This Ex-Pitcher’s Product Idea Was a Million-Dollar Hit Right Off the Bat
It makes sense that Randall Thompson feels comfortable comparing his business to America’s pastime, considering how big a role it has played in his life.
“I feel as if what we’re doing, we’re playing a baseball game,” he says. “And we’re probably somewhere in the fifth inning right now.”
Growing up in central Florida, his love of the game began with T-ball at the age of 5 and led to college ball at the Florida Institute of Technology. His collegiate efforts earned him a spot as an undrafted free agent for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011.
But Thompson’s professional career came to an end the following year, when he was released after extended spring training.
For most, following one path only to see it end sooner than expected is a major setback. But Thompson took it in stride and forged a new path by combining two things he loved: baseball and entrepreneurship.
And in a few short years, Thompson Mug Company was born.
When Life Throws a Curveball
After the Blue Jays cut him, Thompson headed back to his alma mater to work as the team’s pitching coach.
It was there, in the dugout during practice, that Thompson had a lightbulb moment.
A hitting coach cut the barrel off a bat so the players could focus on gripping the handle. Looking at the discarded barrel, Thompson wondered if he could bore out a hole and then drink out of it, like a beer mug.
Little did he know, he’d just come up with what would soon become a million-dollar idea and the foundation for his future company.
Despite the initial idea, Thompson didn’t really pursue the concept of baseball-bat mugs until about six months later, in July 2014.
He always knew that he had an entrepreneurial side, so when he decided to move forward with the project, it was a headfirst dive.
He went through a ton of different trials and prototypes before he finally got it right. And they all happened in the converted garage apartment in his sister’s backyard, where he was living at the time.
He started out with a chop saw and a vice. He also bought a wood-burning kit from his local Michaels arts and crafts store. He attempted to bore out the barrels by hand and tried tracing a Sharpie-drawn logo with his newly bought wood-burning tool.
“It wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination,” he says with a laugh. “But it was a place to start.”
An early version of the mug consisted of two parts, which would screw together like a billiards cue stick. This prototype led to days and days of frustration. Just imagine Thompson in his apartment, hunched over two hand-drilled pieces of barrel, trying to line them up, only for them to be offset just a little bit. Every. Single. Time.
Next, he decided to buy a drill press — despite knowing next to nothing about the tool.
He set it up his kitchen and pulled his phone out so he could record a video of the first time he used it to bore out a barrel.
“I slowly bring down the drill press and the bit just lightly touches the barrel and just BOOM!” he says. “It just flings [the barrel] against the wall.”
He quickly repacked and returned the drill press.
Over time, he started asking himself better questions and developed a solid product. By June of 2016, he was ready to introduce the Dugout Mug to the world.
Time to Toe the Rubber
Like some of the biggest and brightest companies we know today, Thompson Mug Company started in a garage, while Thompson was working a full-time job, and then some.
When he wasn’t working as a sales rep for Sherwin-Williams, he was taking on side hustles to earn extra cash. And he wasn’t picky when it came to side jobs — he says he basically “started seeing dollar bills everywhere.”
Thompson funneled pretty much everything he made into his new company. Side gigs included repainting pharmacies overnight, flipping furniture on OfferUp and dressing up as Spider-Man — not to fight crime, but for kids’ birthday parties.
All the while, Thompson was thinking about the company’s future and how he could really kick it up a notch. The next thing that happened, he calls fate.
While scrolling through a Facebook group for ex-minor and major league players, Thompson saw a shared post; a fellow named Kris Dehnert was looking to sell some concert tickets. Dehnert’s profile revealed that he was an entrepreneur.
After a bit of Googling, Thompson decided to reach out to Dehnert in hopes of picking his brain for tips on e-commerce.
The two met in a hotel lobby, Dehnert on a break from an entrepreneur conference taking place in the same hotel and Thompson with one of his Dugout Mugs in tow. The two chatted over a beer and parted ways.
By that point, Dehnert had dabbled in his fair share of entrepreneurial adventures but was starting to feel like a lot of them were just noise. After thinking on it, he decided to focus his efforts on Thompson Mug Company.
After all, it was beer, baseball and e-commerce — what was not to like?
“I was so busy being so busy, I almost missed out on a lot things in life, and one of the opportunities would’ve been this,” says Dehnert.
In February of 2017, Dehnert told Thompson that he was all in, but on one condition: Thompson had to be all in, too. That meant leaving the full-time job and side hustles behind.
Ready to see Thompson Mug Company reach its full potential, it wasn’t that hard of a decision for Thompson.
Swinging for the Fences
The new partners spent a couple of months working on research, development and marketing for the company.
By mid-March, Dugout Mugs were being sold online — and at a rapidly increasing rate.
“March we did 26K, April we did 56K, May we did 95K… and then we just completely fell apart.” says Dehnert of the amount of money being made.
The manufacturer they were using fell through, and the company was left with a major dilemma: a whole lot of demand for Dugout Mugs and no way to supply them.
While some companies might power through and hope to come out on the other side, Thompson Mug Co. took a more cautious route. They temporarily shut down production in order to properly regroup.
Within a couple of months, they were set up with a new manufacturer and facility. And by August, the company had secured official licensing with the Major League Baseball Players Association, allowing them to produce the “Signature Series” mug collection.
From there, sales quickly ramped up again, leading to a very busy end of the year. So busy, in fact, that they had to bring in a little extra help to get orders out the door.
“We had girlfriends, wives, moms, everybody in here packing for Christmas last year,” says Dehnert. “Oh my god, my mom was in here taping boxes… it was just crazy, all hands on deck.”
In addition to a Christmas rush, Thompson’s former team decided to treat its season ticket holders and ordered a whopping 4,600 mugs.
The massive Blue Jays order was a full-circle moment for Thompson. When he signed with the team back in 2011, he got a $0 signing bonus — which is pretty rare in professional baseball.
“The joke is that, you know, they eventually did pay me a signing bonus because they ordered 4,600 mugs,” he says with a laugh.
Despite the mid-year shut down, Thompson Mug Co. sold over $1 million worth of merchandise in 2017.
No longer strictly selling Dugout Mugs, they’ve rolled out Knob Shot shot glasses, Wined Up wine glasses and the Season Opener bottle opener.
The company has branched out from e-commerce, selling mugs in several MLB stadiums across the nation — like SunTrust Park in Atlanta, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Oakland-Alameda Coliseum and Yankee Stadium.
The company also recently launched its officially licensed MLB line. Fans of all 30 MLB teams can now get a Dugout Mug with their team logo, and the company plans to have the product in stadiums in 2019.
As of June 2018, year-to-date sales were almost matching the overall 2017 sales, and Dehnert predicts they’ll reach at least $3 million by the end of this year.
A Team Effort
The success of Thompson Mug Co. is very much a team effort. In a lot of ways, they operate like, well, a baseball team. Each staffer even has a nickname — for instance, Dehnert is “Promo” because he’s always out promoting the product.
Both Thompson and Dehnert practice and preach the culture instilled in their team, which is currently at nine employees. When they’re not working from home — or Thompson’s preferred spot, Panera Bread — they’re down at the warehouse helping with orders or traveling to promote the product.
Like two sides of the same coin, the partners balance each other out and bring different skill sets to the field. They feed off each other’s energy, bouncing back and forth when telling a story.
With years of entrepreneurship under his belt, Dehnert has self-proclaimed “short memory and thick skin.” His charisma is infectious and networking is in his blood — he is instrumental in securing new licensing deals.
Meanwhile, Dehnert’s fast-talking and boisterous attitude usually has Thompson smiling to himself in the background, nodding along, completely in agreement but willing to let his partner take the lead.
Dehnert thinks that if Thompson could only do one thing forever, it would be dreaming up new stuff. Meanwhile, his one thing would be selling “shoulder to shoulder,” high-fiving athletes. Together, their different mindsets create a “third eye,” and it makes the partnership work.
Thompson doesn’t think the company would be at the level it is today if it weren’t for Dehnert.
“He sped up my learning curve,” Thompson says. “He forced me to get uncomfortable and that’s… that’s where growth comes in.”
Dehnert and Thompson have a pretty clear vision for Thompson Mug Company’s future.
They’d like to continue to expand the product offering, but stress the “measure twice, cut once” method. And not literally, although this is wood we’re talking about, so maybe a bit literally.
“Too many times people are ‘ready, fire aim,’ and that’s when you get yourself in trouble,” says Dehnert.
On top of expanding the product line, Thompson says they’d like to focus on growing their presence on platforms such as Etsy and Amazon. They want to build consistency and ensure that their product isn’t just a seasonal purchase, like when Christmas or Father’s Day rolls around.
And they’ve both talked about the possibility and logistics of selling the company someday. They’ve discussed what point they’d like to be at and what price they would let go of it for — Thompson admits that he’d sell, but he’d cry about it.
Then again, Thompson feels like they’re only in the fifth inning, which means they’ve got a lot more ball left to play.
“I don’t want to necessarily reflect on a win until we get through the full nine. I just want to be fully engaged in the moment,” he says. “For the time being… I kind of just want to be pitch to pitch.”
Kaitlyn Blount is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.