Tom Patterson, used with permission
Source: Tom Patterson, used with permission

The fashion industry can be a tough business. We’ve all heard stories about characters like Anna Wintour. However, true disruptors are never deterred by the myths and legends of insiders. One example is Tom Patterson, Founder and CEO of Tommy John, a men’s underwear company that has redefined a category. Patterson started out his career selling medical devices to doctors in Southern California when an idea hit him one day that changed the course of his career. I had the opportunity to sit down with Patterson at his Manhattan office to talk about that experience and how his mindset has guided him to success in a business that is not known for being friendly to outsiders. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.    

Michael Woodward: How did you go from medical device sales to underwear designer to successful entrepreneur?

Tom Patterson: I was born and raised in the Midwest so I’ve always worn undershirts under dress shirts and ties as a base layer to absorb perspiration. As my dress shirting and suiting were becoming more tailored I couldn’t figure out why my undershirts were still deigned like a box. Most undershirts on the market were made for everyone but designed to fit no one well. One day I got out of my car and realized my undershirt was bunched up, my dress shirt was tucked in and I thought maybe there is an undershirt that solves my problem of bunching, coming untucked, stretching out, turning yellow quickly, and turning from a square to an A-frame.

MW: So what next?

TP: So, I couldn’t find one that solved my problem so I ended-up buying fabric in the garment district in downtown Los Angeles. I paid a tailor at a local dry cleaner to make some prototypes which I thought would work and sent them to friends for feedback. I then went back to downtown Los Angeles and found a place that could manufacture 200 of them. I sold them and used the money to make more. Long story short, I built a two-page Pay-Pal check-out site and six months later I got laid-off from my medical sales job (the Fall of 2008). That was the tipping point that pushed me to make the decision.      

With my background in strategic selling I was able to get a meeting with a buyer from Nieman Marcus. Instead of selling medical devices I was selling underwear, but a lot of the same concepts applied. We ended-up getting tested into 15 stores and six months later we had one of the most successful launches to date and ended up going into all their stores. I then went to Nordstrom and said let me prove to you I can replicate this formula here. We ended up going into 109 Nordstrom stores in nine months!     

MW: People see problems all the time, some us even see the opportunity, but most us rarely take action. What inspired you to not only seek out opportunity, but to also take action?

TP: At the time (while working in medical device sales) there was a show on MSNBC called The Big Idea with Donnie Deutsch. It was kind of a pre-Shark Tank show for entrepreneurs. Each show would showcase entrepreneurs and almost all of them would come on with a company or product based on a problem they had with something that existed on the market. I watched this show religiously for months and I thought what out there exists that I can make better. That light bulb finally went off when I was about to walk into a sales meeting and found my undershirt was all over the place. I thought, that’s a problem, maybe I can solve that.   

MW: What differentiated you and Tommy John from other designers and brands?

TP: A lot of designers lean towards trends and what the experts say and forget about talking to real people who are actually the end users of the product. I never felt like I was a designer. I’m just an everyday guy who just solved a problem I had that other guys could relate to.

People are willing to buy products that solve a problem they have, but also that they can relate to. Underwear was still one of those purchases that was an afterthought versus a considered purchase. Most guys were still wearing underwear they bought in the 90s from Mark-E-Mark campaigns. I felt all guys that wear undershirts can relate to the problem I had and I had proven it through the guys I chose to test the prototypes I made. We’ve done it with underwear and we’ve done it with socks. We’ve been able to figure out problems in the clothing market and categories that haven’t had any evolution.

MW: How do you continually keep your eyes open to opportunity?

TP: It comes from a place of curiosity and trying to learn. I don’t know everything, but if I ask enough questions I can figure out a solution. Through my questioning process I can vet out what I think may or may not be an opportunity.

In this industry I really believe there are no experts anymore because ecommerce and selling products online, especially in the fashion industry, has changed more in the last two years than in the last 20. So, how can you be an expert when change is happening so rapidly. You have to have an open mind and be willing to take ideas and suggestions.

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