Volunteer Traditions Lets You Wear State Pride On Your Sleeve
It began with a belt.
Sitting in class at the University of Tennessee College of Law in 2006, Mason Jones and his friend Brock Bosson noticed another student wearing a belt with the South Carolina flag on it.
“It had the palmetto tree on it, which is very popular,” Jones says. “We thought, ‘Tennessee needs a belt like that.’ ”
Jones and Bosson decided to turn the idea into reality after another classmate offered her mom’s apparel factory in Hong Kong, which was already manufacturing belts for several successful companies.
“We knew they’d at least be a substantial product,” Jones says.
The pair tested the waters with an order of Tennessee flag belts, and while there was a learning curve, the initial product looked great and ultimately proved successful.
“We ordered four sizes of belts, and they just weren’t the right sizes,” Jones says. “But people loved the design. It was very clean and not too in-your-face. I think that’s why people liked it. They were a big hit with college kids and sold well.”
With the first taste of success, Bosson and Jones settled on Volunteer Traditions as the name for the company, a fitting moniker for the classic products they hoped to create for the Volunteer State. After graduating, they ventured into hats – red with a simple tristar logo – and when Bosson decided to take a job overseas, Jones bought his part of the company and worked part-time, shipping products from his small Nashville apartment while juggling a full-time attorney position.
From Sidelines to Full Time
By 2010, Volunteer Traditions had gained traction, and Jones decided to pursue it full time. The company still made its original belts and hats, but it had also added neckties, T-shirts, polo shirts, decals and more. As it grew in popularity, more than just students touted the gear. Politicians, businessmen and even celebrities such as Peyton Manning started wearing Volunteer Traditions apparel.
“I remember my dad telling me, either you need to do this full time or you need to put it to bed,” Jones says. In starting a business, he adds, many people assume you can just jump in when you have a good idea, but it takes time.
Jones believes that he wouldn’t have been as successful if he tried going full-force right off the bat. By working part-time, he had the chance to target his customer base – people who want to show their state pride in a subtle, classic way. He learned about the market and what high-quality products and designs people liked and were willing to spend money on.
“We don’t want to just pump out products that are popular,” he says. “We want to make awesome products for people who love Tennessee, and I feel like with ours, we’ve done a very good job of being intricate on the details.”
After recognizing the company’s niche brand, Jones built upon it with tailored products and focused less on forcing growth. “Once you’ve built a core customer, you don’t have to worry about growth because it will grow naturally,” he says.
The Tradition Continues
The company now operates out of a brick-and-mortar store in Nashville, where it ships across the country and allows customers to visit and shop. But it also partners with retailers across Tennessee and the South who really want to help them prosper.
“Our biggest partner is Binks Outfitters, which is also a local company,” Jones says. “We work with clients who want to help us, too.”
One of those clients is Jones’ own alma mater, the University of Tennessee. In 2012, the school reached out to Volunteer Traditions to make licensed game-day apparel for the bookstore, which Jones says has been one of the greatest opportunities for them. Students can show UT pride at football games with quality apparel featuring power T’s, the classic Vols helmet, a vintage rifleman and even the mascot, Smokey.
“We were inspired by old artwork for Tennessee and classic Vols designs,” Jones says.
They’ve also expanded a few products to other Southern states, keeping it simple with hats, belts and neckties featuring the state flag. However, Jones says he won’t stray from the core brand they’ve built.
“You get everything. People say, ‘Why don’t you make an Idaho belt?’ ” he says. “We’re probably never going to make an Idaho belt. We approached it by looking at other areas and seeing where we had a good fit. We wanted to look and say, ‘Where can we do this well?’ ”
As for the future, Jones says the wheels are always turning.
“We’ve got a lot of ideas in the office, it’s just being able to do them at a level that we want to,” Jones says. “I don’t want to do something to try and make a few extra dollars, just to say we did it. I want to make a good product we can sell for years. That’s our kind of vibe – we want to make clothes that will make your grandpa proud.”