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Beardo founder takes on CBC's Dragons' Den

Stratford native Jeff Phillips isn’t saying just yet what kind of reaction he got from the stars of CBC’s Dragons’ Den when he pitched them his line of distinct hand-knit winter headwear last spring.

Phillips pitched his Beardowear product line, which has received national media attention thanks to its Beardo bearded hats – a toque with a detachable cover for your face –   to the well-known panel of business moguls last April.

And while he can’t divulge many details about his appearance, which will air this Wednesday, March 7 at 8 p.m. on CBC, Phillips told the Gazette last week he left satisfied.

“It started out kind of … you’ll see they didn’t really get it … so that threw a bit of a hitch into my pitch. But as you’ll see at the end, it turned around quickly.”

It certainly wasn’t the first time Phillips has had some puzzled looks directed his way. But he enjoys them – they tell him he’s doing something right.

Phillips first got the idea for the Beardo back in 2007 while snowboarding atop Whistler’s Seventh Heaven, one of the resort’s highest runs. His face was cold, so he improvised by ripping a hole in an old brown scarf and tying it around his face.

“It actually looked like I had a beard. My friends were laughing. After that I cut it up so I could tie it up easier at the back. Every time I went I used it, but it was just kind of an inside joke.

“But people started noticing and reacting to it. Over the next couple of years I basically refined (the design). We got some knitted and did some trial and error with it until it’s taken the form you see today.”

Since launching the company’s website at the end of 2009, Phillips said the company’s sales have continued to climb each year. But  he believes it can do much better, especially in Canada, which remarkably is his smallest market, well behind the United States, many European countries and even Australia, where Phillips now resides.

It was the possibility of being able to tap into the Dragons’ marketing expertise, particularly that of Arlene Dickinson, who owns one of the country’s largest communications firms, that pushed Phillips to pursue getting on the show

“We also wanted to expand to the rest of the world really fast, and I knew I needed some capital for that,” he added.

Phillips said he kept his pitch to the Dragons simple, stressing that while the Beardo is sure to attract a few looks in your direction, it is not a gimmick

“It’s not a costume. It’s functional,” he said. “You can wear it and stay warm, and it looks a little funny and you get a bit of attention, but afterwards you can fold the beard away or detach it completely.”

He was joined at his appearance by local residents Shane Harrison, Kelly Lotz and Jon Hemmingway.

Harrison in particular, noted Phillips, has been instrumental in spreading the word about Beardowear in the area, and making sure the company’s only local retailer, Treasurers on Ontario Street, never runs out of stock.

In addition to the Beardo, the company has come up with the Houdini Beanie, a three-in-one scarf, headwrap and beanie, and the Cuddle, which Phillips described as a hood/scarf hybrid. You can check these and other products out at www.beardowear.ca.

Prior to stopping in Stratford last week, Phillips had just come from a trade show in Las Vegas where he showed off 75 new designs.

“Most of (the designs we showed) were un-bearded. We wanted to test the market to see if this is an area we can grow in,” said Phillips, who suggested response to the new products wasn’t as strong as he had hoped, and if anything, the show only reinforced the value of his original creation.

The Beardo, after all, was enough to pull him away from his teaching career, which he has now “semi retired” from to focus more on his company.

“My mind was in Beardo. And now that the market is so big … it’s kind of worldwide … it’s sometimes hard to keep up with it. But it’s good. It’s challenging. I love working on it.”

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