How KC Holiday Built QALO, A $100MM Silicone Ring Business
Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?
Hey there! My name is KC Holiday and I am the co-founder of QALO.
We are a family-first company committed to designing and making products that enable families to share adventures and meaningful experiences—best known for being the creators of the functional wedding ring.
We’ve created an enormous community of over 2 million people who wear QALO to represent the most important commitment they’ve made in their life. This year we as a company will eclipse over 100M in total revenue since Ted Baker (my co-founder) and I founded the company from a dining room table in 2013.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
We are often asked the story of how we came up with the concept, and I wish I had some elaborate story about almost losing a finger, but my life isn’t dangerous enough for that.
The simple answer is, we got married.
Ted and I married our wives in 2012, a few months apart from one another. We were both living in Los Angeles pursuing a career in film and television, which really meant we spent a lot of our time working in a restaurant together.
Neither of us had any background in manufacturing or building eCommerce websites, but that wasn’t going to stop us.
Ted and I had met in an acting class and became friends through the class. He managed to rescue me from my waiter job at PF Chang’s and bring me to the restaurant he managed in Beverly Hills. That restaurant is where the idea for QALO was created.
In passing one day, we began discussing whether or not we wore wedding rings. I had been taking mine on and off constantly to play golf, workout, etc. and he said that he had just decided to not wear one because it was such a pain.
We wanted to represent the commitment that we had made to our wives, but the metal ring just didn’t make sense with our lifestyle, and so we sought to create a solution for ourselves. We agreed to do it together and QALO was born.
Neither of us had any background in manufacturing or building eCommerce websites, but that wasn’t going to stop us.
We spent the next six months getting rings produced, creating all brand assets, and building a website. More on that below.
None of them were anything close to perfect (they were actually pretty terrible), but we were way more concerned with determining whether or not this category was real than whether or not our logo utilized the most impactful font.
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
Most people see our product and the first thing they think is how simple it is. Five years ago, I would agree with them. Yes, the concept is simple, and the thought of manufacturing silicone rings seems easy enough, but we have transformed the jewelry industry.
We’ve done that through an innovative focus on product evolution and sophistication in manufacturing. We approach manufacturers that have never created what we have conceived. That’s powerful.
Initial design and prototyping
The initial design phase was relatively unique for ours because we were evolving a billion dollar industry with a proven design. If you are looking to disrupt a category don’t feel the need to revolutionize the space; assess what has been proven and reliable, and make some tweaks to improve it.
For us, the design was created and proven through an actual wedding band, we were just looking to make it functional. That was what we were solving for. I had friends who had started a large silicone consumer goods business and so I had some familiarity with its functionality. Once Ted and I spoke about choosing silicone as the material of choice, we went and purchased metal wedding bands with silhouettes we were fond of.
The next step should have been to get a CAD designer to create a rendering, and then go to a 3D printer to determine if we liked it prior to shipping it overseas to be sampled, but we did not know about that process when we started. I would do as much work as you possibly can on your design and functionality prior to sending it to your manufacturer. The lead times just become more expensive and extensive the less time you put in up front, and manufacturers want to mass produce your product, not run a hundred samples for you.
We skipped that process and shipped the metal rings to a silicone manufacturer and asked him basically to create molds with those silhouettes and do his best to match the rings that we sent. It took about 3-6 months to get it to one we were proud of, even with our bar being as low as it was.
Once we received that prototype, chose colors (again no science to that other than we felt neutral colors were safer and everybody just buys black) we felt good about and moved to mass manufacturing of the product. What we did not account for was cheap molds make a cheap product. The quality control was terrible. Always pay a little extra for better quality. Losing one customer is worth way more than the extra you will pay to make sure the product is where you would like it to be.
Finding our first manufacturer
When we first started we went to the first manufacturer that would offer to help us, which was a recommendation from a friend. You’d be surprised the impact that just asking people in your own network can have when getting started.
The quality control, however, was terrible. We would have to hand trim every single ring that we received with a pair of eyebrow scissors. I didn’t even know eyebrow scissors existed. I’ve probably hand trimmed about 50,000 QALO rings.
If you bought in the early days I definitely hand-trimmed that ring while watching an episode of Lost.
Our manufacturing has really scaled with us. We’re currently on our third manufacturer since the start of the company and our focus is on the differentiation of supply chain as we go global. We need to make sure we have created the supply chain to support the goals of the organization. Always make sure your goals aren’t bigger than your manufacturer’s capabilities.
Our largest initial investment was in the initial inventory purchase. We emptied both our savings accounts to get that first batch of rings here. A tough decision for a couple of newlyweds, but we were just crazy enough to think it may work.
Our design process today
Our design process is a combination of customer feedback, trend tracking, and a bunch of really smart creative people in our product development department who know the silicone jewelry industry better than anyone in the world.
Our proprietary Q2X material is a direct response to customer feedback. Silicone, which every company except our own, uses to make all of their rings is compromised when it comes in contact with certain liquids/solvents. If you’re someone who works with your hands all day, Q2X is the only ring that will work from you.
Being the creators of the category gave us an opportunity to hear that feedback from customers early, and create a functional solution that gave them an opportunity to wear a ring 24/7.
Describe the process of launching the online store/business.
When we first started we had absolutely no idea how to start an eCommerce business.
We ran a google search for a user-friendly platform and found Shopify. The most important thing is getting a functioning site that can give you the opportunity to sell the product. Great marketing will just make a bad product fail faster, so don’t worry so much about the bells and whistles, worry about creating a place to drive traffic to and learn about how consumers respond to your product.
Shamelessly, we sent emails and product to anyone we thought could prove the concept, as well as having an impact on a larger group.
Initially, all of our investment dollars went to tooling to create the inventory, and the inventory itself. Ted and I emptied our savings to start it and never took on any funding. We shot our own content (first video which you can see here) and had a buddy wear the product and play sports so we could go take some lifestyle photos after I taught myself photography. I reached out to a friend’s dad who was a photographer for product, and he with a small light kit in his living room, took our product photos.
We launched the site on March 1, 2013, and immediately began searching for proof of concept. We had solved a problem for ourselves, but did anyone else share the same frustration. We pursued viral communities that would have a use case for our product and began sending it out for free to influential people in the communities.
Shamelessly, we sent emails and product to anyone we thought could prove the concept, as well as having an impact on a larger group. For us, those communities were military, firefighters, CrossFit athletes, and professional athletes.
The best story through that process was sending the product to Andy Dalton who I had gone to college with. I reached out as he was a newlywed as well and asked if he’d be interested in wearing the product.
He was open to it, and we sent it out. Fortunately, the Cincinnati Bengals were on HBO’s Hard Knocks that year and in an outlier type moment, they did a full segment on Andy wearing QALO in the first episode.
It was an epic moment.
Get your product on people, you never know when moments like that will happen. When we saw the result in a Google search for ‘rubber wedding ring’ after that episode, we knew we had something real.
The biggest move we made in the early days was giving out sweat equity, which is basically a company or person exchanging services for equity instead of capital investment for equity. It played a huge role in us getting to where we’re at today.
This was relevant to our business because we had absolutely no money when we started. We have never raised a dime of capital. Because of that we found people who were specialists and believed in our business. We didn’t have the money to pay them and so instead they were willing to help grow our business with no immediate pay, in exchange for a percentage of the business. Not everyone is set up to be able to do it because not everyone can work for free.
Over time though the company made money, and we were able to pay them for their services as well. That was cool, they were owners and now the company they believed in was able to reward them with being able to pay for services.
The sweat equity partners had expertise in:
- Ambassador relationships (ways to get the word out there)
- Digital marketing
- Content/Brand marketing
- Manufacturing knowledge
- Business understanding of businesses relevant to our product
Some early lessons in those days:
- Do your best to remove yourself emotionally from honest feedback. Take it and better your business with it.
- Your family doesn’t want to hurt your feelings when you pitch your idea or share your product. Pitch it to strangers too.
- Be very cautious about who you want to give equity to. Don’t just say yes because it’s a lot of money, pay attention to who the person is giving it to you.
- On the flip side, don’t obsess over equity. 100% ownership in something worth nothing is worthless.
- You don’t have to give all the sweat equity at once to partners. They can vest over a period of time based off of performance metrics.
- Smaller size bloggers and influencers are looking for content. Reach out to them and engage, they’ll be happy to write about you.
- Giving influencers a kickback on a discount code they share to drive awareness is way more work than worth. Stop doing it.
- If you are spending all day shipping, find someone else to do it for you so you can focus on creating more shipments.
Storing inventory in my living room.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Ambassador relationships (ways to get the word out there)
Our first big ambassador relationship who we paid was Shane Dorian, the professional big wave surfer.
A few facts about that which can help when choosing ambassadors:
Don’t pay people to wear/use your product.
Make sure they align with your brand, they actually like it, then pay them for their time to create content or put a post up for you.
If your product is good, they will use it organically, and consumers today value authenticity. Nothing seems more inauthentic than olympians advertising McDonald’s.
Tell people about your wins
For every dollar you spend on an ambassador you should spend three times that amount to tell the world they are wearing it. We have the biggest ambassadors in the world wearing QALO, but our biggest challenge is telling the world that they are.
Look for niche influencers
Facebook and word of mouth are our two biggest forms of awareness growth. Small time influencers with a committed following can be very powerful. It doesn’t always need to be a superstar.
Send your product out to people with no expectations
Understand the cost associated with doing it, but the more people that have your product the better.
Make your packaging unique
Athletes receive tons of products and packages. Make yours unique. An example of an on-brand influencer package we sent was when we sent a package to LeBron James when he moved to LA.
Being based in LA, our team got together and created a recommendation of great family spots only locals would know about in LA, and gave him gift cards, maps, customized rings etc.
LeBron doesn’t need gift cards or a map, but we valued his wife and kids as much as we did him. We focus on family. That is our brand.
In terms of digital marketing, we were launched by Facebook. In 2014, we realized Facebook was an incredible opportunity to pursue the communities that we had resonated with.
We were a wedding ring, so the marital status was a huge helper to create efficiency in advertising. We work with an online sales agency named Common Thread Collective, and still do to this day. I would highly recommend them. There is no golden ticket in terms of what advertising channels will be best for your business so you may need to try a few.
Understand which ads work and do your best to learn why. It may be a lifestyle image on Instagram, or a product photo on a white background on Facebook.
There are people that can do some freelance digital advertising for you, and if you can self-learn some SEO, blog content on your site can be a great opportunity to create free SEO content and there are apps on Shopify that help with SEO.
Do not get complacent online as you grow. Anyone can copy your product, set up a website and if they have money they can compete. It’s exactly what happened to our business with our competition, and it’s pay to play.
For content marketing, we focus on telling our brand story through video content and photography focusing on product updates and releases, product education and customer testimonials. Define your brand message, tone, demographic, and create content that will resonate. The same rules apply for content and ambassadors. If you’re going to create video content, understand the distribution channel and how much you can spend. That video is worthless if no one watches it. For us, testimonial videos and short product focused brand videos have been valuable in our distribution channels. Different content should be produced with the end usage in mind. Pre-roll before a hulu ad, may be different than a facebook retargeting ad.
Get reviews from customers. As many as possible. It is free content, and Amazon has revolutionized the way people value them.
Email marketing is a great way to boost revenue and deepen brand relationships. Collect as many emails as possible. Separate from a Mailchimp fee and your time, it’s free.
What are some of the metrics of the business?
- In 2018 we were, #151 on the INC500 List with 2,792% Growth
- We did $60,000 in our first year of business and 3.2M in our second
- In 2015, we went from 5 employees to 45 by year end
- Our email database is over 1,000,000 customers
- Our social media is a little over 725k on Facebook, 196k on instagram
- We currently sit right around 70 employees
- We are in over 3,000 retail locations and our business is currently 60%/40% eCommerce to Wholesale
- We currently have distribution in Dick’s Sporting Goods, Lowe’s and REI
- As the two founders we have the business split: I oversee Product, Marketing and eCommerce and Ted oversees Sales, Finance, Operations. We work together on the strategy part.
- We are currently expanding globally in EU and Asia
- There are over 1,000,000 searches for the silicone ring category on Amazon every month
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think it would be easier to bullet these out. We’ve seen the good the bad and the ugly.
Nothing can replace hard work.
People who got “lucky” often worked their ass off to create that luck.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Keep grinding, look at the Starbucks and Apple timelines of success if you think it’s supposed to happen faster.
You are so passionate about your company, you want the world to know. It just doesn’t happen overnight. Have a long-term vision, and set short-term goals.
There is a Bill Gates quote that says, “People over overestimate what they can do in a year, and underestimate what they can do in ten.” It is very easy to get discouraged by a company moving slowly but keep at it.
You never know when someone may end up on an HBO show talking about your product. Outlier moments happen for everyone. You are so passionate about your company, you want the world to know. It just doesn’t happen overnight. Have a long-term vision, and set short-term goals.
If you are hitting those goals, that’s a win. Celebrate the wins. Entrepreneurs are so hard on ourselves, give yourself some grace.
Partnerships are a marriage without the sex.
Forgive the metaphor. Which means it is a ton of communication, confrontation, and time spent together. They are very hard, but they are not impossible.
Understand if you have a partnership, the work that is required to be successful. You will be working on your business as well as your relationship with your business partner. Find someone who compliments what you do, thinks differently and doesn’t want to do what you do.
Your business doesn’t need two founders who are doing the same thing.
Stay true to why you started the company.
For every company that is started, there is a “why” you started, and that will be tested as you grow. Why do you exist? QALO started with the goal of allowing people to represent the commitment they had made to their spouse and family regardless of their occupation, hobbies or passion. We were always about building a community of people who live life a certain way, and at the end of the day prioritize, above all else, who it is they come home to.
This has been our north star. We said no to Shark Tank multiple times as a group because we didn’t feel it was the right move for what we were trying to do. We agreed to not do any form of sports or university licensing because we felt it detracted from the meaning behind our product and why people wear it.
Your “why” may force you to say no to what seem like great revenue opportunities and it will serve as a great filter, which is why you should never forget it. It will also help you stay true to yourself.
Never forget your “why”. Customers will notice when you do.
Always. Becoming more successful will not make you more generous, that needs to be deeply rooted in you when you have nothing.
Keep customer service in-house.
We have always had customer service controlled in-house. We use external services now as we’ve grown, but I think it is vital to feel relatable and give customers the employee to talk to a human who can help them solve that problem.
Give your customers the customer service experience you would like to receive if you were the one on the other side of the phone. We call our customer service problem solvers because far too often customer service becomes part of the problem, not the solution.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Zaius - CRM
- MailChimp we used in the earlier days of email
- Yotpo for reviews
- Zendesk for Customer Service
- Quickbooks Online
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
- The Power of Habit
- Scaling Up (Better for once you are a few years in)
- The Lean Startup
- Small Giants
- Ego is the Enemy
- Let My People Go Surfing
- Tim Ferriss
- Shopify Masters (My Episode)
- Building a Story Brand with Donald Miller
- Finding Mastery with Michael Gervais
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Go for it. Please go for it. Too few people do. Every phase is equally as rewarding as challenging.
There are so many resources out there to learn. Use them, because lazy people don’t change the world. Don’t be discouraged when people copy your idea. They’re going to.
Know where your cash is going. Cash is King.
People lesser than you have accomplished amazing things. You are more than capable.
Leadership is lonely. Find people who are going through the journey with you and have a support group.
As you start, hire generalists that can help you get things done, and use outside resources as specialists. As you grow you will hire more specialists, and need less generalists.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
- Creative Director - Full Time
- Customization Coordinator - Full Time and Part Time - Work with our in-house customization team to personalize products
- Sales Administrator - Full Time - Support executives on the sales team
- Marketing Coordinator - Full Time - Support QALO Marketing domestically and internationally
Where can we go to learn more?
Website - www.qalo.com
Facebook - facebook.com/Qalo/
QALO Instagram - @qalo
My Instagram - @mrkcholiday
My email is [email protected] - please feel free to reach out I love helping entrepreneurs.
QALO has provided an update on their business!
Over 2 years ago, we followed up with QALO to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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