• Chad

Interview with CJ Cutts of DC 550

Next on the list for interviews is CJ (his wife, Diane, chimes in too!) with DC 550. I learned more about paracord in this interview (like the fact that it exists) and we chatted a little about games and anime, and how they relate back to his business. And more! Let's get this thing rolling!

Start us off with introducing yourself, and tell us a little bit about DC 550.

CJ CUTTS: All right. I'm Christopher Cutts but everyone knows me as CJ. I've been going by CJ for years. A little bit about me, I was in the military, which is how I got introduced to paracord. The nickname of paracord is 550 Cord, because it has 550 pounds of tensile strength. It takes 550 pounds to snap a single strand. As an airborne soldier in the military we relied heavily on parachute cord. I was medically retired from the military back in 2014. After that, I really started focusing on a lot of odds and ends jobs, that was until I decided I no longer wanted to work for anyone else. So in 2016 I made a set of grab handles for my jeep that wraps around the roll bar. I posted them online via social media and by the end of the day, I had five or six orders. I told my wife we have something here. Fast forward to 2017, we got our business license and all of the proper paperwork needed, and we went full force with it. Everything we carry in our store is fully made with paracord. So, you said in 2010, you were in Afghanistan, and that's when you got introduced to paracord. How exactly did that come about? CJ: Pretty much everyone that's in the military, when you get bored over there, you want to do something to keep your mind busy. Most guys turn to working with their hands, or go out and play basketball if you're on a base that has a basketball court or go to the MWR and get on the computer. The way most people get started with paracord crafting is with simple bracelets. It’s the more common weave that most military guys wear. I just happen to be one of the guys that decided to take this to the next level. By taking it to the next level, I mean making the dog collars, belts, keychains, lanyards, and survival kits. You can ask pretty much any veteran about paracord, and they'll be able to tell you what it is. If you say "Hey, what is 550 cord?", they can give you a full explanation. I was making stuff for a long time and giving it away for free and it wasn't until, as I said, I made the jeep grab handles that I decided to pursue this full time. Everyday, everything I do has been building the business, growing the business with my wife, Diane and that's what we've been really focused on is building DC 550.

How did you come up with the name DC 550? CJ: We originally started as D&C 550 Creations. D is Diane, and the C is CJ. 550 as we discussed earlier in the amount of strength it takes to snap paracord. That just so happens to be the nickname for paracord. After being in business for around 6 to 7 months, we decided to re-brand, eliminating the “&” and the creations. As the corporate clients and nonprofits started to roll, we felt the need to get an eye catching logo and to shorten the name. Wounded Warrior Project was one of our first corporate clients. We also work with GNC, the supplement company, to provide their staff with lanyards. Some people ask us about the logo, like, "What is that?" It's a rope. It's a tied rope.

A full rebranding. CJ: Full rebranding. We started as a husband-and-wife operation at our dining room table and then it got to be, I guess, you would say uncomfortable. We had to get uncomfortable to get comfortable. We decided to hire our first employee and then gradually brought in more staff and started growing it from there. That’s actually Diane coming in now. Now there’s a team of six of us and that's where we're at today. That's awesome. That's very cool. I really like the whole fashion aspect of it. Obviously, the survival part of it's very important, and then you took it to a next level with having something like the dog collars and things like that. Back in Afghanistan when you said everyone was doing it, was the fashion aspect always a part of it or was that something you went, "I really want to make this a part of it"? CJ: It was more of a basic survival bracelet. We would take the buttons off our uniforms and put it on there. It would be something a little cool like. "Hey, you got that bracelet. I like it. Can you make me one? " That’s it in a nutshell. My wife and I are outdoors people. We go out in my jeep all the time. However, we didn't want to just focus on the survival aspect. Everything in here can be taken apart and used in a survival situation. Everything, from a belt, to a lanyard, to a key chain, a rifle sling, survival grenade. It's the cord that can be used for a survival situation but we also wanted to make it fashionable. Pretty much everyone wears a lanyard to work. All nurses wear a lanyard. So, okay, what do they want? A Wonder Woman lanyard. So that’s what we made them. Well, what if they go camping next weekend, and they forgot the tent poles and rope to tie down their tent? Now they have some paracord. They can take it apart and use it. It all unravels really quick and that can be done with pretty much anything. You buy one of our dog collars and now your dog has a really strong collar that's going to last a lifetime. If it gets dirty, you take it off and wash it and put it back on. If you ever need that cord, you have over 60 feet of paracord on your dog collar that you can use with the tensile strength of 550 pounds so you can pretty much do anything besides pull a truck with it. *laughs*

That's pretty great. And so, talking about survival situations, I was looking on the website, and I saw as one of the examples that you could make an emergency shelter with it. Now, I want to go into that. What's the process of that? How would you go about it? CJ: So, say you're out camping and all you have is a poncho liner. You could unravel the collar and tie the end between two trees and throw the poncho over it and now you have shelter. What if you need a tourniquet? If you get a cut on your leg or arm and need to stop the bleeding, you can take it apart, tie it off, and stop the blood flow. There are so many different uses for paracord. We do it full time, so we have to have a lot of love for it. *laughs* For sure! Well, it's one of those things where, I mean, I had no idea. It's new to me. So, that in and of itself is pretty cool. That's been one of the fun parts of all this is learning about new products and things that you might not have known about.

CJ: Yeah. "Where have you been this whole time?" Paracord is what all the cool kids need. *laughs* Exactly. So, with the designs, how do you come up with the different designs? For example, I've seen a lot of the designs are comic-based. Is that coming from you because you're like, "I'm a comic fan," or is it customer requests, or a combination? CJ: It's a lot of customer requests. We can take a lanyard like this and customize anything. If you want a picture of yourself inside of this charm, we can do it. Everything is manufactured on site. You wanted the Bear Box logo, so we were able to put the Bear Box logo in there. We just happened to have a product that can be customized to anything. A picture of your car, a picture of your dog. As far as a dog collar, you can pick your four favorite colors. You can go mild or wild. We're slowly building up our color wall. You can walk in this store and see the color wall and say "I want four random colors on this wall," and we can build you a collar based around that. There are so many different designs that we can do. There are really, really easy weaves, and there are some that are really complicated that could take two to three hours to make. Custom is where we get more business but just having certain products on hand also drives sales.

Watch band!

Sure. If someone sees something, they think it's cool, so they get one. Like if they see their favorite sports team. I saw that you have the San Diego Chargers one, or if they're into comics or something, they see the Black Panther one, stuff like that. CJ: Yeah and that's just how it goes. When we were a vendor at Comic-Con, we did more comic book-themed stuff because we're going to a comic book convention. We went to Senshi-Con, it's anime, so we tailored it all to anime, even though we didn't know as much as we thought we knew about anime. *laughs* We do the same thing when we go to a pet show, a pet convention, which we have done. We’ll take cat collars, we’ll take leashes. The leashes can vary anywhere from two feet for a trainer leash to a full-out six to eight-foot leash. It all depends on what a customer requests. Yeah, that's very cool. The fact that you can, like you said, go to different conventions, that's pretty great. That's really cool because it doesn't limit you. So, you can cater whatever product you're bringing, so that it's perfect for that crowd. CJ: Yes, sir. Exactly. As far as the process for crafting them, I know you said for some of them, they could take up to like two to three hours. What generally is the process and how long does it usually take? CJ: It's usually faster. Our process is really streamlined now, thanks to my wife. She came from a logistics background, so she's good about putting a process in place. Me, I would just start weaving and get lost in it. She's there to keep us on track. Most things take an hour or less. As far as lanyards, it can take 30 minutes or less. But in the beginning, it would take much longer. Now that we know certain measurements, a customer can walk in the door, and 15 to 20 minutes later, they have their custom lanyard or keychain, and they're walking out the door happy. It all depends on the complexity of the particular weave. It all just ranges. For a dog collar, most dog collars are going to take a solid hour most of the time. I’ll race against the clock to see how fast I can do it and most are going to take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. When you get into the thicker collars, they're going to take an hour plus. If I'm learning a new weave, just trying some new things, writing it down, drawing it out to try to make it do what I want it to do, that could take a lot longer of course.

For sure. As for new stuff, do you have anything like on the horizon that you can kind of tease, like new things you're thinking about trying or doing? No worries if you don't want to, if you want to keep it under wraps for now. *laughs* CJ: *laughs* Well, we do have a signature line of bracelets. We do a lot of the Spartan bracelets, Black Panther. We're constantly trying new styles of weaves. What makes these special is it's paracord, and then you put a custom bead on it. You might have a Darth Vader fan and they really want something with a Darth Vader bead. We don't actually make the bead. We contact our manufacturer and they make the beads for us. We do a Spartan. We have Black Panther beads. We have the Jason Voorhees bracelet, which is one of our signature ones. That's, I think, our most expensive item, period. The weight on the Jason shackle is close to a pound and a half.

So, and this kind of goes back to the question of the custom orders. For ideas that you come up with on your own, do you sometimes look at what's big right now, what's trending? Like you said, Assassin's Creed Odyssey just came out yet. CJ: It's definitely all about the market. We went to Senshi-Con, and we had some Spartan bracelets and a customer came up and said, "Hey, is that an Odyssey bracelet?" Well, honestly, I hadn't really looked at the new game. After doing so I realized that it is in fact the same bead as the helmet on Odyssey. Now we can actually tag it as if it's more focused to that because of what the market told us. When we heard Black Panther was coming out, we knew that we needed to add a new line of Panther bracelets to go along with the movie, so we have Black Panther and Killmonger beads. We go out and do these events and then our customers let us know what they think about it.. If it doesn't sell, we know, "Okay, maybe we need to pull it back and try something else," because like I said, everything we make, we can take it apart and do something else with it.

As far as just running the business, what have been the advantages of running your own business? And what are some of the struggles that you've had since starting? CJ: I'll start with struggles first. In the beginning and still now, there's a lot of late-night orders. A lot of late nights spent working. We had an order of 30 bracelets come in and then they wanted it by a certain date. We had the order from Bear Box come in, and you needed it by a certain date. We have to make sure that we have enough staff or enough time planned out to focus on a specific order and get it done in a timely manner. That's where Diane comes in with the processes and everything. We know for that key chain, it's going to take us, say, 15 minutes for every Bear Box key chain, so we need to set out a day and time. Okay, every day, we're going to do this many keychains to make sure that they're done in a timely manner. That's the same way we're getting ready for the holiday season right now. It's the fourth quarter. We have to make sure that we have enough stuff going into the fourth quarter to not only stock this store, but also our location on Fort Richardson. Then we do outside vendor events, Christmas shows, so we have to stock three places and be able to take care of and maintain all three. That's an advantage and a disadvantage because you're working twice as hard in the fourth quarter while everyone else is out there enjoying it. We're actually in the trenches working, working, working. Advantages, actually, we're together all the time now. My wife recently started working for the business full time, so we get to spend more time together. I wish we could sometimes spend it not working all the time, but we do still get to spend it together. We're basically here or at the kiosk pretty much every day. Sounds like it can get pretty hectic! As far as the variety of products that you make, that seems to give you a lot of different directions to go. Is that harder sometimes? CJ: It can be. There was this one guy. He came in, and he saw one of the stitch bracelets up at the top, this regular paracord within a thinner paracord stitched into it. He was like, "Oh, this is really nice. I wear a suit and tie every day. I can wear this bracelet every day whether I'm going to church, or I'm going out on a date, or anything. I really like it." So we just put a lot of different bracelets out there and if it doesn't sell out there, we know we'll either try a different location, or we'll break it down and make something else with it. The market will tell you if they don't like something, so that helps guide us.

Definitely. As far as the Bear Box, what was it that made you want to be a part of it? CJ: It was an exciting opportunity. We were part of a subscription box before. Same way, they reached out to us. They're not in Alaska so when we heard about the Bear Box, and we talked to LeeAnna, it was an exciting opportunity because we're an Alaska-based business. Everything we do, we make it right here in Alaska, so it gave us the opportunity to be able to show our products off to a lot of people and say, "Okay, this is something new that is made in Alaska." Maybe that'll draw more business for everybody. For sure. CJ: The fact that you guys are giving other business owners in Alaska exposure, that's something you don't have to do. You don't have to do that at all. But it was a great opportunity. It was really exciting. When I first talked to my wife about it, I said, "Yeah, this is something we should definitely do. This is a great opportunity." Yeah. We appreciate that. It's been a lot of fun. I mean, that's been a big part of it, I think, is building that awareness, local helping local, getting names out there more. And getting more awareness out to people that aren't in Alaska has also been a big push for us. And then, also, not just the products, I really like the community aspect and the connection aspect. And so, that was why you've seen on Facebook, and why we do what we do in the group is because we want people to know, not just the product, but we want to people to know you. That's why I'm doing this interview with you now. It's a lot of fun. CJ: It's an exciting opportunity. I'll definitely be getting my box, and I want to do a big opening on YouTube and show it to people. That will be great, yeah. Share it on the page when you do that. CJ: Yeah. I saw, I think, Alaska blog mom. I saw her video, and her unboxing, and everything. She was all into it and I was like, "I need to do something like that," just to get awareness. I also really love the logo. I was like, "That looks really good. That's a really catchy logo.".

Thank you. That's all LeeAnna. *laughs* Well, any final thoughts to share? Any final wisdom? CJ: Can Diane take that part? Of course. DIANE: We're trying to branch out into Dimond mall. Just trying to get our products out there. Another store? CJ: Just for Christmas. DIANE: Christmas, yeah. Ah, got you. DIANE: I mean, we make awesome stocking stuffers so it's a nice thing to get. It's exciting. We see somebody walking down the street and they’re wearing our products. It's nice. It's a great feeling I’m sure. DIANE: Yeah. Of course, we'll be here at the store (Northway Mall). And we'll be at the kiosk on post. CJ: We're all over Alaska fourth quarter. Fairbanks, Wasilla, Dimond mall. We'll be everywhere. Trying to be. DIANE: Trying to let people know we're more than igloos and hunting. *laughs* *laughs* Yeah, that belief feels pretty common sometimes. Well, thank you both so much. I super appreciate it. It's been a lot of fun. Very, very insightful. I learned a lot. I like learning about new things so learning more about paracord and kind of the idea behind it is very cool. I’m looking forward to everyone getting them when the box comes out. CJ: Yeah. I do want to say that I just wanted to let everyone know that paracord is not all about survival. It can be a fashion statement. What we do, there's something here for everybody. So, if they get an opportunity to stop by, stop on by. We're here at the Northway Mall. For sure. Thank you, CJ. Thanks, Diane. CJ: All right. Yes, sir. Thank you. DIANE: Thanks.

A big, big thanks to CJ and Diane for choosing to be a part of The Bear Box and for sitting down with me for this interview. If you'd like to expand your paracord collection, please go check out their website, there's a lot of cool stuff on there. Make sure to connect with them on social media (Facebook and Instagram) too!