Two young Rochester entrepreneurs think they have the answer to keeping personal items all zipped up, while also helping veterans.
In early 2018, while a student at Lourdes High School, Michael Watkins went to a concert in Minneapolis and noticed something strange.
“I saw lots of people searching on the ground with their flashlights, trying to find cell phones and keys and other things they had dropped … I thought, there must be a way to keep their items secure,” said Watkins, now 19.
That got him thinking about a solution right before his capstone project started. Watkins chose to create a business for his senior year. The business would sell a product he had designed — Underzips underwear.
The idea is simple. Underzips are men’s boxer-briefs with two small, zippered pockets in which to stash passports, credit cards, cell phones and even keys.
Watkins said early buyers are happy with the feel and are using them during workouts or while attending events to keep items from being lost or stolen.
Why create an underwear company?
“Underwear is something everyone needs. It’s a great market,” he said. “And it’s a great place for secure storage. It’s more efficient than a backpack or a fanny pack.”
Following up his goal to have a business that is “mission-driven to make a difference,” Watkins designed the underwear with the look of the U.S. flag’s stars and stripes.
He also reached out to a national non-profit organization, the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides “educational scholarships to spouses and children of America’s fallen and disabled service members.”
For every $19.99 pair of Underzips sold, the company gives $1 to Folds of Honor.
“I wanted to do something that was patriotic and that celebrated our country and veterans,” he said.
By the fall of 2018, Watkins’ idea was a reality, with a manufacturer delivering 1,000 pairs of underwear. He started selling them online at www.underzips.com to friends and family.
However, running a fledgling business, plus being a full-time student at Bentley University near Boston was a lot to juggle.
Watkins brought Oliver Dilger, who attends Boston College, on board to help run the company and handle the marketing of the underwear. The two Rochester men have been friends since meeting at debate class at Lourdes High School.
Dilger, 19, is working with veterans groups to get Underzips at events such as golf tournaments.
“I have a great respect for the military,” he said. “We’re super passionate about this.”
Dilger envisions creating different looks for Underzips for each military branch as well as possibly a camouflage style.
One issue the two hope to change as the company grows is where the underwear is manufactured. Given the start-up’s budget, the patriotic underwear is currently made in China.
“Our ultimate goal is to have them made in the U.S.,” Digler said.
Watkins said he realizes the challenge of keeping Underzips running as the two work to finish their college degrees.
However, he still sees the quirky company as he did at the start at Lourdes High School.
“No matter what happens, it’s been a great learning experience and has helped me understand more about how business works,” the young entrepreneur said.