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Why Great Lakes Clothing Company co-founder ditched the corporate track

Imagine you’re sitting on a paint-chipped Adirondack chair facing the lake. Waves gently lap against the shore. The sky ripples with deep oranges and soft blues and bright pinks. A bonfire smolders on the beach. Graham cracker wrappers and empty chocolate packages cover the nearby picnic table, while branches covered with sticky marshmallow residue lean against it. You breathe in the smell of the lake, the smell of the wood smoke, the smell of sunscreen. You breathe in summer at the lake. You breathe in happiness.

Spencer Barrett grew up smelling this deliciousness at his family's cabin in Hayward, Wisconsin. It wasn’t until he was a senior in college that he decided to bottle and sell the form of apparel.

“Ninety percent of my graduating class was interviewing for corporate business positions,” he tells me, as we sit in the warehouse, surrounded by the product he’s helped to create. “It felt like the norm, like something I should be doing. But, I knew that wasn’t for me.”

Spencer didn’t interview for a single corporate job. Instead, he and his business partner David Burke launched their website the fall of their senior year. They started with one shirt – the American loon.

“Between classes we could go ship shirts,” the 26-year-old says.

When Spencer and David graduated just a few months later, they decided to take the plunge and become full-time business owners. With the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, they raised enough money to buy materials, rent space and launch Great Lakes Clothing Company.

“We dabbled with the idea of getting full-time jobs and doing this on the side, but we knew to make this really work, we needed to be all-in,” Spencer says.

They’ve sold the Midwestern lake culture to 49 states (Come on, Idaho!). They’ve outgrown three manufacturers and are now partnering with an L.A.-based company that also works with Patagonia, J. Crew and North Face. And, because 90% of their business is done online, they’ve kept high profit margins. Turns out, taking a risk and going all-in was a good decision.

More about Spencer…

What inspires you?

The lakes. The North Shore. The cabin.

Right now, I can’t get enough of:

Traveling and exploring.

What is your most treasured possession?

Grandpa Bob, or Pops, passed away recently. He owned the treasured cabin in Hayward that sparked Spencer’s dream. When the family had to sell the cabin three years ago, Spencer got to take a wooden lamp in the shape of a bear and four loon coasters – memories of this special place.

What’s on your playlist?

Anything. I love Chance the Rapper.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?

Jimmy Fallon or Justin Timberlake.

What are your top 3 places/things to do in the Twin Cities?

[if !supportLists]1. [endif]Parlour burger

[if !supportLists]2. [endif]Breweries and distilleries

[if !supportLists]3. [endif]Acme Comedy Club

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

When you start with what you’re passionate about, you’re work will come across as authentic and genuine. It won’t feel like work.

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