Kelly and Heather Abbott were among those chosen as the state’s Georgia Small Business Rock Stars for 2018. The couple own Thomasville, Ga.-based South Life Supply Co., which makes jewelry, leather goods and other products, often embellishing them with parts of bullet casings or shotgun shells. Photo credit: Anthony Stalcup for the Georgia Department of Economic Development

Kempner: Georgia entrepreneur was wrong about bullet jewelry

Heather Abbott was dubious when her husband wanted them to create and sell earrings using bullet casings.

Because, well, spent bullets as a fashion statement? Really?

It became the launchpad for what the Georgia couple says is a million-dollar-a-year business their website describes as “the leader in bullet and shotgun shell style.”

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I was at a recent awards ceremony where the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Georgia Economic Developers Association announced the couple’s Thomasville, Ga. company, South Life Supply Co., as one of Georgia’s four small business “Rock Stars” of 2018.

Book surprise

Among the others winners was Gottwals Books, a brick-and-mortar store chain started by another husband-and-wife duo just before the Great Recession.

What were you thinking going up against Amazon? I asked former high school English teacher Shane Gottwals of tiny Byron, Ga.

“It was very ill advised,” he told me wryly.

Except that there are now 18 stores in the chain, most of them franchises. Gottwals says they are making a profit in an Amazon-dominated industry by selling new and used books not only in Gottwals stores but also on Amazon.

Knee-jerk thinking about what might fly as a small business idea can be wrong.

The world is full of nuances.

Borderline vegetarian

I was reminded of this when I asked about the gun background of Heather Abbott, whose bullet/shotgun shell motif for a business I thought might be politically polarizing.

She told me she never owned a gun. Shot one only once. Doesn’t hunt. Never before contemplated wearing ammunition remnants as fashion.

“I’m a liberal tree-hugger,” she told me. “I’m borderline vegetarian.”

“It is the dichotomy of humans in general. You can’t paint us with one brush.”

She told me she was drawn her products’ role in recycling. (Each year they find new life for about 200,000 casings, many of which came from discards at police shooting ranges.)

A laid-off pharmaceuticals sales representative, she and her husband, Kelly, a former nurse, started the business in a piece of South Georgia where quail hunting is a tourist draw.

She said the business got a big bump a couple years later as some people — worried that President Obama would cut into gun ownership — not only turned to buying more guns but also apparently got a taste for ammunition-themed jewelry.

The political draw for buyers has since faded, Abbott told me. “You cannot live in a perfect storm. A storm ends.”

In fact, her husband said he had worried that news of mass shootings would hurt their business, but it hasn’t yet done so.

Fashion consumers are finicky, and they’ve shifted into much more focus on leather goods and a broader lifestyle brand, Heather Abbott told me. Her licensing agreement with Remington recently ended. “Leather is our business now. Jewelry doesn’t pay my bills.”

They still use what look like the bottoms of shells in lots of products, often in fairly subtle ways, from snaps on purses to embedding them in pub glasses, napkin rings and pink collars for dogs. Many boutique buyers aren’t even aware what they are, Abbott told me.

MailChimp’s unexpected win

Lots of entrepreneurs find their best ideas are the ones they stumbled into and didn’t take seriously at first.

Ben Chestnut, the CEO and co-founder of Atlanta-based email marketing power MailChimp, who spoke at the “Rock Stars” award gathering about his unexpected path to building a company with revenue on pace to top $500 million this year.

“We took a very long, meandering path to get to where we are today,” he said.

While they were concentrating on doing web design, often for very large companies, they kept fielding requests from small businesses that wanted to get into email marketing.

Rather than squeeze small business owners with hourly charges, Chestnut said they built a tool to handle those small business needs, at first charging $20 to use it. Then, he said, they basically forgot about it.

Their thinking, he said (apparently seriously), was to make a little lunch money on it.

“We were just a bunch of clueless guys goofing off,” Chestnut said.

Now, MailChimp sends out something like a billion emails a day and employs about 800 people.

Figuring out what’s going to be a winner can take time.

Related coverage:

Which of these Georgia startups will be a billion-dollar business?

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AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on, including these columns:

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