Everyday Empires: Chase Heckendorn of Swap Top
How Chase turned a family chat into a nationwide hat sensation
Welcome back to Everyday Empires, your weekly interview series spotlighting everyday founders. Today, we're sharing the story of Chase Heckendorn and his venture, Swap Top.
A dinner chat about kids' Crocs led Chase, a father of three, to ask, "What about shoe-charms on a hat?" This simple question sparked Swap Top, now a fast-growing business with reach across 48 states and a feature on Good Morning America. Follow him @chaseheckendorn on X.
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Hi Chase, thanks for being on Everyday Empires! To kick us off, can you tell us about Swap Top? What is it and who is it for?
Swap Top is this first hat that uses interchangeable shoe-charms to style the front billboard section of the hat, making it completely customizable. It's for anyone who likes the idea of showcasing their hobbies and/or interests on the front of a hat, but it has become really popular with kids in the 5 - 12 age range.
Can you briefly walk us through the steps you took to take Swap Top from an idea to a real product in customer hands?
Sure, but first I need to share a little background - we were sitting around the dinner table one night discussing our boys’ new obsession with Crocs. They wanted to wear them every day, but the schools don't really like them (not great for gym-class/sports in general), and we kept having issues with them losing charms on the playground.
This initially sparked the idea... "I wonder if anyone has ever done this on a hat?" 100 Google searches later, we couldn't find it anywhere. We knew we had something.
The next morning, Brynn (my wife) and I went to Dick's sporting goods down the street. We picked up a pair of all-white Crocs and a black Northface trucker hat. With supplies in hand, we took it home and built our first hand-stitched prototype. Even though it was a rough representation, being able to visualize it really sealed the deal for us.
We thought it was awesome.
So did our three boys, who are 8, 10 and 11, and who we've since learned are our target audience.
From there, we started looking for manufacturers, both locally & abroad. We hired someone on Fiverr to create a 3D rendering for about $250, showing the charms pop into the holes.
This process actually took a while. Most manufacturers just want to stitch a new slogan/logo on hats they already produce, which wasn't what we needed. Even though it took longer than expected, something drove us to keep going.
We finally found a manufacturer who understood and they immediately got to work. They came up with two prototypes for us. We received them in March, right before leaving on a Spring Break ski-trip, so we brought them with us.
I can still remember wearing them in the airport and people giving us weird looks.. like, "what is that?!" We loved it.
We chose our favorite of the two prototypes & ordered 150 black/white hats in the Youth 8+/Adult size. They arrived at the end of April, so we officially launched on May 1st.
How’d you get your first 10 customers? Where has most of your growth come from since?
While the first 150 hats were being manufactured, we built a simple website with a stock notifications sign-up page. This way we could start collecting customer emails. We initially reached out to friends, family, neighborhood contacts, etc. and built up a pretty good email list. We launched an email campaign as soon as the hats arrived & landed our first 10 orders within 24 hours of launching.
After the excitement of the first 10 orders, we realized this thing wasn't going to sell itself. We also started to get some customer feedback for the first time... the charms, they were falling out. Shoot! The same problem that led us to come up with this idea is now happening with our product. We couldn't have that.
At this point, we had sold roughly 50 hats, and we completely halted sales. We called our manufacturer to adjust the charm-hole size (we made it smaller for a snug fit) & split the order into 2 sizes (Kids 5-7 and Youth 8+/Adult).
The new & improved hat design with multiple colors and sizes arrived just before June 1st, so we held a launch party in early June at a local neighborhood brewery.
We also emailed all of our early customers and told them we'd be happy to exchange an original hat for the new design. Nearly everyone took us up on it. We were shocked how many people showed up to support us that day & we sold a ton of hats in person. This gave us hope that we were on to something.
Ever since our launch party, it has been a constant experiment to see what works. Local pop-up markets, school & charity events, influencers, TikTok, Instagram, meta ads, giveaways, etc. Anything we could think of, we tried.
Along the way, something really cool happened. The very first influencer we connected with lives in our neighborhood, and she offered to do a post for us. We sent her kids hats, and she put together an awesome video. In the 48 hours following her post, we had a record sales day.
Whoa, we thought.
We looked at each other and said, "This is it! Influencers are the way to spread the word!"
My wife then connected us to another, slightly bigger influencer. She did a post.. and again, another record sales day. So we continued looking for more connections.
Through one of our earliest influencer connections, we got our lucky break.
On August 1st, just 3 months into this thing, we received a call to have our product featured on Good Morning America in September. One of the influencers we connected with had shared our product with the team at GMA. We honestly had no idea if we could make it work, but we did the only thing you do in that situation and said, "We're in!".
The segment on GMA was fantastic and the orders started flooding in. After the TV spot was done, we still had a lot of leftover inventory and we had a taste of what it was like to get that kind of exposure.
Our next move was to join LTK - a pretty exclusive influencer network. In September & October we continued experimenting with influencer partnerships and landed some great connections.
However, we were still looking for something more consistent. All I kept hearing about from other founders was Meta ads, Meta ads, Meta ads. So in November, I switched gears and dialed into Meta Ads. It worked. Incredibly well, especially during Black Friday & Cyber Monday.
So now we have two main avenues for growth: Meta ads & Influencer partnerships.
Do you have any key financial metrics, customer feedback, or other indicators of performance you’re comfortable sharing with us?
We've processed well over 2,000 orders to 48 States in the US in the first 7 months of launching. DTC e-commerce, all fulfilled in-house (literally from our home!).
Can you share a glimpse of your day-to-day life as the founder of Swap Top? What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up around 6ish, drink coffee, and try not to work before 8 AM. Brynn & I have 3 boys, so I hang out with them and read while they get ready. When the boys go to school, I get to work. I typically do the morning shift of packing orders, meaning everything that came in after 5 PM the day before. I throw those in my car and take them to the post office. Then I head to my office and listen to one of two podcasts: My First Million or Limited Supply.
Limited Supply is my current favorite. I keep a running weekly to-do list with more than I can typically complete in a week, so I do as much as I can. Things like abandoned cart email flow, email pop-ups with discount codes, creating new Meta Ads, Black Friday planning etc.
Fortunately, I have a lot of flexibility. Some days I get a lot done, and other days I run errands/workout and recharge my creative battery. 2-3 nights a week I have to chat with our manufacturers as well to keep things running smoothly on that end.
Have you experienced any low points as a founder?
Of course, there have been plenty.
When we realized the charm-holes were too big on our first 150 hats, that was tough. We wasted thousands of dollars on inventory and hadn't yet confirmed if it would even be worth it.
The slow-times between the highs were also really hard.
We'd go from a 50 order day, thinking we're on top of the world, to 2-3 days in a row with zero sales.
The hardest stretch of all was probably August 1st - Sept 7th while we were prepping for GMA. For a month straight, I was on zoom calls learning new software, meeting deadlines & prepping the website all day. Then I'd spend my evenings planning the fulfillment process & speaking with our manufacturers.
There were definitely some nights during that stretch where I was too exhausted to even think straight.
And what are the best things about being a founder? Have you had any “pinch me” moments?
Absolutely, I've had my fair share of those as well.
Being an entrepreneur for over 10 years, I've pursued numerous ideas and owned several businesses.
I'm no stranger to the grind.
From the very start, Swap Top stood out. It took-off in a way unlike anything I've experienced before.
Things seemed to just fall into place. While I know we've worked hard, there are days when it feels like success is simply drawn to us, with opportunities continuously arising.
This journey, experiencing so much good fortune with a new business in such a short period of time has been an incredible experience.
The first day we hit over 100 orders, getting featured by influencers with over a million followers, and seeing our product on Good Morning America – all these moments have been incredible.
Let’s say someone reading this is considering launching their own hat company. What’s the best piece of advice you could give them?
Seek out the most successful hat companies you can find. Figure out who the founders are, find them, reach out to them & learn from them. E-commerce is cool because the blueprint is easy to find. It's on X, it's on Instagram, it's on podcasts. Also, make sure to test your idea with a small audience before going all in.
Are there any key resources (online communities, websites, services, books, etc) you’d suggest they check out?
I'm a big fan of biographies about founders and if you are building a brand, there are definitely some good ones to check out. Let My People Go Surfing (Patagonia) & Shoe Dog (Nike) are both excellent.
X is the most incredible resource when it comes to finding & learning from founders. If you can't find them on X, they are usually on IG. Many of them get little to no attention (in comparison to the size of their brand) so you'd be surprised who you can talk to.
I'm also a big believer in linking up with likeminded people in a mastermind group. I've joined a couple of communities on Slack. For e-commerce in particular, I have to give a big shout out to the Limited Supply podcast. This is the most actionable and informative podcast I've ever listened to.
Before we wrap, is there anything about your journey we haven’t covered that you’d like readers to know?
Yeah, I have to give Brynn some credit here, and I think it's an important part of my experience. We have very different strengths, and having her by my side to build this brand has been an incredible experience. I know I wouldn't be in the position I am today if I was doing this solo. I'd seriously think about either partnering with your significant other, or finding a co-founder to launch with. There will be plenty of disagreements, but it's so much better than trying to do it all yourself.
Lastly, where should readers follow you if they want to keep up with you?
That’s a wrap
A massive shoutout to Chase for sharing a glimpse into his journey! If you enjoyed this issue of Everyday Empires please click the “like” button below. Every like helps this newsletter get in front of more future founders ❤️
Until next week,
Thanks for reading! This newsletter comes out once a week—and you can support me by subscribing, forwarding to a friend, or even just clicking the “like” button below 🏼