It was an idea that was all Vol. Baker Donahue (’18) was looking back on his freshman and sophomore years in communication studies, when he “had not done super well.” Feeling a sense of malaise, he wanted to see how he could “create value for the University of Tennessee.” He and a friend came up with an idea: take vintage UT clothing found at thrift shops, repackage it, and sell it via Instagram auctions (@nwiththeold).
The idea, which Baker called In With The Old, took off. Newspapers and TV stations took notice, and sales of orange roared on like gangbusters. With a new sense of mission, Donahue took Entrepreneurship 350 from lecturer Shawn Carson of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and found mentors in Anderson Center Executive Director Lynn Youngs and Operations Director Tom Graves. Donahue won $3,000 in the Graves Business Plan competition and the Boyd Venture Challenge, with which he created a proper e-commerce website. With the help of campus representatives, he expanded the model to Appalachian State, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, and the University of North Carolina.
After graduating with a minor in entrepreneurship, Donahue trimmed operations, limiting the schools served to UT, Auburn, and Alabama, and asked himself, “How can I maximize the potential of the whirlwind of opportunities here in Knoxville?” In a moment of serendipity, he got a call from Jed Dance of custom retailer Bacon & Company, who invited Donahue to come see his Knoxville warehouse full of Vols apparel.
In its four-story brick building on Summit Hill Drive, Bacon has been manufacturing Vol apparel for nine decades. On the fourth floor, Dance showed Donahue Vol T-shirts and caps going back to the ’70s and the “gold mine”—items from the 1998 national football championship. Dance offered Donahue office space, and they agreed to go 50-50 on items that Donahue can sell online.
“So I still live in Fort Sanders,” says Donahue. “Since students are my main market, I figure I might as well live where students are. I get up every morning, go to work downtown, take orders, pack and ship them, and email as many people as I can offering them this vintage apparel. And I am asking myself, ‘Who are the other Jed Dances of the world, with warehouses full of vintage apparel?’”
As UT enters the 20th anniversary of the national title season, Donahue will promote his In With The Old brand to move his merchandise. On September 21, the Friday evening before the Florida game, he will set up a three-story-tall projection screen at World’s Fair Park, charging $5 to view the 1998 victory over the Florida Gators—with vintage items for sale at a pop-up stand.
In a year or two, Donahue says he may take the GRE and the GMAT and apply for UT’s Entrepreneurship Graduate Fellows program. But for now he is building his business, one orange item at a time.