In the last few months, the COVID-19 crisis suddenly shifted the lives of many across the U.S., especially entrepreneurs. Businesses across many sectors have been faced with unique challenges that, for some, have forced them to pivot their business model or for others deciding to shutter their doors for the time-being. And then there are some business owners who have seen a need to give back and do their part in addressing the crisis. Chattanooga-based Ji Heo, founder of TesBros, is one of those entrepreneurs. Check out this Founder Feature on the background of Ji’s company and how he came to pivot into building protective gear for the healthcare workforce.
Ji, along with his brother, grew to be a true enthusiast of Tesla, a fully-electric car company created by PayPal and SpaceX co-founder, Elon Musk. While driving from Atlanta back to Mississippi where he taught marketing and journalism at the university level, he came up with the concept to create a small accessory for his own Tesla. At the time, he was already juggling two side businesses in addition to his full-time teaching career.
“I was hungry for more and I knew I always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Ji said.
At the beginning of 2019, along with his friend and now business partner, JP, he soft-launched a business that created and sold Tesla accessories through his Tesla Bros blog. While he expected little to no immediate success, he was surprised to find the wider Tesla community was picking up what he was putting out there, and he sold thousands of units in the first month. Tesla Bros, a company that produces accessories designed for Tesla cars using 3D-printing technology, was born.
Fast-forward a few months to summer of 2019, Ji and his wife were looking to make a move and ended up in Chattanooga be closer to family. After months of juggling his teaching career and his new venture, he made the switch to working on TesBros full-time upon moving to Chattanooga and opened an office space.
Within a week of living in Chattanooga, he plugged into the regional startup community and came to CO.LAB to seek support on how to properly scale his business. At CO.LAB through our Wayfinding and Office Hours programs, he found support through coaching and connecting with mentors that helped him increase lifetime value of his customers and learn how to effectively build a team.
By the beginning of 2020, Ji had a team of four and was moved into a 3,000 square-foot manufacturing space. Only a couple of months into the year, along with many others in our region, their business was suddenly faced with challenges brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. Having close family in the healthcare workforce and learning about their challenges, including a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), he saw a way they could use their resources and skills to fulfill an immediate need.
What started as he cutting masks and a friend 3D-printing frames quickly turned into a global community of 1,500 makers contributing to the cause: 3dforcovid.com. The collective effort grew so quickly that it led to creating both a West Coast and East Coast operation which sourced masks from the maker community and then distributed into the healthcare workforce. Locally, Ji and the TesBros team partnered with the Public Education Foundation to produce 7000+ masks.
When asked about his experience of running his business in Chattanooga, Ji said for his company it has benefits for an e-commerce business.
“I can’t afford 3,000 square feet in [California]… Because our business is based on e-commerce, it makes sense for us to be here. It’s a very good place to scale a business.”
Other unique features he has found for growing his business is the pool of talent here.
“There is a lot of young talent here, and you just gotta find that hungry young talent that can join us and want to experience the startup life.”
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You can learn more about Tes Bros and purchase their products at teslabros.com. You can learn more about the 3D printing movement to support the healthcare industry at 3dforcovid.com.