created the global brand Notch, and find out what it takes to be your own boss.
The Beginning of Notch Hats
So, what is Notch? How did it begin? Let’s ask Paul.
Did you come from an entrepreneurial family?
I wouldn’t say I came from an entrepreneurial family directly but indirectly. Believe it or not, my grandmother’s side of the family invented the Kit Cat Candy bar and sold it to Mars in the thirties or forties. Also, my stepmother’s aunt and her husband own a company called Nordic Ware, and they patented the bunt cake pan. So I knew about those things and drew a little inspiration from them.
Were you always an entrepreneur?
I think I always wanted to be one. I don’t think I was like a lot of people. I had ideas for different products or inventions but never executed them. It was not until later in life that I started to pursue them, and that was with Notch.
Where did the idea of Notch hats come from?
I had the idea for Notch while watching golf on TV one Sunday. I had always worn a curve-brim hat and liked wearing sunglasses simultaneously. However, when I wore my curved-brim hat and sunglasses together, the cap would push the glasses down onto my nose. Then it would be uncomfortable. So subsequently, I would wear my hat backward or choose between my hat or my sunglasses on that given day.
I never really stood out in solving the problem, but when I saw that a golfer had his hat cocked back up because it was hitting the frames of his glasses on the brim. I’m like, why doesn’t somebody notch out the bill and make space for the bill to pull down over the glasses? I was like, “holy cow,” so I jumped off the couch, pulled out one of my Titleist golf hats, and made my first prototype. It worked, and that’s where the idea came from initially.
Now that you had the initial concept, what was your next step to make Notch a reality?
It was a series of several steps we took. The first thing we did was scour the internet to see if there was a product like that. We didn’t find anything, so we hired a patent attorney to do a patent search, and I fully expected them to come back and say, no, it’s already out there. But about a month later, they returned and said, no, it’s novel and patentable. And so, we filed an emergency application for a utility patent immediately.
In October 2011, we decided to go ahead and brand it, find a manufacturer, take the product to market, and try to prove the concept. That process was another year or so of sampling and figuring out the manufacturing process before we could launch. We finally launched in March 2013.
Initially, we didn’t do any advertising. I don’t even know how people found our website. We also launched with a small booth at the Yuma County Fair and at a few local stores, all of which still carry a product to this day. Then, a couple of years in, we started advertising and trying to get it out there.
Did you start in your garage like so many other small businesses?
Yes. Yeah, we started in the garage, and we probably spent the first two years in the garage and then moved into the facility we’re in now. So the whole cliche “started in your garage” was us too.
Now that Notch hats was out in the world. How did you build the brand?
We built the brand by trying to build an organic grassroots following. We didn’t necessarily want explosive growth. That would be good on the one hand, but we didn’t have the resources or budget to put it into outlets that would cause that sort of growth because we were self-funding the whole venture.
We were advertising as we could. We relied on producing a quality product that was as good or better than any ball cap on the market, combined with the innovative feature of our Notch that nobody else had. We thought we could make up for the lack in advertising budget by maximizing every contact, by giving the customer a great innovative quality product and a good experience.
What advice do you have for prospective small business owners?
Regardless of the idea, take the time, money, and energy you think it will take to get your idea off the ground and multiply it by a factor of 10. And then, if you think you still want to do it at that point, go for it. It’s good to go in with eyes wide open and realistic expectations.
The other advice I would give is to ensure sufficient demand for your product or service. Passion is important. Everybody talks about passion, and I think that’s important. But, still, I think even more important than that is there’s gotta be demand for what you’re going to provide them and whether it’s service or product, because if there’s not, then no amount of passion will make up for lack of demand.
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Another piece of advice is to look at your competition. Assess what they’re doing, and maybe pick a few you don’t want to copy necessarily, but that you can draw inspiration from and maybe even reach out to for mentorship if you’re not competing directly in the same market.
Mentorship is very important. We’ve been fortunate to have a couple of mentors in the business world as we started and grew Notch, that were very helpful. Unfortunately, sometimes that pride in us doesn’t want to ask for help or admit that we don’t know everything.
There’s no blueprint for any exact type of business, and we’ve made many mistakes. We’ll probably make more, but you learn from those mistakes. And sometimes having a mentor that can come alongside and help you avoid a couple of those pitfalls they’ve had can be very beneficial.