Store spotlight: Recycled Firefighter
When Jake Starr began making wallets out of firehose, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. A firefighter in Louisville, Kentucky, he was simply experimenting with some firehose that had been thrown out at the station. He bought a sewing machine off of Craigslist, taught himself to sew, and within a year he found himself with a growing ecommerce business.
Today, Jake runs Recycled Firefighter, an online store that sells wallets, belts, backpacks, and other gear. His products are made from decommissioned fire hose and U.S. military-standard materials. “You’d never think fire hose wallets could be so successful,” Jake says, but last year the business shipped over 25,000 orders, and running it has turned into a full-time job.
Like many entrepreneurs, selling online wasn’t always in Jake’s plans. After starting out by making items for family and friends, he put a duffel bag on Etsy—and it sold right away. “That’s when I got my first taste,” he says. “Like ‘Wow, I can make some money on this.’”
From early 2013 through 2014, Jake’s Etsy store grew steadily, taking up more and more of his free time when he wasn’t at the firehouse. At the same time, he began to realize some of Etsy’s limitations: “You couldn’t upload videos, you could only have four photos of a product.” His brother, a web developer, suggested Shopify. “That's when I realized I could make it my own site instead of just being one of a gazillion same-looking stores on Etsy,” he says.
Jake bought Atlantic and got his store set up on Shopify, but he didn’t shut down his Etsy store right away. He operated both shops simultaneously for about a year, using his increasing visibility on social media to direct traffic to his Shopify store. His first big windfall came in late 2014 when he launched the Sergeant wallet, now one of the brand’s flagship products, and he says Christmas of that year is when Recycled Firefighter really “took off.”
The Sergeant wallet, one of Recycled Firefighter's flagship products.
Around the same time, Jake began marketing on Instagram, averaging around 1,000 new followers per week. “My sales wouldn’t be where they are today without Instagram,” he says. “There were a couple of days when I announced a wallet on Instagram, and by the time I got home from the firehouse I’d made as much sales in one day as my entire year’s salary.”
With over 65,000 Instagram followers, Jake is still very active on the platform and sees it as a major brand builder. Although he doesn’t do Instagram ads, he does buy ads on Facebook and Google. He also runs email marketing campaigns, using Klaviyo to manage several automated flows. He says 10 to 15 percent of the business’s revenue is generated by email.
As Jake’s business has grown, his means of production have had to evolve to keep pace. After starting out by cutting the hose by hand with scissors, he switched to using power tools with rotary cutters, including a bandsaw. He then splurged on a leather press or dye cutter—”like a big cookie cutter”—that allowed him to cut five or six layers at a time. When demand continued to soar, he hired some people to help him out in the garage.
Today, Jake works with a manufacturer in the area, ensuring that the products remain high-quality and made in the U.S. The manufacturer ships the products back to Jake for finishing, and he takes them to a local fulfillment center to be shipped to his customers. Outsourcing these responsibilities has helped Jake settle into his role as an entrepreneur.
Recycled Firefighter's Jake Starr in his Louisville workshop.
"What I enjoy the most is the product development and design process,” he says. “I spend most days doing some Facebook ads, doing video and photography for Instagram, and the rest of my time I’m doing custom stuff or designing out in my garage. There's so many different things I can make out of fire hose, I'm always developing something for the future."
Once again, like many successful entrepreneurs, Jake says his biggest challenge is “knowing when to stop.” He’s married with two young children and says he struggles to know when to take a break. “You see a bunch of sales and you’re like, ‘Wow, I can make a million dollars, 10 million dollars, whatever.’ And you have to ask yourself, should I have a lifestyle where I make a little less money, but I have more time off? Or should I make more money and work more?”
Of course that’s a good dilemma for any entrepreneur to have, and Jake considers himself “blessed” to have found a niche where only a few other stores are doing something similar. “My advice to other ecommerce merchants would be to find a unique proposition and market it on Instagram,” he says. “I've been posting four times a day for the past two years."
Jake’s success is impressive, but so is the effort he’s put into growing his business. It’s proof that a good idea and lots of hard work are a great recipe for success, and his story should inspire any budding entrepreneur thinking about starting an online store.
What do you think of Jake’s story? Let us know in the comments!
Head over to RecycledFirefighter.com to learn more about Jake’s business
Recycled Firefighter uses a customized version of Pixel Union’s Atlantic theme