Nov 23, 2015 ยท 4 minutes

Earlier this year, Alex and Jonathan Torrey – the Umano brothers – faced down our judges and won the top prize, and $100k investment, from the Pandoland judges.

This past Friday, a somewhat larger audience saw the Torreys score a second major victory, and an even larger investment offer – albeit one with far worse terms. They appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank – in an episode which, according to Variety, had the highest viewership of the season.

I wrote about the brothers’ do-good fashion t-shirt line back in 2014 and since then they’ve been on a tear. Their Bloomingdale’s business is growing, as are orders on their own site, thanks especially to last Friday night. They’ve also been profiled  in Vogue.

Here’s what I wrote back in my original piece:

I discovered umano two weeks ago not through a press release in my inbox but Bloomingdale’s highly read “denim days” newsletter, which featured an image of a bad ass girl wearing a bad ass muscle T. The drape looked perfect, it was a black matte fabric, and had a pocket detail of a roughly drawn skull. “New T-Shirts by umano” the email said with such confidence that I assumed “umano” was a hipster Brooklyn T-shirt upstart that everyone had heard of but me. I pictured men in skinny jeans and ironic handlebar mustaches pressing the shirts in a place named after Dumbo or Goofy or some other Disney icon.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, that Bloomingdale’s email was the result of a hardscrabble, bootstrapped, three-year journey on the part of this small Athens, Georgia-based labor of love.

Forget Farhad Manjoo’s “perfect hoodie.” This muscle T was like a window into my soul. 

The company has just one “good problem to have”: the cost of the inventory needed to keep up with all of this demand. As they said on the show “Bloomingdale’s is asking for more doors and we can’t do that.” That’s to say nothing of potential opportunities in other chains.

God damn you, atoms!

If only software could eat T-shirts. Instead these guys have had no choice but bootstrap a company that continues to thrive, while also barely staying in business.

Which is where, hopefully, the Shark’s money will come in handy. This is a good old fashioned fashion ecommerce business and the Umano brothers have raised less than $500k to get to this point. They have no fashion experience. They live in Athens, Georgia, not New York or San Francisco. It’s a story of an amazing product and pure grind-it-out determination. It’s a story that proves you can make it from anywhere whether you have VCs in your city or not. (They do not…. that they know of at least.)

It was interesting watching the grilling of Umano by our own judges, including Bijan Sabet of Spark, Stan Chudnovsky from Facebook, and Zach Ware from Vegas Tech Fund. And then comparing that grilling to that given by the Sharks. The Sharks who “got” Umano got it for the same reasons as our judges: The guys have built a great brand from nothing, living on air mattresses in their parents house for four years, and the hustle that got them into Bloomingdales and subsequent sales is impressive even for a retail veteran.

Daymond John – founder and chief executive of FUBU, for Christ sake – had this to say: “Getting into Bloomingdale’s is so hard, how did that happen?” and again, later: “I’ve been in this business for quite some time. I’ve had maybe one brand in Bloomingdale’s and I had to beg to get there. I have to congratulate you on that.” (He followed that praise up with a pretty lousy deal: $150k for a whopping 33.3% of the company. The Torreys accepted instead an offer by Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner at $150k for 20%. Still lousy but the best one offered on the show. At Pandoland they got $100k for a convertible note.

Even “Mr. Wonderful” said “We’ve seen a lot of T-shirts come through the Shark Tank door, this is different there’s no question about it,” as he (mercifully) passed.

Interestingly, the main negative on the show was also the main negative expressed on the Pandoland stage: That the brothers “only” give backpacks full of school supplies to a school or community in exchange for kids’ drawings, not actual royalties on sales paid to the kids who design the shirts. Honestly, it wasn’t something that ever occurred to me before Sabet asked it on stage at Pandoland, and it lead to a conversation that changed the guys’ views. On Shark Tank they had a different answer to the same question: As they grow, the giving will increase.

We’re really happy for the Umano guys. Next year’s winners will have some big shoes to fill. Look for applications to open up in January. All we require is that companies have raised less than $1 million. Tickets for Pandoland are on sale now!