Grassroots California is easily the coolest hat company in the world. With over one-thousand designs, the company that Ryan "Ruga" Connelly started in Venice Beach, selling his hats on the boardwalk, has grown to become the most in-demand lid dealer in the world over the course of the past five years. Festival-goers all over the world rock delicately embroidered hats from Grassroots.
To celebrate the five year anniversary, the Grassroots crew is throwing Dabroots, a party featuring live music, laser tag, burlesque, comedy, food, drinks and more on the weekend of April 20. We caught up with Ruga recently for a chat about the early days of Grassroots, why Dabroots is happening, and how the business is continuing to grow.
Westword: Grassroots has really blown up in the past two years with conventions and expos. Is that part of the expansion?
Ryan "Ruga" Connelly: I don't know if it's the expansion, because I started out of my car five years ago. I lived at events. I have always been trying to find as many events as possible to pay my bills and get me from show to show. In the last year or so, we are trying to focus on European events. My biz partner, Rober Kelter, is focusing on Asian events. I am going to Spain in a couple weeks for Spanibus, and our new focus is trying to break into the snowboard and action sports scene. I just got back from Germany, and we just did our first SIA here in Denver. That is way different than our marijuana and music side. It is a whole new realm of opportunities for us.
What has been the feedback from making that crossover from music to action sports?
People love it. The connection is so easy, for example, when I go to a music artist and tell them they should focus on music and we focus on branding and merchandise -- it's obvious they shouldn't spend all day focusing on hat designs and art. We just did a collaboration with Smokin Snowboards, and they are so backed up on orders that they don't have time to focus on the merch. I made it clear that anyone who is rocking their snowboards also wants to rock their gear when the snow season isn't going on, and a lightbulb went off. It makes sense. They just didn't have time for that.
I take those responsibilities from those people, and we get a cool collab effort going. We work with them and their artists to design new stuff. We are taking things up a notch further by designing hats, and now we are carrying their products in our shop. We have those at tradeshows and events, and I am able to cross promote. For us, it's about getting everyone's name out there and working together as a community, rather than against each other.
In the beginning, when I was fresh out of college, I bought a motorcycle, and my credit was not good. So when I started Grassroots, I had almost nothing. From the start, I was always looking for ways to expand my product line just to pay bills. But now, it's going past that. People watch YouTube videos and see their hats on people in Germany! It's a cool way to get people's names out overseas. By the end of the year, I'm planning on moving to Europe to really expand the movement over there and get artists' names out over there, and vice versa.
It's almost like you're introducing music fans to artists through a hat?
It's funny you mention that. Back when I was younger and buying music, I would get art and or the book with the CD. I kept all of it. I loved it. I loved having something tangible. That's something the music industry has gotten away from with the "buy now" or the "download" button. There is a missing connection between the consumer and the artist. That's what I've been doing with some bands -- just recently we made a skate deck, a hat, and a shirt to go along with Del Tha Funky Homosapien's "Root Stimulation" album -- and now when people are rocking the gear, they are repping the album.
We used USB drives, and this year, we are developing a woven label that will be a QR code on the inside of some new hats that will allow bands to put mixtapes, singles, or an album to go along with the gear. It's promo for years to come. Now you see all these Del hats, and people are asking about it. If people are going to spend money, they like having something physical. We've done it with Ben Samples, and the Polish Ambassador, and so it's been received really well.
Switching gears a little bit; what is on deck for Dabroots?
Dabroots brings everything we've been talking about together. Since I was selling hats out of my backpack on the boardwalk on Venice Beach, which then progressed to selling out of my car, and then, up until five months ago, I was living in the back of my store, I noticed that once I got a physical location I was able to connect with a community. It's great being able to get artists in the shop, or a gallery showing, and we've even had artists play in the shop for a hat release.
We decided we've out grown our space for events, and last year, we did the 710 Cup, and it was a huge success. We really wanted to grow as a company and throw a bigger event. We came up with Dabroots for our five year anniversary, and it's different than 710 because it's not a competition.
These people come to my store and are talking trash about the contest, so we are doing something a little differently. We want a friendly atmosphere. We are going to have laser tag, magicians, comedians, burlesque shows, fire dancers, tons of music, and hopefully, permits permitting, glass blowing. We want people to ask themselves, "What's going on here?" With spray painting, glass blowing... it's all going to be different than any other event because it's focused on the arts and talent, rather than the usual competition.
What about music and artists?
We've got the Malah, the Magic Beans, Whiskey Tango, and a few more we are waiting to hear back from. Those are Colorado bands that are great for the movement. The event is happening at the Donkey O.T., which is actually changing its name to Dark Star Lounge over by Bronco's stadium. We are taking the outside area with a mainstage, and having a stage inside, and the big thing is going to be laser tag. That's what I'm most excited about. I mean, it's burlesque, comedy, music... it's just going to be huge.
So how is this different than the 710 Cup?
It's not a contest. It's about the community and the movement. The motto for the event is "Dab the Rockies," so it's basically focused around music, fashion, culture, and the movement. We are also having an Easter Nug Hunt, and the VIP offers a champagne brunch and Italian family style buffet on Sunday. Hopefully, we will people walk away with an experience that they've never had before.
What kind of volume are you dealing with now after five years?
This year we broke 1,000 hat designs. We have about 1,300 designs right now, and 90% are hats, but we've done around 1,300 products. Last year we pretty much designed one hat per day. When we are trying to release products around the holidays, and with the new legalization around the country, more companies are coming to us trying to collaborate and get their name out. From dispensaries, seed banks, CBD oils... that goes to show that you don't need to sell marijuana, or even smoke it, to see that this industry is bringing business and creating jobs for people. I think we are living proof of that.