11-10-2015, 12:20 PM
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We posted an update to Dark Holler's mailing list three days ago.  Comments referencing the update have predictably begun to show up on the boards, which is perfectly fine, except that readers who aren't on our mailing list don't have all the relevant context. So that's pasted in below for anyone who might be interested. It's long, but we hadn't sent out an update since late April.

Current status with specific regard to ordering brushes

With only a few exceptions granted on the basis of special circumstances, we suspended accepting new orders for brushes in early July. What I broadly posted on the boards and stated in response to queries throughout the summer was that we would not resume sales until we could complete and launch a website, which was targeted to happen in the September-October timeframe. That schedule has slipped for several reasons, mainly related to what our goals and objectives for the site have turned out to require in terms of design complexity. This has been a learning process. Progress continues, and we hope to upload and begin testing the e-commerce components by December, but we’re not going to put out a public launch date until we can confidently commit to one. Please stay tuned. We promise to give you heads-up by email in advance of going live with the site.

Prospective inventory

We still have some brushes held in reserve from our second-batch. Those were all knotted by Lee Sabini and came back to us from England in May. Again, they are not presently for sale. Absent exceptional circumstances, they will only be offered for purchase on our website. 

We’ve continued to make handles in a variety of materials, including 26 and 28 mm Chiefs; 26 and 28 mm PK-47s; 24, 26, and 28 mm Falstaffs; 26 mm Sherlocks (Keyhole-style); and 24 and 26 mm Sumos. The Lotus, a completely novel design, has advanced through prototyping, and some other new additions are in the works.

We don’t have any interest in putting mediocre knots in the handles we make. Our relationship with Lee Sabini allowed us to come out of the gate with brushes we could take pleasure in using ourselves and pride in offering to others. But for a number of reasons, continuing to depend exclusively on Lee to supply and install knots in our brushes is untenable for us. This isn’t new, and there hasn’t been any falling out. I posted the following on B&B in December of last year:

We clearly need to put ourselves in a position to directly perform or otherwise closely manage all aspects of producing brushes for sale in the US (with the exception of tying knots).... Lee understands and agrees. Installing knots is non-trivial to do and extremely important to have done right. But we'll make sure that happens. It's not like we'd be breaking up. He just needs to ship us knots and make sure we're lined out to install them. He's good with that…. I'm OK with extending the current arrangement until we're set. It just isn't viable for the longer term….

Suffice it to say that progression in our relationship with Lee hasn’t happened yet. We’re still on very friendly terms with Lee, and we hope to resume collaboration with him. But we haven’t shipped any more handles to England since the TSN LE project was completed. In large part that’s because Lee wasn’t able to say with high confidence how many and what kind of knots he could commit to us, and I believe he was substantially otherwise occupied through the remainder of the summer.

Although frustrating, the situation we faced in early July pressed us to do what we needed to do anyhow, which was set about finding one or more alternative sources of high quality knots. That has been my highest priority since the TSN LE brushes were shipped. During the second week of July I traveled to Las Vegas to meet in person with representatives of four Chinese suppliers. Since then we’ve obtained and trialed a good many samples from both China and Germany. Those included three sequential batches from one stand-out Chinese supplier that has invested considerable time and effort toward understanding and meeting our requirements. We have just placed our first order with that company and expect to be setting those knots by around the end of this month. They should begin showing up on our website soon after that.
  
Communication

I’ve had many requests to describe what remains of the second-batch brushes or otherwise might be (or become) available. Questions about pricing also come up frequently. My response over the past several months has generally been to ask everyone to please wait until we launch the website. It will clearly show (front and back), describe, and state price for each individual brush we then have on hand to sell.

We sincerely appreciate your interest in our brushes, and, as many of you know, I love to talk about them. The problem that very quickly developed, however, was that I could not manage the growing front-office demands and also stay on top of everything else that’s my responsibility to get done, e.g., keeping books (the bane of my existence), ordering supplies, maintaining tools and equipment, collaborating with Cody in the design of handles, creating the CNC programs, turning handles, and (prospectively) setting knots. Email became completely overwhelming and, whole truth be told, this venture stopped being fun for a while. The website should go a long way toward solving that problem and also allow us to improve the experience of selecting and purchasing a Paladin shaving brush.

In the meantime, although I’ve again fallen woefully behind on PMs and emails, I fully intend to catch them up. [For what it’s worth, I’m probably worst with friends and close acquaintances by reason of the fact I tend to put those emails off until I can give a deservedly thoughtful reply, but then it doesn’t happen, more emails pile up, and I go turn handles or fix a lathe to escape. I’m not offering this as an excuse. The point is my dismal handling of email is never, ever due to lack of respect or appreciation.]

Website

My hope is that the website will allow us to communicate not only more efficiently but also more expansively with those who share our interests and would like to follow our developing story. B&B and TSN have served as terrific launch-pads; however, they rightly don’t afford the latitude (because they aren’t fitting places) for us stretch out as far as we’d like in sharing our passion.
The site will include 1) a place to shop for and buy brushes, 2) a gallery, and 3) a blog. We also envision possibly adding a narrowly focused bulletin board to provide a forum for Q&A and general discussion related to our company and our products. We have no desire or intention to duplicate any other site’s content. We also don’t want to overstep boundaries or disrespect the neutrality of established online, wet-shaving communities to which we owe gratitude for being in a position to do what we are doing.

We’ll circulate a further update on the website in advance of launch, which we don’t plan to make a big splash about until after all of you have had an opportunity to get onto it first.

Sales outside the U.S.

What follows under this heading is mainly addressed to potential customers outside the U.S. It’s painfully long, dry, and doesn’t lead to a very satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, we greatly appreciate the international wet-shaving community, and the least we can do is be honest and try to explain the challenges we face in connection with exporting Paladin shaving brushes. We’ll do the best we reasonably can to accomplish that for all within the given legal parameters. Any helpful suggestions will be welcomed.

To date about 25% of our sales have been to buyers outside the United States. Lee shipped all of those brushes directly. So far, we have not engaged in commercial export of shaving brushes
U.S. Federal Law provides that any person or entity engaged in either commercial import and/or export of wildlife or a wildlife product (which a shaving brush containing badger hair qualifies as) must 1) have a permit issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and 2) comply with all applicable inspection, reporting, and record-keeping laws and regulations.

I strongly suspect the law in this area is most often observed in the breach (which places those who choose to abide by it at a competitive disadvantage); nevertheless, we intend to maintain ourselves in scrupulous compliance for several reasons.

First, I have a keen sensitivity to the ethics I model, especially given my son's involvement in this venture.

Second, as a recovering lawyer, I wouldn't expect to catch any breaks based on claimed ignorance of the law (although I can honestly say I find this particular law to be incomprehensible from a policy perspective).
Third, I've been given to understand by a law enforcement officer of the FWS that individuals who fail to declare commercial import or export of wildlife products may be subject to penalties of up to $60,000 per violation. I care too much about what we’re trying to do to run that risk, however absurd it might be.
  
The most salient problem here isn't declaration (of an import or export) per se; it's that declaration triggers inspection, which carries a fee of $93 (or thereabouts) per shipped container. That’s not such a big deal when the $93 is being spread across 100 or 200 brushes. But it's a likely deal killer if applied to a single brush.

Apparently someone with a business interest and effective connections managed to bring this situation to the attention of the FWS.  On October 26, 2012, it published an interim rule providing an exemption from the inspection fee for businesses meeting certain criteria. FWS said the rulemaking was based on a recognition that its regular inspection fee schedule (adopted in 2009) may have placed an undue economic burden on businesses that exclusively trade in small volumes of low-value, non-Federally protected wildlife parts and products.

Since publication of the interim rule, businesses have been able to request participation in the low-risk user-fee exemption program. To qualify for the program, a business and all of its wildlife import and export shipments must meet all of the following criteria:

The wildlife does not require a permit or certificate under 50 CFR Parts 15, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, or 23 or is listed as injurious under 50 CFR Part 16;

The wildlife is not live;

Each shipment contains 25 or fewer wildlife parts or products;

Each shipment contains wildlife parts or products valued at $5,000 or less;

The business has not been assessed a civil penalty, issued a notice of violation, or convicted of any misdemeanor or felony violation for any wildlife import/export violation; and

The business has had no more than 2 shipments that were refused clearance in the 5 years prior to the submission of the request to participate.

The Low Risk Fee Exemption Program was actually a grope in the right direction. However, it doesn't reflect a studied understanding of how regulations that over-reach legitimate policy objectives can adversely affect entrepreneurial efforts to compete on the international stage, which is brutal enough without being caught in the cross-hairs of friendly fire.

Dark Holler Design Works, LLC, (DHDW) which I solely own, holds the required FWS import/export permit. It does not, however, qualify for the low-risk fee exemption program by reason of the fact it has imported (from Lee) a shipment containing more than 25 badger-hair shaving brushes, and in the future it can be expected to continue to receive imported shipments containing more than 25 wildlife products. (Presumably, if we simply imported a kilo of badger hair in bulk, that would be a single product. Make sense of that.)

So what we’ve done, per open disclosure and discussion with a senior representative of the FWS, is to establish an entity (Dark Holler Exports LLC), which is solely owned by my son Cody. DHDW turns handles and is responsible for badger-hair containing imports. Dark Holler Exports LLC (DHE), which also holds a FWS import/export permit and does qualify for the low risk fee exemption program, performs  design/drawing, finishing, engraving, web design/maintenance, and photography services to DHDW. In addition, it’s in a position to assume ownership and responsibility for brushes sold and designated for shipment to buyers outside the U.S.

That might sound like a great (if arguably sketchy) solution; however, it still leaves some kinks. One is that we’re not sure how to handle transactions on the website that would involve export. We were completely transparent with the FWS in working out our arrangement, but it requires maintaining arms-length dealing, as well as a separation of legal interests, between the two companies. Where that line might ultimately be deemed to fall isn’t entirely clear to me. I don’t think it’s clear to anyone at FWS either. Moreover, DHE would still have to fulfil the reporting requirements, and that’s a time-consuming task for the sake a single brush sale. For example, to complete the report form the exporter needs to identify in advance the US port through which the shipment will be processed by US Customs. There may be a simple way to obtain that information in the case of a shipment to be handled by the USPS, but I haven’t found it yet. FedEx and USP would be much easier to use in that regard, but the expense of shipping a brush from the U.S. using either of those carriers can be ridiculous.

The bottom line for now is that we don’t have this sorted yet. Best by far in any case, I imagine, would be for a prospective international buyer to make arrangements with a friend or family member in the U.S. who could purchase a brush on their behalf and accept delivery for forwarding. 

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 11-10-2015, 12:29 PM
#2
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Thank you for the well thought out and informative update. I look forward to the website launch.

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 11-10-2015, 12:33 PM
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  • Agravic
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  • Pennsylvania, USA
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Thanks, Ken.

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 11-11-2015, 08:00 AM
#4
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Thanks for the update Ken.

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