When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Aras Baskauskas, then 10, went back to visit Lithuania, where his father was born.
While there, his father, who is in the importing business, had the chance to buy 75,000 Russian winter hats for pennies. He shipped them back to California, where the family was living, and sold them all at a profit in less than a year.
The memory of the Russian hats and how well they sold, stuck in the mind of Aras Baskauskas (pronounced Bush-cow-kiss). So much so that after he earned his MBA from UC-Irvine, where he played basketball, he was ready to make selling these unique hats his full time business.
“I found it amazing how undeniably functional these hats were,” Baskauskas said. “I thought that these hats could become the winter version of Crocs.”
Baskauskas didn’t just want to sell what has been out there for nearly 500 years. He wanted to sell Russian hats with a twist. The idea? Sell them in a variety colors and make licensed sports team pins that fans could affix to the front.
Nearly broke and living with his father, his business didn’t have a chance. That was until he got his lucky break and was invited to compete on “CBS’ Survivor: Exile Island in 2006.” Baskauskas made the most of it by prevailing as the sole survivor and winning $1 million.
Today, Tundra Gear is gaining traction. This year, Baskauskas says he’ll sell 10,000 hats. Each hat is $29.95, with the pin costing $5.
“The pin looks better than if it were embroidered,” Baskauskas said. “Plus, if you are a Wisconsin Badgers fan on Saturday, you can have a black hat with a Wisconsin pin. And then on Sunday, you can take the same black hat and put on your Green Bay Packers pin.”
In the next three to five years, Baskauskas said he thinks this could be a $100 million business as his hats start to hit stores next year. His early attempts at marketing have started to pay off.
Baskauskas struck a deal in the fall with Buffalo Bills wide receiver Terrell Owens, who gets a piece of sales from TundraGear.com, the only place the hats are sold. Thanks to Owens, Baskauskas is getting the most orders from upstate New York.
Said Baskauskas: “We’ve just grazed the surface of this market.”
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