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Flashback - Tom Patterson of Tommy John

When an undershirt does not fit properly, design an new one that does.

Tom Patterson

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Tom Patterson hated the way his undershirts fit and changing the brand he used didn’t help, so he took matters into his own hands. Esther Steinfeld flashes back to her interview with the founder of Tommy John, maker of the Second Skin Collection. This was an invention borne of circumstance and necessity. And another entrepreneur steps up to the challenge!

Full Interview text

Russ: This is the BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at the BusinessMakers.com. And now it's time for the Aflac BusinessMakers Flashback, brought to you by Aflac - and staying with our apparel theme for today, we're going to roll back to January of this year when our own Esther Steinfeld traveled up to Dallas to sit down with the founder and CEO of Tommy John, men's wear, Tommy Patterson at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, check this out...

Esther: How does a guy from Milbank, South Dakota end up in Nieman Marcus 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.

Esther: Yeah.

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 went 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.

Esther: Wow.

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."

Esther: Right.

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.

Esther: Right.

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. 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. 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. 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.

Esther: Right.

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 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: 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.

Russ: And that concludes our review of Esther's interview with Tom Patterson, founder and CEO of Tommy John's. And that wraps up this morning's Aflac BusinessMakers Flashback, brought to you by Alfac ask about it at work. Stay tuned in for our Featured Guest Segment with Nate Adler, founder and CEO of Klymit. You're listening to the BusinessMakers Show heard here and online at TheBuinsssMakers.com.

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