Classmates track the scent of success


The Southern Hounds are, from left, Jack VanGessel, Mackenzie Gryzbek, Carter Masek and Conor Conaboy. Photo by Mike Nichols

They’re only in their first years of college, but already four East Grand Rapids natives have created a budding clothing line that’s getting digital hits from all over the world.

Jack VanGessel and Carter Masek are the co-founders of Southern Hound, a clothing brand that offers “southern countryside inspired” classic clothing. The two both graduated in 2015 from East Grand Rapids High School, where they played on the football team together.

“Southern clothes sell a lot more than any other type of branded clothes. It’s a type of lifestyle that doesn’t limit itself to the south. You can live in East Grand Rapids and still feel that every day,” said VanGessel, who runs the startup out of his parents’ house in East Grand Rapids.

“What sparked it is we buy a lot of Southern Proper and Southern Tide (brand clothing), and we’re all guilty of paying way too much for it. We like that type of clothing and we like to look nice and wear dress shirts, but we weren’t willing to pay those prices. It wasn’t economical.”

Masek is studying economics at Miami University and VanGessel is studying business at Grand Rapids Community College. VanGessel, who was a government affairs intern with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, is also a leadership apprentice at 616 Development.

“We came up with the idea about two months ago while out to eat with my father and another friend. Jack and I had always wanted to start a company together, and decided to act on it. Since then, we have come a very long way,” Masek said. “We have raised $5,000 and are looking to raise more. We recently released our first 100 sample shirts to colleges and individuals all across the country. From those sample shirts, we have received nothing but positive feedback.”

Southern Hound officially became a business April 5. The company, which currently offers seven kinds of T-shirts and two accessories — a croakie and a koozie — is styled after companies like Southern Tide and Southern Proper, but with a West Michigan focus.

Southern Hound’s clothes are made at ImageQuest, a Comstock Park-based screen printer, embroidery shop and promotional products supplier owned by Mark Micho, whose son played football with VanGessel and Masek.

“We get everything here in Grand Rapids; we wanted everything to be American made and keep it domestic,” VanGessel said.

Soon after they had the idea for their business, Masek and VanGessel doubled their team by bringing on two more buddies to help run their startup. One was their old classmate and former football teammate Conor Conaboy, who is now Southern Hound’s director of finance business strategy. Conaboy, who graduated from East Grand Rapids High School a year ahead of VanGessel and Masek, is studying economics at Michigan State University and is currently an accounting intern with Fusion Education Group.

“I saw (them) on LinkedIn and reached out to Carter. I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a bunch of finance models and pricing stuff already designed on Excel because I’d done it for previous business things. I’d be happy to help out.’ Jack pitched it, and I got on board from there,” Conaboy said.

“We all felt bored in normal college. We just wanted to do more. Once we got support and got our first loan, it was like, ‘This is really real.’ It drives us to keep going.”

The other person they brought on was Carter’s long-time friend Mackenzie Gryzbek, who’s now the startup’s sales representative and director of marketing and social media. “Mac,” as the guys call him, graduated from Northpointe Christian High School in 2015 and is studying economics and pre-law at the College of Charleston. He was influential in getting the word out through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

“Social media is a great tool, especially for startups as a young company. As much as I want to get into e-commerce and all these marketing tools, I can’t yet, but social media is so effective,” he said.

The four friends, with their mix of talents and personalities, are what make the business hum.

“We’re a bunch of go-getters and extroverts who aren’t afraid to go out and talk to people. Carter and I are more the ideas guys. Conor is more the details, finance, more technical. And Mac — he’s our bell-ringer,” VanGessel said.

Prior to its launch, Southern Hound sent out promotional products to 53 colleges and seven high schools around the country. Sales have come from several states, and Southern Hound has received web traffic from China, India, Canada, Africa and several European countries.

“Through our analytic tools, we’ve reached 49 states and eight countries with at least one view, but most of them five or more,” Conaboy said.

The plan is to begin to add more products like polo and sports shirts, but not too fast, VanGessel said. Southern Hound does, however, have plans to create a college ambassador program and reach out to more Greek life groups in the fall.

“We want to be a lifestyle brand, not just a clothing brand,” VanGessel said.

The four young men seem confident the business will succeed. For one thing, they’re young and passionate, and they know that kind of zeal gives them an edge. But they also know what it means to make short-term sacrifices for the long-term good, something they learned on the football field.

“We’re willing to make that sacrifice of not going out on a Thursday night because we have a phone conference. We have a goal in mind,” VanGessel said.

“We didn’t have access (to learn about entrepreneurs) in high school. We would have benefited greatly from it. Kids need a place to incubate their thoughts and grow. There would be a lot more kids like us. I mean, we’re not anything special. We just have an idea and desire. Why wait till we’re 30? Let’s do it now.”

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