Diane Mastrull: A holster-maker who shares his methods with the world

Posted: July 24, 2012

Jon Hauptman started an unusual business — holster making — about a year ago in a most unorthodox way: He disclosed virtually all his trade secrets in one YouTube video after another, after another.

In some, he did something else seemingly self-destructive: He encouraged viewers to make their own holsters, if they were so inclined.

What followed was not a crash-and-burn of Hauptman's start-up, but a groundswell of support from those who watched his videos and were moved to help him get PHLSTER off the ground. One guy even made for him, at no charge, a set of presses that were far better than the assemblages of plywood and clamps Hauptman was using in the molding process to secure sheets of thermal-formed plastic known as Kydex around gun replicas.

Soon, orders for his $75 holsters were coming in at a rapid clip. And Hauptman, 28, had to move what until then was a home-based hobby to renovated industrial space in Lower Kensington.

Gross sales this year are expected to reach $50,000; net income $20,000. In the company's busiest month, about 90 holsters were shipped.

Hauptman's transparent business technique somewhat baffles his entrepreneurial father, a partner in a Philadelphia architecture firm. Told of it, one Temple University business professor went silent for a few seconds and then, though not necessarily endorsing it, deemed it "a really interesting model."

As Hauptman transferred heated pieces of plastic from toaster ovens to presses recently, he defended his unconventional approach to commerce.

"Because of the amount of good will generated by the videos, and because of the appreciation people have for the educational material, it drives a certain image of the business," he said. That image "goes against the tactical, Ninja, elitist operation" of most companies in the holster business.

"I'm kind of against that eliticism," Hauptman added, his work uniform that day shorts, sneakers, and a T-shirt bearing the company's logo — the Liberty Bell and the word PHLSTER superimposed on a shield.

How he wound up in a basement workshop of the Milk Depot, a loft-conversion complex where Harbisons Dairy once operated, is the tale of a guy who could not ignore his creative impulses.

According to his father, Michael Hauptman, of Brawer & Hauptman Architects, Jon "always had this love for taking things apart and putting them back together." He also was a good painter.

Jon Hauptman would graduate from the University of the Arts with a degree in painting and fine arts, and promptly marry a woman schooled in pastry arts with ambitions of opening a bakery. Rebecca Hauptman's husband decided that while he loved painting, "I needed to get a real job."

He settled on fixing cars and sought training to get good at it. It was a career choice that paid the bills for six years but didn't challenge him enough.

The Queen Village native, who now lives in Pennsport, got to thinking that he hadn't had a hobby in a long time.

"I figured, ‘I'll build a rifle,' " he recalled. And a gun hobby was born.

"When you grow up in Philadelphia, guns are pretty taboo," Hauptman said, "but I realized the thing is only as dangerous as you are, and there's an undeniable, irresistible enjoyment factor to shooting."

Soon, he was buying guns (he won't say how many he owns) and shopping for accessories. That led to the career-changing discovery that the holsters that would meet his needs would cost him about $100 each and involve a 16-week wait from big companies with big backlogs.

"I said, `In the 16 weeks it takes them to build me a holster, I can probably figure this out,'?" Hauptman recalled.

He would put everything he learned on YouTube (at www.youtube.com/user/PhillyEDC), which generated helpful tips from viewers. Their input enabled him to improve his technique — and make more YouTube videos. Current total: 145.

"As the holsters got better, people started ordering them," he said.

Among the buyers was Derrick Collins, 28, of West Philadelphia, who would seem to be able to intimidate just with his size — 6 feet, 4 inches, 340 pounds. But the owner of the Six Four Group executive-protection firm also carries.

On the recent afternoon he stopped by PHLSTER's workshop, Collins had a Sig Sauer 1911 tucked snugly inside a holster Hauptman had made for him in February.

Collins said he found Hauptman on YouTube and considered it "a great benefit he is in Philly."

"I got to come down to the shop and sit and watch him make it," he said of the Sig Sauer holster. To gear fans like himself, Collins said, someone who can efficiently and competently meet their weapon-related needs is invaluable.

PHLSTER's first sale was in August. It wasn't long before Hauptman decided he had enough "to keep me busy for a few weeks" and left auto repair. He recruited his wife away from a bakery job in Fishtown. She now handles orders, and also maintains the company's website (www.PHLster.com), Facebook page, and her blog, Rebeccaguns.com, which she started eight months ago "to explain to friends and family why I was all of a sudden talking about guns."

That she — along with a shop technician they hired four months ago — is now part of a steadily growing niche business centered on guns causes Rebecca Hauptman to wonder at times: "Whose life is this?"

Hauptman's father can relate to that.

"We're constantly baffled by his interest in guns," Michael Hauptman said, the "we" including his wife, Erika Flory, who has an online knitting business. "You're talking about the liberal parents who grew up in the '60s not totally understanding where this came from."

Whatever the source, "I'm amazed and blown away by his talent," Michael Hauptman said. "He's taught me if you really want to do something, just do it."

That Jon Hauptman's divulge-all entrepreneurial strategy has led to sales success so far is not necessarily surprising, said Seok-Woo Kwon, an assistant professor at Temple University's Fox School of Business.

"In the business-research literature nowadays, people are talking about trust as very important," Kwon said. "By running a very transparent process and revealing almost a trade secret in a way, it's giving up something, but at the same time he's earning trust from potential customers."

Hauptman said he is unwilling to shut out the very social-media community that got him started.

"Even if I generate my own competition and someone puts me out of business, I can still take credit for it," he said with an easy smile.

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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