Shirt Tales

Bill DeaconIt’s a phenomenon by no means limited to Vermont: College students everywhere spend a staggering amount of time watching inane comedies with friends and quoting them to each other at parties, in class, or on the athletic field. But Bill Deacon ’91 has made a career out of it.

“We had one guy on my hall in Battell South who was wealthy enough to have a TV with VCR and videotapes,” says Deacon. He laughs at the thought of how quickly things changed, how today everyone can push a DVD into a laptop. “So we watched movies constantly; they were always playing.” Films like Top Gun, Raising Arizona, and Caddyshack “provided the soundtrack to my college years,” he adds.

Deacon, who grew up in Gardner, Massachusetts—one of those “just outside of Boston” origins—is the founder and CEO of Muze Clothing, which sells T-shirts bearing movie quotes. Muze makes 200 varieties of shirts and is constantly adding new ones, with everything from “Hickory 15” (a Hoosiers reference) to “Make me a bicycle, clown” (Wedding Crashers) emblazoned on the chest. Muze manufactures all of its shirts in Arizona, near company headquarters, and boasts a strong line of celebrity endorsers, including Ryan Seacrest, ESPN’s Erin Andrews, and NFL quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo.

The company’s next step involves expanding beyond apparel, and the executive team is confident, thanks to watching Muze sales double for three consecutive years. Deacon will launch a “movie-quote database” website that he hopes will become the online authority in what is already a competitive market.

 My Boy Is Wicked Smaht
—Good Will Hunting

That an English major from Massachusetts ended up the CEO of an apparel company in Scottsdale, Arizona, was a surprise to many. After graduating from Middlebury, Deacon planned to attend law school at Arizona State University. “That was that; we all expected him to be a lawyer,” says his sister Sandra, a professor at Boston University’s undergraduate business program.

But when Deacon arrived in the Southwest—quotes from Raising Arizona swimming through his head—he decided to defer law school for a year in order to establish residency, believing it would make his three years at ASU much cheaper. That was the plan, at least. Soon enough, though, bartending and waiter gigs at the Phoenician hotel led to a role there as director of restaurant sales. “They were looking for a young, hungry kid willing to put in hours and hours a week for very little money,” he says. In turn, that led to a marketing job at Morton’s Steakhouse.

At Morton’s, Deacon’s easygoing attitude made him a hit with the restaurant’s clients and partners. After a few years, he had created a network of people that he figured might support him in a business venture. In 2000, 31-year-old Deacon left Morton’s and opened his own restaurant, Foster’s.

Foster’s, a New England-style seafood restaurant, had a strong, six-year run. The place attracted regulars, created a real culture, and served up clam chowder to tanned Arizonans. But it was exhausting work. “If you want to work twice as hard for half as much,” says Deacon, “you work in a restaurant. It really is grueling.” In late 2005, Deacon sold the building that housed Foster’s. His plan was to start Foster’s again in a new location, but there was something else on his mind as well.

Deacon and Mark Dimond ’89, once a sales manager with the “Life is good” brand, had tossed around the idea of creating an apparel company, and they were searching for a designer. During a round of golf with Michael Sims ’00, Deacon learned that Sims’s brother Sean, a Syracuse graduate, was a prominent T-shirt designer in New York. Making him the Muze designer was a no-brainer. Deacon had found his core team. In 2006, he flew to Boston to meet with Dimond and the Sims brothers. That weekend, they came up with the company name and chose the first 20 movie quotes they’d put on shirts.

 If You Ain’t First, You’re Last
—Talladega Nights

Long before that trip, Deacon had contemplated the idea of marketing movie quotes. “Every time I watched SportsCenter,” he recalls, “I’d hear them saying six of the same movie quotes my friends and I loved from college, and I always thought, why isn’t anybody acknowledging this?” In 2004, the brainstorming began in earnest when Deacon and his friend Jeremy Roenick, a hockey legend who played in the NHL for two decades, were hanging out in California at the World Series of Golf. “We were just playing games, drinking, having fun like we usually do,” says Roenick, who adds that he and Deacon are “big golf guys and big movie buffs.” The conversation turned to business, and they sketched out what would later become, in 2006, Muze Clothing.

In addition to Deacon, Dimond, and Sims, another alum, Matt Bonner ’91, is involved and will head up the new website business, moviequoter.com. That partnership was conceived at the classmates’ 20-year reunion last summer as the two sat in Adirondack chairs outside Mead Chapel. Deacon told Bonner about the success he was having with Muze. Then, says Bonner, “I played a gig at 51 Main, drank a bunch of beers with Bill, and we decided to meet at Logan Airport after the reunion.” They met outside security in Terminal E before Deacon’s flight back to Phoenix. They realized they had a perfect fit: Muze was looking to carve out a space online beyond the retail site, and Bonner had worked with Web start-ups in music development. “It was like somebody fired a starting gun,” Bonner says.

Moviequoter.com will enter a private alpha phase in early 2012 and within the year will launch to the public. “If movie quotes are a language,” says Deacon, “we want to be the Oxford English Dictionary of when and how to use them.” He stresses that he wants Muze to do more than throw funny quotes onto shirts, but also to be an authority in how and when to use certain quotes, when it’s funniest to cite a line from The Hangover (which he calls an “instant classic”) and when to go with Good Will Hunting.

Muze wasn’t immediately profitable—“Launching any brand right before the economic Armageddon of 2008 was not the best situation,” Deacon admits—but Deacon is pleased with where the company is headed. He points to the sales figures for the past three years, of course, but also to the partnerships that he’s made with a number of charities, including the Wounded Warrior Project, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and the ALS Association. Says his sister, who invites Deacon to speak to her business management class at BU each year: “He’s a great model to [my students] . . . [showing] that you can create a company, but it’s a major challenge, too. The celebrity involvement is obviously interesting to them, but also the charity piece. It’s so important to teach them about business ethics and giving back.”

As for law school, well, let’s just say that that idea is still on hold.

Daniel Roberts ’09 is a staff reporter at Fortune magazine.

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