Brasstache: From fun to fortune

Back in 2014, as I was visiting my family during a school break, my mom showed me a plastic mustache that she had received as a novelty gift. The mustache clipped onto a glass bottle so that when you took a sip of your drink it looked like you had…you guessed it, a mustache. I almost immediately got the idea to put this thing on my trombone to try to get the same effect. It didn’t quite fit the mouthpiece, but I managed to get a post-worthy picture on Facebook, which I captioned as “My next million dollar invention.”

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ABOVE: An idea is born… In 2014, Robin Schulze puts mustache to mouthpiece and the internet responds favorably.

Back then – when there was only one Sharknado movie – mustaches were all the rage. You would see them everywhere: T-shirts, coffee mugs, even cars! If I had the ability to make them for trombones at the time, I would have, but I was clueless as where to start. The idea had been stuck in the back of my mind ever since then. But last year I finally decided to do something about it, and in October 2018, after months of work, Brasstache.com was launched. In just the past few months, over 3,000 units have sold online and through retail stores.

Today I will share with you, devoted blog reader, a little about the successes and difficulties of this side-hustle-journey as well as a look ahead to what is next for Brasstache!

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ABOVE: The Brasstache comes to fruition.

Let’s rewind back to December 2017 – when there were only five Sharknado movies – I was again back home visiting my family in Lake Tahoe, CA, where my dad now lives. Usually my family is skiing up in the slopes, but this particular season was very dry and many of the local mountains were closed with too little snow. The mustache that snapped on the glass bottle was still laying around the cabin. With no skiing to be had, and not knowing when the next time I would ever have a week of free time on my hands, I decided to dive in and figure out how to make this work for trombone.

I had never played around with any sort of 3D design software before but, nevertheless, I downloaded Fusion 360, a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software, and went for it. It didn’t take long, however, to realize that a 3D mustache is a very complicated shape to create in CAD software. I spent probably 7-8 hours a day that week (I wish I were exaggerating!) learning how to use this software. However, after many YouTube tutorials, and lots of trial and error, I came up with a prototype that worked.

The next step was finding a way to make this digital prototype. 3D printing has always fascinated me, but the price of a 3D printer was far too high to justify buying just to make this silly toy. Fortunately, though, I found online a few services that 3D-print a CAD file. I purchased a print from shapeways.com for about $17 and a few weeks later the prototype arrived at my door. I immediately tested it out on my trombone and knew I was on to something.

ABOVE: (L) Civic horn Renée Vogen models the Brasstache; (R) Friends gather to help package the influx of online orders.

At this point, winter break was over and things with Civic were starting to ramp up again, so I placed Brasstache on the backburner for several months. I picked up the project again over the summer as my schedule lightened. I discovered that the Harold Washington Library downtown has a Maker Lab – Chicago’s first free and publicly accessible maker space – with several 3D printers available to use for a small fee. This was an amazing resource for me as I was now able to make adjustments without having to wait a week for each iteration to arrive in the mail. Two or three afternoons a week, the Maker Lab hosts an “Open Shop.” I went to every one of them, spending many hours adjusting and tweaking the mustache to fit the trombone mouthpiece perfectly. Even though this process was extremely time consuming, I enjoyed every minute of it – learning about 3D designing and printing has been very rewarding.

I finally landed on suitable a design and couldn’t wait to show it off to everyone. Seeing it in real life got me very excited because I truly felt like I was on to something. However, with this excitement also came the feeling of paranoia that someone would swoop in and copy the idea. Therefore, before unveiling it to my friends and colleagues, I patiently and diligently filed for all of the necessary patents to protect it! This was another completely foreign process to me but, thankfully, my father is familiar with the process and guided me through it. With the patents filed, I moved to production.

Production was yet another hurdle. As amazing as 3D printing is, one downside is that it is incredibly slow. It would take the printer around 30 minutes to make one Brasstache. This was not an efficient way to “mass produce” units. Injection molds are probably the most common way to produce something like this, but the upfront costs of those molds are upwards of $10,000 if produced in the US, and $4-5,000 if produced overseas. Money I do not have! I eventually came up with a solution to this mass production problem: I decided to make them entirely myself! I will not bore you with those details, but long story short it involves silicone, resin, and multiple 3D printers. With my method, I can make 100-200 an hour.

ABOVE: A labor of love – Brasstache models rest on a table ready to ship and the label and packaging are realized.

Let’s recap:
Prototype?      Check!
Patent?           Check!
Production?     Check!

What came next was, you guessed it, another logistical obstacle. As it turns out, creating and running a business is a lot for one brain to comprehend! I quickly learned how involved each step of the process is: web-design, brand development, advertising, production, packaging, shipping, customer service, etc. IT NEVER ENDS! On top of this, keeping up with all of my duties with the Civic Orchestra and Fellowship was a lot to juggle!

The first Brasstache was sold to someone in New York. It’s impossible to explain my level of excitement when that first order came in from a random stranger. However, this sale made crystal clear to me every missed detail on the business end (and there were quite a few). The most obvious one was the price. The shipping postage alone turned out costing more than the price of the product itself and on top of that, I was offering free shipping! I am still baffled as to how I missed that one…

At the time, though, I was too excited about actually receiving an order that I forgave myself for all of these oversights. Did I mention running an entire business is a lot for one brain? If there was one thing that I have learned to do well during this journey, it was to forgive myself for making seemingly stupid mistakes. There is so much to juggle when running every part of a business; mistakes will be made, and in my experience, it has been mostly dumb ones!

Over the next few weeks, the website started getting more and more traffic. The people who received their orders were posting photos on social media. This helped spread the word about Brasstache and further helped incoming orders. I quickly learned that having a stockpile of product at the ready helped expedite packing and shipping. My girlfriend and I got into a good rhythm of assembling stock in the evenings and then packing and shipping the orders the next morning. This was manageable for a few weeks, but then it started to grow exponentially!

Starting in November 2018 – now up to the sixth Sharknado – I sold 50 units one week, 100 the next, then 200 after that, and so on and so on. Every week I thought there were enough supplies to get me through the following week, but I was repeatedly surprised at the number of orders coming in and I would need to make emergency orders for all of the supplies needed to produce and ship them. The money made each week was put back into the business to ensure enough supplies for the next week. This continued steadily through November and December. In the final weeks leading up to Christmas, I was driving to the post office every day, sometimes twice a day, each time with 80-100 packages filled with Brasstaches! My girlfriend and I were up until 2am every night, fulfilling orders and spending every waking second we had on Brasstache. Looking back on it now, it seems insane, but I am very thankful to her and all of my friends that helped me during this crazy time.

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ABOVE: The finished product is packaged and ready for shipment.

I hosted packing parties in my apartment on days that received an overwhelming amount of orders. One day I particularly remember is when someone posted about Brasstache on Reddit, in the subreddit r/ofcoursethatsathing. It received a lot of attention with over 5,000 upvotes! That day I received a crazy amount of orders and called over some friends for a pizza and packing party.

Thankfully, since the holidays, business has slowed. After Christmas, I stated on my website that I wouldn’t be selling Brasstaches again until the new year. This allowed me to finally catch up on some sleep and get ready for what’s ahead in 2019.

I have gotten many requests to start making models for woodwinds and I am happy to report that I am finalizing prototypes for saxophone, clarinet, flute, bassoon, and oboe! These will be available in early 2019 so keep an eye out for them! The best way to do this is (shameless plug) follow @brasstache on Instagram and Facebook!

By Civic Fellow and bass trombone Robin Schulze.


TOP: The trumpet Brasstache, which also serves as the cover photo on www.brasstache.com.