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Tommy John story to be featured at inaugural Innovation Conversations

Erin Fujimoto and Tom Patterson
Erin Fujimoto and Tom Patterson

The founders of clothing manufacturer Tommy John will be the featured guests at the inaugural Innovation Conversations, hosted Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls by the entrepreneurial studies program in South Dakota State University’s Ness School of Management and Economics.

The keynote from Tom Patterson and Erin Fujimoto, “Becoming Big by Starting Small: The Scalable Approach to Disrupting an Industry,” will address their inspiring startup journey. Doors open at 1:30 p.m. at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Sioux Falls, with the talk scheduled from 2-2:45 p.m. and more events to follow. All are free to attend.

With no prior experience in clothing design and manufacturing, the husband-and-wife entrepreneurs sought to reimagine the fabric, fit and function of men’s and women’s underwear to create a more comfortable and innovative solution. They founded Tommy John during the 2008 recession with the goal of bringing a solution to men’s ill-fitting undershirts to market.

Tommy John went from a startup primarily funded through bank loans, a 401K and credit cards to becoming a disruptor brand challenging a sleepy industry. Fifteen years since the brand introduced the world’s first patented undershirt with a stay-tucked guarantee, Tommy John has attracted celebrity loyalists, like Kevin Hart and Howard Stern. The company has sold more than 20 million pairs of underwear with products sold in over 3,000 wholesale locations and opened seven (soon to be eight) retail stores. Patterson and Fujimoto will discuss their journey scaling the Tommy John business and how they reached omnichannel success by starting small.

After the keynote, a coffee table conversation from 2:45-3:30 p.m. with Patterson and Fujimoto will be facilitated by SDSU’s Craig Silvernagel, associate professor of entrepreneurship and innovation management, and Barb Heller, lecturer and entrepreneurship coordinator. The panel discussion will bridge the Tommy John narrative with real-world examples of pursuing new ventures by finding problems, taking action and failing productively. Through this discussion, the group hopes to help demystify the process and journey for aspiring entrepreneurs.

That’s followed by an attendee question-and-answer session with the featured guests from 3:30-3:45 p.m.

Then a social will be held from 4-5:30 p.m. across the street at Startup Sioux Falls/Ness School Downtown.

Tommy John is a national brand headquartered in New York City, but Patterson is a Milbank native, and the couple moved to Sioux Falls during the pandemic.

Heller said Patterson and Fujimoto have an interesting story of individuals not in the apparel business fixing a problem and creating a successful business through raw ambition.

“We wanted to model that or use it as an analog for someone who started small and scaled their business into something quite grand,” Heller said.

Silvernagel said they think it will be interesting and inspirational for others to hear the Tommy John story.

“It’s also a story about how you don’t have to be an industry insider to do something unique. You can start small, and you can solve problems as they present themselves to you. … There are opportunities in a wide range of areas,” he said.

Heller hopes to draw an audience from the business community, aspiring entrepreneurs, students and anyone who finds the topic interesting.