In anticipation of the final round of the 2017 Pitch Dingman Competition, the Dingman Center is interviewing each of the five startup finalists about their progress and upcoming challenges as they prepare to compete for a total of $30,000 in startup funding on March 7.
Gary Hwang, Co-Founder & CFO
Michael McGraw, Co-Founder & CEO
Grumpy Joes is not your average veteran t-shirt company. Visit their site and you won’t find a stereotypical veteran t-shirt combination of American flags, bald eagles, automatic weapons and threatening mantras about killing enemies. The veteran co-founders of Grumpy Joes, Gary Hwang and Mike McGraw, set out to portray a less well known and, for some veterans, a far more resonant side of military lifestyle: humor. Since launching in October 2016, their brand of military inside joke driven apparel has gone viral in the veteran community. Besides producing a variety of quirky t-shirt designs, the founders produce their own funny content in the form of videos and also share memes that fit with their brand. A recent video they posted has received 1.4 million organic views, and counting. Grumpy Joes resonates with a niche veteran community that, until this point, has been relatively ignored. As their following continues to grow, Grumpy Joes is becoming not just a t-shirt company, but a platform for veterans to connect positively with one another in a post-military world.
DC: Have there been some key decisions or milestones along the way that have led you from an idea to now pitching for $15K?
Gary: Funny story about that. We pretty much launched October 10th. We had a few sales for the first 2-3 weeks. We went to the business school to try and look for resources, like a mentor or anything that could help guide us. I got referred to Dingman Fridays, came here and Chris said, “Hey! There’s only one day left to apply to Pitch Dingman Competition.” So I was like, “Oh wow this is awesome!” So we applied.
Mike: Cutting it really close! For big decisions, we agreed early on to stay away from American flags and eagles and that’s a hard decision because it’s easy money. If we stuck with the patriotic stuff, those vet shirt lines do really well and get shared a lot. But I’m not passionate about killing and big flags and eagles, I’m passionate about the inside jokes, and showing that veterans can do artsy stuff.
DC: What have you learned from the semifinals that will help you better prepare for Finals?
Gary: Our presentation. How we want to make it flow. The mannequins worked really well. Also, ever since the semifinals we’ve had our [Dingman Center assigned] mentor, Micha Weinblatt, [Founder of Crooked Monkey], who’s helped us tremendously.
Mike: Writing the script, the slides, the graphs. If it doesn’t look good? Take it down. Replace it.
DC: What has Grumpy Joes been working on since Pitch Dingman Competition Semifinals?
Mike: SCOUT Military Discounts, it’s like Groupon for the military. You have to be a veteran to use their service. You sign up to be one of their sellers, and all of our stuff we mark down.
Gary: They get a certain cut of it as well. But good thing for us is we’re getting exposure, and it’s another military-owned business as well. We want to inspire veteran to veteran business, because we all know that getting out after military is hard for most of us. We also sponsored an MMA fighter who is a veteran. He’s a National Guard soldier stationed in Georgia and he’s rocking our shirts in the fights.
Mike: He has our logo on the butt of his shorts and the banners for the fights. He just won an amateur fight a month ago, and he’ll have his first pro fight next month. We’re just giving him free shirts and boosting him on social media. We also shot our barfight video and that’s very different from any vet video I’ve seen. We have four or five more scripts to film.
DC: What are some goals you are looking to reach before Finals?
Gary: We’re in that stage of the company right now where we’re building that brand, building that community. We want to be known as this company that puts out funny content, but we just sell t-shirts on the side. We’re going to start writing blog posts as well, putting out more content like videos and sharing funny memes.
Mike: We’re focusing on original content as our biggest priority. I sent an application to be a contributor on Duffel Blog, they’re satire news about military things. We haven’t heard back yet, it said they could take a couple months, but we went ahead and posted an article through us, so we’re starting those and they’re pretty fun to write. We’ve noticed that whatever we post, even if it doesn’t get us more shirt sales it builds up people talking about us.
DC: If you win Pitch Dingman Competition, what will you do with the $15,000?
Gary: Mostly I would say 30% toward marketing our content and 18% toward inventory, 12% toward making the videos and the rest toward taxes.
Mike: We’ve had so much fun with the videos. But we need money to make them better. Props and stuff, fake blood…
Gary: Inventory, new designs, being able to revamp our website a little…
Mike: Better photoshoots. Right now we’re being scrappy and just asking friends to show up, but we invite a dozen people and maybe three will show up. So I guess paying actual models to wear our shirts would help.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.