Welcome Bob Dalton, CEO and Founder of SackCloth & Ashes to the podcast. Bob has a saying that “sometimes the right thing isn’t always the logical thing” and we might have to “dabble in the crazy to make an impact.” As a city movement leader, I know you know this and you are going to love this story.
Bob started Sackcloth and Ashes in 2014 when he felt like God was directing him to follow his crazy and bizarre idea. They sell amazing blankets and then donate a blanket to a homeless shelter in your area! Bob is passionate about supporting grassroots organizations and local efforts. Listen here or read the show notes below.
Stephanie Wieber: Bob in 2014, you had just finished working for a non-profit and you were sitting in your car wondering what was next. Bring us into that car with you and give us an idea of what was happening to you.
Bob Dalton: We all have moments sitting in a non-moving car, having a “what is the meaning of life?” moment. I was having one of those moments, due to all the walls closing in all at the same time and feeling the pressure of life. About six months prior, my mom had gone through a difficult season, she had lost a couple of family members and she called me and said, “She wanted to start her life over.”
She needed to escape some things she had fallen into, due to depression and not having the ability to cope in a healthy way. She said, “I am going move across the US and start over.” My first thought was “Yeah, right”. She calls me three days later and says, “I sold everything I have left on Craigslist and booked a one-way plane ticket from Oregon to Florida. I thought, “Wow, what a courageous move”.
She flies over there with the idea that she will connect with her aunt and stay with her until she finds a job. However, her aunt doesn’t, and my mom ended up sleeping on beaches and benches. That was completely unexpected, and it was not planned. My mom did not think she would find herself in this situation. There wasn’t anything I could do to help and when I offered, she wouldn’t accept.
It put me in a really difficult situation. The irony was, I was always passionate about social issues, but homelessness was never one I cared about. I was the guy that would drive by people on the street and whisper under my breathe, “Go get a job.” When my mom was going through this difficult time it inspired me to call my local homeless shelters to find what they needed. They all said blankets. I came up with the idea that for every blanket a person purchased, I would donate a blanket to that person’s local homeless shelter. I shared this idea with some people, they were stoked about it. So, I did what most people do when they have a good idea: I did nothing.
I was an inspiring entrepreneur and I found myself sitting in my car reflecting on this difficult time my mom was having. I have this idea which I’m not starting, and I am applying for jobs where no one is responding to me.
Shel Silverstein has a poem called Fear, I think it is one of the most beautiful poems in depicting fear.
Was scared of drowning,
So he never would swim
Or get into a boat
Or take a bath
Or cross a moat.
He just sat day and night
With his door locked tight
And the windows nailed down,
Shaking with fear
That a wave might appear,
And cried so many tears
That they filled up the room
And he drowned.
It’s a beautiful illustration, it’s not the things that we fear that kill us, it’s fear itself. I’m sitting in my car and my car is filling up with tears. My seat is leaned back, my knees are up on my steering wheel and on my knee there’s a coffee cup that says, “What are you waiting for?” My first thought was “Coffee companies puts quotes on their sleeves?” Then, my next one was, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to pursue this whole blanket idea.”
I started my car and drove to Joann Fabrics where I bought a sewing machine and roll of fabric because that’s what you do when you’re starting a blanket company. I bought a beautiful, couple hundred-dollar Singer sewing machine. When I get home, my wife and her friend are watching tv. My wife sits up and sees me holding this roll of fabric and a sewing machine and asks, “What are you doing?” and I say “Girls, I’m starting a blanket company.” My wife says, “You’re doing what?”
I realized very quickly I couldn’t sew, and I had only one business strategy which was to take high-quality photographs to promote the blankets. I went up and down the Oregon Coast, where I was living at the time and I got the blankets into 20 of the 200 shops I asked. It set the precedent on what entrepreneurship is, 1 out of every 10 things end up working out. On June 1, 2014 sackclothandashes.com went live. That moment in the car was the turning point for me. It was my now moment.
S: I think that’s such an awesome representation for so many of us. I would guess that almost every single person has an idea they don’t pursue. What do you it was in the moment that made you say I can’t not do this?
B: I think it was the bizarreness of the whole coffee cup, “What are you waiting for?” It made me quickly realize that I was going to be waiting a long time with all the excuses I could come up with. I didn’t have any other options at the time. It wasn’t like I had three options to choose from and I chose the crazy entrepreneur path, I didn’t have any. The only option was to drive down to Joann Fabrics and start a blanket company.
S: The couple hundred dollars for the sewing machine and the fabric was the best option on the table.
B: That was the only option on the table. That was the bizarreness. I think I have always been the kind of person to look for the bizarre opportunities and try and capitalize on them. I like doing crazy things that don’t make sense and seeing if I can get them to work. In that sense, I was kind of losing my mind during this period. There were a lot of pressures and everything going on, but I just decided to do it.
S: I love the saying you have that, “sometimes the right thing is not always the logical thing” and we might have to “dabble in the crazy.” Can you imagine what your wife was thinking when you walked in the door. Tell us what about why the right thing isn’t always the logical thing.
B: Most of the time, logically, we talk ourselves out of a lot. I think it’s rare that people really tap into doing what they feel like they are supposed to do. Our minds typically get in the way of what we were supposed to do because it doesn’t make sense logically. I think that’s how a lot of beautiful things get created and it is the process of art. During the process of any beautiful thing happening you have to get your mind out of the way. It is tough to not act on intuition and feeling especially in the business world because it’s all logical. Everyone is trying to make logical decisions all the time. The feeling and emotional parts are for the artists, not in business. The irony is, I had both worlds colliding together. Logically, there’s probably a lot of things I could be doing better but I have a gut feeling that I am supposed to do this.
S: Let’s talk about that gut feeling a little bit. How did your faith integrate into the “ah-ha” moment in the car and did you ask God, “Is this what I am supposed to be doing?”
B: I always had felt I wanted to make a difference in the world or do something where I wanted to be a part of a movement. I don’t know where that desire came from, but I felt it since I was eighteen, nineteen years old. I was always fascinated by movements and I was less fascinated by traditions. Traditions are great, but traditions are movements that have died that’s what makes them traditions. I wanted to be a part of something right now, that’s alive, that’s moving. I wanted to make a difference in our communities.
I sat in a lot of church services that finished the sermon with “who wants to make a difference?” Everybody raises their hand and then everyone is looking at each other like “What do we do?” I would complain a lot and I think, “Maybe I’m supposed to be the person that starts these experiences for people to do something in their local community.” That’s where I thought I wanted to make a difference. Well if you want to start to make a difference, you don’t run headfirst into the business world. My thought was I had two choices, I could start a church or start a non-profit.
Starting a business was not on the plate of wanting to make a difference. The irony was God ended up using a business as a vehicle of being able to participate in a movement and make a difference. All the times I prepared to give messages and sermons or the ways that I participated in non-profits and learned how to mobilize people to make a difference were preparing me. These things are now playing in full effect of the way that I’m doing and running my business. I say all the time, “I am definitely not a businessman, I am an activist that learned business.” That comes out of my heart and wanting to be a part of a movement. Feeling called by God to do something that is bigger than myself and my organization.
S: Can you explain the movement you have created with SackCloth and Ashes? For every blanket that you sell, another one gets donated into a homeless shelter in that person’s area. Walk us through where that idea started and how have you been executing it.
B: I was already familiar with the 1:1 business model because Toms had been around for about eight years at that point and I believe it was a couple years after Blake sold 50% of the company to Bain. I feel like from that point on, from an outsider’s perspective, Toms was losing relevancy. They had been around for a while, but they were having some massive changes in the company. It didn’t feel like the magic of when Toms started, the pioneering days were over.
I felt like if I was going to do the 1:1 model I was going to evolve it, make it local. Instead of buying a product and a second product being sent overseas somewhere, I wanted to create a model where when you buy a product, we were going to send a product down the street from where you live. It gives people an opportunity to make a difference in their local community. Especially, with the issue of homelessness. This is happening on your way to work, when you are driving by people on the street, and in your own backyard. Yet, no one was talking about it except in a negative way.
In 2014, homelessness was not being talking about on the level it is now. In the last 5 years this situation, has evolved where now people are banding together to do things, but then it was being ignored. Princeton did a study that showed when we drive by people on the street, we process them as objects. It was this fascinating thing, not only are these people not being noticed, but when they are being talked about it as a statistic, not a person.
S: We’ve lost the relationship to them.
B: Yes, or the connection of understanding that these people are people. So, I thought it was unique to evolve the 1:1 model and what an issue to do it for, it’s an issue in every city in America right now. That was the overall concept to empower people all around the nation to make a difference in their local community. We have to start channeling our focus to local. When you look at activism, or making a difference, activist doesn’t happen out there, it happens right here. It happens in your own life, your own family, and your local community. You can’t be a person dedicated to make a difference somewhere else without making a difference first in your own life.
If you’re not caring for your family, then don’t think about caring for anything else. You need to think about your own life and your own family, then you can think about what’s outside of that. I evolve that into take care of yourself, take care of your family, take care of your community, and if you’re doing all, then you can start talking about taking care of people outside of local. Right now, we have a responsibility to take care of the things that are in our lives right down the street. That was where the model was formed to get companies to do that locally.
S: You start SackCloth and Ashes, you start the 1:1 program, so at the time did you have any idea that it would be what it is today?
B: I think so. I don’t think I would have done it if I wasn’t going to grow it to what I had always envisioned. I don’t know if I can say that it would look exactly how it looks right now. I definitely would have let go and dropped it if I didn’t think it was something, I could dedicate my life to for the next however many years and try and stir something big.
S: Tell us what that pathway has been. You sold how many in 2014 to today?
B: Once I realized I couldn’t sew, we hired a woman in my community named Tammy, who could. She sewed really well and was already sewing blankets and keeping them in her car to pass out to people on the street. She was an easy first hire.
S: You’re kidding me! That is awesome!
B: She told me that and I said, “You are hired Tammy! You’re my first hire!” We would buy these big black rolls of fleece fabric from Joann’s. There was nothing special about them. I would cut the fabric and she would sew a little border around them, and I would put a logo on them. I would put 30 blankets in my trunk, started driving up and down the Oregon Coast and would walk into shops with a box unannounced, and say “ Hey I started this blanket company and here’s why you should buy these blankets from me right now over the ones on your shelf. I’m going to drive down to your local homeless shelter and donate all the blankets in my trunk.”
My only business strategy after June 1, 2014 when SackClothandashes.com went live was to post on Instagram once a day. It was a fairly new platform at the time and Instagram emailed me in November 2014, five months into business and says, “we love your brand, we love what you’re doing, we want to feature you on Instagram’s Instagram.” At the time, I didn’t know that Instagram had an Instagram, I looked it up and they had forty-two million followers.
I called my friend Toby and told him Instagram wants to feature us and that sounds like a big deal. He said, “That’s an incredibly big deal! Get back to them right now!” I emailed them back and asked how long I had to prepare, and they responded they were posting about us tomorrow. It was the day before Black Friday. When they posted about us it became our Kickstarter. It gave us mass exposure and was the first large form of belief that caused me to think that this was going to work.
S: I would think after having forty-two million views on your Instagram and your organization, that would be pretty good confirmation.
B: Yeah, we capitalized on that. We built the brand on social media for the first four years. The thing about Instagram is we immediately got exposure to all the millennial travelers taking photos. We were one of the first brands to send our blankets to these photographers and offer money if they would take like ten photos and feature them on their feed. We were growing around five hundred to one thousand followers every day.
We grew the brand on social media, 100% of our sales were going through our website, and in 2017 we did one million dollars through Instagram alone. In 2018, we launched our first major campaign, Blanket the United States, and our goal is to donate a million blankets to homeless shelters by 2024. That was really where we took a massive shift from start up to putting deep roots in the company. Within a week of launching the campaign we got a deal through Subaru in Oregon. They bought 2,500 blankets and for every Subaru purchased came with a blanket. With that deal we were able to donate 2,500 blankets to homeless shelters in Oregon.
After that a company bought 5,000 blankets. Then Cost Plus/ World Market bought 15,000 blankets. Now we are blanketing Texas, Colorado and Washington. We have all these companies around the US buying blankets for their customers and employees to make a difference in their entire local state. We have companies blanketing their whole state. We know we could meet this goal but partnering with people individually and buying from our website would take a lot longer. We’re going to do it by partnering with companies that want to buy gifts for their employees or customers. They can buy blankets in bulk, distribute them and make a difference in their local community. That to me means the sky is the limit. It’s about exposure and bringing on the right brand partners to blanket the United States.
S: I think Blanket the United States is such a fantastic model. Tell me if I’m right or wrong, but by partnering with these corporations and organizations, you’re inviting them to be part of a solution, part of a movement. Tell us a little bit about how your interactions have been going and the main takeaways as you interact these organizations.
B: A lot of people want to make a difference they just don’t know how. With the brand partnerships, I knew there would come a time to put in the real work on a grass roots level. I didn’t want to just send blankets to the local homeless shelters. I wanted to go to the shelters and to learn about their programs and to pass out blankets in person.
I bring executives with me! That was the best thing that came out of it. I started going to the shelters where we pass out blankets to get tours and learn about these programs. It was a great way to invite executives of these companies and celebrities into these projects.
S: Bob what would you say to someone who’s on the cusp of an idea, but is needing a nudge to not be fearful?
B: The number one thing I would say is you have to stay true to yourself. Stay true to what you think you’re supposed to do. There’s no better place to be in the world than doing what you feel like you’re supposed to do. There’s not a better place to be than knowing you’re in the place God wants you to be. Nothing can replace that feeling even though it might be hard or requires extreme sacrifice. Even if there’s a lot of questions of the unknown immediate future. There’s not a better feeling that you will feel than doing and being in the place God wants you to be. That’s worth it.
S: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
B: One that comes to mind is the number one goal to be evolve and not strive for success. Success and failure are illusions. As soon as you define what success is for you, you limit yourself. The goal in life is not to succeed but to evolve. Evolving never has a cap to it, we are always, especially God’s people are always supposed to be evolving to be the best version of ourselves. Don’t limit yourself to whatever you would define success as. Change your focus from pursuing those things and chasing whatever that is and start focusing on evolving yourself to be the best person that you possibly can be for people in your life.
S: I like that. So often we don’t value failure. Right?
B: Yeah, failure is just an illusion. It’s how ever you define failure and success immediately limits you. I had this vision when I was 19 years old, I feel like my testimony is not necessarily God saving me from my failures, it was God saving me from my successes. As a young guy I felt that everything I touched turned to gold. God had to remind me that this life isn’t about constantly trying to succeed.
I had this vision that I was running on a track and I was beating everybody I was racing against, I was winning. All of the sudden a trophy appears in my hand that represented success and achievement. Then I’m running again, and another trophy appears in my hand, then another, and another in my arms. Now, I’m carrying 6-8 trophies and they are weighing me down to where I look to my sides and I’m getting passed by other people. It wasn’t until I put the trophies down on the track that I was able to run to the best of my abilities again. When we start to collect all these successes and get caught up in all these things we are accomplishing, they weigh you down. Those are the things that are going to keep you from running the race to the best of your ability.
I read a good quote recently that said, “Get on your knees and start each day as if nothing had yet been done.” That’s the mentality we have to have as Christ’s followers and there’s a lot of work to be done. There’s a lot of things we need to do. We can’t get caught up in all the things we think we are achieving and succeeding in. One of the number one things people say to me is congratulations on your success. I look at them and say “Success? I’m just starting out.” I’m reaching a place that a lot of people might define as success, but my mentality is, I still need to evolve.
There’s a lot of work to be done and as soon as I buy into the lie of success, I start to lose it, that is what takes leaders out. The concept of success and thinking that you are better than yourself. God is not impressed with your successes, and he’s not disappointed in your failures. God’s love for you remains the same despite successes and failures. Until you understand that you don’t fully understand the Gospel and the truth ahead of us.
S: Bob what’s next? You talk about successes, you know the average start up typically fails, 1 in 10 statistically succeed. You’ve beat those odds! What’s ruminating in your head, as far as, you keep towards the goal of blanketing the US, what are some other things you think there are a movement towards that you want to be part of?
B: When I’m doing blanket drops all over the United States, I’m constantly looking for solutions. Right now, the media is filled with so many issues. They are quick to highlight the next shooting, the next hurricane, or the next celebrity moral failure. The problem with that, is the more issues we focus on the more issues we create. The more we focus on solutions the better society we create. I’m traveling around the United States and I’m on a plane almost every week. I am constantly looking and trying to find solutions of people that are doing incredible things on a grass roots level.
One of the best solutions I’ve found to date, is an organization in San Francisco called City Impact. These people are doing such unbelievable work. They have created the first child sponsorship program in the United States. Before you could sponsor kids through Compassion or World Vision, kids that are overseas. City Impact is allowing you to sponsor kids locally, in the community, in the United States. For $38 a month, you can sponsor a child in Tenderloin, and fund their education. When it comes to homelessness, it’s so debated, there’s so many biases and judgements and skewed understanding and perspectives.
When it comes to kids on the streets, there is absolutely no debate. Kids should not be living on the streets. 3 out of 10 kids on the streets end up with a mental illness mostly because they are born into families that are experiencing mass trauma. City Impact is doing such unbelievable work, in Tenderloin, which is the Skidrow of San Francisco, that is what fires me up. Those are the people we should be putting on the media. It’s our job as CEOs, leaders, and civilians, to start promoting people and organizations like that, who are doing good in our local community.
If you don’t know where to start in your community and you want to make a difference, but just don’t know how. Find someone in your local community already doing the work and join them. On November 1, 2019, I’m going to become the first ambassador for San Francisco’s City Impact child sponsorship’s program. If you sponsor a child, we will send you a free Sackcloth and Ashes blanket. This is an opportunity for me to get involved in a way in something I truly believe in. It’s my way to use my platform to highlight a solution. It’s something that I hope is just in the early stages of being created in that realm. I think it’s revolutionary to start this kind of a program. They need support, they are a stone throw away from Twitter.
S: If you have been in that area, its hard to juxtaposition where they are at, Salesforce is down the street. It’s tough.
B: For sure. When you asked me, “What’s next?” I see Sackcloth and Ashes, the blankets, as simply being a bridge that is connecting me with really great companies that have massive platforms and to the people in organizations showing up everyday doing grassroots work. The blankets in Sackcloth are a bridge between people with resources and platforms and the people doing incredible work in our communities. The blankets are what I coin as a term, “the third-party object” that is creating an opportunity for me to engage with pretty much anybody. Blankets being a universal product and a universal gift have made it easier.
S: I will say this, they are beautiful blankets. For everybody listening, check out sackclothandashes.com. You will see some incredible photography and beautiful workmanship of blankets from fabrics from around the world. Bob, I hope this is the first of many times we get to talk like this.
B: Yes, same it’s always a privilege to talk to people who are excited to highlight local work, local communities and what’s happening around the United States. You guys have been such a leader of that.