A Conversation with Randall Kaplan of CollarCard

Randall Kaplan is an entrepreneur, venture capitalist and philanthropist. He is the owner and Chief Executive Officer of CollarCard, LLC, a 10-year old promotional products company headquartered in Los Angeles, California. CollarCard produces patented men’s collar stays that are environmentally friendly and wholly manufactured in the United States. Several hundred dry cleaners across America and thousands of other companies in more than 30 countries around the world are clients of CollarCard.

Although Kaplan considers himself an Angeleno, the Michigan native still prides himself on his Detroit roots and reads his hometown newspaper on an almost daily basis. When he’s not working, Kaplan loves to wakeboard, toss the football, play the drums, fly his drones and most importantly spend time with his family. Kaplan lives in Los Angeles with his wife, four children and mischievous dog Karma.

For our readers that aren’t familiar with CollarCard, could you give a brief overview of the company?

CollarCard is a fast-growing, promotional products company that makes one product: a patented credit card-sized plastic card that contains four high-quality pop-out collar stays that is stored in a man’s wallet. CollarCard was invented to address and fix the common problem of men forgetting their collar stays when they leave the house, when they are traveling, or for any occasion when they are wearing a dress shirt. CollarCard is a great promotional product for any dry cleaner or other company in any industry. We have a 100% usage rate and can put any brand in a man’s wallet!

A 100% usage rate? That’s a bold claim.

We are lucky to make a product that every man loves. When a man gets a CollarCard, he usually says, “I love this” or something similar and then puts it in his pocket. That’s why we like to say we have a 100% usage rate.

What sets CollarCard apart from other promotional product companies?

CollarCard is the only promotional product we know of that men put in their wallet, which means that we’re essentially offering our clients the opportunity to put plastic billboards with their brand in men’s wallets.

Unlike other generic promotional products, such as pens or notepads which most customers have received before, CollarCard is a unique product that most people have never seen.

Talk a little bit about the singular focus of CollarCard.

We’re very unique as a company in that we only sell one product, which means we are laser focused on selling that product. Unlike nearly all other promotional products, we have five patents on our product and are the only company that sells them. We pride ourselves on our outstanding customer service and we are especially proud of the fact that we’ve never had an unhappy customer in the 10-year history of our company.

Take us back to your early years. What was life like when you were growing up and what is your favorite memory?

I was raised by a single mom and grew up very poor. We didn’t have much money; my mom worked two jobs to support my brother and me.

I played baseball and ran cross country in high school, but I wasn’t very good at either. I was pretty good at school and I immersed myself in my studies.

I had a lot of great memories and they all had to do with spending time with my mom, my brother and my grandmother (who recently turned 100.)

What put you on the path to entrepreneurship?

I’ve always known I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I saw my mom work hard and it motivated me to work hard. I grew up very shy and very quiet, but I was incredibly determined. I was always interested in business. I had my first thoughts about starting a company when I was ten years old and I subscribed to Business Week when I was thirteen years old. From a young age, I had a long-term plan to live a different life. My plan was pretty simple–get good grades, go to good schools, find a good job that paid well, save money and then start my own company.

In my freshman year at the University of Michigan, I took $400 of my bar mitzvah money and made 100 t-shirts. I sold them by going door-to-door in the dorms (getting kicked out of many) and then outside of football games that were attended by 100,000 people every weekend in the fall.

I did very well at Michigan and graduated with highest honors in the top 1% of my class out of 4,300 students.

Where did your pursuits take you after college?

I attended Northwestern University Law School where I also graduated with honors. I didn’t like law school very much and didn’t like being a lawyer either. But it was a good background to have and it paid well, so I practiced corporate and tax law for two and a half years.

I wanted a great job in business without getting my MBA, so I wrote letters to more than 300 CEO’s in Los Angeles asking for informational interviews; something that everybody said would be a waste of my time. I thought otherwise and had my big break when Eli Broad hired me to work as Assistant to the Chairman at SunAmerica where I worked on mergers and acquisitions and special projects.

What was it like working for a business giant like Eli Broad?

Eli had an amazing background. He was one of three people who had started two Fortune 500 companies from scratch (the other one being KB Home.) I started there two months after my 27th birthday and learned an enormous amount while working very long hours six days a week. I had an amazing job and worked with an amazing team and was well compensated, but every day I was there I thought about pursuing my dream of starting my own company.

After three years I had saved a fair amount of money and at age 29, I quit to start a technology company with three others from MIT.

Leaving a well-paying job to do what you did must have been terrifying.

It wasn’t an easy decision. I gave up more than $1 million in stock options and commuted to Boston every week with no salary or funding for our company.

What was the business you started?

We called our company Akamai Technologies. We had developed technology that would make the internet more efficient and allow our future customers to serve their content faster, more reliably and less expensively.

We received funding a few months after we started and quickly signed up large content providers as customers. In October 1999, Akamai went public and had a great reception on Wall Street, closing with a $35 billion market value at the end of that year. But things changed quickly and in 2001 when the stock market as a whole collapsed, Akamai’s value fell to $50 million – a spectacular 99% fall. Over time, however, it recovered and today, Akamai has an $11 billion market value. The company has nearly 8,000 employees, had $2.4 billion in revenues last year and serves approximately 25% of the world’s web traffic.

What was your next venture after Akamai?

I started my investment firm, JUMP Investors. We invest in technology companies, real estate, private equity and public securities. I like investing in cool companies and ten years ago I came across CollarCard and loved the product. Like nearly every man who sees it for the first time, I thought it was genius. It solved a great problem that every man has experienced. At that time, the company was very small and was waiting on its first patent, but I thought it had enormous potential. Three months later, I bought the company and since then, we have grown with an amazing group of customers around the world.

Tell us about some of the struggles you’ve experienced along the way.

Like any business, there have been many obstacles over the years. We have historically hired young salespeople out of college and at times it’s been difficult to teach them how to sell and help manage our company.

We’ve also had a problem with patent infringement. Another plastic manufacturer was copying our product and despite catching them for a few years, they refused to stop manufacturing them despite many letters from our lawyers.

This manufacturer’s counterfeit products were being sold through PPAI and ASI and the management at these organizations falsely told me that I had to have a legal judgment for them to remove the counterfeit offering on their websites. This arbitrary judgment was absurd and against trademark law and it shockingly took many years for these organizations to finally realize they faced financial penalties for allowing these products to be sold through their marketplace.

When you define success, what are your criteria or the markers you’re seeking?

My definition of success has changed quite a bit over the years. When I was young and throughout the early years of my career, I thought most success was tied to money. I had certain goals: to live a better life than how we grew up, to graduate from good schools, to get good jobs, to make good money and to buy a house one day. I also wanted a family one day as well, but work would be my number one priority for a while.

In my late 20’s, that changed. My career was off to a good start and I wanted to start a family. And when I did, my priorities changed dramatically. Work was still very important, but my family became my number one priority and remains so to this day. I’m lucky to be my own boss, so this gives me the flexibility to do that.

In addition to putting my family first and being a great dad and husband, I also define success by helping others. I’m proud that I’ve helped raise millions of dollars for two local charities, endowed a scholarship at Michigan, created a foster care scholarship in honor of my grandmother and have mentored more than 100 students in my firm’s 18-year-old internship program.

That’s what I enjoy the most – making differences in people’s lives.

What quality or characteristic do you feel is most important to your success?

A lot of things go into being successful, including luck, but the most important factor in my success has always been my work ethic. My goal wasn’t to be the smartest; it was to be the person who worked the hardest in anything I did. I studied very long hours in high school, college and law school and the long hours translated to great results: graduating at or near the top of my classes at very competitive schools.

When I started my career as a lawyer, I worked 60-80 hours a week and almost always on Saturdays and part of the day on Sundays. At SunAmerica, I worked even harder and at Akamai, even longer hours including a 3,000-mile commute each way to work every week.

You mentioned “luck.” What role has it played in your life and business?

Luck always plays a part in anybody’s success and it’s played a role in mine as well. But it’s also true that the harder you work, the luckier you will be. For me, the 90+ hour work weeks paid off in many ways and led to many different opportunities. I was lucky for all of these, but the luck wouldn’t have happened without the incredible effort and sacrifices. In my personal life, I was incredibly lucky to be on Facebook five years ago where I saw an old friend suddenly single, which led me to fly to New York the following week to take her to dinner. We were engaged three months later and today we are married and have an amazing young daughter that my three older kids love.

What tips or pointers would you give to our readers to help them succeed?

While work ethic is number one for me, I think three other factors are also critical and part of my company’s DNA: attitude, integrity and loyalty.

Many of our companies, including CollarCard, are in the customer service business. The keys to our success have been our focus on outstanding customer service, our laser-like focus on making our clients happy and our ability to listen to our customers and give them exactly what they want.

At CollarCard, we sell a great product that our clients’ clients love and at a great price. We hire great people with outgoing personalities and great attitudes. We also try to get to know our customers; a game plan that works in just about every business.

Where do you see your industry going over the next 5-10 years? Do you sense any significant shifts, changes, or trends?

I have never been a pundit about industry trends; I don’t consider myself an expert in predicting the future. But I do think that one of the best qualities of any entrepreneur is to listen to what your markets and customers are telling you and to be able to adapt and change course as conditions change, which they always do.

When you don’t change, you often fail. History is littered with many noteworthy companies that didn’t do that. Do you remember Blockbuster? So, we look for those changes and when they happen, we do our best to adapt to them.

Are you looking forward to, or planning for any significant changes?

I’m incredibly excited and optimistic about the future. We’re going to continue to build CollarCard one customer at a time and we have a long way to go there. We would love every dry cleaner to buy our product and we’re going to work really hard on that.

What other exciting endeavors do you have in the pipeline?

For the last five years, I’ve been working on a new company called Sandee (www.sand.ee) – it’s a Yelp/TripAdvisor for beaches. We’ve cataloged 94 categories of data for every beach in the world – 152 countries – and we hope to create the world’s first beach brand. We’re launching that in the next few months.

I have also started a real estate company; purchasing and managing apartment buildings and we’re continuing to make venture capital and other investments.

I’m also very devoted to my philanthropy, helping others and my internship/mentorship program – things that are hugely important to me. I plan on raising more money for these charities and helping more people who are less fortunate. I also hope to teach and do motivational speaking and serve on public company boards. And most of all, I’m planning on spending good quality time with my family.

So far, what has been the proudest moment of your career?

I would say there are two. The first was when I was 27 years old and created a charity event for a non-profit law firm. I wanted to have it at the House of Blues, a cool venue in L.A. and called the CEO 11 times before he agreed to meet with me. The venue held 1,200 people and he told me that a 27-year old planning a first-time event could not sell out his venue. I said I would and six months later nearly 1,400 people showed up at a sold-out, packed venue where we raised more than $100,000. I remember sitting above in the balcony for a reflective moment by myself, looking down at all of those people who were dancing and going wild and I was very proud of what I (along with those who helped me) had created to help others less fortunate. I called the event The Justice Ball and within three years it became one of the country’s largest under-40 fundraisers and also one of the leading philanthropic events in Los Angeles. Twenty-one years later it’s still going – Berlin, Billy Idol, The B-52’s, Macy Gray, Nelly, Sugar Ray, The Psychedelic Furs, The Go-Go’s and other leading acts have performed. In total, more than 30,000 people have attended and it’s raised $6 million to provide free legal services annually to more than 12,000 poor, sick, elderly and homeless residents of Los Angeles County.

The second was a gift I gave my grandmother for her 87th birthday when I surprised her by creating the Julia Eder Dean’s Scholarship at the University of Michigan in honor of her. It’s an all-expenses, all-tuition scholarship for a student who, like her, was raised in foster care. We sent 3,400 letters to foster kids in the state of Michigan to apply and I awarded the scholarship to a student in East Lansing, Michigan who was living in her car and whose parents were in prison. Five years later, this student graduated from Michigan and then went on to earn a master’s degree. Even more impressive, she’s a social worker, a motivational speaker, a mother, a wife and a homeowner – and most importantly, she has become a permanent member of our family and is especially close to my grandmother.

If you had to start over, is there anything you would have done differently?

People have asked me that question over the years and my answer to that is a resounding “No!”

There have been many ups and downs in my career and many failures on the investment side of our business, particularly in the venture capital world. While we enjoy our successes, we learn more often from our failures than from those deals that have gone great and produced good outcomes.

If you would like more information about CollarCard or want to contact Randall Kaplan, their website is www.CollarCard.com

About John Leano

John Leano can be reached by e-mail: Leano@BryansCleaners.com or Twitter: @JohnLeano or www.facebook.com/johngleano