180s, L.L.C. History

Address:
701 East Pratt Street
Suite 180
Baltimore, Maryland 21202
U.S.A.

Telephone: (410) 534-6320
Toll Free: 877-725-4386
Fax: (410) 534-6321

Website:
Private Company
Incorporated: 1997 as Big Bang Products, L.L.C.
Employees: 122
Sales: $47 million (2003)
NAIC: 315999 Other Apparel Accessories and Other Apparel Manufacturing; 339999 All Other Miscellaneous Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

At 180s, we see what's out there, turn it on its head, un-cover its blind spots, and pull a wholly new performance wear solution from the wreckage. And it's not just uniquely different, its uniquely better. Jumpstarted in 1995 with the sole mission of pushing performance wear beyond all previous boundaries, 180s was created for athletes who are pushing themselves, in the most unforgiving environments. Sound like fun? Then you're one of us.

Key Dates:

1994:
Two Wharton MBA students develop the wrap-around ear warmer.
1996:
180s debuts on QVC.
1997:
Big Bang moves to Baltimore.
1999:
The company breaks even.
2003:
Big Bang is renamed 180s, L.L.C.; Exhale gloves are introduced.

Company History:

180s, L.L.C., is known for its distinctive, highly engineered ear warmers, called Arctic 180s, which wrap around the back of the neck. The company produces other innovative products, including sunglasses and Exhale gloves, and has two other main brands: Gorgonz Performance Work Gear and From the Blue (fashion-oriented ear warmers for women). "Nothing that we do is gadgetry," company cofounder Brian Le Gette told the Baltimore Sun, "We try to reinvent the wheel on products that are already out there." The company's products are distributed in more than 18,000 locations around the world. 180s has sold more than 17 million ear warmers. The company is a vigorous defender of its more than 100 patents and patents pending. Inc. magazine has recognized the company as the Fastest Growing Inner-City Company in America and one of the country's fastest growing private companies overall. Company headquarters and the 180s Performance Lab are housed in a futuristic building on Baltimore's Inner Harbor. 180s also has offices in Canada and France.

Wharton Origins

The story of 180s began in 1993, as Ron L. Wilson II and Brian Le Gette, two new graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, discussed possible business ventures over a beer. According to the Baltimore Sun, after sifting through schemes such as selling cheese steaks in China, Wilson revisited an idea he had had while trudging through the snow as an undergraduate at Virginia Polytechnic University: building a better ear warmer.

Traditional earmuffs, with polyester fur earpieces and a cheap plastic band over the top of the head, were bulky, and could interfere with one's hairstyle and headwear. They did not stay on very well and, most important, they did not look cool. Their design, recalled the Oregonian, dated back to the 1870s, when a Maine farmhand created "The Greenwood Champion Ear Protector." Their inventor, Chester Greenwood, started a company in Farmington, Maine that was producing 400,000 pairs a year before his death in 1937. Although materials were updated over the years from the original haywire and beaver pelt, earmuffs had changed little since the 1950s. The original fur "ear protectors" were replaced by synthetic fleece products and, reported the San Diego Tribune, even L.L. Bean, Maine's giant catalog retailer, dropped them from its extensive winterwear collection in the mid-1980s.

Having picked up some engineering background as undergraduates, Wilson and Le Gette spent two years coming up with a revolutionary ear warmer design. They developed a sleeker, sportier version that wrapped around the back of the neck. Advanced, microfiber materials kept weight and bulk to a minimum while allowing the user to hear through them. Designed with active people in mind, they stayed in place during sports, and folded up easily. The pair began pitching their ear warmers on the University of Pennsylvania campus in fall 1994, reported Inc.

The new ear warmers, a 180-degree departure from the competition, were dubbed "Arctic 180s." Entrepreneur Magazine reported Wilson and Le Gette spent $50,000 to produce their first big batch of 5,000 ear warmers. "We were down to our last $100," Wilson told the Oregonian. Le Gette described to Entrepreneur their 1996 debut on the QVC television shopping network: "By minute four we hadn't sold anything, but by minute eight and a half, we were sold out." The 15-minute segment ended with 3,000 on back order. QVC soon ordered another shipment of 25,000; according to Inc., 600,000 were sold through this channel by 1997. Inc. reported that Le Gette and Wilson were originally talked into trying out TV retailing by two classmates who had landed internships at QVC.

Wilson and Le Gette funded development of the prototype with $7,500 in credit card charges. They then raised $100,000 from 18 fellow MBA students, who were future investment bankers after all. Within a couple of years, family and friends raised the kitty to $2 million.

Incorporating in Maryland in 1997

The pair moved the business to a shared Chicago apartment in 1995. Two years later, they relocated to Canton, a suburb of Baltimore. Their new two-story, 10,670-square-foot building had started life in 1875 as a pencil factory and had also been used as a parking garage and a base for counterfeiters.

The company hired its first five employees in 1997. Le Gette and Wilson served as co-presidents and co-CEOs of the venture, which was incorporated in Maryland on September 26, 1997 as Big Bang Products, L.L.C.. A holding company, Gray Matter Holdings, L.L.C., was incorporated on February 10, 1998.

Sales reached $340,000 in 1998, when the product was distributed only through TV and catalogs. According to the Sun, after the company's bank balance fell to $1,000, Big Bang focused on getting products into department stores with the help of hired marketing experts. This was a turning point for the company, which would double its sales every year for the next several years.

New York's Paragon Sports became the first retail store to carry 180s, reported the Sun. Macy's, Eddie Bauer, Dick's, Nordstrom, Galyan's, and others soon followed. The ear warmers sold for $20 to $30.

Gray Matter began breaking even in 1999, and profit growth was soon in the double digits. By 2000, Gray Matter's sales were up to $10 million, a 750 percent increase in one year. The product line-up had expanded to include the recently added Snap-2-It folding beach mat/towel and the Aggressor, a radio-controlled airplane launched as a kite. The Gorgonz Group, Inc. was created on March 29, 1999 to focus on work-oriented accessories and industrial design. Big Bang opened an office in Paris during 2000.

Chief financial officer Gib Mason joined Big Bang in 1999. After his arrival, the company started a mentoring program for inner city students, dubbed "Little Bang."

The company's workforce numbered 31 employees in 2001. Sales grew to $32.6 million in 2002, when the company had 85 employees. More than 15,000 retail outlets distributed Big Bang products in the United States. They were also available in more than 40 other countries, and branch offices had been set up in Canada and France.

Ernst and Young named Big Bang "Entrepreneur of the Year" in 2002. Big Bang had introduced 35 different products over the years, though only ten items remained in the catalog. These included redesigned lightweight, scratchproof sunglasses, or "eyegear," whose earpieces folded over the front of the lenses to protect them. Another newer product was the Kelsyus floating beach chair.

Big Bang also updated the 180s with new fabrics, including leopard print and the like for fashion-conscious females. Women were enthusiastic consumers of the product; a separate line for them called From the Blue was launched in the winter of 2003-04.

Between 1998 and 2002, reported the Baltimore Sun, revenues increased 9,669 percent. This led to being named the fastest growing private company in the inner city by Inc. magazine and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. The value of the original $2 million investment was estimated to have increased tenfold, reported the Baltimore Sun.

New Name, New HQ in 2003

Growth left Big Bang desperate for more office and warehouse space. In April 2003 the company signed a seven-year lease on 50,000 square feet of offices in the Hall of Exploration at the Columbus Center, a former marine science museum on Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The company began shifting employees into the new space, which would include a retail outlet, in December 2003. Big Bang Products was renamed 180s, L.L.C. in early 2003, and sales reached $47 million that year. The Baltimore Sun quoted a SportScanINFO study giving 180s a 4.1 percent share of the winter headwear market. By October 2003, the company had shipped 15 million units, reported the Baltimore Business Journal.

The distinctive 180s ear warmers were seen on high-profile figures, including, reported the Sun, three Supreme Court justices who had worn them to the presidential inauguration of George W. Bush. Big Bang relied on guerilla marketing techniques and gave away lots of product to create awareness quickly. The company distributed ear warmers and sunglasses to movie stars at the Sundance Film Festival. Eventual product placements included Matt Damon wearing 180s in the comedy Stuck on You. Big Bang also sponsored the 2000 Bud Light Beach Volleyball Series, dispensing 1,000 Snap-2-It beach mats to division winners, and donated half of a 1,000-unit order of sunglasses to U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. The company showcased its 2004 lineup at Baltimore's Shamrock 5K Run, which drew 4,000 participants.

180s continued to look for products to reinvent. According to its research, nine out of ten glove wearers complained of cold fingers. 180s debuted its innovative Exhale gloves in September 2003. With the Exhale Heating System O , users could distribute heat from their breath throughout the glove, particularly the fingertips, without having to take the gloves off. Fortune called them one of the six best outdoor products of the year.

New products in development included ear warmers with built-in headphones supplied by JVC Company of America. 180s also sold headphones designed to fit into the ear warmers separately, for about $20 a pair.

The company owned about 100 patents and patents pending and aggressively pursued purveyors of knock-offs. By 2004, 180s had filed more than 100 copyright infringement lawsuits.

Principal Subsidiaries: 180s of Canada Corporation; 180s Europe SARL (France).

Principal Divisions: 180s; From the Blue; Gorgonz.

Principal Competitors: adidas A.G.; Columbia Sportswear Company; Earbags of Sweden; Luxottica Group; Nike, Inc.; Oakley, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • "Big Bang's Good Move to Harbor," Baltimore Business Journal, Opinion Sec., April 28, 2003.
  • Dash, Julekha, "Making Headgear Profitable," Baltimore Business Journal, October 3, 2003.
  • ------, "180s Set for Move to Inner Harbor," Baltimore Business Journal, December 19, 2003.
  • Dresser, Michael, and June Arney, "Earmuff Maker Leases Harbor Tourism Site in Baltimore," Baltimore Sun, April 17, 2003.
  • Fieser, Ezra, "Columbus Center Gets New Tenant, at Long Last," Daily Record (Baltimore), April 17, 2003.
  • Green, Abigail, "Knowing What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur," UMBC Generations (Baltimore), Fall 2003.
  • Fenn, Donna, "Innovative Minds: The B-School Boys," Inc., September 2002.
  • Hopkins, Jamie Smith, "180s Reinvents Its Way to Top of Inner-City List; Growth: A New Baltimore Company That Makes 'Performance Wear' Is Ranked First in the National Inner City 100," Baltimore Sun, April 6, 2004, p. 1D.
  • Kercheval, Nancy, "Baltimore-Based 180s Named by Inc. Magazine As 9th Fastest Growing Privately Held Company," Daily Record (Baltimore), January 24, 2004.
  • Kim, Ann S., "Earmuffs? Ear Warmers? A Rose Is a Rose," San Diego Union-Tribune, January 19, 2003, p. E12.
  • Laermer, Richard, "Arctic 180s Can Be Music to Cold Ears," PR Week (U.S.A.), January 13, 2003, p. 28.
  • McInery, Vivian, "Trend Spotter: Winter Warmth; Earmuffs' The Next Generation Is Here," Oregonian (Portland), December 22, 2002, p. L7.
  • Parks, Ann, "180s Inc. Gets Aggressive with Infringement Suits," Daily Record (Baltimore), January 28, 2004.
  • Walker, Andrea K., "Big Bang Keeps on Growing; Niche: From the Sale of 1,000 Ear Warmers, the Founders of Canton-Based Big Bang Products Have Built a $40 Million Business by Reinventing Everyday Products and Selling Them," Baltimore Sun, July 8, 2002, p. 10C.
  • Williams, Geoff, "Star Lite," Entrepreneur Magazine, March 1, 2001.
  • Wilmot-Weidman, Kimberly, "Launching Pad: Big Bang Products Used QVC to Get Off the Ground," Baltimore Business Journal, August 18, 2000.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.64. St. James Press, 2004.