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August 26, 2018 | Tom Ballard

Retro athletic clothing provides outlet for recent UT graduate’s entrepreneurial interests

(EDITOR’S NOTE: With the frenzy over the upcoming Tennessee Volunteer football season that starts this Saturday, here’s an article that should brighten the hearts of those fans who long for the great times of yesteryear.) 

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Soon after arriving at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville as a first-year student, Baker Donahue asked himself a simple, but insightful question: “How can I add value to my UT experience beyond multiple choice tests?”

His answer was to celebrate the heritage of the institution by promoting retro athletically-focused clothing from years like the 1998 National Football Championship. Now, as a freshly-minted graduate, the Franklin, TN native has gone all-in on his In With the Old start-up, most recently inking a deal with a local company that will provide much-needed inventory for the foreseeable future.

“I barely got into UT,” Donahue says in his low-key manner. “I was wait-listed and had to regain my Hope Scholarship during my sophomore year.”

Today, the initial In With the Old focus on retro UT clothing has expanded to two other Southeastern Conference schools – Alabama and Auburn – where he has linked-up with two friends. Gear from all three universities is promoted on the start-up’s webpage.

What piqued Donahue’s interest in entrepreneurship? Perhaps it is an inherited trait. Donahue says his father helped start three or four companies in the music industry including a record label with three-time Grammy winner Michael W. Smith.

“In high school, I was always interested in what people would pay for,” Donahue says. At UT, he noticed that there was not a centralized marketplace for old style Tennessee gear. Yet, Donahue told us that college students “are all about what their parents wore in college.”

So, in August of 2016, he and a classmate hit the thrift stores in Knoxville, purchasing old style clothing that featured the Tennessee logo in one form or another. They spent $300 on their purchases and had no money to launch a webpage.

What did the entrepreneurs do to market their wares? They took to social media, specifically Instagram to start.

“We called on our buddies that were photographers and recruited coeds with large followings to pose for photos wearing the retro clothing,” Donahue said. Then he posted the photos on the two social media sites and let people bid for the items.

“A $5 tee shirt sold for $80,” Donahue said of an early sale. He knew that he was onto something with that level of interest and a call from Fortune magazine three weeks after launching the social media campaign that resulted in a story on In With the Old.

“My biggest struggle has been inventory,” Donahue says. “We’re recirculating clothing, not manufacturing it. People want to relive the glory days, so 1998 apparel is a gold mine.”

Yet, if he’s not making new versions of apparel at least 20 years old, where does he find it in volumes that In With the Old needs?

Donahue recently found a gold mine, entering into a business arrangement with Jed Dance of Bacon & Company, a well-known purveyor of promotional items and athletic gear that was founded in Knoxville 83 years ago. “We’re selling his retro inventory,” Donahue explains, adding that it is of the quality and authenticity that In With the Old demands.

What happens when he sells all of the old inventory at Bacon & Company? It could be that Donahue can tap into a few other similar providers. If not, there is no doubt another entrepreneurial idea will emerge.

One other fact is clear; the recent UT graduate and former intern at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center plans to stay in the region.

“I want to make an impact,” Donahue says, adding, “I want to see what I can do for the City of Knoxville. Once you get off the Strip, you really see what Knoxville has to offer.”

In that vein, In With the Old will be hosting an event on Friday, September 21 before the Tennessee-Florida game to relive a key event in the Vols drive to the 1998 Football Championship. It’s the overtime victory over the Gators, and the entire game will be projected on a 55 by 30-foot screen in World’s Fair Park. Attendance is free, but donations will be accepted for a local charity.