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Deal Radar 2010: Black Helmet

Posted on Monday, May 10th 2010

Black Helmet Apparel is the first high-quality, modern apparel line targeting the firefighter industry. Its products, most of which are made in the United States, feature intricate designs that often incorporate the firefighter’s symbol, the eight-pointed Maltese cross. The company started small but got a big boost in sales and its customer base from social media, most notably Facebook.

Black Helmet founder and chief creative officer James Love is a third-generation firefighter and art school graduate who realized the fire industry was lacking in good options for off-duty apparel. CEO Pedro Sostre, Love’s brother-in-law, is a serial entrepreneur and veteran marketer who has launched several successful ventures. Neither had experience in the clothing industry before Black Helmet.

Initially, when Love and Sostre approached firefighter retailers to carry the Black Helmet line, they were told they would fail. People said, “No firefighter is going to pay $30 for a t-shirt,” “You will have to use cheaper garments and produce them outside the United States to cut costs,” and “You need to create less aggressive products that can be worn on duty because firefighters won’t spend money on off-duty wear.” But the Black Helmet team ignored naysayers and using Sostre’s B2C marketing skills, focused on selling directly to individual firefighters through Facebook and an e-commerce site Sostre created.

Black Helmet decided to leverage the growing popularity of Facebook in November 2008. The orders that started coming in indicated the strength of the “brotherhood” of firefighters – one order in St. Louis, for example, quickly yielded dozens of orders from St. Louis, and so on as the word spread rapidly that there was finally a “cool” apparel line for firefighters. The company now has over 64,000 Facebook fans who share photos of their tattoos of Black Helmet designs and put decals of designs on their vehicles. Customers can also connect with Black Helmet on LinkedIn and Twitter. Further, Black Helmet bought full-page ads in trade magazines to build brand recognition, which had not been done before by an off-duty apparel company.

Products include t-shirts, hoodies, belt buckles, hats, dress shirts, workout clothes, and tank tops. All designs are drawn by hand, and products are designed, printed, and embroidered in Orlando, Florida. Black Helmet makes its shirts with American Apparel products, which are manufactured in and around Los Angeles.

There are about 1 million career firefighters in the United States and another 1 million volunteers. Firefighting as a profession tends to be a family affair, so purchasers are often spouses and children as well as the actual firefighter. Black Helmet has expanded internationally as well, with Canada and Australia as its biggest international markets. In addition, Black Helmet shirts are worn by members of the U.S. armed services stationed abroad; for example, there is a special shirt created for a unit in Iraq.

Firefighters, family and friends of firefighters, volunteer firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and other emergency relief workers are the top target segments. What makes these segments so appealing is that they are extremely connected to each other beyond geographic borders, and they have down time during work to talk and recommend products to each other.

The Black Helmet Apparel website gets approximately 50,000 visits per month. Since June 2008, the company has sold approximately 75,000 items to 20,000 customers. Black Helmet is on target for $2 million in sales in 2010.

The company has been bootstrapped since the beginning, with funds coming from Sostre and his other companies. Black Helmet launched with an initial investment of $10,000 and has been profitable and self-funded since then. The founders are working to secure a revolving credit line to improve cash flow and the product development pipeline while maintaining the growing inventory base. Appealing investor partners would provide deeper knowledge of the apparel industry and an interest in expanding the depth and breadth of the line.

At present, there are 55 products in the line, and the founders’ goal is to double that by the end of the year. Since t-shirts are the biggest seller and a product that is purchased in multiples or collections, this will remain a core product. The company plans to continue to expand in accessories (belt buckles) and new products such as jeans and outerwear. In addition, Black Helmet has also begun to sell duty gear such as gear bags for firefighters to use on the job. The “skull” logo has been replaced by an “overhaul” logo on these products to be more appropriate for a service call. The company is exploring partnerships to manufacture duty gear that meets strict fire retardant standards.

Black Helmet is also looking to expand its team of four (Love, Sostre, a customer service manager, and and inventory specialist) to include managers with manufacturing and supply chain expertise.

Black Helmet’s exit strategy is based on continued growth of brand equity and ultimately interest in acquisition by an industry manufacturer looking to acquire a strong off-duty brand or an industry retailer looking to get into manufacturing. In addition, the value of the brand could become a value to a fashion apparel manufacturer serving the Black Helmet demographic.

This segment is a part in the series : Deal Radar 2010

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