Hillflint, retailer of ubiquitous sweaters spotted in Princeton and over 140 other college campuses, founded by Woody Hines ’12, recently closed a deal with Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, expanding its domain from collegiate apparel to professional sports.
As an undergraduate at Princeton, Hines found a strange quirk about college gear; they were everywhere, yet it seemed like every other piece he saw was more of the same unimaginative garment. Apparel should capture the spirit of their alma mater, Hines had thought.
He ventured into testing that hypothesis with a class year sweater – a black sweater emblazoned with his graduating year knit in orange across the chest. He focused on the quality of the product: yarns that feel more substantial, knit-in graphics, and high-caliber construction. Fast-forward four years later, Hillflint, the company he had co-founded with his friend John Shi (Dartmouth’12) following their graduations, has partnered with over 140 universities, sold to tens of thousands of customers around the world, and is in stock at over 100 retailers across the United States.
“We started out as a company that makes high-quality college apparel,” Hines said. But the same dynamics of uninspired products can be found in sports apparel, as well. Hillflint has recently launched its first collection of sweaters for all 30 NBA teams and all 30 MLB teams.
How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?
“In my freshman year, my roommate and I discovered that we have a common interest in menswear. So, we started a blog together,” reflected Hines. That blog would go on to garner over 500,000 views per month. Nobody was talking about entrepreneurship much then, but that was when he had realized he was on to something.
Then came the summer of sophomore year, during which he interned at a start-up. “I had casually mentioned the blog to some people I worked with there, and they went, wow, you could really make a business out of this,” Hines said it was like a “bell rang in my head”. In retrospect, he was not the only person caught with the start-up bug as the Princeton campus entered its own transition period in the early 2010s, during which entrepreneurship began to capture mainstream interest. One of his best friends at school had incubated a company with Y-Combinator, and student groups began to coalesce to lead more entrepreneurial-minded initiatives.
What advice would you give to current students interested in turning their idea into a startup?
“One of the difficulties of starting a business is that — unless you have a long-running track record — by virtue of running an unproven business, you’re working with very limited resources,” Hines wrote.
Hillflint’s major initial challenge was that they had insufficient resources to cover the cost of manufacturing goods, without which there was presumably no way to find customers. They had set up pre-orders with student governments, which would advertise to their classes. The team could then collect cash up front to pay for production. This became a model that effectively financed the business in its early days and enabled Hines and Shi to make the jump, leave their jobs, and bootstrap the business without having any investors at the time.
“Granted, those times were a bit hand-to-mouth – we lived in a not so great area where we were plagued by a thief who stole every Amazon delivery we tried to get delivered to our house – but our ability to focus on the business full-time in turn enabled us to produce better business traction that in turn allowed us to get to our next stage of growth,” he added. Hillflint has since received funding from the Princeton Alumni Entrepreneurs Fund, which provides startups led by recent alumni up to $100,000 in matching funds, mentorship, and peer-to-peer learning opportunities.
As parting words, Hines concluded, “I think that if you can find a way to bring cash in the door earlier than later, you can cover some of your initial costs and start to develop traction then.”
The Princeton Alumni Entrepreneurs Fund Spring 2018 application deadline is April 1. Visit entrepreneurs.princeton.edu/aef for more information.