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How Classified T-Shirts Secretly Became the U.S.’s Fastest Growing Online Apparel Retailer

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The year was 2012. Tyler Merritt was deployed for a special aviation regiment. Back home in Georgia, his wife, Angela, was preparing another macaroni and cheese meal for four –– as she had been for nearly two years.

Tyler might not be there to partake with their two kids, but his brother was. Daniel Merritt had moved in recently, and was calling the couch home.

After dinner, Angela and Daniel got back to packing and shipping boxes of product out to military units –– both deployed and at home. Special as Tyler’s own mission may have been, his family half a world away was working through complicated, classified information.

The only thing protecting them from jail, albeit treason, was a password protected website.

Tyler and family weren’t running a Silk Road operation, though. Edward Snowden nor any type of Wikileak were ever involved. Emails were certainly a communication channel –– but none of them were required to keep those on a private server.

No, Tyler, Daniel and Angela were providing a rare service to military members, one so often taken for granted by civilians: the production of affordable, quality, custom t-shirts.

“One of the trials and tribulations of military organizations, especially ones like mine, is a lot of the time you can’t put things on t-shirts and have other people make it,” Tyler tells me. “Some of our original websites were password protected because when you put a name of an operation, name of an organization, the dates, or who’s involved –– it kind of becomes classified.”

The classified nature of custom t-shirts for individual units made the sourcing of them difficult. But, like any of us ever part of a team, t-shirts often serve as a uniting force –– a tangible memory of the time and dedication we put into an activity we loved.

We wear them at college football games, even when those schools becomes our Alma Maters. High school sports teams have dozens of designs from which players and families can choose –– a couple for practice, a few for game day, and some just for the pep rallies.

Mob mentality? Maybe. T-shirts provide a visual queue as to who is on our team. Those in other colors or designs aren’t necessarily our enemies, but they haven’t walked the same footing. They haven’t lived through the same struggles. Their pride doesn’t stem from the same place.

Yet, for military members, the creation such shirts was just out of reach.

The small number needed pushed prices up, even for a single color. The commentary units often wanted included often meant anyone outside the organization shouldn’t have access. To address both of those concerns, low quality shirts were printed. After all, they were cheaper and wouldn’t last as long.

This was a non-starter for Tyler.

These men and women were heroes. They had risked the ultimate sacrifice. They needed shirts and apparel that represented them –– and didn’t cost an outrageous amount. He quickly researched online alternatives and decided he could create a better shirt, for much less, than anything on the market.

He was right –– but the demand quickly outpaced his family’s production capabilities. His brother was sleeping in the living room. The garage was overflowing with shirts. Money was tight –– and he was running out of both storage and sleeping space.

Back from deployment, Tyler knew he needed to find a more permanent solution for his family’s business –– and then double down on all their success. Or –– more accurately –– quadruple down and lead the team on a path to more than $10,000,000.

Little did Tyler know then, though, how riddled that path would be. IEDs, police raids and much more mac and cheese lay ahead.

Nine Line Medevac Request –– a Call for Help

nine-line-medevac

Back in the Middle East, Daniel was down. He was on the ground. He’d been hit with an IED.

A nine line was called.

Tyler was manning the plane.

One of Tyler’s main missions during deployment was to fly personnel out of hostile environments –– he just hadn’t expected one of those missions would be for his brother. Then again, all of those missions were for his brothers, figuratively at least. And he often saw the worst of it.

Forty-pound IEDs could blow legs off of soldiers. So could improvised explosive devices. Amputations, traumatic brain injuries and extensive burns were commonplace situations for Tyler. His mission: get those injured to help as quickly and calmly as possible.

A nine line is a soldier’s last chance, a final call for help in the case of a potentially tragic turn of events. Those in the military know the term well. It’s a unifying one. Someone was inches in theory from paying the ultimate sacrifice. A nine line brings them back from the cliffs of death.

It was Daniel who later suggested they name the new t-shirt brand after this revered term. The two decided that it was time the civilian world became as familiar with it as those who serve to protect them.

They even launched the Nine Line Foundation in coordination with the brand. The foundation’s purpose is to raise funds for wounded veterans with concerted efforts that produce tangible results.

You need tens of thousands of dollars to affect real change in veterans’ lives, not just $10 or $50 here or there. Neither Tyler nor Daniel were about to start a business built on the courage of those who’ve served and not give back. So, in their spare time, Nine Line Foundation has hosted at least 10 different initiatives to help fund efforts aiding wounded veterans, including hikes, walks, 5Ks, 10Ks, t-shirt fundraisers and individual-specific campaigns.

They’ve even partnered with Alaskan Healing, a wounded veteran-led reality TV show based on the coast of Alaska, focusing on “exploring the power of nature to heal the soul and the ability of motivated Vet fueled teams to compete to win.”

It’s a pretty emotional video –– a testament to willpower, family and community alike. It’s the exact emotional tie Tyler and Daniel wanted customers to feel for Nine Line. And now, with a name, a production space, and a steady stream of cash flow from their custom-made operations, these former military-men turned business entrepreneurs were facing their next challenge: branding.

Increased Devotion and The Birth of a Brand

nine-line-brand

Myles Burke sits quietly on the line while I pepper Tyler with questions about the beginning days of Nine Line. He’s the one who set up the call, having entered BigCommerce’s Design Awards, and receiving finalist status, a couple months earlier.

Tyler is now based in New York City, working on elevating the brand’s visibility to the big shots there. Daniel, on the other hand, is running the shop in Savannah, Georgia in Tyler’s physical absence.

Well, Daniel –– and Myles.

Tyler and Myles met at Nine Line’s turning point. Tyler was beginning to reach out to design studios, looking for people to help bring his ideas to life and get supportive military shirts on the market.

“We were shifting our focus to create designs that were iconic to what we represent. That is, we like to promote patriotism,” says Tyler. “We believe in certain things that might be considered controversial. We don’t think they should be. Respecting the American flag and what it stands for. You know, you can not agree with public policy, but to service members and other individuals, [the flag] represents something that’s sacred. That’s our personal opinion.”

Elsewhere in Savannah, Myles was graduating from college and beginning a freelance graphic design career. That’s how the two met, setting meetings up at Hot Wings restaurants to discuss new custom projects. Soon, Myles was helping Tyler to build out Nine Line’s branding and first website.

Tyler was impressed with his work and Myles quickly became Nine Line’s first hire. Today, Myles is much more than simply a graphic designer. He sits in on every interview for potential new employees, ensuring that the company culture stays intact and all hires bring a sense of both patriotism and innovation to the mix. He’s the protector of the brand –– as well as the visual creator of it –– and he forges his battles both internally and out.

Indeed, he is just as dedicated to the cause as Tyler and Daniel themselves.

So, the team was growing and everyone was finding their niche. Sales were on the up and up. Custom orders were steady for one side of the business, and, thanks to Myles’ designs and website branding, civilian orders for the Nine Line original shirts were skyrocketing.

The small house Tyler had bought for production was perfect. Shipments from manufacturers were coming in. Nine Line orders were going out. The business was on the up-and-up. They had the people. They had the space.

And then the police kicked down the door.

Fighter Pilots Raided by Police

nine-line-police-raid

It was a nefarious situation from the outside looking in. Packages were coming and going from a small neighborhood home that had been bought in foreclosure only a year earlier. No one had moved in, but plenty of people were often there –– at all hours of the day.

“We had packages coming and going everyday,” says Tyler. “I’d get off work from the Army. I’d come back to the house. I’d work all night, fill up my truck, and try to speed to the post office before it close.”

It was like a scene out of Breaking Bad. Successful drug operations, after all, are often discreet. They happen in neighborhood homes and basements as much as they might in more secluded arenas. The cops know this –– and they keep an eye out for the tell-tale signs.

All of which Nine Line’s production facility –– AKA a residential home with hundreds of incoming and outgoing packages per day –– possessed.

What the local authorities found in that house might not have been drugs, but it did end Tyler and team in cop cars and at the Savannah Police Department headquarters. In fact, Tyler and his special operations unit now ride along with the SWAT team on raids in downtown Savannah and they’ve invested plenty of volunteer hours in teaching the local teams how to plan and better coordinate their efforts.

“There’s not a more supportive city for veteran entrepreneurship than Savannah for what they’re been able to do with us,” says Tyler.

The raid did have its repercussions, though. Nine Line needed to find a bigger production facility –– a real one. They’re now working out of two buildings and multiple trailers on President’s Street near downtown Savannah, with current facilities totaling more than 20,000 square feet.

“We just acquired 380 acres of land in Savannah and we are building a 50,000 square foot warehouse, starting next month,” says Tyler.

All Goods, Created Equal

nine-line-factory

Those 50,000 square feet won’t just be for inventory. Tyler plans on using the extra room to create Nine Line’s own textile factory –– and produce all the goods in-house, from scratch.

See, Nine Line nailed their branding and mission –– working hard to find a niche and loyal audience. For some brands, that process is decades in the making. Tyler and team did it in less than four years.

But Tyler’s eye is still his original prize: high-quality, affordable goods produced right here in the U.S.

Right now, Nine Line sells 14,000 individual products and variants. The key to a cost-effective business model, the way Tyler sees it, is keeping inventory as low as feasibly possible. This opens up more room for other ideas and business strategy executions.

“The problem about going domestic is because of the volume that we’re dealing with. Not everyone can produce at the range we need, and I don’t have the space to make massive bulk purchases,” says Tyler, talking about why he plans to build out his own textile facility. “The system that we have built on the backend of BigCommerce is pretty complicated to allow for us to have an inventory that really is only a few weeks old –– and still be able to produce the same amount of volume in sales. The open API has been very helpful.”

Now, it isn’t just the production that Tyler is wanting to keep local.

Created By Us, For Us

nine-line-employees

About 50% of the employees who work at Nine Line are veterans, and almost all of them have little to no experience in ecommerce.

“For us, it’s not about your past experience. It’s about what your desire is,” says Myles. “‘Why do you want to join in on the ground floor? Do you have a lot of good ideas? Are you going to treat this job like a clock in, clock out, or are you going to come in and give 100% all the time, make us more innovative?’ We work with some really fantastic employees. Our hiring process is really fun. I enjoy being at interviews and just learning about different people –– what they’ve done in the past. Our HR specialist is a botanist!”

Tyler has a more strategic approach to Nine Line’s employee type.

“It’s not normal that our marketing team has no previous marketing experience. Our sales teams, besides one, whom we just hired, has no previous sales experience,” says Tyler. “We get them raw, we give them a skill, and they go out and do incredible things. It’s more the work ethic and the loyalty to the company. One of our guys who was managing the books up until recently had never done accounting before, and he was taking over for me. They just have an incredible drive to learn and to develop and evolve the company.”

It’s this type of dedication across the entire Nine Line staff that’s made the company the fastest growing apparel brand in the U.S. –– growing 391% last year to $9.3 million in sales. They expect to do $15 million this year.

But how they the heck do they do it?

Sure, they have smart and dedicated employees, but even brands with 12x the experience in the industry can’t compete with this hockey-stick growth trajectory. For Tyler, the secret is in the software.

“I like to say BigCommerce is — and I told your CEO this —  BigCommerce is the 99% solution,” says Tyler. “Anything that I need, you guys come in and help out above and beyond. People like Patrick, our account manager, have been invaluable in pointing us in the right direction — either for developers or allowing us to develop it ourselves and to integrate through the API. We have EDI integrations and the platform integrates directly to our ERT system and our point of sale. We’re continuing to develop more unique and organic solutions, too. It’s invaluable.”

RSVP for the Ecommerce Growth Summit

Want to hear directly from the founders of Nine Line on how they became of the top, fastest growing retailers in the U.S.? Then it’s your lucky day!  Us, too! Tyler will be speaking and dishing tips tips and tactics at BigCommerce’s first annual Ecommerce Growth Summit, featuring keynote presentations from Tyler as well as Mike Ditka, NFL Hall of Fame Coach, and Jason Boyce, Co-Founder and CEO of Dazadi.

Register for the Ecommerce Growth Summit in Chicago this June. Hope to see you there!

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Leave a Comment
  • Allis Chalmers

    These guys absolutely rock. My days as a military aviator are decades behind me and it would have been great to have these guys around. Great products and imagery. Best of luck to all of you.

  • You’re welcome Tracy! :)

  • We think so, too @AnjaSkrba:disqus ! Thanks for reading :)

  • These former military-men turned business entrepreneurs are true heroes! I mean, they succeed to realize their branding strategy in less than four years – which is wow!

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