Editor’s note, January 2021: In our Featured Shop series, we shine a light on a standout shop from Etsy’s talented seller community, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at their process and story. And as we spend more time at home these days, getting cozy and catching up on our reading lists, we’re taking a moment to revisit some of our favorites—like the story of this Alabama-based family-run business from November 2017.
With upwards of 16,000 sales, a rapidly growing team of employees, and a three-story HQ featuring a brand-new brick-and-mortar shop, the husband-and-wife duo behind Holtz Leather Co. have built a wildly successful empire out of making personalized leather goods together. But business and life haven’t always been easy for these Huntsville, Alabama natives. In fact, their leather shop was born out of the 2008 recession—which turned Rick and Coleen’s world upside-down. “We lost our house, lost our car, and went through some really humbling times a family,” Rick says. “We have six kids, and when we hit rock bottom, there wasn’t anyone that could house us all, so we were talking about splitting up the family.”
That’s when Coleen got the idea to start a leather business on Etsy—a completely new endeavor that appealed to Rick’s entrepreneurial spirit. “One thing led to another, and before we knew it, we were producing simple leather goods,” he says. “Our first product was a keychain with a rivet. I had no confidence in sewing, but we read a lot of old books on leathercraft and leather making, and watched lot of YouTube videos.” What followed was a full-blown success story based on never giving up.
Read on to hear more from Rick about creating custom products, staying inspired, and what it’s like working with his high school sweetheart—then shop the collection.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you and Coleen meet?
We met at church. I was 6 and she was 5, but I was a military brat, so I moved away for a few years. I moved back to Huntsville when I was 13. I remember the first Sunday we were back, I saw Coleen walk across the front of the church. In that moment, I fell in love with her. I had to work really hard to get her attention, but I did, and about five years later we were married. We’re still best friends to this day.
At what point along the way did you decide to start a business?
I’ve always had business ideas since I was 10 years old mowing yards. When I graduated high school, I went to college on a football scholarship, and then in our early 20s, Coleen and I started an embroidery business. After that, we stumbled upon a laptop parts business, where we would buy broken laptop computers, strip them down, and sell all the component pieces. We did that for five or six years with great success.
When did you get into leatherworking?
We experienced the crash of ‘08 and really lost everything. Around that time, Coleen stumbled on some things on Etsy that were selling really well. Up until that point, we had always kind of pedaled other people’s products, but we knew in our hearts that we always wanted to be makers. That was really our desire—we wanted a business that we could do together.
How did you learn leathercraft?
We taught ourselves everything, just trying to be very disciplined. We started with that leather keychain and when we listed it on Etsy, it started selling. I think our first sale was a set of six that we sold as groomsmen gifts. It kind of blossomed from there, and just really exploded with growth.
We’ve been doing it now for about three years, and we still have a lot to learn. We’re always learning, and I think that’s part of business. You always have to be in the mindset of being a learner, because if you ever get to the point where you think you know it all, you’re real quick to be humbled.
How have you gone about growing your product line? What does that process look like for you?
When we create a new product, it often goes through 15 or 20 prototypes before we think: This is exactly what we’d be happy to carry, or happy to give to a friend or family member—something we’d be proud of. That’s the way we look at it.
It took us forever to agree on zippers, actually, because zippers always break. When we created our shave bag, we actually had the zipper custom made to our specifications. From there, we tried it out and found that the water was absorbing into the leather, so we ended up buying local beeswax and melting it down to treat the leather. After that, you could literally pour water right into the bottom of the bag and there’s no damage to the leather. That’s just one example of prototyping, and how we teach ourselves things as we go along. It’s a lot of trial and error. It’s all about persistence and not giving up.
How do you source your materials?
We make everything here in the states, all the way down to our leather. There’s only a handful of tanneries left in the US, but we source all of our materials from them, and that’s a big deal to us. The type of leather we use is different, too. A lot of leather out there is very uniform. With ours, we try to incorporate the wrinkles, scars, brand marks, and those types of things so it’s a unique product. It’s not a wallet you’re going to find at any store. It’s going to be a wallet that actually has life in it, which is really neat.
Can you tell me more about the custom designs you offer?
All of our products can be personalized with initials or names. Our most popular custom item right now is our custom logo hat. We had this huge bin of scrap leather that we didn’t know what to do with, so we thought, Why don’t we try and see if we can make a leather patch out of this? Then we thought about burning somebody’s logo on it and stitching it to a hat. Since we added it to our line, we’ve seen explosive growth with it.
Where do you work?
We have a really cool space here in Huntsville. It’s a turn-of-the-century building that was actually a commissary for a local mill, so it has this deep, rich history. A friend of mine saw the potential, purchased the building, gutted it, and started restoring it to era.
It’s three floors, so we have our marketing offices on the top floor, and then the second floor is where we do all of our production. Our retail shop—which we just opened on Black Friday—is down on the bottom floor. This is our first retail operation, and we’re so excited because we have an amazing group of people that work with us between both businesses.
You’re a husband and wife team. What’s it like to work with your partner?
I think we complement each other really well—I tend to shoot from the hip and ask questions later, and Coleen’s really good about saying, Hey have you considered this? She has really great ideas. We build off of each other and it kind of goes from there. It’s fun—we love it.
With everything going on, how do you stay creative?
I think creative juices flow from just looking around. Take our personalized belt, for example. A belt is not an original idea, but putting a message inside the belt is different. We’re taking what’s out there and making it more unique.
Photographs courtesy of Holtz Leather Co.