Having spent their childhood summers on Martha’s Vineyard, Skidmore College graduate Shep Murray and his younger brother, Ian, got a taste of the good life. And in 1998, the two young men, ready for an adventure, 86ed their crummy desk jobs and founded Vineyard Vines, a uniquely American clothing and accessories brand (you’ve probably seen Vineyard Vines’ smiling-pink-whale-logo-ed shirts, shorts and ties at Saratoga National Golf Club or Saratoga Race Course).
“Vineyard Vines, as a company, was two brothers who quit their corporate jobs and wanted to go live the American Dream,” Shep tells Saratoga Living. They accomplished that and then some: 22 years later, the brand now has thousands of employees, 110 locations across the country and an estimated value in the neighborhood of $1 billion. We recently caught up with Shep to talk about his time in Saratoga Springs and how his Skidmore education helped launch one of the most successful clothing brands in the country.
On quitting his job to found Vineyard Vines with his brother:
It was actually really, really empowering. I was told by my account team to think more “inside the box,” and at Skidmore, I was taught to think a little bit differently. Their [motto] is “Creative Thought Matters.” And so I was like, “You know what? I have this idea and I don’t want to live my life thinking inside the box. I didn’t want my boss’ job. And so I quit. Twenty-two years later, Ian and I own the entire company, and the way we’ve done well is by surrounding ourselves with an awesome team. We’ve listened to our team, we’ve listened to our customers, and that’s been the key to success.
On the significance of that iconic pink smiling whale logo:
When we were growing up, our dad used to carve whales, and so we always had a wooden carved whale above our front door. When it came time for a logo, Martha’s Vineyard was one of the most successful whaling ports in the world, and it was natural to have the whale be the logo. We were like, “Why not make it smile? Why not make it happy?” In terms of its being pink with navy lettering, there’s a store called Murray’s Toggery Shop on Nantucket—not on the Vineyard anymore—and they were our business partners for awhile and one of our customers. They had these pants called Nantucket Reds, and they’re a faded red—almost a pink. They’re kind of the unofficial uniform for the summer crowd on Nantucket or the Vineyard. And then there’s the navy polo shirt to go with it. So, that’s how the logo happened.
On his most memorable Skidmore College professors:
I had a professor, Peter Griffin, who was really, really great at encouraging us to read short stories and write them. I took an entrepreneurship class with Professor Marty Canavan, and he encouraged me to look at the great entrepreneurs of the world and what their recipe was for success, which was always very, very simple. And then there was Professor John Holmes, who talked about how in marketing it’s about creating the win-win situation, where everybody wins in the partnership.
On Saratoga as a college town:
What I liked about Saratoga was that it was a really peaceful place to go to school. It was a nice town with lots of culture. There was always a concert or a lecture or a bar or a restaurant to go to, and that’s why I chose to go there. I keep in constant contact with my friends from Skidmore, and my memories of my time there have always been great.
On advice to budding business owners:
You know, you have to do things for the right reason, and what we always say is we never started Vineyard Vines to be successful. We started Vineyard Vines because we believed in what we were doing. And we loved it! If you love what you do, success will follow.