(Photo by Tyler Waldman)
Brian Le Gette used his Wharton School MBA classes as his first proving ground for what would become the Harbor East-based 180s. He and his future business partner submitted their business plan for a class assignment.
They got a D.
“What’s the size of the ear-warmer market?” Le Gette recalled his professor asking, during Monday’s Startup Grind Baltimore at the Living Classrooms Foundation in Fells Point. “We had a disagreement. He bought us a bottle of champagne five years later.”
Le Gette sold his share and exited 180s in 2005. After time spent traveling and working abroad, he came back and started two new (and totally disparate) companies in 2010: mobile device case maker ZeroChroma and the vertically-integrated Big City Farms.
But before he was an entrepreneur, Le Gette said, he sold for Texas Instruments.
“It was a great company, great money, but I wanted to start something and I didn’t know what that was,” he said.
So he took the opportunity to go to Wharton, where he founded 180s with Ron Wilson in 1994. The company started with the now-ubiquitous, hairdo-saving behind-the-ear ear-warmers then expanded into other accessories like gloves and outerwear, most of which, believe it or not, Le Gette wouldn’t himself use.
“I think the product worked well. I’m a minimalist,” he said. “I wear a jacket in winter. It’s not stuff I use.”
The product, nevertheless, was a hit. The company grew as fast as nearby Under Armour, but while Kevin Plank’s company did business all year round, 180s depended on winter.
“We grew 9,600 percent in four years. If I was doing code, I could do that no problem. A consumer company, you can’t do that,” Le Gette said, citing concerns such as employee training, retention and burnout.
He also spoke about pivots made with his two current companies. Big City, he said, was originally planned to be a vertical farming company. But after assessing the market and risk involved, the company decided to grow organic produce in its Baltimore greenhouses, losing an interested developer in the process. ZeroChroma made plain old device cases until coming into its own and adding stands and docks to the product lineup.
“I was able to kind of reach out and fail several times without destruction,” Le Gette said. “I believe in chance. Maybe that’s a lot of people’s luck. Maybe things happen, they don’t happen.”
Startup Grind will host CareerBuilder founder Rob McGovern at their July event.