University of Southern California

Salute the Brave
Marshall Senior Turns Class Project into Real-World Company that Celebrates U.S.Troops
September 16, 2011 • by News at Marshall

When Ryan Morris was cut from the USC baseball team less than a week before spring training began last February, he had two choices. He could give into self-pity or he could put the extra time he had – approximately 40 hours a week, which had previously been devoted to the team – to good use. His grandfather, Mervin G. Morris, founder of the retail store Mervyns, was blunt when he called to tell him the bad news that evening.

"He said, 'you have an opportunity now," Morris, a senior at the USC Marshall School of Business with a concentration in entrepreneurship, recalls. "’You can sulk and feel sorry for yourself or you can make something of your remaining time at USC and that’s the decision you have to make. That’s the kind of decision that will reflect a lot on what kind of life you’re going to lead.'"

Morris immediately decided to concentrate on making a final project he created for his entrepreneurship class with Patrick Henry, assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship, a business reality.

"Professor Henry had so much knowledge with startups and how to build a good foundation when you are starting a new idea like this," said Morris, adding that Henry also recommended that he consult with Thomas Knapp, associate director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, who had headed up several retail ventures before returning to USC to teach.

Although Morris was never a student of Knapp’s and, indeed, had only met him briefly once at a luncheon, Knapp was especially helpful.

"For me to have meet with him numerous times is what USC is all about, and the business school especially. That’s part of the whole Trojan family aspect at USC. The professors will meet with kids who aren’t even their students just because they have a love for teaching and helping kids out, which is awesome," said Morris.

And so, Salute the Brave, a retail company dedicated to creating apparel that celebrates the military and donates a product in kind to service members for every item sold, was born. Begun last spring with a few hundred samples of a baseball hat with the company’s logo and tagline Salute the Brave, it has already grown to include 16 different t-shirts and fivecaps. (The donated items to the military carry a solider-edition slogan, "Free to Be Because of Me.")

Although military service does not run in his family, Morris said he was inspired both by the respect his family instilled in him for the armed forces and a meeting with a four-star general at his grandfather’s 90th birthday celebration as the impetus for the enterprise.

Timing is everything. To give his fledgling venture the best chance of succeeding, Morris wanted to launch the company before school let out to create that all-important buzz factor. Of course, that required additional money and work. Morris, whose father invested the $10,000 initially needed to get everything from the company copyrights to product, received samples of Salute the Brave hats the first week of April. And Morris immediately reached out to his fraternity brothers at Lambda Chi Alpha to help generate word of mouth.

"They’d wear them around campus and if we were out in a crowd, we’d all wear the hats. When you see six people wearing the same hat, you start asking questions about it and we started a little bit of buzz about the company and got people excited. By the time the hats came in May people already knew what the brand was all about," said Morris.

Once the initial 2,000 hats arrived, Morris cultivated sales reps at every other USC fraternity by offering them a 10 percent commission and resume-boosting work experience. Morris went on to add 54 reps at 27 other colleges, including Princeton University and Fordham University, to expand his business. By next Christmas, he hopes to double the number of schools with reps.

To date, sales of Salute the Brave products have equaled in-kind donations of 450 hats and 80 bracelets to Operation Gratitude, a California-based nonprofit that ships care packages to service personnel stationed overseas. Carolyn Blashek, president of Operation Gratitude, who plans on including the Salute the Brave products in holiday packages to troops this winter, is impressed with the company thus far.

"That’s a fantastic donation for a new startup company and I am confident the troops will be deeply appreciative of the generosity and thought that went into creating and donating the hats in their honor," she said.

Currently, Morris counts mostly college students as customers, but said he’s also been getting a lot of orders from veterans and families of service members. He hopes to branch out from the original t-shirt and hats to other product offerings.

Because of cost constraints, Morris will continue to rely on less-costly word of mouth, guerilla marketing and social media, like Facebook and Twitter, to build the brand and fan following.

"Hopefully this experience spreads and we can produce something that people can identify with and want to wear," he said.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.