Talking about the next fad with Ron Schmelzer.
By Rochelle Eisenberg
At 35, Ron Schmelzer has already had a successful career as a Web entrepreneur. From his dorm room at MIT, he created VirtuMall, a shopping cart technology which was later acquired by ChannelWave. He then moved on to his second venture — becoming a partner in ZapThink, a technology consulting company.
So, what’s next for a young man who was named “Geek of the Week” in Internet Magazine and one of the Internet Top 40 in Boston Magazine?
How about hats? Yes, baseball hats with funky brims that range from the Krimp to the Wave.
In his latest venture, Schmelzer has designed a line of these caps for his newest company, ZopTopz, located in Baltimore with a warehouse in Owings Mills. He sees ZopTopz as the next fashion fad.
Schmelzer moved to Baltimore in 2006 and lives in Roland Park with his wife, Jennifer, an assistant professor of medical illustration at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and their 7-month-old son, Zachary. They are members of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
Recently, iNSIDER sat down with Schmelzer at a local restaurant to learn more about his latest venture.
Tell me about your technology businesses.
I started [the first business] with guys from my frat at MIT in 1994. At that time, there was no security Web browsers.
People were not comfortable putting their credit cards online. We created one of the first online shopping cart technologies. We raised (venture capital) money in 1996 and sold the company in 2001 to ChannelWave. Then I was a partner with ZapThink, a technology analyst firm. We analyze tech companies and markets.
How’d you go from technology to hats?
I always wanted to get in a product business. I had gotten my MBA at Hopkins and for one of my projects I focused my research on fads, crazes, fashion and trends. I was looking at things that could be fad-worthy and I looked at baseball caps. I decided to turn a souvenir item into a fashion item. My second research project was ZopTopz.
Describe your product.
I wondered—what do you do to innovate a baseball cap and make it noteworthy?
I decided on brim shapes and patented them.There’s the wave, the crimp. I have 128 SKUs (stock keeping units; it identifies a particular product) with eight fabric colors, four brim styles and four embroideries.
How are you going to promote these hats?
I need to get influencers to wear the caps. I have rapper Tionne Williams and Joey and Jacob Kirwan (mixed martial arts).
The big news is that we are sponsoring the gifting suite at the Teen Choice Awards in August. If you get it in the right gift bag, hopefully Miley Cyrus will wear it.
You see ZopTopz as a fad. Explain the difference between fads, crazes, fashions and trends.
Trends are something long-term that has a lasting impact, like social networking. It fundamentally has changed the way we communicate.
Fashion is always expected to change. Restaurants and cuisines go in and out of fashion as does music, such as rock, disco, hip-hop.You don’t know how long it will last. A craze is a cultural phenomenon that happens out of the blue but has little long-term impact. A fad is literally here today, gone tomorrow, like Crazy Bandz.
Does the economy affect the start-up of a new business?
It’s actually a really good time to start a company even though it’s harder to sell product now.
It forces you to focus on the customer and make the product economically viable, with not a lot of fat in your pricing. There is also a lot of great resources and good people who are more willing to work for you. And there is less competition. The downside is it’s much harder to get funding.
How did you end up in Baltimore?
My wife got a position as an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins. She said, ‘O.K. we’re moving to Baltimore.’ I said ‘O.K.’
You’re a native of Chicago and lived in Boston. Describe Baltimore.
Since 2006, I’ve seen an improvement in the entrepreneurial scene. The climate for entrepreneurs has matured. There is Innovate Baltimore (a social community for entrepreneurs and technology leaders) and some Angel investment now.
How about the Jewish community?
I didn’t realize how old it was. Parts are more robust than Boston, where you have to go hunting for it. There’s a lot of resources and a wide range of religious (affiliations). When you drive down Park Heights and you see the banners and the synagogues after synagogues; you would never see that in Boston.