“This is your assignment,” said Mr. Simonet pointing to the board. “Think of an idea to change the world – and put it into ACTION.”
The assignment, given in the 2000 film Pay it Forward, inspired a fictional 5th grader to apply the power of exponential growth to giving. Overnight, the film’s name became synonymous with small acts of kindness, and ‘paying it forward’ remains part of the American zeitgeist.
Twelve years later, Zachary Quinn and Brian Keller were sophomores at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis when their professor posted an assignment that would change the trajectory of their lives. To pass, students would have to build a brand that could earn revenue by the end of the semester and beyond. With only modest assignment parameters to hold them back, the duo got to work and created Love Your Melon. The company’s success has become a case study for the university and for the non-profit which designed the curriculum module.
Love Your Melon founders achieved their original mission of giving 45,000 hats to children battling cancer and then set their sights on funding pediatric cancer research and supporting families of children battling cancer. Fifty percent of profits are now donated to nonprofit partners. With only 30 employees, the Minneapolis, Minnesota company has given more than 144,000 hats and $4.6 million dollars to date.
Zachary and Brian were given As on the project, but that was just the beginning. What follows is a Q&A with Quinn, President and co-founder of Love Your Melon.
Was there an experience that triggered the thought to support children battling cancer?
Soon after starting the class project, I met Zach Sobiech. Zach was an 18-year-old who lived in my neighborhood growing up. He was battling osteosarcoma and had just learned that it was terminal. Zach was the first person we gave a beanie to and the inspiration for me to continue the company beyond that class. He inspired our programs that further improve the quality of life for children battling cancer and continues to be my greatest inspiration.
Was there a moment in your childhood you can remember witnessing an example of need or “giving” and what do you recall?
Growing up I spent a lot of time volunteering with family and friends. In high school, I would round up a couple friends, go to my parents’ restaurant and make a bunch of PB&J and turkey sandwiches to fill up the trunk of our car. We would drive around giving them to homeless people around the shelters.
Many companies that meet with success, look for ways to give back. Yet for you, giving back was woven right into the mission (see what I did there?) Is Love your Melon fundamentally business of giving or a business that gives back?
Love Your Melon is, and always has been, about impacting the lives of as many children and families as possible. We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to focus on more than making a profit. We chose to support childhood cancer patients because there are thousands of children in America with their lives completely disrupted and sometimes taken by this disease. We saw the opportunity to make their lives better, and there was an obvious fit between the beanies we were making and the needs of those diagnosed with cancer. Patients undergoing cancer treatment often lose their hair and we are able to provide them with warm, comfortable and stylish beanies to improve their experience during treatment. As an apparel brand with a cause, our mission is to support the fight against pediatric cancer and to improve the lives of children experiencing childhood cancer.
What is another give-back brand you admire?
We originally began as a Buy One, Give One business model before transitioning to giving fifty percent of our profit, so we admire a few other brands with that model, such as TOMS shoes and Warby Parker. Other great brands include Pura Vida and Bombas.
If the business was entirely for-profit, do you think you would be able to grow bigger, faster? If so, would you be able to donate more at the end of the day? Why is this model important to you?
We give fifty percent of our net profit, meaning we give fifty percent of our profit after taxes and fees are paid. Our commitment to this model and to our cause has allowed us to grow steadily as more and more consumers join the story. We take our mission very seriously and we remain committed to helping children battling cancer through high-quality, USA-made goods.
Do you ever feel as though the contributions amount to a drop in the bucket? What gets you to move beyond doubt and difficult moments?
We cannot fix the problem of pediatric cancer overnight, but our steady commitment to improving the lives of these families and funding top-notch research has already made an incredible difference, and we are just getting started. When we go into a hospital to deliver beanies, provide a Superhero Adventure for a child undergoing treatment or connect with a child and their family, it reminds us of our mission and pushes us to continue working hard to change the world.
What was behind that first goal of giving 45,000 hats- why that number?
Roughly 45,000 children under the age of 19 are undergoing cancer treatment and 15,000 children are given new diagnoses every year. Our mission is to fight to improve their quality of life and beat pediatric cancer, and this is why we chose the original goal of giving 45,000 hats – one for every child battling cancer in America. We surpassed this goal within a year and a half.
What are the biggest challenges you face with this 50/50 model?
Retaining funding to purchase inventory for the next season is difficult as we give away half. We have banking partners that have helped to alleviate this challenge.
Among the responses you have received, was there one that struck a chord? If so, can you give a brief recounting of the letter or phone call that made you think you were on the right track?
The most impactful thing for me to see has been the responses from the kids we are helping. We recently received a few miniature hand knit beanies from a young girl named Nathalia along with a thank you card. These moments are inspiring and keep us going.
Let’s talk about tears. Have you cried on the job?
Yes, many times. The impact we have on children battling cancer is incredible but at times very hard. It is especially difficult when you make a new friend who then passes away from cancer.
I heard about Love Your Melon from a millennial I admire. Tell me about your fan base- who is buying your products and how are they most likely to learn about them?
Our consumer base is always expanding, but our main demographic is females ranging from ages 18-25. As an e-commerce brand, social media has allowed us to expand and reach this audience, especially by utilizing Facebook and Instagram advertising to push new content every week. The authenticity of our social media channels allows our consumers to connect with our cause and get excited about joining us.
If you could collaborate with another brand or individual – who would it be?
We are now partnering with many brands, causes and individuals through our custom program. We are producing co-branded and single branded beanies that provide the opportunity for others to be a part of Love Your Melon. The beanies are a much more popular giveaway for staff, event participants and clients than a t-shirt.
What is the best-selling product?
Overall our best-selling product is our black speckled knit beanie.
What is the newest item?
We have a number of new items this spring, including our brand new lightweight beanies. Consumers have been asking for this product for spring and are excited to see this new twist on our classic beanies. (Check them out here.)
Who makes the hats?
We are committed to using high-quality, soft cotton to ensure that our beanies are comfortable and warm for a child’s bald head during cancer treatment. We also prioritize American manufacturing, which creates jobs here in the United States and emphasizes our value of community while making a difference for children battling cancer. The hats are made in St. Paul Minnesota.
What are you reading right now?
Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden
About Zachary Quinn
Zachary Quinn is the President and co-founder of Love Your Melon, an apparel brand that aims to make a meaningful impact in the lives of children battling cancer. Quinn founded Love Your Melon in 2012 with a simple mission: to put a smile on the face of every child in the United States battling cancer through the gift of a warm beanie. Today, Love Your Melon offers an expanded line of merchandise including its flagship product, knit beanies. Love Your Melon products are made in the USA, and 50% of Love Your Melon’s profit is given every year to the company’s nonprofit partners in the fight against pediatric cancer.
Quinn is a Minnesota native from a family of entrepreneurs who finds fulfillment in running businesses, working to help save the environment and chasing adventure. Quinn attended the University of St. Thomas where he studied to become an entrepreneur before dropping out to start his first company, Love Your Melon.