Meet the Reluctantly Successful Hatmaker With a 6-month Waiting List

Meet the Reluctantly Successful Hatmaker With a 6-month Waiting List

Stephen Tempkin makes fedoras.

Each hat is custom made by hand, one at a time, in his own home. He could make his business bigger. He could make his hats faster. But he doesn’t.

Stephen only makes hats because he loves doing it.

Conventional wisdom would say that’s not a great business. But Stephen is convinced that NOT trying to be successful is what has made his business such a huge success.

Meet the reluctantly successful hatmaker.

In this TGIM short, you'll...

  • Learn how limited quantities and exclusivity can drive serious demand
  • Discover the "reverse psychology of marketing" and how it works
  • Find out why even running a business your way isn't all "sunshine and rainbows"

Check out the full short below:

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Stephen: "My name is Stephen Temkin. I'm the only old Jewish hat maker who was never a young Jewish hat maker."

Speaker 1: "So you don't get the wrong impression, Stephen isn't as old as time, he's sixty. It is true that he hasn't been making hats his whole life. In fact, he only started about a decade ago."

Stephen: "I started in 2007 putting the project together, not really knowing exactly what it's going to be. I started selling hats to other people in 2009."

Speaker 1: "Why did you start making hats?"

Stephen: "I thought I would like to get back to making things again, like actually using my hands and creating things like I used to."

Speaker 1: "Something you need to know about Stephen, is that he has had a lot of jobs. He has been a cartoonist, he's been a wine writer, he was even a food critic under the name the [Gomargin 00:28:09]. He's basically a contrarian. He's extremely precise and sharp and he doesn't suffer fools. In fact, one of the main reasons he started making hats for himself by hand is because he couldn't find any that were up to his standards. The hats being sold in stores were crap, so he set up his own workshop. I don't think many people would go to such an extreme."

Stephen: "This workshop down here is where all the work is done on the felt itself, which is sort of messy. There's water and steam and ... By the felt, I already process, but the felt goes through bits of sanding and other processes that remove fiber. If you don't vacuum every once in a while that starts to pile up."

Speaker 1: "You might be thinking to yourself, hold on, I don't see that many fedoras anymore. Isn't Stephen worried about the fact that he started a business that there may not be any demand for?"

Stephen: "No, because if men don't wear hats than I don't have to make them."

Speaker 1: "Wait, wait, but if you don't have to make them, you don't have a business."

Stephen: "Let's face, you reach a point in your life where you can start a small business and you may not necessarily be reliant on it. I don't need this business to pay off a mortgage or to put kids through school, or to live."

Speaker 1: "This business just gets weirder, right? A guy who started making hats so he could get a nice one to wear for himself. A business he doesn't even really need to succeed, to make a living. What, he can only be making a few hats a year, right?"

Stephen: "I make hats by hand and when I started this business, I decided on only want to make fifty to a hundred hats a year. I'm now at a level where I'm getting more orders than I want. They're sort of piling up. The wait time for a hat has gone from six weeks to six months."

Speaker 1: "Can you imagine many entrepreneurs saying something like that? That their business is successful. A guy on his own reluctantly making hats for the masses in his basement. Where did the success come from?"

Stephen: "I have discovered the reverse psychology of marketing. To be flippant about it, some will phone me up and they'll say, "I want a hat," and I'll say, "No, you don't." The harder it seems to be able to get one, the more people want them."

Speaker 1: "Those people that want Stephen's hats admittedly a niche crowd find out about him online, in clothing forums, social media, just not his own. Stephen doesn't do Instagram or Facebook. It's word of mouth in the modern age. An old world craft thriving because of the Internet. There's another contraption on the middle of the table, what is this?"

Stephen: "Yes, it's just a spindle with a mortar underneath the table. If you look at this hat over here, this glossy black hat which is going to become a dress hamburg for a wedding has a slightly glossy finish to it. That finish is put on for example using that spinning."

Speaker 1: "It is not all sunshine and rainbows, Stephen's business is taking off, but his fundamental challenge beyond making more hats than he really wants to is finding and maintaining his shelves and shelves of antique tools and machinery."

Stephen: "A lot of the stuff that I have every year that I keep doing this, some of the tools I have are increasingly difficult to find."

Speaker : "You do have a table over here which looks to me like it's full of ... There's irons and pressers."

Stephen: "You use a lot of steam and moisture when you work with hats, so this is basically the steam table."

Speaker 1: "In the face of his challenges, why does he really do it? Why does Stephen make hats?"

Stephen: "I do this because I like doing it, because I like being involved in the creation of an element of style for a man. I actually probably somewhere deep inside of me, I enjoy the fact that it's kind of archaic. When it stops being fun, I'll stop doing it."

Speaker 1: "What is your definition of success for the company?"

Stephen: "Success for me means two things and of course people in business will cringe to hear me say this because they measure success by profit. I actually don't measure success by profit completely. Yes, I feel good when I'm making money and the more I make, the better I feel. It's also important for me to be a critical success, meaning that I need to know that the hats are making are as good as a hat can be, and that other people recognize that. Of course, in my opinion, that leads to business success because that reinforces the value of your hats and therefore the price."

Speaker 1: "When it comes down to it, it's not just Stephen's product that is classic, it's his approach to marketing, make something well to the best of your ability and word will spread. Eventually, your customers will seek you out. Then one success i'll organically lead to the next with even more visibility."

Show notes:

About TGIM: TGIM is a podcast for people who can’t wait for the week to start. In each episode we’ll be bringing you inspirational stories about entrepreneurs who have overcome obstacles, built incredible businesses, and are now living the life they want.