The Young & Entrepreneurial: David Merritt

When Michigan's leaders talk about keeping the best and the brightest of its up-and-coming generation here, they're talking about young people like David Merritt.

The 24-year-old just graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's degree in Sports Management and has decided to stay in Ann Arbor. He turned an ambition to play major college sports into a walk-on roster spot for U-M's basketball team, then turned that spot into a co-captain's position. From there he scored college marketing internships with the NFL's Detroit Lions organization and the NBA in New York. Merritt left those connections in his rearview mirror to start his own clothing company called I Miss You, or IMU for short.

"I just never felt like the corporate structure was right for me," Merritt says. "I wanted to branch out and do my own thing. I didn't even look for a job. I knew in January or February of my last year playing basketball that I wanted to do IMU."

Merritt's venture is designed to impact a lot of people. IMU splits its time between creating premium t-shirts (it's expanding to more products later this year) and community service. The company mandates that employees dedicate at least 8-10 hours a month to the community while giving a discount to customers who donate their time or money to local causes, especially those that impact young people. Merritt credits his parents (Andrew and Viveca Merritt) for inspiring this business model. The couple serve as pastors of a 6,000-strong congregation at Straight Gate International Church on Detroit's west side. When people needed help, Andrew and Viveca Merritt were there, and their son was watching.

Now he's playing in Metro Detroit, creating economic and community service opportunities in a place badly in need of both. His nearly one-year-old start-up has two employees, eight interns, and keeps one of Michigan's brightest stars in orbit.

Designer t-shirts are a pretty popular fashion trend right now. Does the world need another t-shirt company? What makes IMU stand out and where do you see the company going, say, five years from now? Do you worry that interest in t-shirt fashion will fade?

I don't know if the world needs another t-shirt company, but as our brand statement says in the first line, "IMU is more than a t-shirt company." What makes IMU stand out is our positive and unique message of spreading happiness and bettering communities, as well as the high quality product and design the message is coupled with. In five years, IMU will be a full-service apparel company, offering products like jackets, toys, and watches. Our community service component will greatly expand and be broken off into a non-profit corporation. I don't really worry about the interest in t-shirt fashion fading. We will just have to stay ahead of the times with our product offerings and communications with customers.

Most t-shirts feature a popular logo or design on the front or back. Yours are a little different. They have quotes like: "To just live in the moment is not enough. Instead, one must sacrifice himself, giving all that he has to that moment. In essence, to truly live in the moment, one must die in it too." Can you explain the thinking behind the inspirational quotes on your shirts? Will this be a recurring theme in your other products?

The quotes that we use on the back of some of our shirts allow us to further drive home the inspirational concepts and messages on those shirts. Like you stated in your previous question, there are a million t-shirts out there, so we really focus on ways to make our shirts unique. One of the ways in which we accomplish this is to use small details, like a quote or unique print location that may influence a buying decision. I can't tell you how many people have come to us and said, 'I bought this shirt because of the quote on the back. It's really distinctive.' I'm sure the inspirational quotes will find their way onto future products.

A core part of IMU's mission is community service. Was there a specific event or moment in your life that inspired this?

Not really. I just knew I wanted the brand to be rooted in helping others and bettering communities. I've been raised to practice the principle, "We are blessed to be a blessing." Watching my parents devote their lives to helping others has inspired me to do the same.

You walked on to and eventually became a co-captain of the University of Michigan's men's basketball team in 2009. What lessons from making and playing on a major college sports team also helped you start and run your own business?

Learning how to be an effective leader is the biggest lesson I learned playing college basketball. In terms of IMU's attributes, it is a brand that focuses on values. Being a captain alongside C.J. Lee (who now works with Ann Arbor SPARK) taught me the meaning of selflessness and teamwork. I learned the importance of sacrificing personal motives to reach team goals. That's really what led me to start IMU. Our whole idea is to make people feel special as individuals, while recognizing that people are unique and special within their own community and because of the experiences around them. It's because of my experiences on the team that I fully understood what I wanted IMU to be about.

You're an entrepreneur in his early 20s who started his company as soon as he graduated from the University of Michigan. What are some of the challenges you have faced due to your youth? What have been some of the advantages?

Well, experience is the biggest challenge. I interned with the NFL and the NBA while in college, however, I don't know how much that prepared me to run my own business. So everyday it's a learning process. You're going to make mistakes, you just have to learn to limit those mistakes and learn from them.

On the other hand, being young and enthused is my greatest advantage. I don't mind the long hours. I don't mind the long to-do lists. IMU is my passion, and I'm giving it everything I have.

Many University of Michigan students leave Ann Arbor soon after graduation to take jobs or start businesses all around the world. Why did you decide to buck this trend and stay here to start your business?

To be honest, I don't believe I'm supposed to be anywhere else. I've lived in the Metro Detroit region my entire life and I'm not looking to change that anytime soon. This region has gone through difficult times, but I believe there can be a positive resurgence of educational and economic growth. Some look at Michigan's economy as dark and gloomy. I see it as an opportunity.

In terms of Ann Arbor, I think this is a perfect location for us to really spearhead IMU. I've gone to school, played basketball here, and really consider myself a part of the Ann Arbor community. Within a 10-mile radius, we have at least 40,000 young people within our target age groups. One of the aspects that I love about Ann Arbor most is the people. For the most part, Ann Arbor residents and University of Michigan students are open to new ideas and want to better their communities.

What should Ann Arbor do to attract more of your peers?

I think it's all about resources and collaboration. Getting the word out more about all the resources the University of Michigan offers for people looking to start their own business, along with organizations like Ann Arbor SPARK. There is a lot of help out there that not too many people know about.

Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and its sister publications, Metromode. He conducted this condensed interview over email, a couple of phone conversations and after he bought one of IMU's premium t-shirts. He believes you shouldn't buy one just because it helps a local up-and-coming entrepreneur or because it helps pushes forward good causes, but because it's a quality product.

All Photos taken by Dave Lewinski

All Photos take at IMU's HQ

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