Dani Ruffolo: “Understand That Not Everyone Is Going To Like You Or Your Product — And That’s Okay”

Understand That Not Everyone Is Going To Like You Or Your Product — And That’s Okay. Sure, you care what other people think of your product since you want it to sell, but not everyone can be a fan. As long as you believe in yourself and your vision, then take the criticism in a constructive way, […]

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Understand That Not Everyone Is Going To Like You Or Your Product — And That’s Okay. Sure, you care what other people think of your product since you want it to sell, but not everyone can be a fan. As long as you believe in yourself and your vision, then take the criticism in a constructive way, be gracious, and continue on your focused path to achieve your goals.

As part of my series about the leadership lesson of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle “Dani” Ruffolo. Danielle, who goes by her childhood nickname “Dani,” founded Handy Hats when she was a sophomore at the University of Dayton. The patented hats have built-in pocket pouches that can conceal everyday essential items, like credit cards, cash, keys and even lip balm. In less than two years, she has sold more than 5,000 hats and her product has landed in six retail locations. She also recently pitched in an open call for CNBC’s Shark Tank. Most recently, she graduated from University of Dayton with a double major in marketing and entrepreneurship and lives and runs her business in Dayton, Ohio.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you for having me! I originally started Handy Hats as a part of a class project. Everyone had to pitch a new product idea during the first week of class and the top 10 ideas were selected and funded by the university to be made into a microbusiness during the academic year, so students could experience what it is like to really run a business. My idea was chosen, and shortly after, Handy Hats was launched! After the semester ended, my professor encouraged me to continue on with the business since it was a such a unique idea, so I filed for a patent, expanded my product lines, and have been running it since!

Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

I love the word “grit.” I like how it means that when things get tough, you have to dig in, get your hands dirty and get the job done — even though it would be much easier to give up or take the easy road. I learned what it meant to have grit while juggling my full-time studies, playing Division-1 soccer and running Handy Hats… things got tricky at times. Sometimes I would be out of town on a road trip for soccer and I would not be able to be present or help out with the product deliveries. I learned how to be organized early on and how to manage from afar, because I had other commitments that would require me to work remotely. This resulted in me having to miss social events or dinners with friends, so that I could devote time to developing a contingency plan if any issues were to arise while I was out of town. Having grit got me through these times because as a college student, it was hard to miss out on these fun times with friends, but I knew that taking the extra time to be diligent with my business would make Handy Hats a brand that I was entirely proud of.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I am lucky to have a lot of really inspirational role models in my life, like my parents. They both played college soccer, as well, and often tell me that even though their sports careers are long over, they still have the mentality of an athlete in their everyday life. I try to encompass the “athlete mentality” in all that I do, choosing to make sacrifices and being relentless, determined, and motivated to achieve the goals I have set for myself.

So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?

“Grit” helped me to win the University of Dayton’s Flyer Pitch Business Plan competition this past April. It was an international competition with three different rounds over the course of several months — where each round required more and more preparation. As I mentioned earlier, instead of staying out late with friends, I knew I needed to be prepared for the Saturday morning pitches. I truly believe in this brand and product, so I knew that spending extensive hours revising presentations, waking up earlier than others, and making personal sacrifices to achieve my ultimate goal would be worth it in the end.

In addition to the Flyer Pitch win, I have expanded my e-commerce website to an Etsy shopfront, and Handy Hats is available in seven retail locations in the Dayton area. I am also waiting to hear back from my Shark Tank open-casting call audition.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The Handy Hats story is unique because it is the product of a college class project. Even though I am the only actual employee of the business today, Handy Hats is made up of the greater University of Dayton community. Handy Hats is a household name on UD’s campus — after all, it was born on campus! The UD community has been extremely supportive of the product, and I cannot thank everyone enough for the words of encouragement, buying of products, and even for being my models. Walking around campus and seeing strangers wearing Handy Hats is one of the coolest feelings and one that I don’t think will ever get old.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I would encourage them to find ways to reignite passion into what they are doing. If you are not passionate about your work, then how can you expect other people to have faith in your product too? Find ways to mix things up, take a break from work for a few days, and remind yourself of the bright-eyed entrepreneur you were the day you started on this journey.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My parents are my greatest supporters and biggest role models. They are my “business advisors” and challenge me to be a better person both personally and professionally. An example of their selflessness and endless support was when I was out of town on a school trip, and my parents took turns driving back and forth from my vendors in preparation for a big St. Patrick’s Day line release. I had made an error by not planning enough in advance, so my poor parents had to do the extra leg work to make sure that all the hats were finished in time for the holiday launch. I am the luckiest girl in the world to have them as my parents.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have teamed up with the Pink Ribbon Girls in Dayton on a collaboration where a portion of the proceeds from the custom Breast Cancer hats went toward Breast Cancer research. In addition, I try to give back by mentoring younger kids, students, and other entrepreneurs, so that I can encourage them to take a risk and reach their fullest potential if it’s something they believe in.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice. (Please share a story or example for each)

  1. It’s Only In Mistakes That We Grow. It’s okay to make mistakes, that is how you learn. Like I mentioned before, I did not plan far enough in advance for my St. Patrick’s Day campaign. I should have set my planning schedule months in advance instead of weeks prior to, to account for any possible errors. Had I not had to scramble and do extra legwork, I would not have truly learned from this mistake.
  2. Understand That Not Everyone Is Going To Like You Or Your Product — And That’s Okay. Sure, you care what other people think of your product since you want it to sell, but not everyone can be a fan. As long as you believe in yourself and your vision, then take the criticism in a constructive way, be gracious, and continue on your focused path to achieve your goals.
  3. Believe In Your Product AND In Yourself. Believing in yourself and your business go hand in hand. After all, if you don’t believe in your product, then why are you trying to encourage other people to believe in it? The same goes with you as a person. You are an extension of your brand — it is your idea, you have put so much of yourself into your business, so if you do not have confidence in yourself as a person, then people won’t be as apt to believe in your business.
  4. Dream! I’m quite the daydreamer and an eternal optimist. Sometimes my dreams get shattered and don’t come true, but some of them DO! If you don’t dream it, it could never happen…so don’t be afraid to let your mind wander and think outside the box.
  5. Be Grateful. There are so many people that are supporters of you — from your family, to your first customer, and even to the person who gave you harsh feedback on your business. These people (hopefully) have your best interest at heart, and want you to be your BEST. Be thankful for their help (even if at times it may seem like they’re causing more stress than help) and be sure to express your gratitude for them too. When things get hard, take a huge step back and be thankful for even the littlest things — like your health, the chance to live another day, or even the sunshine.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I love pay it forward movements. I would love to develop a campaign that involved Handy Hats and a way to encourage people to pay it forward. For instance, I have this idea of selling hats with a note on the inside of them that would encourage people to do something good for another person, whether that be paying for someone’s coffee behind them at the drive-thru or even asking someone how their day is. I could even create a hashtag or social media campaign where people share their paying-it-forward experiences.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: @handyhats

Facebook: @Handy Hats


LinkedIn: HandyHats

Etsy: HandyHatsStore

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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