From 180s, Le Gette comes full circle to new startups

Entrepreneur Brian Le Gette rose to Baltimore business prominence with 180s, a performance apparel company he co-founded. Its flagship product — earmuffs that wrap around the back of the head — shook up the market for that winter standby.

Then after selling his share of 180s five years ago, he took some time to relax and travel, engage in philanthropic pursuits and dabble in startups. Now he is back.

He has narrowed his focus to two ventures: Big City Farms, an urban farming business, and ZeroChroma, which makes cases for mobile devices such as Apple's iPhone and iPad, and Amazon's Kindle.

Le Gette recently found a chief executive to run Big City Farms, but he is staying hands-on with ZeroChroma, which started selling cases this month in Japan. The company expects to have its products in Apple and Best Buy retail stores early next year. He founded ZeroChroma with Dave Reeb, a former designer from 180s who came up with the idea for a thin, collapsible stand for protective cases for mobile devices.

At 44, Le Gette says he's learned many lessons from his days running a fast-growing 180s, and he's ready to apply them to his latest ventures. The Baltimore Sun recently interviewed him.

Question: How quickly after you left 180s in 2005 did you get involved in new ventures? Did you take some time to decompress?

Answer: I took about two months off. I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I did some stuff with my family. I did a lot more philanthropic ventures. All the while, I was having meetings and figuring out what was next. I don't sit around well. I don't need a lot of decompression. I get a lot of relaxation from working on my businesses.

Q: Tell us about Big City Farms. What's the business model?

A: It's an aggregated, multisite, multicity organic farming company. We want to supply organic produce here in the city and across the country. The goal is to have dozens of farms in dozens of cities. The notion is we can do better by growing things in our backyard by using people who live here and work here. [The first Big City Farm location will open in the Middle Branch area of South Baltimore in the next two weeks.]

Q: Do you consider yourself an idea guy, a product detail-oriented guy, a marketing guy or an operations guy?

A: I like to conceptualize, whether that be a product or a service, whether it's environmental or social or a straight business. I'm not an operations guy. I know what's supposed to be done, but it just doesn't get me going. I can take more risk. I will pursue things that look a little bit more outrageous to most people. But the connected glue and management of the [operations] process is not something I should do. I've surrounded myself with fantastic people in these two businesses.

Q: How did you develop the idea for ZeroChroma and its products?

A: The original idea for the stand we have is my business partner's, Dave Reeb. He was one of my top designers at 180s. He's a singular talent, like a pit bull at how to make things work. He came up with this basic stand mechanism. He's a great creative talent and a great engineer.

Q: What stage is ZeroChroma in?

A: We're doing distribution and licensing deals. We're selling more in Japan now than any other country. We've got some units in China and South Korea, and we've got multiple European distributors who are calling. I think we have really powerful patents — one of the things that I'm really good at is intellectual property. It's going to be very difficult for someone to make what we make even remotely similar, and we're filing [patents] all around the world, which is not inexpensive.

Q: How did you go about designing and engineering ZeroChroma products?

A: We would build them [the cases] here, but you can't, as much you'd like to. The price points would be three or four times higher. I'm not familiar with any successful U.S. manufacturing source for cases like this. I had to go to somebody with a lot of expertise and a lot of years of doing this. [ZeroChroma has a manufacturer in Taiwan.] As for the design, we do it all ourselves. Sometimes we'd have design discussions every single day. We're very much following every bit of information that comes out on the Internet, of what devices are coming and what's hot. It's ongoing and iterative.

Q: How did you come up with the name ZeroChroma?

A: "Zero chroma" means no color. Your brand is who you are. [Reeb] and I both like to make things better before we consider whether they're pink or not. If the product can't be better, I'm not going to worry about what color or texture it has.

Q: You got one of your first big breaks pitching 180s earmuffs on television, on QVC. Do you still believe in TV as a medium for engaging and exciting consumers, or is the Internet now the hot place for product marketing?

A: I don't think they're mutually exclusive. I look at QVC and television as a great additional outlet. If you have the right product for TV, you can do a great business, and then sell it on the Internet as well. There are very few places where you can move 10,000 products in 10 minutes.

Q: What are some lessons you took away when you left 180s five years ago? What would you do different?

A: Reduce complexity. Don't try to control everything. God, there's a thousand things. On the financial side, we had a very seasonal business. Extremely seasonal. We had two to three [times] growth rate over a five- to six-year period. You don't want to grow like that with seasonal revenues. That created a complex capital structure [because the company had to borrow money to fund production for the following year's inventory]. It weighs on you. I would do that very differently. ... I'm not going to be building a complex business.

Q: Why was the seasonality of the business stressful?

A: There's one huge difference between most growing businesses and a seasonal consumer product company that's highly dependent on the weather. You're doing crystal-balling. You have no idea what the weather is, and your products are highly dependent on whether it gets cold two days before Black Friday. … To allow Mother Nature to determine whether your inventory is going to get sold, that's a huge issue. I will not be in a seasonal business like that again. I've got a thousand lessons. I could go on for days. I like solid growth and not crazy growth.