On the 51st episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy, I talk with Charlie Ambler, the founder of Strike Gently Co, a company that started off making pins and patches and expanding into a growing assortment of soft and hard goods. Charlie was the first guest when I started the podcast almost two years ago, and as part of the 50th episode celebration, I wanted to check back in on how his company has evolved and how he’s approaching growth with all of the success he has had so far.  

I really enjoyed catching up with Charlie and talking about how there are different ways to grow and expand in an economy that is built on always outdoing oneself.

Check out the full transcript below. 

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 51st episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you access to forward thinking research, events, and our analysts, so you can capitalize on the new consumer economy. Learn more at loosethreads.com/membership. We also have a newsletter called Ripcord that highlights one important development each week and helps you escape the noise. Learn more at loosethreads.com/ripcord.

Joining me today is Charlie Ambler, the founder of Strike Gently Co., a company that started off making pins and patches, and is expanding into a growing assortment of soft and hard goods.

Charlie: [00:00:43] From the get go, I was so baffled that there was such a huge audience for such a niche thing, and it sort of opened my eyes to the value of a platform like Instagram, and the value of having a niche product in an age when there’s so many people who are engaging with these things.

Richie: [00:00:58] Charlie was the first guest when I started the podcast almost two years ago, and as part of the 50th episode celebration I wanted to check back in with him. We had a great talk about how the company has evolved, and how he’s approaching growth, given all the success he’s had so far. Here’s my talk with Charlie Ambler.

Richie: [00:01:18] Why don’t you start, give little background on what you were doing. We’ll quickly go through what we covered on the first one and then work our way up.

Charlie: [00:01:24] I was working for a guy named Diego Moscoso who runs Nowhere F.C., which is a high-end streetwear soccer apparel brand. And I didn’t have a background in fashion, but I fell into that because of work I had done for some other lifestyle-related magazines and brands and stuff. Sneeze magazine is the one, I should shout it out because it was my mentor that did that. And then Diego was my mentor also, and I worked at a cafe that he ran that recently closed but will probably reopen. And I met a guy who came in who worked with Richardson and some other brands as a designer, and his name was Morgan Watt and he owned a company called Inner Decay, which made pins and patches, and now makes more stuff like shirts and hats and stuff. And it was sort of just this thing I had never known existed before, where a guy who supports his family by running a company that makes cool stuff that he designs. And I was like, “Oh well I’ve spent the past four years as an art history student collecting weird appropriated imagery from public domain stuff and just a bunch of random stuff from different projects I wanted to do that never came to fruition,” and then I decided to ask him if he would help me plan out how to start my own company, because I really didn’t want to work in a coffee shop for a long time. So then I did that and I kind of got three designs together and invested the meager sum that I had available to start it.

[00:02:53] And one of the jobs I had been doing for Diego was sourcing materials and products and various things from overseas for his brand, and kind of understanding the supply dynamic in the relationship. And he had a background in high fashion, like Supreme and Marc Jacobs and stuff like that. And so he had knowledge of that and taught me how to do that. And then when I started my own thing I just figured out how to do it myself and got a core set of products, very crude releases, very simple BigCartel website, I still use it. And I very much remember that time being, not like it’s some sort of momentous thing or anything, but it was just a time where I felt completely free to do what I wanted, and I felt like I was finally able to apply what I was good at, which is sort of putting pieces together, and also having a certain aesthetic knowledge that I like. That’s what I love. I love art. I love images. I love that sort of stuff, just the relationship between images and ideas. I was like, “OK so how do I do this as my job?” Because I started making enough money that I knew I could try to swing it at least, like it would be a shame not to try.

[00:04:03] I started producing stuff that I had either drawn or sourced from obscure materials, old medical textbooks and unlimited manuscripts and marginalia from the past. Started getting a following on Instagram and started noticing all of these incredible designers and artists on Instagram who just had an internet platform, and some of them had massive platforms, some of them did tattoos some of them made prints and stuff. But I thought, “Oh, it would be fun to hire these people to produce designs, because I’m not much of an artist myself, I know how to pick stuff, but I don’t really know how to draw or anything very well.” That’s how I started.

Richie: [00:04:39] How would you describe the aesthetic of it?

Charlie: [00:04:42] It’s a mix between old school macabre type stuff, Middle Ages, which is also intertwined with black metal, and metal aesthetics and skulls and death on horses and scythes and just kind of dark stuff, that mixed with more decorative stuff. I found a lot of really really talented tattoo artists that don’t do the standard traditional, you know, Sailor Jerry type tattoos. One of my closest guys is an illustrator in Serbia who does kind of dark macabre influenced art, and people will get his designs tattooed, and he’s not a tattoo artist, but they’ll see them and then they’ll get them tattooed. And then there’s a bunch of really talented artists in Korea that I found on Instagram, because they have huge followings and they travel around doing residencies at various tattoo shops. And I found them. It’s just sort of like, siphoning through all of these different potential people, and then finding people that I think would work with the general aesthetic of being not what you typically see, is my goal basically.

Richie: [00:05:48] So when did this start, it was 2015?

Charlie: [00:05:50] Late 2015, October.

Richie: [00:05:52] So we must have talked and recorded the first episode not that far after.

Charlie: [00:05:55] It was like a month I think.

Richie: [00:05:56] Yeah. So take us quickly through the first six months, then we’ll work our way past what we covered the first time.

Charlie: [00:06:02] Yeah, sure. The first six months were having a lot of fun gathering aesthetic inspiration, learning how to deal with my supplier, learning how to pack and ship and do all the logistics myself. Basically trying to fine-tune everything, so that I could do it myself, because I didn’t have the resources to hire anybody. I mean, I started off doing four to five designs maybe, per month, and now it’s five to ten new releases, lately it’s been per week, but more every two weeks or so. So the volume of releases has gone up five times since I started. The only stuff I cycle out is stuff that doesn’t sell well, because I don’t have any really grand notions about people getting the word out quickly, and if there’s something that’s like a niched—maybe it’s about a UFO, or a conspiracy theory, or something that just has a niche audience within my already niche audience—it takes a while for people to tell their friends about it, to see their friends wearing it, whatever. And so I’ll just let stuff gestate, and then sometimes over time things that I didn’t think were cool or good do really well, and I keep them around.

[00:07:03] My goal is to have this giant archive, effectively, of the brand that people can access. When I talked to you the first time I was obsessed with Supreme’s model because I was just learning how to do the business of fashion or merchandise or whatever you want to call it. And so I thought, “Oh the way to increase the value of something is to make it scarce.” But then I also thought, “Oh, I’m not a cool guy. I’m not like one of these New York skate guys who knows how to talk the talk or walk the walk. I’m going to be very transparent because that’s the way I am, and people, if they’re into that stuff, are going to know that I don’t know what I’m doing.” And so I made a point to not do that sort of limited release, super highfalutin, super referential…

Richie: [00:07:44] No one’s waiting in line for your stuff?

Charlie: [00:07:46] Yeah, exactly. I respect the hell out of that, but I think there’s a little bit of an arrogance, the same way you get it in the art world, that comes along with obsessing over these commodities and making them scarce, where, when it’s something that you’re selling mostly to teenagers and college students, making the value too high is a little bit elitist in my eyes, and sort of prevents people who really can appreciate your brand from accessing it. People spend money when they spend money, but I get lots of e-mails from kids that are like, “When I get my next paycheck from my movie theater job…” you know, whatever their wage job is that they’re saving up money so they can go on the Internet and buy this cool shit that they find, I kind of cringe a little because I’m like, “You should be saving your money. But also, this is only ten dollars, and if it makes you happy…” You know, you’re not going to Macy’s, and you’re not going to Supreme, you’re not blowing your entire paycheck. You can kind of have this little signifier of, “This is my style,” on what you’re already wearing. And that’s how I see the whole pin thing. I wasn’t a pin guy when I when I started.

Richie: [00:08:40] Right. I remember you thought this was going to end…

Charlie: [00:08:42] I thought it was going to fizzle immediately. I was just like, “I’m going to put a few eggs in this basket and see what happens because it’s fun.” It allows me to do what I like. Even though the product itself isn’t something that I’m a collector of or obsessive over.

Richie: [00:08:54] I remember just talking to you all the time, you always had in the back your mind, this concern that the pin thing, the patch thing, was going to go away.

Charlie: [00:09:01] Yeah.

Richie: [00:09:02] Why and then why do you think it hasn’t?

Charlie: [00:09:04] It’s sort of like people who always think the stock market is going to crash and they value their wealth or whatever and they don’t want to squander it on some sort of bear market or whatever. And so, I’m always, with everything I do, I’m cautious and a little neurotic about, “Let me make sure that I’m doing a proper risk analysis so that I don’t get in over my head,” because then it’s a lot harder to get back up. And so that’s how I approached this from the beginning, because I was so broke when I started it. And from the get go, I was so baffled that there was such a huge audience for such a niche thing, and it sort of opened my eyes to really the value of a platform like Instagram, and the value of having a niche product in an age when there’s so many people who are engaging with these things. And, the same type of audience you would have had for a much bigger product in the 70s or 80s, you can have a giant audience for this product, and do a great job with your business. You know, not necessarily be known in the in the news or in any specific industry as a giant success story, but you can really maintain sort of a small business model. I learned that over time, but the whole time I was convinced that the pin thing was just a trend, because that’s what it seemed like. I mean it’s at Urban Outfitters it’s—as soon as they started selling pins I was like, “This isn’t going to last.” It’s only been two years, I mean it hasn’t been a long time, it could pop tomorrow.

Richie: [00:10:16] But it’s also not new.

Charlie: [00:10:18] No no. I mean, bikers and bands and people have been wearing them forever. Maybe the trend has waned, maybe if I had gotten in three years earlier and done the sort of growth that I have done, it would be totally different and way bigger or, I don’t know. But there’s a very loyal base of repeat customers, there’s people who love collecting the stuff, there’s people who enjoy the act of wearing something different to their job each day on their suit. There was a guy who is a pundit on CNN and Fox News and MSNBC who buys stuff and will send me photos of him wearing whatever pin it is on—there was one from like Red Eye and there’s one from I think Wolf Blitzer, and there’s just all these different ones that are very funny.

[00:10:56] You don’t really know the potential of something until you do it for a while, and sort of let things generate a natural rhythm, and then it’s always surprising to me what happens next. Even though the routine is very much the same of, “I’m going to make new stuff, I’m going to ship my orders, and I’m going to contact the artist, I’m going to make sure everyone’s happy, I’m going to answer my customer service e-mails, blah blah blah.” The process is the same, but the way that people value these products, and the way that they relate to them I think, changes. And maybe it gets more endearing to them over time.

Richie: [00:11:27] Talk a bit about the category expansion over the last two plus years, and we’ll work our way up to the apparel stuff that just started too.

Charlie: [00:11:35] It was pretty much just pins and patches from the start. Patches I don’t have as much of an attachment to, because I would never wear them, I don’t think they’re very appealing, but people love them and I enjoy making stuff that I think is funny or cool and getting things embroidered and seeing the art translated into thread is very satisfying, and so I like that. And people buy those still, I don’t release nearly as many of those as I do pins, but that’s still a loyal base of people. Besides that, I’ve just done a few random things here and there. Like a Livestrong bracelet that said, “Death is inevitable,” a koozie for beer with a rat on it that was a rat from a patch that I had released that people liked. Just random stuff like that.

Richie: [00:12:15] You did hats too, no?

Charlie: [00:12:15] Oh yeah I did hats and the hats didn’t go over really well, which kind of worried me because I thought, “Oh if I can’t sell apparel, maybe this is really just this one thing.” That was a little disconcerting, but I just kind of plod ahead, stay the course, as they say. And then before any of the apparel…

Richie: [00:12:34] Oh the blankets.

Charlie: [00:12:34] Yeah I had a friend who made these big woven blankets, and he told me that he used Walmart to make them and he would make one at a time and they cost a fortune to make, because Walmart up-charges.

Richie: [00:12:45] And these were like tapestries you would either put on the floor or hang on a wall.

Charlie: [00:12:49] Yeah you could put them on the wall, put them on the floor. They were just comfy enough to snuggle up with, and I sort of tested that out to make sure I wasn’t selling people some sandpaper garbage, you know. And people criticized it when I released them, “So you can just make these with Walmart,” but it costs more to make them with Walmart than it does to buy—for the big ones, than it does to buy them from us. And that’s because Walmart uses a supplier that I found. Anyone who’s listening to this, feel free to utilize if you can find it. And that was just a very simple basic lesson in sourcing that I had from previous experience; if you see someone making money on something there’s always a source that isn’t that, probably. And then just started releasing a bunch of those, and I was able to release one at a time and sell one at a time, and some of them sold really well, and some of them didn’t sell at all. And I use the same model and kept them, and those have provided a really excellent extra revenue stream. The margins aren’t as good but they parallel the pins. And so that was my first attempt to diversify products, and that was also a big security sign for me that, “Oh it’s not just the pins, it’s not just this little quirky trendy thing,” The blankets are expensive, they’re in the $125 to $150 range, depending on the size.

Richie: [00:14:02] So like ten times more than what the pins were.

Charlie: [00:14:04] Yeah and that’s a big investment for someone to make. I mean, if I’m spending that kind of money I want something that I like, I want it to come promptly, and I want to know where it’s from and all that. So I advertised, “They’re made in the U.S., they’re made in North Carolina, fair trade,” all that stuff. There’s pretty decent photos of them, so people know what they’re getting, it’s not like mockups or anything.

[00:14:22] And from there, recently, fairly recently, a few months ago, I had collected a lot of ideas from artists that I’ve worked with, and from just stuff in my personal collection of things that you can’t make pins out of because they’re too detailed, or they just wouldn’t look good. You can’t make patches out of them, because I wouldn’t care enough, I wouldn’t want to. And I have really just wanted, for a long time, to feel comfortable with wearing a piece of apparel that I would make. And up until fairly recently I didn’t think that I would really be interested in wearing any of the designs I had released on apparel, also because I hadn’t had a proper office yet, and I hadn’t figured out how to store stock.

[00:15:01] So I started researching all that stuff and I started just dropshipping apparel that was very basic, mostly one color printed stuff, one to five colors, on sweatshirts, T-shirts, very simple. And so I just started making shirts and all this stuff with zero overhead, because my profit margins were lower, but there was no overhead because I was just making one-off dropship pieces, and then I would put them out and try to creatively market them to see what would happen. And the response to that was very, very positive, and so I see the brand, over time, evolving to be a mix of that repository of pin designs, released over however many years the brand lasts, with this apparel, that I never release anything that I wouldn’t myself feel comfortable wearing, and very simple graphic-type stuff but cool enough where people feel comfortable spending enough on it for it to be worth it for me. And that’s where I see it heading right now.

Charlie: [00:15:58] So talk a bit about the dropshipping piece. For the longest time people would buy inventory, they would take a risk, they would have to assess it in some way and then figure out after the fact whether this was actually worth doing. Talk a bit about the advancement of some of the services you’ve been using that allow you to go into one-off capacity, and then talk about what that has allowed you to do from a nimbleness or agility and risk perspective.

Charlie: [00:16:23] Well I’m an enemy of scale, so to speak, where I don’t believe in “bigger bigger bigger, faster faster faster,” all the time. I like to take things slow, I like to build the foundation. I’m not so overzealous or so in need of extra capital that I want to move too fast, and it’s fun to be able to find slower solutions to certain problems that I’ve seen a lot of competitors overlook, to their detriment. And so with the dropshipping it was, I had one foot in, one foot out because I wasn’t doing it myself, I wasn’t able to pack myself, I wasn’t able to really know the quality of things that were happening, and there were a few hiccups at first because the company that I was using, that I still use, had just premiered this woven program that they had, because it’s very intensive to have all these things woven on demand and to not keep any stock for them. And so they had to fine-tune their process. When I first started doing it, a couple of people received blankets that had a random Christmas card on them. There was one of just a guy on a motorcycle that some guy got, and he sent me this photo and I was laughing my ass off because it was just like this guy ordered some…

Richie: [00:17:25] There’s a picture of himself on a motorcycle?

Charlie: [00:17:27] Yeah yeah, or it was like a “Happy birthday Mike,” you know just some guy in the Midwest or whatever who loved motorcycles, someone is making him a gift or something, using a different person that they supply to. So it could have been Walmart, could have been anything. And I was just thinking, “Oh that’s bad news, I hope that doesn’t keep happening,” and then it almost immediately stopped happening, and they got their shit together a lot more. And I think the coolest thing is that not every company that does dropshipping is some sort of behemoth that is mistreating their workers, is skimping profits, is trying to cut every corner they can, margin wise, to milk it as much as possible, including lowering the quality, objectively. And this was a company that very much values—they’re an old family business that’s been around since the 19th century, they very much value, you know, whatever you want to call “the American work ethic,” “the small business mentality,” and everyone I’ve worked with has been really pleasant there. There is no real indication that there’s anything bad about it, and it feels good to support another small business, a big small business, as a small small business.

Richie: [00:18:33] But for you it sounds like the on-demand piece has been integral to this thing growing.

[00:18:38] Yeah, totally. The on-demand, using the best option available, sometimes it’s not the cheapest option, but that is totally crucial, and they are companies that have the ability, sort of like the way that I see that I have fine-tuned the system that works, the companies that I work with to do the dropshipping, and to do the scale, the on-demand printing stuff, they have a system that works really well, and they do really well. And you’ll never hear about them or anything, because it’s not some sort of high fashion thing, it’s not even a mass market thing, because giant companies have their own people to do that. But it’s an opportunity for a lot of quote-unquote successful small businesses like mine to work with another company and grow as much as they want, without having to take certain risks that could end them in the uncertainty of the digital marketplace that we’re dealing with. There’s lessons that you have, and there’s things that you can understand, as I learn from you all the time, but there’s also an extreme amount of uncertainty. And it’s nice to keep the risk as low as possible.

Richie: [00:19:41] Right. That you can just turn the nozzle any time you need to.

Charlie: [00:19:44] Yeah. Not to keep the risk so low that you’re a rock. Not to move at a slug’s pace, but to move it a careful enough pace where you have strong footing, and you can oversee how everything is changing and shifting, it’s sort of just this organism.

Richie: [00:19:59] Talk about the marketing side of it a bit. It started on Instagram. Talk about that journey.

Charlie: [00:20:04] Yeah the marketing was a crucial part of the growth that I overlook when I talk about it, because it was so—I find it very boring. But when I first started, Morgan Watt from Inner Decay, who mentored me on everything, told me about this guy Patchgame, who is this cool dude who lives in New Zealand, who loves patches and pins, because he has a military background and he has just sort of this general love of countercultural stuff, and he just has a massive collection. And he had this Instagram account that was huge. It still is huge, it’s the biggest one in that, the pin game they call it, or the patch game. And so I just started building a relationship with him very slowly, and now I’ve known him online for two years. You know, I’ve never met the guy in person but I would pay him a little bit of money each day to promote a post of mine, a new release. And when I didn’t have a new release I wouldn’t do that obviously, but I tried to get as much exposure to his large audience, which was I think when I started a hundred thousand, now it’s like three hundred thousand. And my audience is a hundred and thirty five thousand on Instagram.

And the way that I was able to sustain the company was from the sales that I got from his posts. And I thought, “Wow, if I can generate this many sales from just one post from an account that’s doing this well, if I were able to generate that many followers over time, organically, by cultivating relationships with customers, maybe paying for certain promotions, I could really do well with this.” And that philosophy has proven to be correct.

[00:21:30] The biggest way that I’ve grown the audience is through, this is a secret a lot of people don’t like to share, but when you see people who have large Instagram audiences, it’s very often, if they’re not famous in the public sphere, it’s because they are very good at using hashtags, and they pay some sort of social media manager to engage with people organically. And I do that, and I’ve done that the whole time, and the business didn’t really take off until I started doing that. And I make sure that the person I use isn’t just a spammer or a person that isn’t really aware of what they’re doing. And that just allows me to focus on the quality of product development and all that stuff.

I did that for a while, like the first year, and then a little more than a year ago Facebook really fine-tuned their Instagram ad platform, to the point where I thought, “Okay let me try to invest a little bit in this and see how it goes,” because this is effectively just a large corporate way of doing what I did with Patchgame, who I was also still using and still work with now. So I did that and just started pumping money into Facebook ads and kind of learning how to make them work for me. And it worked really well to the degree that I was able to, without losing any money, effectively triple my audience very quickly. That’s happened over the past year or so, and that growth when I do do that is exponential. If I do it all the time it doesn’t make any sense, because it’s kind of just this artificial blow out that isn’t real. And I think a lot of people misperceive those giant Silicon Valley platforms as being all-good and all-benevolent, godly figures, but there’s just as much risk management and care that must be taken to using those marketing strategies as anything else.

[00:23:11] The coolest part is being able to acquire all those customers at pretty much zero cost and then have them. I take breaks in marketing. I do a certain push each quarter and then I chill out with it. I watch how things evolve without any of it so I can see both where my money’s going when I do it, and what happens if I just have a control variable and have no sort of marketing. So the budget fluctuates from zero to a lot, and that has proven to be a very effective strategy.

Richie: [00:23:38] I remember when the algorithm came out, you were freaking out.

Charlie: [00:23:41] Oh yeah. Wow. See, that’s something that I wouldn’t have even thought to talk about because I don’t even remember it. There was a time, the glory days, when everyone who was doing this, including Patchgame, which is how I was able to raise enough money through those first sales, to start the real company, it was all chronological, and he would post x amount of times a day.

Richie: [00:24:03] Right the feed, Instagram’s feed was chronological.

Charlie: [00:24:06] Instagram’s feed was chronological, yeah. So everyone would see everything that was posted in real time. There was no sorting, there was no filtering, there was no nothing, it was just au natural, like Twitter.

Richie: [00:24:15] Before Mark touched it.

Charlie: [00:24:17] Yeah, it didn’t prove to be as horrific as everyone anticipated. Everyone was really up-in-arms about that because it screwed with the platform and it screwed with the model that we had, and to be able to just have that linearity was very nice. But since then there’s been other challenges that I think if I hadn’t had to overcome I wouldn’t know as much about how to make the business good. I’ve sort of learned to post less, I’ve learned to not drown people out with stuff. All the photos are very similar, they’re just me holding the products, but I sort of refined this, it’s very silly, it sounds silly, but it makes a difference, where, if something’s just on an inanimate—like on a table people aren’t into it, but if they see some sort of human element, like they see my hand in it, it’s always, just like is the the magic recipe. And it’s so funny because these are all just little kind of ticks that I have in my mind when I’m doing my job, in a day to day basis. But saying them, you’re like, “Oh that’s so silly.” But there are all these little crucial ingredients in what I think makes what I do special and good.

Richie: [00:25:15] Yeah. So going back to the growth thing and also to your concerns about this whole thing evaporating out of thin air. Talk a bit about the pop up, because I think that was the first, maybe one of the first moments where I realized at least this thing had actual staying power, both on and off the Internet. So talk about how the thing started and how it went.

Charlie: [00:25:37] Me too, my dude. That was first thing, I was like, “Wow.” I very innocently, with the fellow pin-makers, decided to host a pop up, thanks to your reference, at a gallery in the Lower East Side.

Richie: [00:25:49] When was this?

Charlie: [00:25:50] Oh this was in August of 2016. Not that long ago. Crazy. Got everyone together, I decided to manage everything myself, I said, “Send me or drop off at the place, this many pins for each company, and drop off a canvas with all the designs that you want to include on the canvas, assorted in any way you want, it just has to be a white canvas with no text or anything on it, the event is on this day.” And so everyone did, and it was really cool. I had worked and observed these people for a long time and to see all their work in a—almost a joke about the art world, the downtown art world, which I find repulsive in a lot of ways, after having worked in it when I was in college, to see canvases with these little ten dollar mass produced items on it, but the people liked, and to see them all together and sort of understand the aesthetic sensibility of each brand, and some of them are just single artists, so it’s kind of a repertoire of their common man illustration work that there’s no pretensions about it. And so everyone dropped it off. I set up the show, I had everyone advertise on Instagram. There was no one who was super famous or anything. I made an event on Facebook.

Richie: [00:26:56] Well, I remember a few days before you were like, “I don’t know if anyone’s coming.

Charlie: [00:26:59] Yeah yeah, a few days before I really didn’t know. A lot of people had RSVPed, but not a ton. I had a past in music and tons of people RSVP to events, they never show up. I had extremely low expectations. I decided last minute to get a beer sponsor and just had them drop off a very meager amount of beer, because I really didn’t think anyone was going to show up. It’s an hour before it’s going to start, and there’s suddenly just a giant line outside and it’s just getting bigger and bigger. It’s not letting up, there’s just people, hundreds of people, which soon turned into thousands of people. And I was almost embarrassed, I was like, “Shit I would’ve worked harder on this if I knew that this many people were going to show up.”

But the word had gotten around, all of the teenagers in the Lower East Side and elsewhere and from Brooklyn, people just came in, like all of these kids and college students and adults—the TV newscaster guy, that’s where I met him, at that show. There were just all these people who, some of them had been pin collectors for years. And they saw the Pin and Patch Show, it was called, and they thought, “Oh cool, I’ll go to that, it’s a Monday night or whatever, of course I’ll go.” And so I was baffled and shocked. And so I started having the other artists that showed up, I was like, “Okay, we got to work.” We had, the canvases were all hanging in the front. And then in the back there was a merch table, like a concert where you could buy pretty much any of the pins that were on display up there, some of them weren’t for sale. And so we just opened the doors and everyone crowded in, they had to let a few people in at a time because…

Richie: [00:28:26] I know, I was working the door.

Charlie: [00:28:27] You were there! Oh my god you had the clicker!

Richie: [00:28:30] There were 4,000 people there, in 24 hours.

Charlie: [00:28:33] In three hours.

Richie: [00:28:34] Yeah.

Charlie: [00:28:34] I’m not trying to toot my own horn but it was only a three hour thing, I was like, “I would have made this a longer thing.” I was thinking, “Shit,” and I was just like, “Oh well I have to work that merch table because I don’t hire anybody, I didn’t hire anyone.” And so me and the other artists and my girlfriend worked the merch table, sweating our asses off, drinking beer, trying to get everyone their pins. Everyone was just crowding us. People were so excited just to have like their Internet niche in person, to have this sort of raw experience of being able to buy stuff in this sweaty room.

Richie: [00:29:05] Yeah the cops were there before it opened too.

Charlie: [00:29:07] The cops were there before it opened, they were pissed but I think you being there and the galley people, they stopped being pissed at a certain point, they just let us do our thing, which was kind of a godsend. I don’t really know how that happened, cause I’ve had, you have parties get shut down, I mean it was a party we just weren’t allowed to—I had to hide the beer because the cops told us we couldn’t have beer because there were kids there.

[00:29:24] So the line was just like long and I had friends show up and they thought that it was for a concert or for something else, and I was just so happy and so spontaneously thrilled that this was going the way it was going, and it was sort of a lesson to me in not only keeping my expectations low but, again, doing the essentials and not beating around the bush so that I was able to be there for it. And I was able to do it, and I wasn’t focused on the minutia, I wasn’t like painting the walls, I wasn’t making things look pretty. It was just like, the pins were on the table, they were in plastic bags behind the thing, and we were selling them for cash. And we had a shoebox full of cash.

Richie: [00:30:00] What does that tell you though about taking something that has existed online for a year and a half at that point into the physical world?

Charlie: [00:30:08] I mean I can’t say that it was anything new to me. I had seen it happen before, like I had been to Odd Future shows when I was in high school. I modeled the company very naively and very wide-eyedly, on Supreme, despite not having similar business models, I just admired people who were able to generate that sort of hype. Because that’s how a business survives, and that’s I think where the value for customers comes from, is when they can feel really excited, like it makes their life better. It’s not just a thing they have to get or they feel pressured to get. And so that’s just one of those experiences where it gives me a lot more confidence in what I’m doing and even if things get rough, I’ll trust in the process, you know?

Richie: [00:30:44] Yeah. Do you think you’ll do more stuff offline?

Charlie: [00:30:47] I want to. I moved in order to both be with my girlfriend and have a large office. I moved to New Orleans a few months ago and I wouldn’t ever have an event there, because it’s kind of a ghost town. But the ability to grow the brand from a large space, that I wouldn’t be able to afford without decreasing the value of the brand in New York, because it’s just so fucking expensive. I plan to come back, hopefully in the summer, to do an event of some sort. I’m going to do it bigger this time, I’m going to find a different venue and just see what happens. And again, it doesn’t cost anything to throw a show, as I learned in the music community. But it takes a lot of hard work for everyone to bring what they have to the table and to not fight and to not get upset about money. That’s the hard part. You just want to create an atmosphere where customers feel comfortable spending money, people feel comfortable working together, and they’re not trying to bite each other, you know?

[00:31:40] It’s sort of just this—an ethos that I think very much is influenced by the original—the origins of the whole pin fetish, which is in punk rock, in the biker community, both of which are, and in the military too, all of which are extremely honor-driven cultures. You know, punks might not seem like it on the surface, but they are people acting on principles. You know, bikers are people acting on very specific principles. People in the military obviously have to act on certain principles, otherwise they they don’t make it. So to have this sort of thing that is associated with self-respect, with sort of showing yourself to people in a somewhat refined way, but also sort of a campy way, and a sort of honesty, to have all that baggage behind the product worked very much to our advantage, because we were all young small business owners and artists who are trying to make it in an untraditional way, without too much mega support, and to try to do it in an ethical and positive way. Positive mental attitude, as they say.

Richie: [00:32:42] Back to the employee thing.

Charlie: [00:32:43] Yeah. Well, you know it’s funny, because I’ve grown the company way more than I thought I’d be able to, just doing it myself. I really love and can very quickly pull together all the designs and everything I need to do, because I love doing so much. You get a little bit precious, and you get a little bit self-obsessive about, “Doing everything myself, I can’t relinquish any control.”

But I was working with this one guy, Nemanja Bogdanov, who’s a artist in Serbia. We’re into a lot of the same things, we are internet friends, we have never met in person. We share just a similar aesthetic sensibility, and he has an incredible sense of space and composition, and is a very skilled draftsman, and is a professional illustrator. He’s now freelance full-time because I was able to hire him on a bi-weekly paycheck effectively, to contribute x amount of designs every two weeks.

And he loves it because I just feed him ideas that I have based on things that I read, I sourced materials, things that I just am interested in, that I want to see in the brand, and he’s able to just beautifully translate that into products. And he was able to do it before, when we first started working together, where I’d pay him per design, for stuff that he had just made for fun. I found him the same way that customers find me, because I like his shit online and I followed him.

So being able to have my first full-time hire, so to speak, because he’s now full-time freelance, and I think right now the only work he’s doing is for Strike Gently, is really cool, and I think will be the model that I use in the future as I continue to grow. And the next step will be hiring a few people to manage the growth and be able to hire more designers to contribute more designs. That’s effectively where it’s going, because I can’t come up with x amount of ideas each week, and I would love to have a stable of four to five extremely talented artists from all over the world that I get e-mails from each week with responses to thematic concepts that I send them. I mean that’s just very cool, that makes me very happy.

Richie: [00:34:45] What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson, running the company?

Charlie: [00:34:49] The cheapest lesson was a Dymo label printer that I bought, thanks to your suggestion, when I first started the company, that has printed however many tens of thousands of labels. That thing is worth its weight in, I don’t know, what’s the most expensive thing in the world? Cocaine? Platinum?

Richie: [00:35:05] Bitcoin?

Charlie: [00:35:06] Yeah, yeah Bitcoin, it’s worth it’s weight in Bitcoin, infinite dollars. The most expensive mistake…

Richie: [00:35:11] Or lesson.

Charlie: [00:35:12] The most expensive lesson was probably not knowing how to use Facebook ads to my advantage, and blowing pretty much what would be a salary for a marketing manager on, not on zero growth, but on way less than I could have optimized, were I to have not been so frivolous and flagrant with my experimentation.

Richie: [00:35:31] What’s been the most successful product?

Charlie: [00:35:33] The most successful single product is a pin designed by this Korean tattoo artist named Kim Mishey. And then right behind that are a few blankets.

Richie: [00:35:42] What was the piece?

Charlie: [00:35:43] Oh sorry. It’s a gold medal with white hard enamel rib cage, with just two hands superimposed over it. Very simple, but very elegant and not too either feminine or masculine, or too dark or too light. Everybody just loves that, it’s kind of like the corner piece of the whole brand at this point. And then this guy called Spite Boy that Nemanja designed, he is just this emblem of the brand, he’s his personal emblem as a designer, sort of his avatar, so to speak, and he’s just a halftone sort of retro-future looking evil guy. Just kind of looks like maybe he could be a character from a video game. But he’s just caught on, for some reason, with people who like the brand, and they’re always requesting different variations of him on a pin. And so we’ve released four or five different ones, and cumulatively those are probably actually the best selling products.

Richie: [00:36:37] Anything on the horizon you’re excited about? What does the future hold?

Charlie: [00:36:41] Reaching out to artists that I’ve already worked with and asking if they’d be interested in establishing some sort of a more official relationship, instead of just the occasional purchasing of designs or trading of pins for designs, is the next rational step. There’s nothing huge on the horizon, because unfortunately I just don’t think that way, and it’s boring.

Richie: [00:36:58] No dog toys, no earrings?

Charlie: [00:36:59] Yeah there’s no massive thing. I might try to push into the jewelry, but I need to do the due diligence in order to not make any mistakes with that. And to keep releasing, I’m really really pleased with the way the apparel is going, and I think it’s a fun lesson to anyone who wants to start a brand, to just do it, and see what happens and see if it works. And to try to find uncommon methods of advertising online. It’s free to scheme. It’s free to hustle.

Richie: [00:37:26] Awesome man, thanks for talking.

Charlie: [00:37:28] Thank you, my friend.

Richie: [00:37:36] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. Sign up for Ripcord at loosethreads.com, and feel free to leave a review on iTunes. We always appreciate it. Thanks to George Drake Jr. for editing this episode. I really enjoyed catching up with Charlie and talking about how there are many different ways to grow and expand in an economy that is built on always outdoing oneself. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including Jeff Hansen of Peter Manning, Alejandro Chahin of Mott and Bow, and Eliza Brooke of Racked. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.