Entrepreneur: Ryan Barr, founder of WhippingPost.com, a New York-based online business that makes durable leather goods for musicians, including a "picker's wallet" with a dedicated stitched pocket for a guitar pick.
"Aha" moment: A musician with an appreciation for vintage design, Barr was intrigued by leather and the way it ages. In late 2010, after holding a series of uninspiring jobs--including high-school history teacher and medical-device salesperson--he started his business with a collection of leather guitar cases styled after one he had designed for himself.
"I'm more of a creative type, and I detest hospitals, so that last job was not a very good place for me to be," Barr says. "In a sense, it inspired me to work on this business so I could get out."
He financed his dream the old-fashioned way. "I'd save some money, buy some leather, make a prototype. Then I'd have to stop and save some more. It was very piecemeal," he recalls. "I had to make money to make progress." The cases got some attention from trendy gear blogs, but a high price point--$825--meant a limited customer base.
Pocket protection: In 2011 Barr decided to scale down and market a more affordable product. "A lot of guitar players shove picks between the credit cards inside their wallets so that in case of a music emergency, they always have one," he says. "I thought, I'll just make a wallet that has a separate spot for it." Barr says he has sold about 4,000 of the wallets, priced at $31 to $37, in the past year. Roughly 99 percent of his business is done through his website, though a handful of U.S. brick-and-mortar shops also carry the wallets.
Production process: On a recommendation (and after he was able to save enough money to buy a plane ticket), Barr visited a manufacturer in León, Mexico, that had a similar aesthetic and desire for quality. "I've been using them ever since," he says. "I spend a lot of time there. The tanners are local, too, so I can pick out my product and have things made quickly."
Tuning up: "I had a lot of concerns about marketing," Barr says. "How do you get the word out about a product no one is looking for?" He started by sending photos and information to men's fashion and design blogs. First the men's buying guide Uncrate.com, then Wired.com and other sites posted about the wallets. His initial stock of 50 was gone within hours, and Barr found himself scrambling to keep up with demand.
Solo act: Barr spent his first year in business as a one-man show--designing the product, managing the website, taking care of order fulfillment and everything in between. In June he hired his first employee.
What's next: Whipping Post's first non-music-related item, a $265 messenger bag inspired by vintage postman satchels, was released at the end of the summer. Sales were steady from the start, thanks to interest Barr drummed up by documenting the design process on his site's blog.
"This is a crowded market--I'm not trying to fight the big boys," he says. "But unless you're buying attention with expensive advertising, it's important to have a product remarkable enough that people pay attention and talk about it." With this new product, Barr is aiming for company revenue of $200,000 for 2012, more than double the previous year's sales.