You don’t have to look far on the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus to see tangible evidence of Michael Fitzpatrick’s entrepreneurial spirit.
His fellow students are literally wearing it.
In less than a year, Fitzpatrick, a junior business management student, founded an online clothing company, organized a successful marketing campaign, built a fan base and sold nearly 10,000 T-shirts.
Along the way, he has shown a penchant for philanthropy and a determination to make a difference in the community. And he’s only 20 years old.
Fitzpatrick conceived the idea for a clothing company while promoting Audio Trio DJ Service, another of his businesses. Using Facebook, he sought out designs for T-shirts his employees could wear during their DJ gigs. He offered a $50 prize to the winning entry. More than 20 people sent in submissions.
That’s all the inspiration Fitzpatrick needed. He founded his Thirsty Clothing Inc. in January 2010, selling T-shirts that read “Got Thirst?” and “Whitewater Thirsty Thursdays.”
“It really took off from there,” Fitzpatrick said. Since then, he’s offered eight designs and sold thousands of T-shirts for $10 - $14 a piece.
Thirsty Clothing is becoming a household name at UW-Whitewater and the products are hot commodities. Even more striking, he is throwing out the traditional marketing book and promoting his products almost exclusively through social media.
“If it wasn’t for Facebook, we wouldn’t exist,” Fitzpatrick said. “The word-of-mouth and free market opportunities the website provides are incredible.”
Fitzpatrick creates Facebook fan pages for his designs and links them to his website, where people can buy the shirts online. He doesn’t need to run commercials or place traditional ads, he says. His customers do the marketing for him by word of mouth.
Fitzpatrick doesn’t understand why some businesses fail to take advantage of these new technologies. “Some companies don’t value all the tools out there,” he said. “To succeed and create jobs in this economy, you have to use every single resource available.”
He is also responding to his customers’ requests. Fraternity Alpha Phi Omega approached him in November looking for a shirt with a united message of support against hate crimes.
Fitzpatrick and his designers came up with a purple shirt with a heart-shaped logo and the phrase, “Whitewater is for Lovers, so Stop Hatin’!”
“We had no idea what to expect,” he said. “We never made that kind of shirt before.” Within 24 hours, more than 600 people posted comments on the Thirsty Clothing Facebook wall, expressing interest in the shirt and 500 of them bought it.
“If you’re not connected with the community, you won’t succeed. Making this shirt was never about money,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was about contributing to something good, creating campus unity, and showing everyone something positive could come out a bad situation. I really enjoyed being a part of that movement.”
He’s also tackling a men’s health issue by raising awareness for testicular cancer, the most common form of cancer in young men. Thirsty Clothing is selling colorful wristbands, and half of the proceeds will be donated to the Sean Kimerling Testicular Cancer Foundation.
Still, his most popular line of products this year is likely to be the Warhawk national championship clothing, celebrating the UW-Whitewater football team’s victory in the Stagg Bowl on Dec. 18.
Fitzpatrick pays 20 people, many of them UW-Whitewater students, to design, sell, distribute and promote his products. He contracts through a local company, Aropa Design of Whitewater, to print the T-shirts.
Fitzpatrick acknowledges that success doesn’t come without failure. He once tried to organize a social event for the campus’s clubs and Greek organizations at Starin Hall, the university’s new suite-style residence hall.
“The logistics and security requirements were overwhelming and the event didn’t happen,” he said. “But I learned a lot from that experience and met a lot of people along the way.” He also increased his Facebook fans by 800 people.
An Oconomowoc native, Fitzpatrick says he had a business career in mind even as a youngster.
“I shoveled snow for my neighbors in the winter, put up lemonade stands in the summer,” he said. In sixth grade, he organized a holiday fundraiser that made $1,000.
When he’s not focused on work and school, Fitzpatrick follows UW-Whitewater athletics and the Green Bay Packers, enjoys working out and likes to travel.
It is a wonder he has any free time. He runs two businesses, serves as chief public relations officer for the UW-Whitewater Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization chapter, works as a waiter at an Okauchee restaurant and is a part-time student. Next fall, he will enroll full time.
Fitzpatrick’s efforts are already garnering major awards. In November, during the national CEO conference in Chicago, he won the “best exhibit” award for his Thirsty Clothing company, which sold T-shirts with the slogan “Entrepreneurs Are Legit.”
“He has made significant contributions,” said William Dougan, professor of entrepreneurship and CEO adviser. “Michael embodies the kind of spirit the university intends to foster with the entrepreneurship program,” he said.
Also in November, Fitzpatrick took his entrepreneurial talent to Duke University in Durham, N.C., where he sold 1,300 T-shirts. In May 2011, he plans to travel to South Africa, holding contests at university residence halls to come up with new T-shirt designs.
As for advice for young entrepreneurs, Fitzpatrick says to stay positive, work hard and ignore the skeptics.
“Don’t let pessimism keep you down. Keep pushing.”