Justin Baer preferred to wear a dress shirt under his sweaters. But he found them uncomfortable.
“It was always hot, and the sleeves would always get bunched up, when all you really cared about was the collar,” he says.
The marketing professional decided to invent his own solution.
“I said, I’m going to create, basically, a polo shirt, but I’m going to put…a real firm dress collar on it so it’s going to give you that look of a dress shirt under a sweater—but it’s really a comfortable four-way stretch polo,” Baer, 40, says.
Thus was born Collars & Co., a Bethesda-based menswear brand. Launched in 2021 as a side business, it got a viral boost on TikTok later that year and reaped a public relations bonanza after a November 2022 appearance on Shark Tank, ABC’s reality competition show for fledgling businesses.
Baer says the basis of Collars & Co. is combining style and comfort.
“What you wear matters,” he says. “Sometimes if you put something on and it looks great, you feel better and you perform better. When you feel better, you do better, and I think that’s a big piece of the brand—helping guys look stylish, but at the same time feeling comfortable.”
In 2021, the side business turned into a big idea after one of Baer’s two daughters, ages 9 and 7, persuaded him to post about his business on TikTok. The video went viral, gaining 1 million views and over 80,000 likes.
“Surely after the TikTok video went kind of viral, in a way, I knew there was something here,” he says. “I just felt the momentum.”
Last June, the company announced the signing of Nick Faldo as its first global brand ambassador. The retired golfing great calls himself a “genuine, repeat customer.” Late last year, Collars & Co. also posted a video of former NFL running back Tiki Barber praising the brand, calling the shirts “so comfortable.”
Baer says he decided on a whim to take his idea to Shark Tank, but figured it was only a one-in-a-million chance that he’d get on the show. After a yearlong process, he made it.
“I filled out the forms, and I didn’t make long answers because I was like, This is probably never going to happen,” he says. “So I put in fairly short answers to their questionnaire and they called me back, and then started rounds of interviews.”
Baer says he was “fairly confident” going into the show. His business had earned $5.4 million in revenue at the time of the taping, he says.
“I think every entrepreneur walks in there having a good feeling about their business and feeling confident about it,” he says. “But at the same time, I was definitely nervous.”
Although there was interest from the so-called “sharks” (the celebrity investors), Baer pushed back on the estimated value of the company in the deal offered. After his episode aired, some social media comments labeled him “arrogant” and “rude” due to his perceived stubbornness toward the deals offered to him.
“I think [the sharks] came out swinging early on and kind of put me on my heels, but I probably got a little carried away in some of the negotiation,” he says. Baer was able to interest Mark Cuban and guest shark Peter Jones.
“I was really trying to hold firm on the valuation, but at the end of the day I got the sense that the sharks were interested,” Baer says. “Getting Mark and Peter is huge. It was great. Maybe I got carried away a little, but at the end of the day, it is television.”
The two jointly offered Baer a $300,000 investment and a $700,000 line of credit for 10% of Collars & Co. He took the deal.
Baer says the duo has been very engaged so far.
“Some nights I’ll be up until 1:30 in the morning kind of going back and forth with Mark,” he says. “So it’s been a great deal. I’m happy we did it and I’m excited to see what comes next.”
The good news keeps coming. Now that the Shark Tank episode aired, Baer says, the lifetime sales revenue of Collars & Co. has reached $14.2 million. Baer, who has lived in Bethesda for the past 10 years, says he aims to establish a brick-and-mortar location sometime this year. He has his eyes on Bethesda Row and is also interested in Georgetown or Tyson’s Corner Center mall in Virginia.
Recently, the business expanded its men’s sweater line and added accessories and a women’s line of polo shirts. The company now has a warehouse near Montgomery County Air Park in Gaithersburg, with the warehouse team doubled in size to 12 people, Baer says. Shirt production has more than doubled monthly, up from 10,000 a month before the show to 25,000 a month today. According to Baer, with the help of shark Peter Jones, the company is working to expand internationally to Europe and Asia.
Baer says the company’s goal is “to grow and try to make [Collars & Co.] potentially the next great brand.”