Niki Rasor is the creator of Firefighter Turnout Bags. Since 2008, she’s been turning old firefighting gear into bespoke bags after discovering that the fire department is inundated with old equipment they can no longer use. But it’s not just about fashion. Niki donates profits back to the fire department, while preventing good quality clothing from being dumped at landfill.
The business has grown pretty fast and today generates between $90 - $150,000 in revenue each month. Niki hasn’t been without her hurdles though, having faced stiff competition from people copying her designs, as well as going off track in her personal life. Niki’s journey has been incredibly inspiring so far, so we chat to her to find out how she overcame these challenges.
Who are you and what brand did you start?
I’m Niki Rasor and I am the creator of Firefighter Turnout Bags. My company makes bags out of old firefighting gear; “We give retired gear a second life!”, and are located in San Diego California. I have been making these bags since 2008 but we became a business in 2011. We sell our product to firefighters, fire family members, recycling and made-in-the-USA enthusiasts. In 2016, we appeared on Shark Tank — being on national television changed FFTOB in many great ways.
How did you come up with the idea, brand name and logo for Firefighter Turnout Bags?
In 2007, my fireman husband came home with his turnout jacket (the coat he wears to fight fires). He asked me to remove a pocket that was on the chest. I carefully plucked the pocket off and made a bag out of it. That was how the first Firefighter Turnout Bag was born.
When I took the bag out, people would stop me and ask how they could get one. Once they learned I made it, they would say “My husband is a fireman, we have an old coat in the garage, will you make me one?”
At first it was fun making new friends and new bags, but it soon became a job and I started to charge for it. Then it dawned on me.... Why do all these people have old firefighters’ gear for me to make bags out of? What is going on with the gear? It didn’t take much investigation for me to learn that every ten years, a firefighters gear expires and they must turn it in to the fire department and get a new kit.
Once the department has the gear they really have no plan for it. They won’t toss it in the trash because it is still really good stuff. This means they have been inundated with this gear for the last forty years. It’s everywhere! So I figured, I could make these bags and donate back to the FD! I could also reduce the carbon footprint the FD is making.
I wanted to do something about it, so I created the world’s first Firefighter Gear Recycling Program. Myself along with about five of my friends checked for several months online for any sign of firefighter bags or programs and found there was nothing out there.
One day I was at the grocery store standing in line, and a group of firemen came up in line behind me. One of them noticed my bag and asked me what it was. I told him it was my Firefighter Turnout Bag. That is how I came up with the name of my company. The name rang so true that I decided that day to file for a business license. And I did within the month.
I drew up my logo to resemble the Maltese cross once worn by the Knights of Malta — later adopted by firefighters, which they now wear on their uniforms. During the crusades, the Knights of Malta wore flamboyant capes to protect themselves from fire. They would also use their capes to extinguish fires. Their capes usually had the Maltese cross on them.
Describe the process of launching Firefighter Turnout Bags?
I never wanted to be an “entrepreneur”. I just really liked to make the bags — it brought me joy. But in order for me to keep making the bags, I had to sell the ones I made. This thrust me into a business position that I loathed. But still, I just couldn’t resist the feeling it gave me. With every piece of gear I recycled I kept it out of a landfill. I was able to donate money back and that also felt great.... I was helping the helpers.
I decided early on that I would take responsibility for any shipping for the gear. After all, the fire departments can’t afford it as they are all under-funded. I also decided I’d actually pay for their trash (the old gear). That way, the FD could get money right out the gate. Then once the bags were sold, I could donate more.
My start-up costs were low — about $200. I rented an industrial machine because I busted my home machine very quickly. I had some small fees to legitimize FFTOB. I got on ETSY.com and created a Facebook page. I also rented a booth at the local farmers market to see how the general public would like it and they loved it. That was it as far as promoting the business was concerned.
It caught on like wildfire because as I said before, nobody else was out there doing it. My early hurdles mainly involved the business end of things. The creative side has always flowed naturally without any hiccups. But on the business side, I lacked interest. I just didn’t care about it because my motivation was not business. But once the IRS started sending me love letters in the mail, I became interested real quick! To this day, I’d rather make a bag or scrub a coat than sit at my computer.
Since launch, what has worked best to attract and retain customers?
My goal is very simple. I am interested in helping the people I love and helping the environment in any way I can. Even if it is in small doses. My mom always said “Every little bit helps”. I guess that’s what I do that’s so different; I focus on relationships and service and not money. I believe money is a byproduct. not a destination.
Money will always come and go., but the impact you make on people and the planet is a permanent gift or curse. It all depends on what you do with your God-given gifts. Either way though, I believe an impact will be made.
With regards to business growth, how have things changed from a digital, revenue, customer and sales perspective?
The business grew pretty fast. One bag would go out and three orders would come out of it.
Growth across all streams has come from word of mouth, and I think this is attributed to the fact my quality is rock solid and I wanted to really meet the customers’ needs. We listen to them and deliver. I am willing to go the extra mile when it comes to quality. The last thing anyone needs is a faulty product that they need to repair or refund. It's a hassle. And in this Amazon day and age, it seems that getting a product extremely quickly has trumped waiting for quality. Then top that off with the fact that nobody has ever seen the product before or anything like it, people just gobble it up!
Digital tools are important to use given the Amazon online sales age we live in, but I have found that getting out there and hitting up trade shows is extremely beneficial to making people aware of my brand.
I used to go to trade shows with the wrong mentality. I'd be setting up my booth thinking "Ok, I need to make $500 to cover this and $100 to cover that”.... Then, if I didn't get my projected financial outcome, I’d get discouraged. I learned that trade shows are not a place to make money — they are a place to make customers! Trade shows are for shaking hands, letting people touch and feel your product and to sell yourself. They will respond and come back either to your booth later in the day or on your website later in the week, month or year.
Building relationships is crucial to success in business. If you sell or come out on top at a trade show it's a bonus! With that frame of mind, you are able to enjoy the experience and the people who show interest in your product.
How is the business doing today and what does the future look like?
Business is good. My focus on quality and meeting the customers needs, has enables the business to grow consistently.
What’s been the biggest learning experience since starting your own brand?
The first lesson I had to learn since starting my brand is what COCO Chanel so eloquently summed up in one sentence: “If you want to be original, be ready to be copied”. That was a brutal lesson I was naive not to expect.
To watch all these people come out one by one, claiming that they came up with the idea with no story to back it up, was hard to say the least. And they didn’t just claim the idea. They took photos off my Facebook page and website, along with the ordering process that I painstakingly created. They also took actual slogans I came up with. And they talk trash to boot... they still do that!
All that hard work I put into it my business was just used as a catalog for the copiers to pick what they wanted and claim it. I will admit it crushed me. I became depressed and I couldn’t shake it. I became so determined to put my stake in the ground. All of a sudden, FFTOB was not about helping others and the planet, but became a quest to prove to the world that I was the brains behind it. I felt threatened and developed the desire to protect MY baby!
The mission and focus completely shifted and I started working from a place of ego. I thought, “what’s the best way to show the world that you’re the original? You get on national TV!” So I did. And that’s what Shark Tank was all about. As long as that show aired, I completed my mission. Then after Shark Tank, after I proved my big point, came the second lesson.
My second lesson was that I stopped trusting God in my journey and decided somewhere along the way that I was in charge without our connection. I stopped praying and meditating. I stopped doing the things that brought laughter and joy. And I stopped serving others. Me, myself and I became the focal point of my life. And through those choices I lost myself. I started thinking thoughts of lack and self doubt. I lived that way for a long time!
Taking my eyes and focus off God changed me in many ways — and not for the better. I became jaded and felt like a victim. I manifested into a total negative vortex, as if those people could actually threaten what I had. “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists.”, says a Course of Miracles. I bought into a big fat self created lie, turned it into a fact then bet all my money on it. I soon found myself bankrupt in almost every aspect of my life.
I was miserable and I had to wake up. Finally after some serious self examination, I came to the conclusion that of course people were going to copy. That was God’s plan all along and it’s a good thing!
Now., MORE people are recycling the gear. Less carbon footprint right? More people are donating. That’s more money for the FD right? That’s what was in my heart in the beginning. And now I have a bunch of people behind me in my wake, accomplishing my goal. And even better, they are now able to express their artistic abilities and flourish. They are able to bring more value to their families and communities. And I’m the one God used to open that window for people. Finally I realized that I was the richest kid on the block.
It took some very expensive, sobering and humiliating lessons for me to learn those lessons. It’s not always easy to go back to the beginning, but that is what I needed to do when nothing made sense and I felt lost. I had to ditch the ego and get right with God, aka myself. Over time, problems started to iron themselves out and joy came back into my life. Now, it seems every day is a blessing.
I have plenty of time for my hobbies and family, whereas before I wouldn’t take the time. I find myself laughing at pretty much everything that would throw me over the edge four years ago. And I’m detached from the outcome. I have humility in my back pocket and Jesus in my heart. I have arrived.
What are your top 3 tips on how to setup an Ecom store for success?
I say Google it before you sign it, before you build it and before you pay for it.
What are some of your favorite online business tools you use to run Firefighter Turnout Bags?
Photoshop, Facebook and Instagram.
*Find full list of tools/platforms at the bottom of the page.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts or other educational resources?
Rustic Firefighter makes incredible firehose belts, radio straps and radio buckets. His work is beautiful and I haven’t seen anyone comparable to his work.
Without a doubt, my favorite t-shirt brand is Hook & Irons. Their style and designs are impeccable! They incorporate the historical aspect of the Fire Department accurately and they do it with class. There is nothing that grosses me out more than a sleazy slogan involving the FD.
Who have been the most influential people for you during this business journey?
I’m an influencer to the core. I don’t watch anyone or see something someone else is doing and think “I want to do that”. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum and I get off on creating things and surfing. Normally, when I take part in the things I love, beautiful things come out of it.
Naturally, I refuse to conform or be influenced, because I’m a creator. I can appreciate other people’s art and I support it. But I can honestly say nobody has inspired me in the creative sphere of life.
I allow myself to be influenced spiritually. I read the Bible, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I listen to Reverend Ike as much as possible and I allow that to influence me to be who I am and to do what I do.
I am also very inspired by some designers. I've always loved Louis Vuitton, Versace and Gucci. I am French and Italian so maybe that's why Im so attracted to their designs but I just adore their products. Everything they make, makes heart and eyes melt with adoration. I love the history and story behind the brands as well.
Any other advice you’d like to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don’t give up. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s the hard that makes it great! –Tom Hanks