A longtime fan of Wisconsin Badger basketball, Ethan Van Grunsven was disappointed when his team lost in an early round of this year’s March Madness. Still, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire sophomore couldn’t help but smile when he saw an Instagram post of the Badgers’ star player wearing a very familiar shirt during the tournament.
In the social post, Badger Johnny Davis — the Big 10 Player of The Year — was wearing a shirt designed and sold by the Blugold marketing-professional sales major.
“Seeing him wear it to the March Madness tournament and getting it posted on Instagram is one of the many exciting things that have happened with Sconnyco in recent months,” Van Grunsven says of his year-old business, Sconny Co.
Seeing an opportunity
Growing up as a sports fan in Eau Claire, Van Grunsven always had a closet full of Packers and Badgers gear, which he wore proudly to show his loyalty to his home state. At some point, he realized some of his friends were just as passionate about Wisconsin but not necessarily fans of the state’s professional and college sports teams.
“People often show their pride for their home state by supporting a sports team,” Van Grunsven says. “But after seeing friends love Wisconsin yet root for another state’s college or pro team, I realized there was no stylish clothing for them to wear that represents just their home. I’m proud to be from Wisconsin, so I created the Sconny Co., a clothing brand/company so people have a way to represent their Wisconsin roots in a stylish way.”
Long interested in business and in fashion, Van Grunsven decided to “pursue his dream” and start his own business, launching the Sconny Co. — sconny meaning someone from Wisconsin — when he was still a 19-year-old freshman at UW-Eau Claire.
Through Sconnyco, he sells embroidered high-quality clothing apparel, all sourced and produced in Eau Claire. Most of the merchandise he sells is hand cut and stitched, he says.
Finding challenges, success
Establishing his own business was a “long and confusing journey,” but also an experience that taught him patience and perseverance, Van Grunsven says.
“After sharing my idea of Sconnyco with friends and family, I got mixed reviews, some positive but mostly negative,” Van Grunsven says. “There were a lot of doubts about its potential and about getting it off the ground. Still, after careful planning, I decided to go all in on my idea and take the risk of starting it.”
With sales now booming, Van Grunsven is glad he followed his dream despite the initial uncertainty.
Figuring out the legal and other requirements of establishing a new business was challenging and more than a bit confusing, especially because he still was in his first year of college, Van Grunsven says. But once that was done, he jumped into selling and hasn’t looked back, he says.
“My sales approach was simple; market Wisconsin pride with stylish apparel,” Van Grunsven says. “Much to my surprise, it exploded.”
He’s now sold more than 400 pieces of merchandise, a number he expects will quickly grow as the company becomes better known throughout the state. Among his marketing strategies is getting high-profile Wisconsin athletes to wear Sconnyco clothing. He’s already had contact with players from the Green Bay Packers as well as the Wisconsin Badgers.
While there already have been many special moments as a small business owner, his favorite memory still is his very first sale, Van Grunsven says.
“I was at a social event and approached a man in a Packers hat,” Van Grunsven says. “I struck up a conversation with him about the Packers and the drama behind Aaron Rodgers that offseason because I knew that if I could make a connection about Wisconsin, I’d be able to sell him Sconnyco apparel. After about five minutes, I told him about this brand I started a week ago and how it’s made for people like him who are proud to be a Wisconsinite. He didn’t hesitate — he purchased all three of the colors.”
Van Grunsven says he “truly realized that Sconnyco could be something special” when he was at a large event in La Crosse and saw someone wearing a Sconnyco T-shirt. He asked the man where he’d gotten the shirt, and he said it came from a friend in Eau Claire and then suggested that Van Grunsven should consider buying one.
“I told him I definitely would purchase one, without telling him I was the person who created it,” Van Grunsven says. “That moment right there was when I knew I had something special, and if I played my cards right, I could really make something big out of it.
“The most rewarding and exciting thing about Sconnyco for me is receiving texts from friends in other Wisconsin cities saying they see random people wearing Sconnyco. It’s satisfying to know people are spending their hard-earned money on our merchandise.”
While launching a new business during the pandemic was challenging, it also created some unexpected opportunities, Van Grunsven says. For example, with so many activities canceled, he had extra time to focus on creating, launching and building the business, he says.
“And when I first started growing the business, COVID really gave me an opportunity to expand virtually and reach new customers in ways that I couldn’t otherwise have done,” Van Grunsven says.
Van Grunsven says he loved growing up in Eau Claire, a college town with a lot to offer community members as well as students.
He knew UW-Eau Claire had strong business programs, so becoming a Blugold was an easy decision when he was considering colleges, he says. And given his passion for business, it was a “no brainer” to become a marketing major, Van Grunsven says. “When I found out that they had an emphasis on professional sales, that was really the icing on the cake for me.”
A high school football player, the Blugold football team was another draw, Van Grunsven says, adding that his football teammates were supportive of his business venture, buying plenty of Sconnyco apparel.
One of his teammates, senior Mike Shoultz, became his mentor as he created and built his business, Van Grunsven says. An entrepreneur, Shoultz already had created his own successful business, EC Vintage, a vintage clothing and accessories store, while a student at UW-Eau Claire, so his advice and encouragement were invaluable, he says.
Shoultz was impressed by Van Grunsven’s energy, creativity and passion, noting that he was constantly asking him questions about his own business venture. “Even during practice, Ethan wanted to talk business,” says Shoultz, who will graduate in May with a marketing major and an advanced business communication certificate.
When Van Grunsven shared his idea for Sconny Co., Shoultz thought it had potential and encouraged his friend to pursue it.
“I thought it was a great idea, and I knew he’d be the perfect person to launch something like this because of his passion for business,” says Shoultz, a native of Delano, Minnesota. “Over the next six months, we would always talk business. We’d talk about marketing strategies, finances, advertising, sales, events and promos. I’ve always supported him, and he has supported me, so we really help each other. We aren’t the typical college students, since our lives revolve around our businesses, and we bonded over that. So, seeing Ethan’s success has been rewarding for both of us.”
With his business now thriving, Van Grunsven already is looking ahead to finding new ways to expand and grow his small business.
“My vision for the future is to turn it into more than just fashion; I am working to make Sconnyco a company where I can sell more than just apparel,” Van Grunsven says. “I know it’s going to be a long, stressful journey to get to that point, but I’m looking forward to the challenge and the life lessons I’ll learn along the way.”
Shoultz is confident his friend will succeed in taking his business to the next level.
“Ethan will be successful with his business because he is incredibly driven,” Shoultz says. “Sconnyco is already a brand that is well known with his target audience in our area. But the plans he has for the future to expand the business across the state of Wisconsin are detailed and purposeful. I believe he will be very successful going forward.”
Van Grunsven’s genuine love for Wisconsin — and UW-Eau Claire — comes through in his business, which is a strength, Shoultz says.
“I don’t know anyone who loves Eau Claire and UWEC more than Ethan,” Shoultz says. “He supports all things Wisconsin and all things Blugolds. He’s an incredible representative of this university.”
Written by Judy Berthiaum