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Vetrepreneur Franchise Workshop   |   July 12

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Franchise Workshop   |   July 12

Vote for the Next Vetrepreneur® of the Year!

Vote for the Next Vetrepreneur® of the Year!

By Patriots, For Patriots

Tyler Merrit, Nine Line Apparel

Tyler Merritt isn’t afraid of a little controversy. The co-founder of Nine Line Apparel pushed back against Nike after the corporate giant launched an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who ignited a firestorm by taking a knee during the national anthem. Nine Line responded with a T-shirt reading, “Just Stand.”

When Kaepernick convinced Nike this summer to pull a line of sneakers featuring the colonial “Betsy Ross” flag, Nine Line reissued the “Betsy Ross” T-shirt it had been selling since 2015.

“So now it’s become one of the best-selling products we’ve ever had,” said Merritt, 35, a former Apache pilot who launched Nine Line Apparel in his garage while still flying missions with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR).

The “relentlessly patriotic” brand was built around symbols of America – especially the American flag. In fact, the company’s best-selling design is its “America” line of clothing. 

“It’s just an American flag – that’s it. It’s one of our tenets, which is to respect and pay homage to that flag, because of what it represents,” Merritt said. “And for me, it represents that same flag that was draped on a fellow service member’s casket. And one that you don’t let touch the ground out of respect. One that you fold, or one that you take a knee and hand it to next of kin. That is a symbol for me of sacrifice, and the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice for us to live in this country. So that’s, I guess, why it’s one of our most popular designs: Our fan base obviously cares about the American flag as well.” 

Tyler Merritt, Nine Line Apparel

ACCIDENTAL VETREPRENEUR

It was the company’s fan base that propelled Nine Line from the family garage to a 60,000-square-foot facility outside of Savannah, Ga., that employs 220 workers. The company’s secret sauce, Merritt said, is its authentic, unapologetic brand of patriotism that resonated with the military and first responders who first started buying their shirts.

Nine Line started almost by accident. The new guy with the 160th “Night Stalkers,” Merritt was assigned the mission of taking and placing orders for the unit’s morale T-shirts. He found the shirts to be overpriced and uninspiring. To make matters worse, the wrong sizes and colors were often delivered. Merritt thought he could do better. So he and his wife, Angela, turned their garage into an online design studio and started printing morale shirts for other units near Hunter Army Airfield. 

“We wanted something to advocate and have a meaning and a message, and we wanted to take some of our money and support these initiatives. And that’s what we did,” he said. 

They teamed up with graphic designer Myles Burke, and Nine Line took off.

LEAN TIMES 

To finance the fast-growing venture, Merritt sold their three-bedroom dream house and moved his pregnant wife, two kids and large dog into a two-bedroom apartment. Angela Merritt put nursing school on hold, often working long hours when her husband had to grab his ‘go bag’ and disappear for yet another combat deployment overseas. “There were a lot of sacrifices,” Merritt said. His brother, Dan, joined the growing enterprise when he separated from the Army in 2013. The fledgling company’s designs resonated with their audience of military, veterans, first responders and their families. Nine Line leveraged social media marketing to hone their designs and grow the business.

“We utilized Facebook,” Merritt said. “We did a lot of engagement in the beginning with our fan base. We’d say, ‘What do you think about this? Vote on this.’ We had a lot of opinions from that core demographic. And we just continue to engage with them to this day.” 

Today Nine Line dedicates 15 employees to engage its audience by answering phone calls and emails and responding to social media comments. “We like to say that Nine Line Apparel is a call to action,” Merritt said. “And the action is to be more patriotic.” 

In this hyper-partisan digital age, the brand has drawn fire for some of its designs around symbols that critics say are associated with the nation’s history of slavery and white nationalism, including the Betsy Ross flag. 

“It was never, ever a racist symbol,” Merritt said. “Just like the Don’t Tread on Me flag. It’s a symbol of revolution. It’s a symbol of banding together against the tyranny and oppression of England. That’s it.”

 

HARNESSING HIS FEAR 

You wouldn’t think this former special ops pilot who’s built a clothing empire and challenged Nike would be afraid of anything. Yet Merritt will tell you it’s fear – the fear of failure – that helped him stay alive in Iraq and Afghanistan. That same fear still drives him to keep Nine Line Apparel profitable. 

“Those types of things keep me up at night, and it’s almost more paralyzing because at the end of it, I’m still alive and I’m in charge of everyone’s livelihoods,” he said. “There’s 200 people, with a lot of children and spouses that depend on them, which means that I’m a multiple of 200 people depending on me. It is an awesome feeling knowing that you’re providing for all these families, but it’s also one of extreme responsibility. I can’t forget that, at the end of the day, I can’t fail.” 

JUST START 

When it comes to mentoring other service members and veterans who dream of starting their own business, however, Merritt urges them to put their fear aside and jump in. 

“Go ahead and do it. Just start,” he said. “And not just start and go buy a bunch of equipment or buy a bunch of things needlessly – go test the market. Go spend the least amount of money you possibly can to test your idea. But just start. Stop talking and making excuses about why you don’t have enough time. Watch less television, play less video games.” 

At the same time, he warns them not to sacrifice family time. It’s a lesson he’s learned the hard way by thinking he could make up for lost time with his family later. 

“Because I came to that harsh conversation with my significant other, which is, ‘Your children are growing up very quickly. You need to staff out and spend more time at home.’” 

Merritt still travels often to give interviews and promote the business. But he’d rather be at home, and these days he tries to include his wife and children in his travels as much as possible. 

“So even though I’m on TV a bunch, even though I do a lot of these interviews and radio stuff every day, it’s not really me,” he said. “People probably think that I like to talk about this stuff all the time, but for the most part I really just like to go home, hang out with my children and do stupid things with the kids.” 

Angela Merritt was able to use her husband’s Post9/11 GI Bill to complete her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. Today she works as nurse practitioner while helping to grow the family business. She recently launched a new line of apparel for women titled “Relentlessly Fierce” and was featured on the July cover of Military Spouse magazine, G.I. Jobs’ sister publication. 

A GOOD PROBLEM 

Relentless might sum up Nine Line’s journey from the family garage to a multi-million company. While the sacrifices have paid off, Merritt still faces the same problem they had in the garage. 

“The demand was greater than what we could supply,” he said. “Even today. I’ve done zero social media advertising last month and I’ve worked 220 employees for an average of about 70 hours per week. So we have a good problem that everyone keeps telling me is a good problem.”

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