By Oscar Wolfe
At 24 years old, Zachary Quinn and Brian Keller have created a multi-million dollar business called Love Your Melon. Not only does Love Your Melon sell amazing hats (worn by practically everyone I know), it gives 50% of its profits to kids with cancer. Originally, it was a buy one give one sort of thing. For every hat sold, Love Your Melon would give a hat to a kid with cancer. That worked well enough, until they ran out of kids with cancer. Love Your Melon gave hats to all 45,000 kids with cancer in America. And they’re just getting started. So far, Love Your Melon has donated more than $2.5 million and over 90,000 hats.
I was lucky enough to get an interview with Zach. I thought that it was just a fun coincidence that when Zach was my age, he wanted to be president, just like me. I’d vote for him (unless he’s going against me)!
Which came first: Did you want to help kids with cancer, or did you want to start a business?
It happened simultaneously. We had to start a business for a class project. But we wanted it to make a difference. We came up with the idea of a hat company, so we started thinking creatively about how it could benefit individuals. Initially, we were going make these bright yellow hats that signified childhood cancer awareness and then give money for every hat sold to kids’ cancer research charities. When we went to talk to the local children’s hospital about giving them money, they were creative enough to say, “Well, you’re making these cool hats, why not give them to the kids battling cancer in the hospital, because they lose their hair.” At the same time, I was reading a book by Blake Mycoskie who started TOMs shoes, and I loved the one-for-one program. And so Brian and I came up with this idea where we’d give away a beanie for every one sold. What happened pretty quickly after that is, we realized that these kids probably wouldn’t want bright yellow hats—they’d want a bunch of their favorite colors so they could pick, and so would the people buying them. So we developed this whole line of different colored hats.
How did you come up with the name Love Your Melon?
The class project was to start a company based on the basic concept of a lemonade stand. Originally, it was bright yellow hats, so, Love Your Lemon. Then we changed the colors and that didn’t make sense. So we thought, Love your Melon —because even if you lose your hair, you love what you got, you love your melon! We convinced our teachers it worked because melon and lemon have the same letters.
Did you know anyone who had suffered from cancer?
I had heard about people in our community. Brian’s second cousin and his grandmother had cancer. And I had heard about a kid named Zach Sobiech, who grew up down the street from me in Afton, Minn. Zach wrote the song Clouds.
That song makes me cry every time!
I know, I know. We started Love Your Melon and we sold 200 hats in two days. So we had to give away 200 hats. I went to Zach’s fundraiser in Stillwater to give him hats and it was a really incredible experience for me. I saw in Zach what I would have striven to become had I gone through what he did. I would want to make an impact myself. Maybe because of our similar age, or because we had the same name, I saw myself in him. That was when this changed for me—this wasn’t just going to be a class project. This was something I wanted to make into a big mission of my life.
How did you start actually making these hats?
To us, making them in the U.S. was really important. We looked online and found a company in Portland making nice looking knit hats.We got a sample sent, got a patch made, sewn on, and we had our first hat. Then had to figure out how to pay for them. We got loans from friends and family. Our teacher said we could only raise $700.
I know, it’s not much money at all. That would have been about 100 hats. So we knew we needed more than that. We could sell 100 in a day! Our teachers didn’t believe us. So we went out and asked our friends and family for $3,500 —$50 to $100 from each with the intention of paying them back. We sold out in two days! Then we sat outside my parents’ restaurant, Cafe Latte in St. Paul, to prove that we could sell to people other than family and friends. We sold 50 that day.
Do you know where the very first hat is?
I’ve got it. It’s at home in my closet. We’re going to get it framed and hung up at the office.
You dropped out of college to do this. Do you still think that was a right decision?
Absolutely. Actually, I dropped out twice. We started this in the fall semester of 2012, my sophomore year. It was taking off, so I grabbed on to the idea of going to do this full time. I convinced my parents by telling them I was going to take a gap year. But people stopped buying beanies in the summer. We made baseball hats, but they just weren’t as popular as the beanies. So I was a little disappointed. I wasn’t able to support myself, so I knew I needed to go back to school.
So when did you drop out for the second time?
In the fall of 2013 we got the idea to go on a nationwide tour. We wanted to giveaway beanies across the country. We bought an old tour bus, retrofitted it with bunk beds and a big wrap on the outside. We stopped at college campuses, sold hats, and we’d bring some students to give away hats at their local hospital. It was awesome. But that was happening while I was back in school and it was the first time i’ve ever gotten anything less than a B. I got a C+ in public speaking. I was skipping class to go do public speaking events and I thought that was pretty ironic. I was enjoying school, but at this point, I knew we were going to get on Good Morning America, the Today Show. So I decided I was done with school. No turning back. That was a really exciting time for me. It’s been really exciting ever since. I’ve never been this fulfilled and satisfied.
And your parents?
As long as I was being conscious of what we were doing, my parents were okay with it. The second time, it was a lot more thought through.
Where’d you come up with the idea of dressing up as superheroes to hand out hats?
At our first event at Children’s Hospital, there were Minnesota Vikings players signing autographs for kids, so they also helped us hand out the beanies. We realized the kids really liked getting the beanies from Vikings players a lot better than from us. They seemed like real life superheroes. We tried to get as many athletes as possible to give away hats, but it didn’t always work out. In the spring, we went to a hospital on Superhero Day. We realized the kids liked superheroes as much as football players! So we got our own costumes, and whenever we give away hats, we put on superhero costumes. It’s like an ice breaker. They run up to you to see Bat Man. It’s a lot better than getting a hat from a stranger. When we started our ambassador program to give away hats across country, we sent them superhero costumes.
What is your ambassador program?
We’d given away like 10,000 hats and we needed to give away about 45,000. So we recruited friends to help. And when we went on tour, we asked some of the students who bought hats to help. It’s grown into this big thing. We have 13,000 ambassadors. They get hats and sweatshirts, and they’re part of this friend group that is dedicated to making a difference. They’ll do anything from going to a Ronald McDonald House to recruiting bone marrow donors. It’s the simple concept of opening a door and trying to get them to engage in their community in a positive way.
What do you think the future of your business will be?
I want to develop into a company that has a great standing in outerwear. But it’s a slow process getting there, matching up to the North Faces and Patagonias of the world. So we’re starting with what we know best: knit products. We’re about to introduce mittens, scarves and blankets. We’re also going to do custom co-branding. We’re going to be the beanie bosses of the world! A big part of the next year is going to be moving into boutiques as well. After that, I’m not really sure. I don’t really think more than two years ahead.
You’re not old…
Are you going to keep this going for your whole life? Or are you going to sell it?
Brian and I have always come in thinking this is what we’re going to do for as long as we can. One of my fears in passing it along, is whether someone else would maintain our mission, because we truly believe in it. We give half of our profits away. As far as our own personal goals, we’re both pretty entrepreneurial. We’re always coming up with ideas. Maybe in the next one, we’ll provide clean drinking water. We’re always thinking. But we want to run this one as best we can while the need is there. The end goal would be that we fund enough cancer research initiatives that we don’t need to give away any more hats because there aren’t kids battling cancer. That’s a pretty lofty goal, but maybe on our way to that goal, we’ll help make some kids’ live better, whether through financial support or treatment initiatives.
Last question: What advice would you have for someone who wanted to make a business, doing something for a good cause, or just wants to be great?
Two things: Stay organized. Organization is key.
I keep everything organized except my bedroom.
Me too! I have certain spaces that are unorganized, but the place where you get work done, you’ve gotta keep organized. Second, and this is probably more important than the first: be authentic. The reason Love Your Melon is successful, and the reason why any business I start will be successful , we’re authentic in what we’re doing. When we started social media, we showed all the stuff we were doing: going to the manufacturing plant, working late at night. Big companies try to create social and they struggle. You can’t Photoshop authenticity. People are going to see through you if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do and don’t make the difference you want to make.