The Beanie That Gives Back

The Beanie That Gives Back

How a local apparel company is using hats to improve the lives of children battling cancer.

Company: Love Your Melon

Founded: 2012

Location: Minneapolis

Industry: Retail

When Zachary Quinn and Brian Keller were assigned to develop a business plan for their entrepreneurship class at the University of St. Thomas, there were two things they wanted their business to do: make a difference and serve a bigger purpose. Five years later, their idea has grown into a $40 million company.

Known across the country for their stylish winter beanies, Quinn and Keller are the founders of Minneapolis-based apparel startup Love Your Melon.

“We wanted to do more than provide physical warmth,” says Quinn, CEO. “We wanted our company to tell a story.”

The pair found their mission when they heard about children who lost their hair from cancer treatment, coupled with the cold hospital rooms they stayed in. “It was a perfect connection,” says Quinn.

Love Your Melon was initially modeled after TOMS Shoes’ One for One program: for every beanie purchased, one beanie was donated to a child with cancer. After reaching their goal of giving 45,000 hats—one for every child battling cancer in the U.S.—Love Your Melon shifted to donating 50 percent of its profit to nonprofit organizations leading the fight against pediatric cancer.

The company continues to give hats to children battling cancer, but “we changed our model so that each child didn’t have 20 hats,” says Quinn. To date, Love Your Melon has donated 123,000 beanies and more than $2.6 million to its nonprofit partners. The company’s secret of success: social media.

Quinn attributes the company’s high profit margin to low advertising and customer acquisition costs. “When we started, we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising,” he says. “We had to do everything ourselves, we had to be guerrilla marketers.” That meant setting up tables anywhere they could promote their product, creating social media pages and, eventually, two nationwide tours.

While on tour, Quinn and Keller developed the idea for its Campus Crew program. Today, the program has more than 13,000 students on 840 college campuses in all 50 states serving as ambassadors for Love Your Melon. “There are some schools where you can’t get in because the crews are full,” says Quinn. “You have to wait until someone graduates.”

Sporting events are another way Love Your Melon is building awareness. The company partners with professional sports teams around the country to host Love Your Melon nights, where attendees can purchase a special ticket that includes a beanie. The Minnesota Twins were the first team to partner with the company. “We’re working on getting everyone in those stadiums to wear our hat,” says Quinn, “so that every ticket sold on those nights will include the price of a beanie.”

One of the big draws for customers is the company’s U.S.-made label, says Quinn. “We have manufacturing partners all around the country”; Mendota Heights-based Minnesota Knitting Mills is one of them. In addition to his team of 26, the company supports about 120 fulfillment and manufacturing jobs. This year, Quinn expects to sell anywhere from 750,000 to 1 million beanies.

While beanies remain the most popular item, the company has added baseball caps, shirts, scarves, headbands and other accessories. With sales spiking from October to March, Love Your Melon is launching an athletic line this spring to help balance its seasonality. “Our goal is to become a full apparel brand,” says Quinn.

In October, Love Your Melon launched a vegan line of beanies, partnering with a local design and manufacturing firm to create its famous leather patch from non-animal products—a frequent request from customers. Shortly thereafter, the company launched its first children’s book.

“We’ve always been about creating additional experiences when giving beanies away,” says Quinn. About a year after launching, Quinn and his crew started delivering beanies to children dressed as superheroes. “The kids interacted with us a lot more. We realized how much of an ice-breaker it was. But as we got bigger, it became a licensing issue.” So Love Your Melon created its own set of superheroes and wrote a book to highlight each character’s strengths. “It embodies what the children go through, giving them something to relate to,” says Quinn.

Last month, Love Your Melon launched one of its biggest efforts yet: giving hats internationally and donating money to nonprofits that work globally. While the company’s growth has slowed in recent years, Quinn and Keller are confident that their new products and efforts will provide new areas of growth.

Zachary Quinn