By Andy Jensen
Some time ago in a humid junior high school hallway in Houston, Kim Thompson stopped at her locker to chat with friends and grab a book for her next class. The dialog among her friends was timeless; the same topics every teenager knows: Boys, girls, and more of the same. The talk was quick, bouncy, and energetic.
In an instance, the chatter stopped. Friends’ faces became suddenly alarmed. All became focused on someone down the hall. From the end of the hallway Kim could hear the unmistakable tap, tap, tap of military dress shoes. And she knew instantly. Kim’s father was in the house, making a special visit to her school.
Kim’s father served his country for more than twenty-five years in the United States Air Force. He exemplified every trait an Air Force Chief Master Sergeant is: Loyal. Proud. Disciplined. He was built like a monster truck. And he was doing his best to raise his two daughters alone.
Kim was toast for making a slight wardrobe change after leaving the house for school. Chief Master Sergeant Thompson’s special visit to school that day was his way to impress upon his daughter what the Air Force had taught him: Follow orders completely and without question. Such is the life of every father concerned about his daughter’s choice of clothes for the day.
Fast forward many years. Chief Master Sergeant Thompson has been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors and the appreciation of his country. As expected, his love and devotion to his daughters live on by who his daughters have become: Strong, disciplined, and tenacious.
Kim Thompson, with her wife and partner, Kim Mardis, are sole proprietors of EROS Hat Company, a boutique on Main Street in historic Chattanooga, Tennessee, selling custom hats for men and women, vintage denim fashion, and permanent jewelry. The brick-and-mortar location is literally brick and mortar. The red brick and white mortar walls hail from a bygone era of big automobiles and big hair. All along Main Street, retail shops have or are in the process of being restored, making the transformation to restaurants, offices, or retail space.
EROS Hat Company’s décor is a successful example of the principle that less is more. The boutique has a fresh, light air complimented by a faint energetic buzz powered by a rhythmic beat coming from strategically placed speakers. A sofa and cushy chairs welcome you, invite you to sit, relax, and chat. Vintage denim takes up a wall on one side; a row of stunningly classic hats hang on the opposite side. An oversized table takes center stage complimented by an equally oversized chandelier. And—wait for it—a table sits nearby supporting an Orion mPulse permanent jewelry welder, waiting for the next customer. “Permanent jewelry was part of the business plan from day one,” says Kim Thompson. “The connection between custom hats, vintage denim, and permanent jewelry is my customers. When a bride comes in the store with her bridesmaids for hats, matching bracelets just make sense. And a gold bracelet pairs with vintage denim. What we sell is all complimentary and supportive.”
EROS Hat Company’s success comes from being part of the community. The partners’ appreciation for the reception they receive from Chattanooga can’t be overstated, they say. The transformation of Main Street and the excitement that it brings to the city channels energy into the company.
Like the products they sell, Kim and Kim have complimentary skill sets. Kim Thompson, the self-proclaimed military brat, marches to a drummer’s beat and nothing gets in her way. Like her father, she served in the military and then left to fill a medical device sales position with a dental manufacturer. It was there that she honed her sales skills. Kim dreams big and has the work ethic to make dreams come true.
Kim Mardis grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and, like her faith in Southern principles, has a solid education and is a data analyst. She provides the working foundation for the boutique, the launchpad, if you will; no less important than the rocket it just launched. “I’d rather sit here and run the numbers,” she says with a chuckle. “I’ll let Kim do the talking.” Kim Mardis’ role in the company is clear after even a short discussion. Her face lights up as she talks about the company, its customers, and its potential. She is more than just foundational; she is a lighthouse and a beacon at the same time. Whenever her partner has a faltering moment or trouble looms ahead, she’s there with a steadying hand.
How does permanent jewelry and hats work together? “They don’t necessarily work together,” says Kim. “But they are two trendy options that people love. Hats are always in style. Jewelry is always in style. So, I say ‘trendy’ only because more and more people have become interested in them right now. Hats have gained more popularity due to television shows like Yellowstone. Permanent jewelry has picked up steam in the last five years and people are recognizing it, seeing it, and getting excited about it. When we add permanent jewelry, we’re adding another service and creating a unique spin to the experience we provide in Chattanooga.”
The upsell opportunity, says Kim, goes both ways, making the sales opportunity two dimensional. “Whether our customers come in for a hat or permanent jewelry, there’s always an opportunity to talk to them about one or the other. After they get a hat, they’ll ask about the jewelry. Or, after they get a bracelet, they’ll ask about the hats.”
EROS’ boutique draws people off the street and through social media. But the company is active in meeting the community wherever the community may be. Kim explains the company frequently partners with a clothing boutique across town for special occasions. It also is developing a standing pop-up opportunity with one of the hotels, meaning that every Saturday afternoon EROS Hat Company is in the lobby offering its services. Social media, Kim explains, is also a big part of their marketing efforts, as well.
And what about competition? “When I hear people say they are concerned about saturation, I don’t allow myself to be concerned about what anyone else is doing,” Kim says. “I keep my nose to the grindstone and focus on what I’m bringing, the experience I’m bringing, the quality I’m bringing. And I love to share the analogy of walking down the paper towel aisle of the grocery store. There are dozens of brands to choose from, but we all have our favorite and that’s the one that we grab. Even though someone may be offering something that looks like you, at the end of the day you’re the secret sauce. You’re the reason why someone will choose you and come back to you.
“I welcome healthy competition, or collaboration as I call it. I see all my cohorts in the industry as collaborators, rather than competition. I don’t have what you have, and you don’t have what I have. We help each other be best in the business in our respective areas.”
“I love permanent jewelry because often times its wrapped up in a memory,” Kim says after taking time to ponder the question: Why do you love permanent jewelry? “Jewelry is very personal. There’s always a memory attached to jewelry, which makes it very special.”
“Entrepreneurship can be very, very lonely,” says Kim. “Making connections with others in the community feels less lonely. You must make connections with others in your community, being able to share with people who are experiencing the same things you are. Events like PJX (the Permanent Jewelry Expo) are critical to continuing education and networking.”
“Every December Chattanooga has a festival called Main x 24, and the community has embraced EROS Hat Company,” says Kim. “I love introducing new experiences to people, and permanent jewelry and hats are new to Chattanooga.”
Permanent jewelry for us is not a side hustle, it’s not an afterthought, it’s not something we tinker with on the weekends,” Kim says. “It’s a big part of our company.” Like all jewelry, EROS Hat Company is confident there will always be demand for permanent jewelry and they’ve doubled down on that bet with a striking retail presence.
Kim feels strongly that repeat customers are the gem to the business. Most of her clients will eventually get a stack, whether on the first appointment or the second appointment. And price? “Not everyone is going to be the right client for me, but the right clients for me will find me because they will find value in what I’m offering versus what someone else may be offering,” she says.
“Who would buy a $500 hat?” Kim asks. “People are spending $500 on a hat every day. So why shouldn’t that be with me? There will be people who come in and say, ‘that’s too much’, but that person isn’t your client. Concentrate on the next person.”
EROS Hat Company carefully researched permanent jewelry welder options. In the end, they chose the Orion mPulse welder for the customer service behind the welder. “I was having welding difficulties at 11:00 pm on a Saturday,” Kim recalls. “I was able to contact the presi- dent of the company through Facebook Messenger, believe it or not. In a matter of minutes, I was talking to a customer service rep who helped me get on my way. What other company would do that?”
Starting a business is a tough road for anyone. For EROS Hat Company, whose partners are women of color and married to each other, the obstacles to success are compounded greatly. Yet, they more than persevere. They are growing and succeeding.
Every entrepreneur can see a life lesson in the EROS Hat Company story, that the difference between failure and success is a simple measure of determination. And one other key ingredient.
“Tenacity,” Kim responds immediately when asked how she and her partner move forward. The path to success is one bump after another, keeping the faith, staying true to what you believe in, one day at a time.