Marley Sherwood sits down with the co-founder of Love Your Melon for a drink before the Nashville Predators first Love Your Melon Night at Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville, Tenn. Love Your Melon is an apparel brand dedicated to giving a hat to every child battling cancer in America and supporting the fight against pediatric cancer. Get to know the entrepreneur who didn’t have any experience in fashion, textiles, distribution or scaling up but created a successful company that has donated over 2.6 million dollars and over 90,000 hats to children battling cancer.
Welcome to Nashville! You have great taste in wine. I am enjoying this.
Thank you for having me. It’s good to see you!
Let’s start from the ground up. How did you come up with the concept of Love Your Melon?
Love Your Melon started in a college class at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. I had just transferred from the University of Denver. It was my first day on campus and I met Brian Keller who became my co-founder. We were put in charge of starting a business that we could turn a profit by the end of the semester. We identified with a bunch of different products, but we ended up deciding on beanies. People didn’t have cool beanies in Minnesota. There were sports team beanies and John Deere tractor beanies, but no identifiably fashionable beanies that were made for people to wear all the time and look good. So, we started a cool beanie line that we could brand and market to women in particular. [We market to] men as well since the beanies are unisex. We started there and decided we also wanted to make a difference in the life of somebody else. We didn’t think it would go longer than the semester. Although, we were damn sure we wanted to make a difference while we did this, not just make a couple hundred bucks for the project. So, we researched different products to help people in need and we identified kids with pediatric cancer because they are often overlooked. We began a “buy one, give one” and gave hats to the kids in return to make sure those purchasing the hats knew the impact they were making.
When coming up with the concept with Brian did you ever imagine that the company would become what it is today?
Yeah, otherwise we wouldn’t have dropped out of school that semester to pursue it. I don’t think it was in my mind that it would have gotten to this level or this large, but we always had a plan for what we wanted to accomplish the next month or three months at most. That allowed us to fluctuate to help it get to the next level.
Do you find it difficult for people to take you as a serious businessman when they find out you are a 24-year-old CEO?
I think people are more astounded than anything. I think people see the difference that I have made at my age. I want to inspire people and show them it doesn’t take much to make a difference for someone else and to run a company. You have to be driven, want it and take the small steps. It’s been four and a half years now and a lot has happened in between.
Who are your role models that you look up to in the entrepreneur and business world?
Steve Forbes is great! He just did an interview with you guys a little bit ago. He is a great guy. We also work with incredible non-profit partners. We work with Dr. Chell and Joy King at Be The Match to make sure people are becoming bone marrow donors. They are incredible people. They were some of the only people able to fly in airplanes immediately following 9/11 because they were traveling for their organization to save lives with bone marrow donors. All planes were grounded, but they were saving lives.
What has been one of the greatest rewards for you since beginning Love Your Melon?
Working with incredible people. Whether internally or externally, they are some of the most dedicated individuals. Keep in mind, we were a startup with only 16 people. Whenever we talk to other companies, we are speaking with super high-level people. My team is young. It is amazing to have the opportunities we do, to speak with CEOs and executives that are so large and be on the same playing field as they are, as a startup. I think that is the most rewarding thing we accomplished. We work with an incredible group of individuals and we make up for any lack of expertise with the hard work we put in. Basically, the whole team kicks ass.
Who is one of the biggest celebrities you have seen wear one of your hats?
One of the coolest things was when Justin Bieber came to town and did a show in Minneapolis. Whether you are a “Belieber” or not, the guy has like 80 million fans on Instagram. I knew the guy that ran the suites [where he was performing] and I gave him some of our cashmere caps. He dropped them off and I didn’t hear a single thing about it, didn’t see posts on social media, but then a month and a half later he posted a group of about seven or eight photos of him wearing one of our hats on Instagram! Just seeing that he was excited about the product, whether they were paparazzi shots or ones he had taken for his own social, it was clear he wanted it to be a part of his outfit one day. It’s just cool that we got to be a part of that. The main thing we fundamentally do is make good quality products that are made in the USA, that people enjoy, that help people. So seeing that was really cool. Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis were recently stopped by paparazzi just casually wearing them. I don’t know if there is any way to define which ones are more valuable. Jessie James Decker is one of our greatest promoters. She’s not as big as Justin Bieber, but has a huge influence over her followers and they listen to her and have a great connection too.
From A-List ambassadors, clever storytelling, donation events, celebrity initiatives to building lasting partnerships, Love Your Melon has garnered over a million followers on your social media platforms. What is the key to your social media success?
The main thing we do is be authentic. Our content creation is also authentic. We are doing 3-5 photoshoots a week, whether it’s a product and model shoot or event shots from donations around the country. Last year we released over 2,500 beanie products including different colors, pom poms, caps, beanies and t-shirts. We are not just making one item that becomes our only focus. People are seeing 15-20 new products every week.
Have there been any times you felt like you failed?
USA manufacturing was on my to-do list for the company for a while. When we started, we were only making about 1,000 beanies a month. We partnered with a company in Portland, Ore. that could only manufacture 1,000 a month and that seems like a lot, but it turned out to not be at all. That is what kept me up— finding a U.S. manufacturer. It is not what it was 50 years ago. Other countries have taken over and I want to bring that back. Now we are making 150,000 hats a month. We went from Brian and I shipping out products ourselves to working with other companies to help us ship and pack. We have finally found a great vendor that is continually taking on the responsibility and does a really good job. That was one of those things we learned from, and it has been an incredible process to get where we are now.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I want a farm! I want some animals to take care of and to grow some crops.
And to think you’ll only be 34 years old then.
I come from an entrepreneurial background. Both of my parents are restaurateurs and have run their restaurants for 35 years. I’m interested in growing that business that they have created and bringing it into the modern age— make it an online company and help them ship the products they make in their restaurants across the country. We are always looking at different ideas. The main thing is that we want to continue to run authentic companies on our own, work off of small loans to start and grow them organically like we did with Love Your Melon and make an impact. For us it’s not about the money. Everyone is going to say it is important, but we want to make an impact more than have money. We are working on a children’s book right now. We want to continue to help make these children’s lives better while they are in the hospital. So that is where I see myself in 10 years— continuing to be an entrepreneur.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Do you get to pass the torch on to me and I get to do the next interview? Ha, let’s see… you know we have been doing these Love Your Melon game nights with these major league sports teams. We create a co-branded hat for the occasion. We have partnered with the LA Clippers, the Minnesota Wild and tonight the Nashville Predators. We have done some stuff with the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban’s team. I was supposed to fly down for the game, but while we were taxiing for takeoff, we smashed into another plane… so everything was cancelled. I would love to recoup that and have a real drink with Mark Cuban. No plane crash this time. That would be a great person to talk to who has run incredible businesses. I am really at the start of my career and would love to talk to him.
Thank so much for having a drink with me tonight.
This has been awesome. Let’s go enjoy the hockey game now!
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