When Stan Hickam is not busy designing and building stainless steel razors and systems, he manages to find time for other pursuits. For one thing, he completely renovated the ancestral log home of his wife’s family. The project was so well done that the home—built in 1783—now occupies a place in the National Register of Historic Places. Stan has a full-time job in addition to running Above The Tie: he has worked as a Radiographer for a “Level One” trauma center for the past thirty years. On top of his regular duties, he designed radiographic rooms for the hospital as well as a suite for their outpatient imaging center.
Update From A Year Ago
I last interviewed Stan shortly after Above The Tie’s introduced its Atlas and Titan (now Kronos) razor systems. Stan’s young company had gained worldwide attention for quality and innovation. ATT hit the ground running, and soon it also became known for the rapid rollout of superb razors and accessories, as well as the iron-clad money back guarantee on its stainless steel products. Stan is serious about heirloom quality in his razors and building a reputation for excellent customer service.
Stan was raised in rural Southwest Virginia and now lives in Tennessee. During his youth, he had a love of the outdoors, and his leisure activities often included camping; fishing; riding bicycles; archery and shooting.
One day, as a young man who had recently completing high school, he stood in a hay field and watched the contents of the antique store that he and two others had started were being auctioned off. Despite a weak economy, they made money. It became clear to him that conventional brick and mortar retailing is not always the best way to reach customers. While the auction was a success—a new way of doing business for them—retailing at their store had been a failure. He learned that presenting products to a large group of customers improved the odds of making a sale. He filed that experience away. Years later, he would build on this experiences when he started Above The Tie.
Stan was first in his family to graduate from college. He completed clinical training, and has since been staff Radiographer, Assistant Director and Interim Director at the center, as well as Clinical Instructor for nearby East Tennessee State University and South College.
During his professional life, Stan used his design skills to develop plans for an outpatient imaging center, and led efforts to test and select imaging equipment for it. He credits these experiences as exposing him to individuals who had accomplished a lot in life. He says that these experiences changed how he looks at successful people—the ones who reached their goal. He learned that they were not necessary smarter than others, but they just took a first step—took a risk—and then worked hard to reach the objectives they had set for themselves.
Stan and his wife Lennea have been married for thirty-three years. They have a daughter, Mariah, who is now grown and has a family of her own. When she left home and he and his wife became “empty nesters”, he began to trade razors on the Internet. He started with vintage Gillettes that he would buy, clean, repair, re-plate and re-sell on eBay. His early auction experience was put to use, and shortly afterwards, he started Above The Tie, LLC—a name suggested by his son-in-law, Matt.
Q: When I interviewed you last year, you had released the Atlas and Kronos razor systems, and ATT was rapidly becoming known worldwide for the quality of its DE razors. The 7-piece system was named Mantic59’s “Best ‘Price Is No Object’ Razor” last year. How has business been?
A: Business has been great! We are very happy with the acceptance and interest in our razors. We have worked hard to maintain a high level of quality for our products. Also maintaining inventory to meet the growing demand is challenging. Our business is doing well, not only with our razors, but also vintage Gillettes. They fly off the shelves. Clearly, the demand for vintage safety razors has soared.
Q: Have you passed any business milestones along the way?
A: Above The Tie, LLC was incorporated in 2011. With the help of family, the business has exceeded all expectations. ATT saw significant growth in 2012 and 2013, and 2014 is shaping up to be another successful year. We started as an online retailer of shaving products, but saw an opportunity emerging. Why not design and create our own line of high-end stainless steel razors made in the USA? During the past two years, the “Above The Tie” name was trademarked and my razor head design received “Patent Pending” status from the U.S. Patent Office. Final patent status should be awarded in the near future. ATT has also been busy expanding our offerings for shaving enthusiasts around the world. Our goal is to help change shaving from a duty to a pleasure.
Q: You introduced open-comb base plates since our last interview. How have they been received?
A: They have been a wonderful success. We are thrilled with the acceptance that our OC models have gotten. It is always a bit of a gamble to roll out a new item, but our customers have responded enthusiastically.
Q: You also introduced a stainless inkwell-style razor stand?
A: Yes, we are providing a stylish stainless holder, which I think delivers a nice classic look. Since the Atlas, Kronos and Colossus razor handles are all one-half inch in diameter, our inkwell style stand fits them all. They can, of course, be used with any razor with the same dimensions. Sales of the inkwell stand have been excellent.
Q. When I first became aware of Above The Tie, I knew you had an online presence with your own website. More recently, I see that you are marketing through resellers and that you are advertising on at least one website that I am familiar with. Are you willing to talk about these strategies?
A: The entire business plan for ATT is unconventional. I did not need another job. In business and finance you hear of “leveraging” capital. Of course, capital is more than money. It can include a number of things such as specific knowledge and unique skill sets. ATT is designed not only to allow creation and delivery of high quality shaving gear but also to provide low impact revenue streams to the organization. This has been optimized by out-sourcing various tasks that require uncommon skills or costly technologies.
Q: As you are aware, there has been considerable chatter online about the possibility of a stainless steel slant. What are your plans?
A: Right now we have design drawings for a new slant, and we are focused on machining a prototype that I will begin testing soon. I wanted a head that would be as thin as possible, so that the razor could be used without having to modify shaving style. Not like others I’ve seen and used with a domed head that requires adjustments in technique. I want it to be easy to use. The machining process and end result are quite interesting from a design standpoint. It will require a unique base plate and cap specific to the slant. Our goal is to have the first models for sale during the upcoming holiday season.
Q: Are there particular design challenges for a stainless slant?
A: Certainly. Having the base plate cut with angled edges going in opposite directions while flexing the blade in an opposing manor. Add to that, a cap that will conform to this complex base—all cut out of a single block of steel. Also, I want the head thinner and easier to maneuver.
Q: Will the cap be interchangeable with those in the existing ATT line?
A: No, because of the angle of the top pieces, the cap needs to be machined specifically for the slant, and it will not be interchangeable. However, all existing ATT handles can be used with the slant.
Q: There is interest among shavers about whether the slant will have multiple base plates to offer different degrees of aggressiveness. Do you have plans in this area?
A: We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I’ll be interested to see the response to the first model before deciding on additional base plates.
Q: One of my personal favorites is the leather travel case you designed. Any progress in this area?
A: We now have a supplier of high quality leather in Chicago, and a Canadian artisan company that will provide the hand work to produce the case. Look for it to become available in mid to late September.
Q: I know that the leather case has been in development for nearly a year. The same is true for the new ATT box, isn’t that right?
A: I think that unless someone has had experience designing and manufacturing these types of items, they may have little understanding of the complexities involved. Deciding on a design is only one step in the process of bringing a product to market. In the case of our new boxes, we decided on making a box that is customer-configurable. That means, it has a number of inserts that allow it to be expandable from a single razor to an entire 7-piece razor system. This is accomplished by a series of die-cut foam inserts that can be added or removed to suit the owner’s needs. We are quite proud of the design, and it addresses customer requests for a more functional and attractive looking container.
Q: What other new products are in the works?
A: We’ve already introduced our new shaving soap—Orange Blossom and Jasmine. This wonderful soap is the result of our partnering with RazoRock to bring this Italian-made shaving soap to our customers. The lather and cushion is great and the scent subtle but pleasant. I have been using daily since its arrival.
Q: What do you do in your spare time—assuming you have any?
A: I like reading, family gatherings and spending time with with my grandson, Mason. I need to give credit my son-in-law, Matt, for his role, too. He is the person who designed and built our web site and who maintains it in on a daily basis. He generates many good ideas and offers valuable insights concerning business operations. Above The Tie would not be what it is today without him.
I’d like to thank Stan Hickam for his generous gift of time throughout this interview, and for his patience while I retired my failing desktop computer and configured a new one.