Esther: Welcome to The BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com. I'm Esther Steinfeld and I'm speaking with Tom Patterson, the Founder and CEO of Tommy John and creator of the Second Skin Collection. Welcome to the show, Tom.
Tom: Thank you. I'm very excited to be a part of your show.
Esther: We're happy to have you here. So how does a guy from Milbank, South Dakota end up in Nieman Marcus – we're in Nieman Marcus right now by the way, at the Willow Bend Store in Dallas – with his own clothing line being featured here?
Tom: By accident. You know, it's something I never planned to be a part of. I'm not a designer by trade. Really, how Tommy John started was personal frustration; a necessity of mine. I had been selling medical devices for about five years and I had this problem with my undershirts where they would always bunch up and shrink and turn yellow quickly and kind of give me the illusion of an excess fabric throughout the day or a muffin top, whatever you have.
Tom: And I'd wear a suit and tie every day and there was a show called "The Big Idea" with Donnie Deutsch and it was a show very much like yours in that entrepreneurs come on and they talk about their ideas and the process from start to finish. And I would watch that every night and every day I would look for a big idea; how I can find a better way to make something. Kind of the aha moment for me was I had a presentation at UCSD Hospital in San Diego and I got out of my car and my undershirt had already bunched up. Went to the bathroom, I re-tucked it in and I thought, "There's gotta be a better way to make an undershirt," so I went to some department stores after my meeting and talked to the salespeople and they really didn't have what I was looking for. So I did some research online and I thought for sure Hanes or Calvin Klein or, you know, one of the big established companies had thought of this idea. And no one had – so I decided to spend $100.00 and when into Los Angeles to the garment district and started researching fabrics that were very soft, lightweight, breathable, that didn't shrink, which were all pet peeves of mine and I bought enough fabric to make about 15 shirts. I went to a local dry cleaners in San Diego; didn't have a sketch or a pattern or anything. I just described the way I wanted her to make my shirts. I made about 15 shirts and I tried one on and it worked.
Tom: I called some friends up and I said, "Hey, I'm gonna send you some shirts. Lemme know what you think." And they're like, "All right, Tom, whatever." Well, about four or five days later, they said, "Hey, can I get four or five more?" And I said, "Gimme a month," and I made 200 more and launched a website and that's really how I started.
Esther: Did you have any idea that this is where your path was gonna take you?
Tom: No. It started with a personal frustration and guys don't really talk about the way their clothes fit. They don't go home and say, "Honey, my undershirt bunched up today at work."
Tom: I looked and felt ten pounds heavier. Instead, they tuck it into their underwear. They buy a size bigger, so it's longer and I just couldn't understand that. So, you know, after doing it for about six months, I lost my job in medical sales. It was last October of 2008 and everyone thought I was crazy to do this full time. You know, in the worst recession since I've been born and I thought it was the best time to start a business because I had a product that every single guy in America needed. Sixty-five percent of guys wear an undershirt every single day. Ninety-nine percent of them are wearing one that doesn't fit.
Tom: So I thought if I could get one percent of them, maybe I have a sustainable business. You know, you have to believe in your product when no one else will. There's always going to be people that tell you to, "Hey, play it safe. Get a job. Have stability." I had been so conservative for so long, I was ready to take a risk.
Esther: Absolutely. It's really exciting. I think a lot of our listeners out there are exactly where you were – not necessarily sure what their next step should be. Maybe they've lost their job and now they have a great idea and they're kind of sitting on it. So are you just serious about undershirts or do you see this going in other directions?
Tom: Going in other directions. I mean, really, my whole goal is when you walk down the street and you see a guy wearing an undershirt, someone will ask you, "Hey, is that a Tommy John?" You know, having that brand-name recognition, first to market. I would love to grow a brand – that's really the goal here, but for now we really wanna focus on what we're doing better than anyone else and that's underwear and undershirts and having a functionality and the uniqueness that's unlike anything anywhere that you can buy in any store across the world right now. So that's really the goal is coming out with better fitting, functional, luxury clothing for men while at the same time at an affordable price.
Esther: So do you have this idea covered by patents?
Tom: We do. We have a patent pending on our utility. What makes our shirts different is we use a mathematical ratio from the chest to the bottom hem, with a blend of stretch fabric and a longer length. So we make a claim that no one has ever done in underwear which is once you put the shirt on, pull it down past your butt, regardless of how much you move, it never rides up, it never bunches up and it never comes untucked.
Esther: Unbelievable and I'll, just for the record, I'm wearing the shirt right now and I'm wearing leggings. I'm wearing the shirt over my leggings and it hasn't moved. So I believe you.
Tom: And I have to say – I want to make this clear to all the listeners – this is not Spanx for men. It's not restricting. It's not compressing. It only takes one person to put on and take off. While it's a great compliment to be used in the same sentence as Spanx, which is a great company, we found that guys are all about comfort. Guys are very hard to change the minds of. They're very loyal to their brands.
Esther: Uh huh.
Tom: And if they find something and they love it, it's very hard to switch and this is one of those products where we literally – nine out of ten guys who try our shirt on become a customer because they've never had anything that fits and feels this way.
Esther: And I'll tell you it is extremely comfortable. It's not tight at all around, I mean, it's fitting along the butt area but it is not tight. It's very comfortable and I had to – I had to have one. So there seems to be a lot of emphasis on this undershirt. What about the underwear product in your line? How is that different? Is it right that you might be competing against Under Armor?
Tom: In essence. You know, we did everything backwards. Most companies start out making underwear bottoms and then they make t-shirts.
Tom: And then they start getting into smaller stores and then they build a distribution network and then they get into a major department store. We kind of flip-flopped it where we made an innovative undershirt and the feedback was so great on the fit and the feel of our fabric, customers said, "Hey, will you make some underwear?" Which we did and we were only in about ten stores before we launched into Nieman Marcus. So now we did it backwards in that we go into the major department stores first and then we'll build our distribution network out from there. So slightly different but one thing we are working on – we don't have a launch date set yet is an underwear bottom innovation that could be similar, potentially bigger, than our undershirts. Hopefully, we'll be able to launch that out in the next year.
Esther: You've been listening to The BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com. We'll be back with more with Tom Patterson after this.
Esther: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, heard hear and online at thebusinessmakers.com. I'm Esther Steinfeld and I'm speaking with Tom Patterson, the founder and CEO of Tommy John. Now, we've heard a lot about how you got into Niemans. Has it always been so easy?
Tom: There's been a lot of challenges. I mean it's not easy starting a business in an industry where you don't have fashion experience. So I've really survived on my selling skills and the skills I acquired working for corporate America for eight years. That was my whole goal. When I graduated college, I wanted to work for a Fortune 500 company, get the experience, learn how to run my business and being in sales has really allowed me to grow and given me those skills where I knew I would be able to apply them in any business I ventured into at some point in time but I can tell you my appreciation for all the products that go into retail stores is 500-fold. Customers have no idea the amount of work that goes into packaging design and manufacturing and pricing and ticketing and getting the product on the floor. I mean you almost wanna cry when you see it displayed the first time in a store because there's a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go into it; a lotta anxiety; a lotta stress but at the same time, the feeling – it's very rewarding and you don't really understand that feeling, I think, until you actually see it, the final product in the store, and when it sells and when you can see in the customer's eye the aha moment, like, "Wow, this really is a great product," and that's what keeps me going. That's what gets me through those hard times is I know I have a product that every guy will love and will benefit from and maybe make their day a little easier with their shirt staying tucked in.
Esther: So let's talk a little bit about you. You said you worked in corporate America – where did you get this entrepreneurial drive?
Tom: I had my own lawn mowing business ever since I was eight years old. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth and my parents always taught me the value of a dollar. You know, I remember in high school I played sports and after football practice, even my senior year, I would go mow lawns until 9:00 at night when all my friends are at home, watching movies; doing homework. You know, I was always motivated by money and working and that's just the environment I grew up in and after high school I went to college and the mentality at that point was go to college, get a job, get a 401k, you know, build stability, build a foundation and that's what I did and I think I lost that creative part of my mind wanting to work for myself and I think that entrepreneurial idea was maybe lost in the late '90s and early 2000 and I really think it's coming back. Maybe because of the economy and the recession and I think a lot of people have learned that they can't rely on corporate America. Their 401ks have gone down the tube. Businesses, you know, aren't what they used to be and I didn't want to be in that position some day. I didn't want to have to rely on others. I made other companies enough money selling the last eight years. I wanted to start my own business and survive on my own on my own needs. Not to rely on anyone else. So that's really what inspired it. The worst case scenario, you fail and you fall flat on your face and you start over again. You can always go back and get a job. But working for yourself and having your own company – I mean that's – it's priceless. Everyone can do it. That's the thing I want to – point I want to get across. It cost me $100.00 to try this idea and I think everyone one listening to this has a million dollar idea and it's so easy to fall through. My advice is just go for it. You can always start over somewhere else.
Esther: Where do you start? Once you get that idea, where should you start? How did you formulate this plan?
Tom: Well, once I had the idea, I started asking guys and friends and go to department stores and ask the sales associates. "Do you have an undershirt that kind of tailors and streamlines and stays tucked in?" "No." I said, "Well what do you do?" "Oh, I tuck it into my underwear." "I buy a size bigger." "I cut it off at the belly button so it doesn't ride up but it absorbs my perspiration." And guys are like MacGuyver; they jimmy-rig their undershirts and they do all these weird, crazy things. There's never been a solution. So it's kind of a solution to an age-old problem. That's the research I did. You know, we're fortunate enough to live in the Internet society where information is a click away and I just started doing research. And there's so much information online on how to start businesses and where to go and what other people are doing. You know the information's out there. You just have to be willing to ask questions and I think that's one thing I've never been afraid of is, you know, smart or bad or whatever. Always ask questions. Even if it's a bad question in your mind.
Esther: I think there's a lot of times when you have an idea and you aren't quite sure where to take it. Especially if you don't have the background in say fashion or automotives or whatever your ideas are.
Tom: That's a good point because when I had to make 200 shirts, I had no idea where to go. I went down to the garment district in LA and I literally would pull people over on the side of the street and say, "Hey, do you know where I can have some t-shirts sewn?" "No, no." Well, finally, the tenth person said, "Yeah, hold on one second," and they called a guy and he said, "Go down to this address in the garment district," and it was not the nicest neighborhood. I pound on the door. I have no idea what it was gonna look like and this very nice guy said, "Yeah, I can make 'em for you," but I think when you have an idea and you believe in it, you're willing to do whatever it takes to get to that point and that's one thing – I was just – I wanted something and I thought this was something that could maybe be big and I wanted to keep on pushing it and pushing it and pushing it to see how bigger it could get. Finally, you start to see that light at the end of the tunnel at some point. You're like, "All right, maybe I'm almost there. I'm almost there," and Nieman Marcus was that light for me but you really have to be motivated and it has to come, I think, from yourself.
Esther: How did you get that meeting with Nieman Marcus?
Tom: You know, I called the buyer about a year before the meeting and she was going on maternity leave. She said to call me back in the fall. I called her back in the fall and she said, "I don't have an open to buy," so I called her back in the spring and I said, "I'm gonna be in Dallas next week. I have a product that you need in every single one of your stores. I've spoken to sales associates across the country. They said they don't have it. They said that it would do great if it was in here. Can I send you some samples before the meeting to try out?" and she said, "Okay, fine." After the phone call, I booked my ticket and I met with her the next week and the feedback was so great on the shirts and I had a presentation that I walked them through and they said, "All right, we want to bring it into 15 stores in August."
Tom: So I guess it was kind of a year in the works. I mean it didn't happen overnight.
Esther: You're not an overnight success is your point.
Tom: But no, I think it was meant to be because that year between when I initially spoke to her and when my meeting took place, I really was able to perfect a lot of things that were very important for my product to sell in the stores – which is my packaging. Eighty percent of underwear sales are purchased by women. Women don't know that guys have underwear problems.
Esther: It's gorgeous and it's got a very nice looking man on the package, so –
Esther: - that helps.
Tom: And we designed it that way. Women look for two things – the brand that's advertised everywhere or the model that they're maybe most attracted to. And we chose two colors that women love. We found that women love Tiffany's jewelry and they love chocolate, so we thought that would allow us to stand out among the other brand names and we designed our box with a slide open, which was also different. You know, our shirt's very different, so it's very important that our packaging stood out equally as much and packaging is – it's so important, which I've learned and –
Esther: In retail for sure.
Tom: - and that year really allowed us to perfect it and design it so it would be able to display it in a store such as Nieman Marcus.
Esther: Awesome. That's so cool. You've been listening to the Founder and CEO of Tommy John. We'll have more with Tom Patterson after this. You've listening to The BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com.
Esther: We are back with The BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com. I am Esther Steinfeld and I'm back with Tom Patterson. He is the founder and CEO of Tommy John. Where do you see this going? Do you think you're gonna be selling out to Calvin Klein, relaxing on the beach somewhere?
Tom: That's the million dollar question. Really, it's one step at a time. I think the future for me is I want to build a sustainable brand and I think the brand in this day and age is much different because there's the Internet – the stores. You really have to have a product that's different.
Esther: A multi-channel approach.
Tom: Multi-channel approach and really, you really have to focus on a niche. I think the niche brands are the ones that are gonna survive. We really wanna focus on underwear right now and we're gonna listen to the feedback of our customers and see what they would like to see next. Customers and their feedback, I think, are the best approach to improve your products. They're the ones that wear it every day. I mean that's really how we started, by getting feedback from other guys that had these problems and there's still a lot of problems in men's and women's fashion that aren't being addressed and over the next year, as we grow, we'll probably make a decision to transition and expand into several different markets and, you know, I guess my whole goal is to keep Tommy John. I don't wanna sell out. Calvin Klein and Hanes and the established underwear brands – they had their chance at this idea. They missed out on it and I don't wanna sell out to them. I wanna take advantage of it and stay true to our core and grow the business that way.
Esther: Very cool. So let's say you're an aspiring entrepreneur and you're listening to this right now. How should they take their idea and take it from Point A to Point B?
Tom: Seek out people in the industry. Go to experts in whatever industry you have an idea that it relates to and talk to them. I think a lot of people always are willing to share their ideas and how they started. I think the goal of any entrepreneur is you wanna help other entrepreneurs and you have a different level of respect for someone that's willing to take that risk and not only having an idea but following through and at least trying to do something with it. You can't fault anyone for trying and that's, I think, one thing I was instilled with is, you know, never quit and never stop trying. Even if – if you fail you fail, but learn from your failures and don't make that mistake again and I think I've made countless mistakes with this. But you have to learn and if you don't learn, you won't survive and if you really wanna survive and have a business that's gonna be successful someday, seek out people in that industry. Do your research.
Esther: One last question. How many people are working for you?
Tom: Well, I'm not the baseball pitcher. I've had no elbow surgery. I only threw in the low 80s. My middle name's John. A lotta people call me Tommy growing up and still do to this day, which is how we came up with Tommy John. But as far as working for us, there's four people that work for me. I mean, we contract a lot of our work out – our cutting, our sewing, our manufacturing, our box packaging. We're really running lean. We do all of our PR, all of our advertising and it's really spread word of mouth and when you have a small budget and really no investors, you do what you can with what you have and I think with this day and age with Facebook and Twitter and websites, there's so many tools that any entrepreneur can use that don't cost you anything. Take advantage of what we have. We're fortunate to live in an Internet society where all this information is there for you and it's so much easier to become an entrepreneur. I mean we live in the United States, where people move here from all over the world to start businesses and I think a lot of Americans take advantage of it. We live in a country where entrepreneurship is – it's a gift. It's a gift that we have by living here, you know, so take advantage of it. Go out and try something.
Esther: That's awesome. Thank you so much for being here. This has been really inspirational for me and I'm sure for our listeners. So thank you.
Tom: Thank you for having me.
Esther: And tell us where they can buy these shirts online.
Tom: You can buy 'em online at tommyjohnwear.com, as well as Nieman Marcus stores across the country. We're in select Nordstroms across the country and we're about in 70 boutiques, so just check out the retail locations on our link at tommyjohnwear.com.
Esther: Thank you so much. You've been listening to The BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com. I'm Esther Steinfeld and that wraps up our interview with Tom Patterson, the Founder and CEO of Tommy John.