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A hobby turned home-run business venture

Paul Cunningham was so fascinated by the old-world craftsmanship of sports memorabilia that he decided to try his hand at it – with immense success

Summary

Leather Head Sports is a company founded on craftsmanship and a respect for old-world artisan work. Leather Head makes handmade baseballs, footballs and more and, thanks to some help from a business credit card, hits it out of the park every time.

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Paul Cunningham

Paul Cunningham

There is something special about old-world craftsmanship, especially when paired with a beloved game. Leather Head Sports combines the two.

Founded in 2006 by Paul Cunningham, the company makes handmade baseballs, footballs, basketballs and more out of the finest materials and in the style of a bygone era. Headquartered in Glen Rock, New Jersey, all items are produced in the U.S. by skilled artisans.

“It was a hobby that got out of hand,” says Cunningham, who had been a photo editor for Major League Baseball for 14 years. Working with leather was more of an at-home activity at that time.

“When I was at the Baseball Hall of Fame, we recreated a town ball. It’s the modern precursor to baseball, back then they used a lemon ball – and I was fascinated by it. So, I fiddled around with leather and made a few. That led to recreating other types of balls and, over the years, it became a brand. People love them because they’re relics – or art pieces, like fine shoes and handbags. Even though they’re not regulation-size or style, I want them to be used. They’re rugged!”

Today, Leather Head is an established and well-performing business. There are many reasons for its long-term success, but a credit card is making sure Cunningham is hitting home runs every time.

See related: Using business savvy to mentor underdogs

How did you get the business off the ground?

We were self-financed from the start. Because it was a hobby, I had no expectation that the company would make any money. I was just buying materials in an experimental way, in small qualities, working with them, having fun.

I have to say it became a real business by accident. A baseball glove company had asked me to be a craftsman. When it didn’t work out, I was left with a concept that was making a little money and no full-time job.

Although Leather Head started out slowly, we had quick success on Etsy. It’s a great platform. In this kind of business, all you need is a market and a platform – and that’s what we had.

A lot of capital wasn’t needed because I was creating a single ball at a time, so I bootstrapped everything. I didn’t take out any loans. Whatever money I made, I put in the bank so I could design and buy more things. I got amazing press along the way and that steamrollered everything. The coverage led to sales and sales led to growth.

Leather Head really took off after we introduced the football. It got a lot of attention and was even in the movie, “Silver Linings Playbook.” There’s a scene where Bradley Cooper is holding our ball!

Then we moved production out of the house and into a small factory – where we are today.

Were you prepared for all the associated costs?

Yes, because I was very conservative and cautious. I’ve always managed our growth based on cash flow. It took me a long time to hire my first employee, and now I have five to six people. I was so thoroughgoing into it. I knew what I needed – such as insurance and utilities – and overestimated the costs so I was safe.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t unexpected expenses. Making the soccer ball was really difficult because we did it in the 1930s style, which turned out to be very labor-intensive. The fact is, our balls are very expensive to make and buy. It costs thousands of dollars to develop a new one, so I only do it if it’s a viable product.

How have you been using credit cards for the business?

Because I bank with Chase, I decided to get the company’s Ink Business Cash Credit Card. I’ve found there are advantages to using just one bank.

I’m 99% focused on creation and execution of products and 1% focused on finance. That’s by design. I’m not someone who pays attention to the finances very carefully because I have a CPA and a bookkeeper who do it. Still, having all my accounts in one place makes it easier for me. It’s an ecosystem. It works for the artist mentality.

What types of expenses do you typically charge and what do you do with the rewards?

I use my credit card for almost everything – including gas, office supplies, packing and shipping, consulting services, software and off-site storage. Pretty much the only thing I don’t use it for is my monthly rent, and I wish I could!

The Ink Business Cash card is a cash back card, and since I charge a minimum of $10,000 to $12,000 a month, the rewards add up. You’d think the money would go back into the business, but no. My wife supported me during the early years, so I give the cash to her. She uses it so we can go on vacations!

I’m meticulous about paying the bill off every month, though. I’m so scared of making financial mistakes that I’m overly cautious.

How are you strategizing with the future in mind?

Early on, I had such wonderful and robust press. One day you’re hot but then [the next], you’re not the flavor of the month anymore. So, I make a point to spend money to keep the attention up.

We’ve done some Facebook and Google ads, but the best tools for us are Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest. Because we control the content, it’s effective. I’ve learned that marketing and promotion is a daily effort. We also hired a great publicist and, wow, the press started up again!

Do you have any regrets?

Sure, but I learned from them. It costs me thousands of dollars to make a mistake and I’ve made quite a few of them. For example, I wanted a line of baseball gloves, so I started them up after having a very flush year. They definitely didn’t work out and that decision cost me a fortune!

And then there were the companies that promised to help us increase traffic. They never turned out to be a good investment. So, we stopped that. Today, we make sure there is a return on what we spend before we work with someone.

And business credit – what have you learned about it that you can offer as advice?

Well, credit cards are essential. They help us manage business cycles. For example, the fourth quarter is very busy for us because it’s the gift-buying season. The line of credit is really important for us in the slower months. I charge the things I need and can afford during those times.

Focus on what you’re passionate about and invest in your business – carefully. I always make sure I have the resources to pay off the purchases I make with the credit card. For me, it’s important to be debt-free.

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