Cape Cod Beach Chair Company
Entrepreneur: Justin Labdon
Location: Harwich, MA
As the founder, president, and “chair-man” of the Cape Cod Beach Chair Company, Justin Labdon went from being a corporate worker to pursuing his dreams of selling high-end beach chairs on Cape Cod. After being laid off in 2002, Justin reevaluated his career path and decided to manufacture his own line of beach chairs that are more works of art then furniture pieces. He is the classic example of turning lemons into lemonade by turning to self-employment, instead of finding another job he was apathetic about.
As so many companies have done, Cape Cod Beach Chair Company (CCBCC) started out in Justin’s home, moving into larger facilities as the business grew. Now housed in an 1800’s barn that serves as not only the retail location and headquarters for CCBCC, but also the home of his latest undertaking, Adventure Chatham. Filling an underserved marketplace has allowed Justin to expand his business towards his goal of becoming the “Ultimate Specialty Beach Store.”
This installment of Talking Small Biz explores Justin’s journey into entrepreneurship, and shares some of the lessons he has learned thus far.
Working as a senior account executive for an audio-visual system company, you were laid off in the spring of 2002. After growing up on and around the water, you came up with a great way to get away from the corporate life and get back to your native Cape Cod. Was it a difficult decision to decide to not pursue another J-O-B as an employee and try your hand at being self-employed?
CCBCC: Not really. I would sit in my cubicle at my job and look at guys 10-20 years older than me, doing the exact same job I had in my late 20’s, and see how easy it was for people to become trapped in a career they didn’t really love. Upon my layoff, I didn’t want to take the same position at a similar company, and couldn’t find a well paying job that looked like fun elsewhere. I was engaged and figured, if I am ever going to try something, now’s the time, before I am actually married with kids!
Tell us a little about your ‘ah-ha’ moment where you decided on a product and, more importantly, decided that you would try becoming an entrepreneur.
CCBCC: Well, I was living in a condo in Boston’s North End that fortunately had a rooftop deck overlooking the harbor. Sitting there one day, I started evaluating this beater beach chair we had up there. It was kind of rusty, the fabric was faded, and I thought, “Someone should make a nicer beach chair.” Having grown up in the beach resort of Cape Cod, I started to think that a regionally branded one would sell well. I figured, maybe I should make them!
In 2010, you opened up a retail location and moved your headquarters to an antique barn in Harwich. You went from an online business to adding a retail store into the mix. What did adding a bricks and mortar location do for your business?
CCBCC: I actually moved to the Cape in 2003 and worked out of my garage and basement at my house, and then out of an industrial park warehouse bay, for many years. After a while, my online sales plateaued, and I realized that I really needed to have a better presence on the Cape to target the local summer market. (This actually wasn’t a new thought, it was in my initial business plan, but I couldn’t afford it when I launched.) Real estate had become very overpriced on the Cape during the real estate bubble, and I hadn’t been able to find a suitable place to both make and sell chairs that was remotely affordable. Fortunately, when the mortgage/real estate collapsed, I found a great building that had been for sale at $699,000 and managed to purchase it with a SBA loan for $380,000 in the spring of 2010. Getting the loan was very difficult, but with a of couple cosigners, I worked it out. It has worked out well, much better for production than the industrial park, and has a great location and vibe as a store.
Selling beach chairs in Cape Cod seems like it would be very seasonal. However, your chairs are for sale on your website so that anyone, anywhere, can buy your products year-round. Do you make an effort to market internationally, or even to the warm weather states, or do you just concentrate on the seasonal local market and the business that comes from other locations is just a bonus?
CCBCC: Well, beachy items definitely have a seasonal component. I kill it in the spring and summer, slow a bit in the fall, do great for Christmas, both locally and online, then have a couple slow winter months. It’s always warm somewhere and people buy them for gifts, so I still have cash flow in the winter. I don’t focus on international business – shipping is so costly – but do try to stimulate corporate orders during the winter.
You took a liking to stand up paddleboarding a couple of years ago and saw an opportunity to promote the sport in Cape Cod through your Adventure Chatham division. As a result, you now offer paddleboards, kayaks, beach bikes, and all the related beach accessories. This seems like a great compliment for the beach chairs that you produce. Have you seen a synergy between the beach chair business and your Adventure Chatham business?
CCBCC: Yeah, that works out very well. Although Adventure Chatham is technically Cape Cod Beach Chair, I advertise it separately. I get a lot of beach chair traffic that would never think to try it, but see it in the store, and maybe rent them, or take a lesson. Conversely, a lot of tourists come to rent them that might not otherwise have come to the store and get introduced to our groovy chairs, and all the other stuff we now carry. I am trying to develop our brick and mortar retail channel into the “Ultimate Specialty Beach Store,” not just selling chairs but other equally high quality beach gear, too.
For 2011, you introduced two new chairs – a children’s chair and a backpack chair – as result of the input you received from your customers. How important is it for your business to be receptive to your customer’s ideas and suggestions?
CCBCC: It’s very important. As long as I can capitalize on it, CCBCC will continue to add to our line with different chairs and accessories based on customer feedback.
What methods do you use to receive your valuable customer’s input?
CCBCC: I get a lot of calls and emails asking, “Do you have a footrest? Shade attachment? Do they recline all the way back?” etc., and I make note of them. If we don’t offer such a feature, I add it to the to-do list. Having a retail showroom is great because I get to watch firsthand how people react to the products.
One of the unique activities that Adenture Chatham offers is stand up paddleboard yoga. It has to be hard enough to just balance on a paddleboard, never mind introducing yoga in to the mix. That has to be a killer workout! Where did this unique idea come from?
CCBCC: Well, when thinking about the SUP idea, I did a lot of research online. I found many SUP businesses in California, Florida, Hawaii, etc., offering this. As cool as it sounds, it is a very small component of Adventure Chatham. Standard rentals and beginner lessons are where it’s at.
Both Cape Cod Beach Chair and Adventure Chatham have Facebook pages. What is your social media strategy?
CCBCC: Engage the customer, keep them informed of anything remotely noteworthy, and offer exclusive deals for our Facebook fans as a way to track the effectiveness. We got a sale for a few chairs today via Facebook and we’ll be shipping them to Boca Raton, FL for Valentine’s Day.
What online or cloud-based technologies do you use to help run your business?
CCBCC: As of now, none. Something to improve upon.
Finally, starting any kind of business is a tough endeavor, but choosing a niche market really has to add some extra stress to the mix. What obstacles did you face as an upstart company with a very niche product?
CCBCC: Mostly getting start up capital. After coming up with the idea, I wrote a very detailed 50+ page business plan based around a $100k startup budget. However, my friends and family either didn’t have money or were a little leery of loaning money for such a thing. Of course, now that it is fairly successful, a lot of those friends are jealous and wish they worked for me. Perhaps a more mainstream product or business plan would have been easier for them to conceptualize.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Read more Talking Small Biz interviews with other entrepreneurs to learn what they are doing.