Freshman Entrepreneur Has the Antidote to Harsh Winters: Fun Flannel Shirts

A UConn freshman entrepreneur wants to make flannel shirts, that stodgy New England staple, fun.

A student, Zac Will, wearing a Hawaiian shirt while making a presentation in front of a class.

Freshman Zac Will wants to combine the practicality of flannel with the fun of Hawaiian shirts. (Courtesy of Zac Will)

As a kid, Zachary “Zac’’ Will would go to Target, spend $30 on jumbo boxes of candy, then go to the beach and re-sell them.

“I would leave the beach with $100 or $120 in my pocket, and, for a 12-year-old kid, that’s Bill Gates-level,’’ he says, laughing.

Now a UConn freshman, majoring in management with a concentration in entrepreneurship, Will is preparing to launch a startup this fall that will feature Hawaiian designs, and other fun prints, on flannel shirts.

“The flannel industry has been producing the same drab colors and patterns for over 100 years. It’s ripe for change,’’ says Will, a native of Marshfield, Mass. “I want to bring a new look to the industry with flannels that make you smile, especially in New England, where the winters are harsh.’’

Will developed the idea for Kona Brand about two years ago during a chilly late-summer jaunt to the beach with his father, David, who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, while Will was in flannel.

“I thought why not diversify and make a flannel that’s fun—sort of REI meets Vineyard Vines,’’ he says. “My high school friends told me it was a weird, stupid idea, and now they’re asking me when they’ll be coming out!’’

After arriving at UConn, Will didn’t waste time tapping into the expertise at the School of Business. He has won $1,000 in a “Get Seeded” competition, attended Innovation Quest workshops, and enrolled in management professor Rich Dino’s entrepreneurship course.

“UConn has definitely boosted my confidence when I was feeling doubtful,’’ he says.

Will was chosen to participate in the prestigious Summer Fellowship offered by the business school’s Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, allowing him an opportunity to expand his knowledge and receive additional mentoring.

“I want to absorb as much as I can from all the successful entrepreneurs who will be advising us, and learn from what they’ve done,’’ he says.

Entrepreneurial Family Encouraged His Interests

Wills’ father is an entrepreneur who founded, and recently sold, a software company, and is now embarking on a new venture. Will admired his father’s drive and also the personal flexibility that owning a business afforded him. Both Will and his two younger brothers, one who has a landscaping business while still in high school, have entrepreneurial aspirations. His mother, Nicole, is a big supporter and often brainstorms business strategy with her sons.

“My dad told me, ‘If you want to make a quick buck, do a yard sale,’’ Will says. “He said that being an entrepreneur is going to take a lot of time and determination and that there will be setback after setback after setback. It’s a slow process and you’ve got to love the process.’’

Kona Brand has signed on with a manufacturer, which is currently making sample shirts. Once Will is satisfied with the quality, they will be mass-produced and ready for sale online. Kona Brand will start with shirts for men and may add a women’s line in phase two.

He selects the patterns, including a recent favorite with a tiki design. Because he is colorblind, Will relies on a friend to decide on the background colors.

Although he can envision himself creating fun clothing and accessories, Will says he isn’t sure that his long-term business path will be in clothing. He’s eager to try many different things.

Kona Brand’s Other Mission Is Finding Homes for Dogs

The company is named after one of the family’s three dogs. Kona was roaming the streets of Puerto Rico prior to adoption, and a percentage of the sale of each shirt will go toward a dog charity or shelter.

“We are on the mission to find a home for every dog, because after doing some research in the early phases of the company, we found that 1.2 million dogs are euthanized every year,’’ he says. “Only about 1 out of every 10 adoptable dogs will ever find a home.’’

In the meantime, Will is focused on his new business. What would it be like to spot another student wearing a Kona Brand shirt on campus?

“It would be an amazing feeling to see someone wearing a Kona Brand flannel. Seeing someone enjoying something I created would be an incredible feeling,’’ he says. “If I saw someone walking around campus wearing one of my flannels, I’d know I’m on the right track.’’