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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

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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.

In his career course since selling his stake in Sconnie, Fiechtner has done quite well. After spending a few years on the west coast, he knew he wanted to get back to the Midwest. "It was an awesome experience," Fiechtner says of his time in San Francisco. "I just knew it wasn't home." At his request, and to the relief of his fiancé, Fiechtner was transferred to Chicago where he was promoted to become GE Healthcare's MR Sales within the Chicago and Iowa regions.

In addition to overseeing the operations of Sconnie, Vosseller completed his JD/MBA and serves as a clinical instructor for the University of Wisconsin Law School's Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic where he helps other aspiring entrepreneurs with both legal services and business development.

Sconnie Bar

After buying out Fiechtner, Vosseller grappled with figuring out how to most effectively broaden the Sconnie brand.

"Whenever we think about the company, I tell people it's about beer, brats, and cheese...That's the Wisconsin lifestyle," Vosseller says. "Anything that fits into that bucket is fair game." Using this broad umbrella as a framework for growth, the idea of opening a Sconnie bar was highly appealing.

Sconnie had previously licensed its trademark to Sconnie's Pub & Eatery, a watering hole four miles southeast of Green Bay. Opening in September of 2008, Sconnie's has since gone out of business but the idea stuck with Vosseller that a bar would be an excellent mechanism for expanding the Sconnie brand.

In 2010, Vosseller set about opening a bar in the Madison area, collaborating on plans and ownership with local restaurateur Daniel Swerdlik, a manager at Mia Za's, Underground Printing's neighbor on State Street. In attempting this, the pair knew that plans for the bar would be constrained by the Alcohol Licensing Density Ordinance (ALDO), a measure passed by Madison's Alcohol License Review Committee (ALRC) in 2007. Essentially, the ALDO stipulates that alcohol licenses for taverns (establishments that derive more than 50% of their revenue from alcohol sales) may only be granted in spaces that were most recently occupied by taverns. This means that the only way to open a new bar in the UW campus area would be if an existing one closes or is purchased. As the purpose of the ALDO is to cap the total amount of alcohol consumption in the downtown area, it constricts new bars to the occupancy limits of the previous tenants.

Given these restrictions, the only suitable area for the Sconnie bar to open was at 317 W. Gorham St., above a bar called Chaser's, in a vacant space that was previously occupied by a pool bar called Cue-nique. For this space, Vosseller and Swerdlik paid architects, made a floor plan, and, unable to find electronic records pertaining to Cue-nique's occupancy limit, presented their plan to the ALRC for the Sconnie bar to have an occupancy of 500.

The plan called for the Sconnie bar to be a multi-faceted entertainment venue, featuring live music, cover bands, DJs, and a dance floor. Despite all of these luxuries, the bar would of course "have a very much Wisconsin theme going on" according to Vosseller. Further, the bar would have been tailored to be a great place to watch sports. Although the plan for the Sconnie bar was appealing to some members of the ALRC, paper records were dug up during the application process that showed Cue-nique to have an occupancy limit of just 175 people. Even though Cue-nique was limited in the amount of people it could hold due to the substantial space that its pool tables occupied, the ALDO was non-negotiable and plans for the Sconnie bar had to be put on the back burner.

While the ALDO is rooted in noble intentions of preventing Madison from becoming oversaturated with drinking establishments that pose a liability for the community and prevent existing bar owners from earning an adequate return on investment, it has unintended consequences for situations like the Sconnie bar. In preventing any wiggle room in the ALDO, the ALRC has granted a de facto oligopoly to current tavern owners. As free market forces are inhibited, consumers are presented with higher prices, less options, and a group of bars that do not necessarily have to enact continuous improvements to stay in business: "These places do not really have competition forcing them to improve, so in some ways it becomes kind of a race to the bottom," Vosseller laments, diplomatically abstaining from naming names. "If I was a bar owner, I guess I would be happy with it but as an outsider looking in, it sucks."

Thinking about the bar scene in the downtown area, though, it is impossible for State Street Brats, a Madison institution and legendary tavern, not to come to mind in contrast with the ambitious plans for the Sconnie bar. Brats, which is a must-stop location for Wisconsin alumni, lags behind in contemporary technology for sports viewing. "The projection screens are not high definition and there is not a place in the entire bar where you can view more than a couple of games at once," Wisconsin alumnus and frequent Madison visitor Raffi Chowdhury complains. However, even though the Sconnie bar would have presented entertainment options and sports viewing capabilities above and beyond what consumers are currently privy to in the downtown Madison area, the rigidity of the ALDO prevented its entry.

Sales spike

Although Sconnie was dealt a blow when its plans to open a bar were put aside, it was able to benefit from the success of the Badgers and Packers this past football season. The teams played extremely well and demand for the t-shirts was high. Buoyed by the Badgers' Rose Bowl berth, Sconnie saw a 49% increase in sales in the 4th quarter of 2010 versus the corresponding months in 2009. This spike was nothing, however, compared to what transpired as the Packers made their Super Bowl run. During the 1st quarter of this year, Sconnie had a 300% increase in sales compared to those of 2010.

Ironically, Sconnie hit the map nationally with its Packers line during one of the darker episodes of the franchise's illustrious history. In 2008, a customer came into Underground Printing on State Street with a little bit of an odd request. Recently, Brett Favre had un-retired for the first time to become the quarterback of the New York Jets, a move that few Packers fans held a grudge about at the time: "I'm from Green Bay and I didn't care that he went to the Jets," store manager Isaac Lenz says. One customer, however, wanted a shirt made to read, "We'll Never Forget You Brent."

Lenz worked with the customer to create this shirt with an image of Favre's face in the middle of an outline of the state of Wisconsin (the design had previously been used for a Sconnie "Brett Favre is my Homeboy" shirt), reading, "WE'LL NEVER FORGET YOU BRENT" under Favre's collar. The customer told Lenz, "If you guys ever want to sell these, go ahead, I don't care." Lenz had 50 of these shirts printed, but as most Packers fans were more angry at this juncture with team management than with Favre for the legendary quarterback's departure, the shirt sold slowly.

The tables turned, however, when Favre un-retired for a second time the next year, this time to join the hated Vikings. Suddenly, Sconnie found its "We'll Never Forget You Brent" shirt going viral. It was featured on Deadspin, FoxSports.com, dozens of blogs, and countless Twitter and Facebook accounts. "People were sharing it like crazy," Vosseller says. Capitalizing on this frenzy, Sconnie made a Facebook page entitled "We'll Never Forget You Brent," which almost immediately reached 10,000 fans, and created a Packers blog BrentFavre.com.

Over the ensuing time period, Sconnie leveraged this prodigious social media following both to solicit feedback on new Packers-themed designs (ones with the most "likes" ultimately get produced) and to create a loyal customer base for the shirts. Building on this momentum, Sconnie introduced several clever new designs, including a shirt with a #21 football player silhouette that reads, "Water covers 70% of the Earth/Charles Woodson Covers the Rest," a shirt with a cartoon rendering of Clay Matthews toting a sledge hammer, a shirt boasting Aaron Rodgers with a wrestling title belt around his waist, and finally a shirt based on BJ Raji's wiggle celebration capping an interception returned for a touchdown in the NFC Championship game against the Bears that says, "TEACH ME HOW TO RAJI."

With these Packers shirts, Sconnie gained a national following. While the State Street storefront typically outsells the online store by a four-to-one ratio, online sales doubled in-store sales during the Packers' Super Bowl run.

Moving forward

With football in the offseason and the Sconnie Bar on the back burner, Vosseller is again looking for additional channels through which to expand the Sconnie brand. Right now, he is in the preliminary stages of developing a Sconnie beer that he hopes will hit shelves this fall. Currently, Vosseller plans to work with a local brewmaster to curate a recipe for Sconnie Beer and to contract brewing and packaging to a local microbrewery.

Sconnie Beer will be available in 16 oz. cans and on draft. As brands such as Pabst Blue Ribbon have had notable success with "tallboy" cans recently, there has been a movement towards cans as opposed to bottles recently. Cans are cheaper to produce and ship than bottles and provide a superior seal. "People would originally associate cans with leeching the flavor of the beer. It just looked less classy," Vosseller says. "But I think that's starting to change, especially in craft beer."

Vosseller plans for the beer to be priced somewhere in between mass-produced beers such as Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Coors Light and expensive craft brews made by New Glarus and Capitol Brewery. To minimize cost, Sconnie held a contest on 99designs.com to design its beer cans, paying $1,375 for 60 design concepts from 19 designers. Although Sconnie picked a winner from the contest, it has not yet finalized its can design; ideas and alterations are still being kicked around internally. Sconnie has narrowed it down to four designs that it is currently working on and has started a Sconnie Beer page on Facebook where fans can provide feedback on which design they like the best.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see whether Sconnie beer catches on both in Madison and the rest of Wisconsin; with the company's growth and vision, it is hard to bet against. Fans should be on the lookout for new apparel designs that Vosseller and his team cook up and other uniquely-Wisconsin cultural phenomenons from Sconnie, which has its finger on the pulse of the great state.


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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