Former Issaquah basketball star’s University of Washington Swagga looms large
June 12, 2012
By Matt Carstens
For Issaquah High School grad and soon-to-be University of Washington grad Gillian Pennington, there is no such thing as a lack of enthusiasm.
Her approach to everything in life seems to be one where going full speed is not fast enough, and there’s never a time where fun will be sacrificed.
This work hard, play hard attitude has brought her — and business partners Josh Brewer and Elaina Tursi — great success recently, as their start up company SWAG (also known as Sweet Washington Athletic Gear) has become what seems like an overnight success.
But like success, there were plenty of bumps in the road.
Pennington is a senior at the UW and as an entrepreneurship major, one of the final classes she must take is the two-quarter course Creating a Company. Within the first two weeks the students must assign themselves groups, come up with a company idea and start the process of getting it off the ground.
“Originally I wanted to make UW gear,” Pennington said. “I said, ‘Let’s make neon gear, or hats that are vintage.’ And then Josh had the idea to make thermal long johns. ‘Wouldn’t that be ridiculous, wouldn’t that be so funny?’ Then we were trying to look for manufacturers overseas that would make that and we couldn’t find anybody. So we were going to have to make it from scratch, like tell them how to make a thermal onesie, and we don’t even know how to make it. Like how do we do that?”
There were plenty of questions early. Who’s going to make it? How are they going to make it? What will be the cost? And most importantly, what are they going to name it?
Originally going with the name no one was that particularly fond of “Dog Duds,” the team wracked their brains for a few weeks before it came to them in a moment of clarity.
“I’d been thinking about it for two weeks because we didn’t want Dog Duds,” Brewer said. “So we said everyone come up with something and all of a sudden a light bulb went off and we all got really excited.”
Thus SWAG was born.
“We want everyone to know what a Swagga Suit is and associate it with our product,” Pennington said. “Like everyone knows Kleenex and everyone knows Snuggie. That’s the mini-dream.”
After some more hiccups with manufacturers, they finally found a company out of Pakistan that would produce the product. Deciding to embroider the Washington logo, after they got it the first sample back, Pennington was thrilled.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s like a real product! We’re a real company!’” she said.
Next, the group acquired a $1,500 loan from a panel of investors brought in by their professor, John Castel.
“When they first came up with it people were a little bit skeptical.” Castel said. “But they stuck with it. The judges decided they would fund the plan, it was pretty well done, kind of novel.”
From Castel’s point of view as the professor, the team had ups and downs, but it was all a part of the learning process.
“I think they made it as hard as possible by going to Pakistan to find the manufacturer,” he said. “But they were doing that to try to keep the costs down, which is a sensible thing to do. Then they started out thinking they would start selling it for only slightly more than they paid for it to try to attract more students to buy it, and by the time they got around to doing the math on that they realized that wasn’t such a good idea either.”
After overcoming all the logistical challenges, there was one more issue: how to market a Swagga Suit.
After being told by judges and students alike that they should get a celebrity endorsement, Pennington’s personal connections led her to none other than the Husky basketball legend Jon Brockman.
To make a long story short, Pennington worked for the women’s basketball team and happened to be good friends with the men’s basketball team manager, who grew up as next-door neighbors with Brockman.
“I was talking to my friend and I said, ‘Who can you get me?’” Pennington said. “And he said ‘Oh, Jon would totally do this in a heartbeat, Jon’s an awesome guy, super goofy.’”
Pennington met Brockman at an open gym, shot some photos and tweeted them out. After they were retweeted by Brockman’s personal account, the Swagga suit took off.
“I was in class and my computer was open and email came in,” Brewer said. “It was a Google alert letting me know that we were blogged about on Yahoo! Sports and I forwarded it onto the group.”
Pennington couldn’t believe it.
“I was freaking out,” she said. “I called my mom. I was like ‘We’re on Yahoo! Sports!’ and she was like, ‘You’re not on Yahoo! Sports.’”
From there it showed up everywhere on the web. NBC Sports, Buzz Feed and Seattle Sports Nation were among the many to pick up the story. Even local sports talk show hosts Kevin Calabaro and Jim Moore were filling the airwaves with love for the Swagga Suit.
The overnight popularity has been a little bit overwhelming, but Pennington and Brewer already have plans of expanding their products to the University of Oregon and Washington State University by the fall.
“The nice thing about the product is it’s so scalable, it can really be used for anything,” Brewer said.
One person who’s not surprised by all of the Swagga success is Issaquah High School girl’s basketball coach Kathy Gibson.
“I first met Gil and instantly she makes an impact with her smile,” Gibson said. “Her enthusiasm, her zest for life and I think she approached everything she did and probably everything she does with that same spirit, that same enthusiasm.”
The Swagga Suit product also doesn’t surprise Gibson one bit.
“I heard that she was starting a company,” she said. “And then she sent me a picture of the Swagga Suit, and that has Gil written all over it. I’m sure there’s other people that I need to credit their involvement, but whatever she does she’s going to be successful and she’s going to have fun doing it.”
Pennington was on the Eagle’s varsity basketball team all four years. During her tenure, they came in fourth, fifth and second in the state tournament.
“We were pretty darn good,” Gibson said. “Consistently went to state, her class was a really good class, a really close class, she was lucky in that way. I think there were seven seniors that graduated along with Gil. They were just a really tight knit class. She was a big part of that.”
The same leadership qualities that were evident during her basketball career have translated brilliantly to her work with the Swagga Suit.
“You just want to keep talking to her because she just has that engaging personality,” Gibson said. “That’s the way she approached everything. Basketball-wise she was a great leader for us. She had a knee injury, but that didn’t stop her involvement, her enthusiasm. She was a wonderful, wonderful kid to have around. I was lucky to be able to coach a person like Gil.”
Pennington walked with her graduating class June 9 and will complete her degree after a few classes this summer. After that, whether or not they want to pursue the company further is a little bit up in the air.
“That’s what we’re going to need to figure out pretty quickly,” Pennington said. “With the potential we can, not right away obviously, but that’s what some of our mentors from our business classes have been telling us. We need to figure out how much we would need to make, how big our business needs to grow in order to make this amount per year. I definitely think we both want to pursue it, this thing has a huge amount of potential, who knows if we’ll be able to grow it to that potential, but this could be the next Snuggie, so let’s do it.”
Whether this onesie becomes the biggest thing since the Snuggie, or just another fad product, the people Pennington has surrounded herself with believe that she has the one quality that is necessary for all entrepreneurs to have: SWAG.
Matt Carstens: 392-6434 ext. 236, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.