TAW GEAR’S VALERIE HIRSCH: CATCH HER NOW
Growing up in Northern Wisconsin, Valerie Hirsch had two predominant passions: fashion and riding motorcycles; and at times, the two hobbies were in conflict. Motorcycle headwear wasn’t a thing yet, and managing her long hair on the bike was so frustrating that she finally chopped it off. When Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” video was released, Hirsch’s fashionista antennae perked up. She got herself a rolled bandana just like Newton-John’s, and the seed of an idea was born that there could be options other than a scrunchie for tying one’s hair back on a motorcycle.
At one point, coming back from a ride that began, as Northern Wisconsin days often do, at 80 degrees, and dropped in temperature by 60 degrees, Hirsch’s ears stung so badly from the cold, she was in tears. Her boyfriend pulled over, and they ransacked their saddlebags for something, anything, that could be used for makeshift earmuffs. Hirsch found a pair of wool socks and tied the toes together, wrapped the socks around her head, and tied them under her chin.
“That was my first headwrap,” laughs Hirsch. “I looked like Elmer Fudd, and I didn’t even care. Luckily, it was dark out. We still joke about that.”
Hirsch completed a two-year fashion merchandising course at Superior Tech, earning her Associate’s degree. Instructor Virginia Scholbrock took note of Hirsch’s eye and style and pushed her to apply for the Clothing and Textile and Apparel Design program at UW-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Hirsch earned her BA, and during her time there won a scholarship to study in London for a semester at the American College.
After graduation, Hirsch moved to Los Angeles for six years, where she helped Cherokee launch their swimwear line and then took a job with a large brand, My Michelle, where she handled the design and development of private label projects for Nordstrom. Always looking for opportunity and new challenges, Hirsch went to work in a buying office as a market consultant for all things swimwear and accessories. She scoured the market daily, and would then give advice to buyers at stores like Dillard’s and Macy’s as to what their stores needed to carry to stay on trend or be the lead on a trend.
Fast forward to 2018, and Hirsch’s company, That’s A Wrap, Inc. is going on its seventeenth year in business. Doing business as TAW Gear, the company makes headwraps for motorcyclists and has partnerships nationwide with individual Harley-Davidson dealerships, Indian dealerships, and J&P Cycles (MRG), the largest after-market motorcycle sales outfit. Hirsch sells products to 200-300 Harley-Davidson stores every year, has done private label projects for Cycle Gear and Yamaha, and continues to grow the custom area of her business. Hirsch works with The Renegade Classics chain, as well as mom-and-pop shops that cater to the motorcycle lifestyle.
“We say we ‘partner’ with our stores because it is important for us to focus on key clientele to keep the brand from being diluted,” explains Hirsch. “We can protect these stores’ margins by providing exclusivity of product to loyal customers.”
TAW Gear started out as a wholesale business selling to Harley-Davidson shops only. With the advent of the Internet, the company embraced the inevitable and opened a retail online store. Now, Hirsch has six employees in the slower season and up to ten in high season.
“We started with an $80,000 SBA loan, and the company is now worth six times that,” says Hirsch. “I see it continuing to grow.”
Hirsch would like to get into producing accent pieces, like shirts to match headwear, and customization, to keep growing the business. TAW Gear has been working with High School Sports and produced collegiate headwear for the University of North Dakota.
“We can print from one to 600 pieces at a time on demand,” says Hirsch. “We’re pretty nimble.” TAW Gear has been a client of the UW-Madison Small Business Development Center for years.
“I got a ton of help from retired SBDC Consultant Jack Reiner, as far as writing my business plan, and I took courses on building a business plan and formatting partnerships vs. LLCs,” says Hirsch. “We walked in with basically a napkin and a headwrap and said, ‘This is what we want to be.’ Jack looked at us like we were insane. He didn’t understand our product, but he understood our passion and drive.”
Reiner made Hirsch write and rewrite the business plan (Hirsch ultimately bought out her two co-founders and has been running the company on her own since 2010). Hirsch did extensive market research, traveling to Chicago to source cut-and-sew shops, find out what they charged for labor, and estimate fabric yields. She traveled to fabric shows to source fabric and started with one headwrap pattern in twelve different prints. The company now offers over 200 products.
“Writing and researching the business plan was tough, but it was a very good experience,” says Hirsch. “Once we got the plan down, when we went from one sheet to 50 sheets, I could see the company functioning in 3D. I could see all the elements working together and clicking.”
Hirsch was able to establish a relationship with a loan officer, thanks to the SBDC, and when he reviewed TAW Gear’s business plan, he said he’d never seen anything so thorough. The company had a loan within two weeks.
“To get that kind of free mentoring—we couldn’t have launched without that,” says Hirsch. “We never could have afforded a consultant.”
Hirsch and her partners continued to work with SBDC as the business got off the ground and she maintains a close relationship with the SBDC still today.
“The need for advisors and counseling is just as important to us as we enter our seventeenth year,” she says. “It’s a tremendous value to have this free, high-caliber consulting. These people have relevant background and deep knowledge and can very quickly steer you in the right direction. It’s priceless, what they do.”
Hirsch has formed a close relationship with SBDC director Michelle Somes-Booher, whom she refers to as being “like your own operations person.”“She’s got resources for everything, and she helps me be more efficient,” says Hirsch. “If I email or call her, she’s right there. It’s such a comfort. Sometimes, her advice is as simple as, ‘You’re doing fine. Breathe. Let’s get a game plan together.’ She keeps me on task and on target. For small businesses with limited resources, whether it be time, staff, or money, the SBDC can fill in those holes, more often than not .”
Now, Hirsch owns two warehouses and continues to grow her business by introducing high-quality shirts to match her headwear and an online customization tool that lets consumers design their own headwear.
“We print much of our fabric in-house now, which allows us to do this level of customization and exclusivity,” Hirsch explains. “To be able to print my own fabric in-house has been my dream from Day One.”Hirsch reminisces about working in the thriving L.A. fashion industry, which was focused on American made quality and craftsmanship, and how much pride she felt at being part of it. She was devastated when businesses started offshoring their manufacturing, radically changing the industry. Now, her competitors are often copycat companies from overseas.
“They know how to copy, but they’re not me; they’re not bikers, and they’re not Made in America,” says Hirsch. “They don’t have the relationships or the understanding of the market that I do. Biker culture is loyal, and the buyers that know me are loyal and supportive. I wouldn’t be here without them, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I just look behind my shoulder and say to my competition, ‘Catch me now.’”