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In Marketplace

Sconnie Nation has grown from a novelty t-shirt line into an online empire.

"Sconnie Nation" keeps growing


"The idea behind Sconnie Nation is simple. Anyone from Wisconsin, who attends school in Wisconsin, or just loves the dairy state in general can identify with Sconnie. Sconnie is anything of or relating to Wisconsin. Sconnie is an identity. It can be used as a noun ("I am a Sconnie") or an adjective ("Look at that Sconnie truck"). You don't have to be from Wisconsin to appreciate the Sconnie movement. It's all about embracing and celebrating this genuinely Wisconsinesque environment we call home. Sconnie is tailgating, bowling, bubblers, washing cheese curds down with a beer, having a tractor-shaped mailbox, or eating a cream puff. If you like eating a brat and cheering for the Pack, you know what we're talking about." – Sconnie.com

Though it now boasts a State Street storefront in Madison, a burgeoning online empire and plans to expand beyond apparel, Sconnie Nation had humble beginnings.

In the Spring of 2004, the company was launched out of freshman dorm rooms at Kronshage Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Co-founder Troy Vosseller came to Madison via Brown Deer. His partner and neighbor two doors down, Ben Fiechtner, hailed from Okemos, Mich., three miles southeast of East Lansing.

Immediately upon entering Madison in the Fall of 2003, Vosseller and Fiechtner became fast friends and had hustlers' spirits: "We wanted to start a company together...as a means of learning and understanding what it's like to own a company, but further to make a little bit of money on the side while being college students," Vosseller says.

The pair considered business ideas across many different realms. First, they experimented with the possibility of creating an online dating site for UW Students. Then, the duo imagined a business which stocked up on gasoline and re-sold the fuel to moped drivers who would now conveniently avoid having to venture off campus to re-fill their tanks. "They were all so dumb, looking back," Fiechtner laughs, noting that none of the initial business schemes ever left the planning stage. "And rightfully so."

While none of their ventures had yet taken off, Vosseller and Fiechtner kept churning. In their second semester of freshman year, the team had an idea and ran with it. By some accounts, the word 'Sconnie' had been floating around the Madison campus since the 1980s. Sometimes used derogatively by out-of-state students, but used more often in an endearing manner by a broader portion of the University's inhabitants, Sconnie is an adjective that encompasses Wisconsin's unique culture: beer, brats, cheese, Packers, Badgers, Brewers, and generally all that goes along with making Wisconsin a jolly, if unhealthy, place to be.

Finding the word amusing and seeing its marketing potential, Vosseller and Fiechtner conceived of putting it on a t-shirt. "It was a Wednesday night. We may or may not have been drinking at the time," Fiechtner waxes nostalgically. After receiving positive feedback from their friends, the pair pooled up $600, made a batch of 100 red t-shirts that read SCONNIE in arched white letters, and sold out the first batch in about a week. Recognizing that there was potential for a legitimate business here, Vosseller and Fiechtner sought advice from various professors, established an LLC, and registered state, and, subsequently federal, trademarks.

Initially, Sconnie Nation sold all of its t-shirts out of dorm rooms and, later, apartments. Eventually starting up Sconnienation.com (later shortened to Sconnie.com), Vosseller and Fiechtner shipped out inventory all over the country, but also made a special effort to meet their customers and personally deliver all t-shirts that were ordered from the Madison campus area. Later, the duo would purchase a large van from a friend for $1,200 to help with promotion and distribution. "It must have had 185,000 miles on it," Fiechtner laughs. "We were scared as hell to drive that thing more than 25 miles at a time."

Growth of a nation

Meanwhile, Sconnie expanded into wholesale operations. Its first bulk customer was The Den, an independent pharmacy on State Street, located in the space now inhabited by Fat Sandwich Company. "We literally walked in with our shirts, the store manager said, 'I like it,' and we walked out with cash," Vosseller muses. Affirmed that there was a genuine market for their shirts, Vosseller and Fiechtner sold Sconnie t-shirts to buyers from the UW Bookstore, Bucky's Locker Room, and Insignia.

By 2006, Sconnie was growing rapidly and had an idea for further expansion. As Fiechtner and Vosseller acquired vast knowledge of both the processes and rates in shirt screen printing, it was a natural progression for Sconnie to serve as a middleman between its printing company and those who wanted custom-made shirts. Tapping into their wide networks across campus, Vosseller and Fiechtner approached student organizations, fraternities, sororities, intramural sports teams, and local businesses with the ability to customize apparel. By this point, Sconnie had shifted from using local printers to dealing exclusively with Underground Printing, a company based in Ann Arbor whose founders Fiechtner knew from growing up. With Underground, Sconnie was able to attain better rates and higher quality garments.

With its wholesale printing rate, Sconnie generated risk-free profits in retailing customized printing across campus. Sconnie quoted its customers based on its order size and specifications and uploaded the order through Underground Printing's web portal. Underground then provided Sconnie with a proof to be approved by the end customer and eventually printed the shirts and shipped them directly to the customers. For awhile, this operation was the most profitable portion of Sconnie's business.

At this juncture, in addition to handling Sconnie's retail and customized printing demands, Underground Printing had three physical storefront locations: its first store in Ann Arbor, which provided custom printing for University of Michigan students and branches in East Lansing and Kalamazoo, which served Michigan State and Western Michigan consumers, respectively.

By the summer of 2007, it was a natural progression for Underground, in conjunction with Sconnie, to open a physical location in Madison. Isaac Lenz, a freshman floor-mate of Fiechtner and Vosseller as well as a longtime promoter of the Sconnie brand, was tapped to be store manager. While Madison was Underground's fourth storefront, it was the first to have a retail component in addition to custom screen printing. In the past few years, Underground has grown exponentially; with 15 current physical custom printing store fronts. All but three also retail apparel of the relevant universities where they are located.

To make this arrangement work in Madison, Underground bought out Sconnie's middleman custom screen printing business for a lump sum of cash and agreed to sell Sconnie's retail items in its store as well as to manage all of Sconnie's online order fulfillment. While relinquishing some of its margins in this arrangement, Sconnie eliminated much of Vosseller and Fiechtner's manual labor responsibilities in physically mailing out apparel, which had become quite substantial and time consuming. They had previously stored their inventory off campus and orders would pile up for a week or so until they were picked up and mailed out, with Fiechtner and Vosseller straining to hand write the names and addresses for each order. "It just became too difficult for us as a business to be able to do that," Vosseller says.

In its agreement with Sconnie, Underground took responsibility for 100% of the costs for both rent and employees for the store and also took on the inventory risk--Sconnie granted Underground the sole license to print Sconnie apparel and Sconnie would now be paid royalties based on a percentage of total sales of its merchandise. Once again, Sconnie had to accept lower margins. In doing so, however, Sconnie greatly reduced a vast majority of its costs and risk: "There are a few marketing costs and promotional costs that Sconnie does pay either in full or split 50/50 with Underground Printing, but for the most part all of the costs associated with the store are paid by Underground Printing," Vosseller notes. In addition to serving as the exclusive printer for Sconnie apparel, Underground has since gained a license to print official University of Wisconsin clothing which it sells in conjunction with Sconnie gear in its Madison store.

Transitional period

By the summer of 2007, Vosseller and Fiechtner started to head in different directions professionally. Vosseller had finished his undergraduate education in three years and began pursuing a JD at Wisconsin, to which would later add an MBA. Fiechtner, meanwhile, had recently graduated and been accepted into the prestigious commercial leadership development program with GE Healthcare, where he would train for 15 months in Milwaukee and San Francisco before eventually landing in San Francisco for several years.

It was at this point that the two realized that their current partnership would be unsustainable. "Moving to California, I wasn't as committed to [Sconnie] as he was, by any means," Fiechtner reflects, noting that despite his decision to pursue a different career course, the two sides' accountants had reached different conclusions regarding the valuation of Fiechtner's 50% stake. "It was tough on both of us. It wasn't the easiest thing to do and maintain a friendship through all that." By the summer of 2008, the two sides reached an amicable agreement under which Vosseller became the sole owner of Sconnie.

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Talkbacks

Snowcap | Sept. 1, 2011 at 11:56 a.m. (report)

A good friend of mine has been using this term since the mid '80's. As a matter of fact, he is from Shaw, Sconnie! As he puts it. Not original at all, but good for them for capitalizing on it.

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schnealy | Aug. 28, 2011 at 3:01 p.m. (report)

I disagree whole heartedly. It simply reinforces our laid back style and the fact that we don't take ourselves too seriously. I love all things Wisconsin. Especially our sense of humor.

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milROCKeeguy | Aug. 28, 2011 at 2:53 p.m. (report)

I was born and raised in Wisconsin. I am 30 years old. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I have a ton of friends that went to Madison, WI, live now in Madison, WI, and I have been to Madison a lot in my days. I lived in Downtown Milwaukee for 4 years. I live in the suburbs now. Not once have I ever heard the term "Sconnie," or would think of ever using it. Congrats to these guys for making money, but really?! This might be worse, and less popular, than the term "cheesehead." Does anyone want to make shirts with me? They will be all green, with big, yellow lettering, stating "BUBBLER." I'm sure we will make millions. Just page me.

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MilwaukeeCity | Aug. 28, 2011 at 2:11 p.m. (report)

Can I be the first one to say that the word "sconnie" is yet another reason people from out of state make fun of us. Putting Cheese on our heads is another. People that use the word Sconnie just makes us look even more backwards. Sconnie has to be one of the dumbest things I have ever seen come out of "Wisco" popular culture. Saying you're from 'Sconnie' just make you sound like a dork. I will never buy or even wear a shirt with Sconnie on it. Yes many here think it's cool to refer to Wisconsin as Sconnie but trust me, just spandex, the word sconnie should be banned.

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