Tom Patterson had a problem.
It’s one that at the time was nameless, but it affected men the world over: Excess Fabric Gut.
He was tired of undershirts that would come untucked inside of dress shirts and cause this strange bunching up around the bellybutton. So he decided to do something about it.
He founded Tommy John in 2008 in order to solve men’s undergarment problems with a selection of quality undershirts, underwear, and socks.
With celebrities such as Howard Stern swearing by their underwear, which is guaranteed not to cause wedgies, Patterson’s company keeps growing.
We talked with him about starting in an industry he knew nothing about and solving these age-old problems for men.
– 1 –
SB: Tell me about the early days of Tommy John, what was the reaction like from the first few people who tried your undershirts?
TP: When I created this shirt and I tried it on myself I wanted to see if this idea could work. I thought maybe this could be a business so I made more undershirts and sent them to friends of mine who wore suits and ties and undershirts. These were the guys who would say, “Tom, this is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, what’s wrong with you?” But at the same time they said, “Dude, this is amazing if you ever make more of these let me know because I’ll buy them.”
So I made 200 more shirts and started selling them to friends and I would give them one to give to their friends. When they would put the shirt on you could see the reaction on their face. They would have that “Aha!” moment where they would have the feeling that this was the product they’ve always been looking for but didn’t realize it could actually exist.
– 2 –
SB: Have you had other businesses and did you have any experience in the garment business before starting Tommy John?
TP: Growing up I had lawn mowing businesses. I had a snow blowing business in the winter. I played three sports so I would go to football practice and mow lawns afterward. I’ve always worked and always wanted to start my own business, but I started working for companies out of college that I thought would give me the skill set to start my own business. I figured some idea would come to me at some point.
I used to sell medical devices. I grew up in South Dakota where Hanes and Fruit of the Loom were considered designer underwear. There was this TV show called the “Big Idea with Donny Deutsch” and the whole premise of the show was that most inventors create products because they don’t like what exists currently in the market and they think to themselves “Maybe there’s a better way to make it.” And I thought that there was a better way to make an undershirt, so I bought some fabric and I paid a tailor.
– 3 –
SB: So what was the event that caused you to decide that fixing men’s undergarments was the thing you wanted to do?
TP: I wore a suit and tie everyday to hospitals doing presentations. I always wore undershirts and what happened was that a lot of my dress shirts that I would buy didn’t really fit me that well so I would take them to a tailor and have the bagginess taken out. However, all of the undershirts on the market were baggy, boxy, they would shrink, they would turn yellow. So I got out of my car one day and my dress shirt was still tucked in but my undershirt was bunched up around my belly button. We call it EFG, Excess Fabric Gut, and I thought to myself, “Why the hell hasn’t someone figured out how to make an undershirt that solves all of these problems?”
– 4 –
SB: How long were you involved with Tommy John before you decided to make it your full-time job?
TP: I was working in medical devices six months into starting Tommy John and the company I was working for began laying off some of the sales force. Selling Tommy John six months before that I was at a crossroads where I didn’t have any kids, I wasn’t married yet, I didn’t own a home, so I decided to do everything you aren’t supposed to do. I cashed in my 401k, I used my savings, I used my friends at American Express and Visa to finance starting the company and making packaging and building inventory. The reason I did that was that I didn’t want to look back ten years from now and wonder why I didn’t give 100% of my time instead of 10% of my time. Losing my job was the best thing that ever could have happened because it pushed me over and forced me to get into it.
– 5 –
SB: What was it like to be discussed on the Howard Stern show? Are you a big fan? Was it expected? What has business been like since then?
TP: I’ve been a huge Howard Stern fan since I was in junior high. We moved to New York four years ago and since I don’t have a car I don’t listen to the radio as much as I used to. But we were working with an agency and they sent our underwear to 20 different people in the media, athletes, celebrities, and radio hosts. I didn’t even know Howard was on that list and he ended up talking about us. A friend called me and was like “Dude, Howard is talking about your product right now on Sirius Radio.” And I was like, “Yeah right, I don’t have time for jokes.” But he ended up talking about it again and again and it was great. We saw great results sales-wise because he’s a real straight shooter and he speaks the truth. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything so the audience trusts him and because of that they were willing to try a product like ours. It gave us a great spike in sales. We like having people that are just passionate ambassadors of the product with no strings attached. We didn’t pay Howard to do it and that’s the best thing.