Branding with a Big Heart: A Conversation with Chase McAnulty of Charlie Hustle

hawkins@growyourgiving.org Corporate Charitable Giving

“The more you give the more you get. What giving does is it brings back the intention and it helps you also leverage a lot of great connections. We’ve met a lot of amazing people through just supporting their causes. It leads you to different places, it opens up other doors. So, just do it. See where it leads to. Don’t be afraid to open those doors and just go. ” – Chase McAnulty

Chase McAnulty, CEO and Founder of Charlie Hustle, one of Kansas City’s most beloved brands, shares the story behind the iconic KC heart design, how his company has grown over the last decade, what the future looks like, and how generosity is at the heart of everything Charlie Hustle does.


Listen to the Conversation


About Chase McAnulty

Chase McAnultyEach shirt has a story. That’s what Chase McAnulty, CEO and Founder of Charlie Hustle, believes and what motivated him to create Charlie Hustle Clothing Company. Growing up in Overland Park, KS and collecting old vintage t-shirts, he appreciated that every t-shirt represented something different. Chase moved to Lawrence, KS where he met his wife and partner, Holly, to get his “college life experience” while attending the Kansas City Art Institute for graphic design. While in school, Chase began selling and trading vintage shirts and became enamored with the underground culture of those who also valued finding a one-of-a-kind 1970’s Nike t-shirt or original Rolling Stones’ concert t-shirt. It wasn’t long before he put his two passions together of graphic design and vintage t-shirts to create what we know of today as Charlie Hustle. Charlie Hustle’s website launched in 2012 with only 16 shirt designs. The ‘KC Heart’ design was the last addition to the collection and has become a beloved icon portraying Kansas City pride and connecting individuals from near and far. The company has a fully operating warehouse and office in the heart of the East Crossroads, a storefront on the Country Club Plaza, a Heart of KC Foundation, more than 200+ licenses, and over 1,000 SKUs in inventory.

 


Episode Transcription

LaVon Colhour:
Welcome to the Grow Your Giving podcast, powered by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. We’re excited to bring you conversations featuring experts in philanthropy, share impactful stories happening in the Kansas City community and elevate the voices of those making a difference around the Metro. I’m LaVon Colhour, director of corporate services at the Community Foundation. I’ll be your host for today’s episode of the Grow Your Giving podcast. The Community Foundation works with companies around the country to help achieve their charitable goals. Our corporate services range from corporate foundations, strategic planning, employee matching gift programs, employee disaster relief and hardship programs, scholarship programs, competitive grant making, custom charity giving cards, and much more.

LaVon Colhour:
I’m super excited for you to hear a conversation with my good friend Chase McAnulty. Chase is the CEO and founder of Charlie Hustle, the brand behind the iconic KC Heart t-shirt I know you’re all familiar with. Growing up in Overland Park, Kansas, and collecting old vintage t-shirts, Chase appreciated that every t-shirt represented something different. Chase moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he met his lovely wife and partner Holly, to get his college life experience while attending the Kansas City Art Institute for graphic design.

LaVon Colhour:
While in school, Chase began selling and trading vintage t-shirts and became enamored with the underground culture of those who also valued finding a one-of-a-kind 1970s Nike t-shirt or an original Rolling Stones concert t-shirt. It wasn’t long before he put his two passions together of graphic design and vintage t-shirts to create what we all know today as Charlie Hustle. The KC Heart design was the last edition to the collection and has become a beloved icon portraying Kansas City pride and connecting individuals near and far. The company has a fully operating warehouse and office in the heart of the East Crossroads, a storefront on the Country Club Plaza, a Heart of KC Foundation, which we’ll talk more about in a minute, and more than 200 licenses and over 1,000 skews in inventory. Dang, Chase, look at you.

LaVon Colhour:
Charlie Hustle is an incredible, generous company. They’re a small business that gives back in a big, big way. Chase and I will talk about the history of his business and many different initiatives and what lies ahead. Chase, we are so excited to have you join us today. Welcome.

Chase McAnulty:
Hey, I’m happy to be here. This is awesome. Like you said, we’re good friends now, so I’ve been excited to do this and thanks for having me on.

LaVon Colhour:
Great, great. Chase, can you start by telling us about how Charlie Hustle got its start and how it became the well-known brand and business we know it as today?

Chase McAnulty:
Well, you kind of just told it, you know?

LaVon Colhour:
But I want to hear it in your words. Come on, give me your words.

Chase McAnulty:
Yeah, for sure. You kind of laid the background a little bit, but to go a little bit further, I think, I was always interested in storytelling. I’ve grown to really appreciate the brand story and marketing, and I’ve always been interested in other companies and how they’re doing, how they’re telling their story as a brand. And visually, certainly visually, I’ve always been inspired by different things. Nike was always a big story to me, growing up. It was Blue Ribbon Sports in the late ’70s and then he grew that into what now is today, Phil Knight, Nike, what it is today. But there was some great stories from the early ’80s. And it’s kind of like us. I was 20 years old. I had a blog that was called Wicked Threadz, with a Z. Horrible name. But I was part of this subculture of vintage t-shirt connoisseurs, if that’s such a thing to people. But I knew people from Canada and Texas and even overseas, Thailand. There was this weird subculture.

Chase McAnulty:
And so people were connecting with some of the things that I was writing about. And you mentioned ’85 Royals tees or ’81 Rolling Stones concert tees. All these t-shirts had a story, but they were previously worn by somebody else. So it was all secondhand clothing. It was vintage gear that you would pick up at a thrift store. And nowadays, that stuff is harder and harder to find, but people were giving that stuff away. And you’d go find a $2 t-shirt on the rack and you could sell it for 200 bucks sometimes on eBay. So that’s what this blog was, it was telling stories about these vintage t-shirts, but also we were selling some of the ones that we had collected. And I was just building some level of understanding and small successes of selling gear.

Chase McAnulty:
And I was living up in Lawrence, and so most of that money became beer money, but it was teaching me business, and it was also giving me some interest in something. And my mom, she was one of the first designers at Gear for Sports. That was actually called Winning Ways at the time. And Gear for Sports has grown into what it is today here, locally and nationally. So it’s kind of cool to see Blue Ribbon Sports, Winning Ways, this Wicked Threadz thing. That was my version of those early days, those learning experiences. But my mom pushed me to go to design school at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Chase McAnulty:
So I ended up putting those two passions together and ultimately, five, six years down the road, Charlie Hustle was kind of forming in my mind and on paper. And I had a job out of college as a graphic designer and I just knew this wasn’t where I was supposed to be. And so all that manifesting of Charlie Hustle, I finally said, “You know what? I’m going to quit my job. I’m going to move back home. And we’re going to start this thing.” And so that’s kind of how it started.

LaVon Colhour:
That’s an awesome story. Leading into that, we talk about Charlie Hustle. So there’s a misconception, a common misconception, that Charlie Hustle is a person.

Chase McAnulty:
Sure.

LaVon Colhour:
So tell us the story behind that famous name and the KC Heart.

Chase McAnulty:
Well, a little bit of it, it is a person, and it’s me. It’s kind of part of who I am, like Chase growing up was subjectively short for Charlie or Charles. On my birth certificate, it’s Chase, certainly, but that was a name. You Google it, it’s short for Charlie or Charles. it was a moniker underneath me, Charlie Hustle. I was very entrepreneurial early on, and my mom was too. I was the kid that was selling smoothies in the junior high cafeteria, or whatever it was, I was always scheming up something. And even today, Charlie Hustle is kind of a nickname that’s been around. Pete Rose is probably one of the most famous ones, baseball player for the Reds. But it just kind of means somebody that’s going to do everything it takes to get the job done.

Chase McAnulty:
And that was something I could really get behind. And then it had this sports reference. I wanted to do sports t-shirts. So ultimately, when you start a business, it’s kind of like Wicked Threadz. We knew that was not a name that everybody else could get behind, it was just kind of naive and fun at the time. But Charlie Hustle was something to me that, “Hey, I could build off of this. It’s got a nice ring to it.” And I’ll add, there was this company up in Boston that I loved, called Johnny Cupcakes. And the logo was a cupcake and crossbones. Almost seems trivial, but he’s built an amazing brand over a 25-year span. There’s people lining up in his London store just to get these t-shirts. And I just really loved the way that name rolled off the tongue. And you could figure out the story later, but Charlie Hustle was just something that me personally I could get behind and build from.

LaVon Colhour:
I love that. I love that. It’s almost like everyone now has a side hustle on that. We have Charlie Hustle. So that’s awesome. And then how did you come about doing the KC Heart?

Chase McAnulty:
So the KC Heart, like you said, when we launched Charlie Hustle, we launched with 16 t-shirt designs, which was a fairly good amount for a startup. And I was doing a lot of sports-inspired t-shirts. And they weren’t really just local. It was New York Sack Exchange, talking about the Jets, New York Jets football team. South Side Hitmen, it was Chicago White Sox. So they were all referential, fun, unlicensed, really unique sports designs. And growing up, I was always inspired. I think I wrote about Jackie Robinson every year from like fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, just because that’s what I wanted to write about. And it was also easy just to pull it back out and add to it. But that was my history project every year. And I just loved the stories of Jackie Robinson and it led me to the stories of the Negro Leagues.

Chase McAnulty:
And I had always had this idea in my head of the KC Heart Monarchs patch it was special to me because it symbolized civic pride. It was just something that was really connecting to being in the heartland and in Kansas City. And it kind of laid dormant for 80 years. And so we thought it could be a fun civic pride thing; redesigned it, made it, gave it a different feel a little bit, and just cleaned it up and said, this could be fun. This could be a fun storytelling piece. It goes along with sports, but I think it really connects to Kansas Citians. And little did we know, so that was our 16th design, the 16 out of 16th. I think we produced it the day before we launched. So we were just looking for one more design to throw in there, just to even out the layout almost. And little did we know it would turn into what it is today. And so it’s pretty cool to see where it came from.

LaVon Colhour:
That is pretty cool. So I’m going to ask you kind of an off-script question. Vintage t-shirts, you love vintage t-shirts. What’s the coolest vintage t-shirt that you’ve ever had, or one that just sticks out for you?

Chase McAnulty:
Yeah.

LaVon Colhour:
Your all-time favorite.

Chase McAnulty:
There’s so many. I come back to Nike. From the early ’80s to the late ’90s, I loved some of the stuff that Nike was coming out with. They started doing the rayon t-shirts, real soft, vintage gray t-shirts that you would wear to workout in. You could see Bo Jackson, he’d be working out and then just say Nike across the chest. And it was just cool. And every three to five years they switched out kind of the label. So it became collector’s items to a connoisseur like me, and I loved really the story of that lineage of Nike. So definitely Nike t-shirts. I was a concert t-shirt junkie. I loved the concert tees, but anything that told a story I was interested in.

LaVon Colhour:
Okay. Okay. So shifting gears a little bit here, we know that giving back to Kansas City has always been important to you and your business. What did that look like in the earliest days of your business, and how has it evolved and how would you describe your philanthropic efforts today?

Chase McAnulty:
Well, kind of goes back to what I learned from Jackie Robinson. A quote that’s stuck with me for life is, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” And again, that’s just always something that has stuck with me, and the way my mom raised me to be was we were always very giving. I married a very generous wife, too, that as a couple, we just love to give. We over-give, we gift. But that’s the joy of our lives, I think. And so, when you translate that to a business, early on we saw lots of opportunities to get involved with the community and develop our brand, but also find different ways to give.

Chase McAnulty:
And one of the very first ones, first things we became a part of, was Big Slick. I think it was 2013, we had a buddy that was friends with Rob Riggle that was really close to my business partner. And he was able to get our shirts in the hotel rooms of Paul Rudd and Jason Sudeikis and Johnny Knoxville; all these guys that were coming to Kansas City. And at the time, they had a poker tournament. And it kind of came to that night, everybody was wearing Charlie Hustle t-shirts instead of the Big Slick t-shirt. So I think the next year Big Slick came to us and said, “Let’s do a collab,” and it’s been going on ever since. We took a little break during the COVID years, it’s funny to say.

LaVon Colhour:
Yes.

Chase McAnulty:
But we’re back this year, doing it again. And that was a really huge jumping-off point for us, because not only was it giving and supporting a great cause, with Children’s Mercy, but what that star power does to your business, we had Jason Sudeikis pop up in People Magazine with one of our shirts a few months later. And then the Royals had their run and Paul Rudd pops up on TV with his KC Heart shirt. That was a big moment for the KC Heart. So that was a huge jumping-off point, and I think you have to have a little bit of perspective and say, “Okay, there’s been a lot of people through the years that have helped us get to where we are.” And one of the most fun and exciting parts of running a business is being able to give back, not just financially, but supporting things in other ways. And being on podcasts, even just sharing the story.

Chase McAnulty:
But we try to do a lot of things with our team nowadays, getting out and volunteering. And it’s a very important piece to our brand. We call it the three Cs of our culture. It’s how we’re looking at the customer, how we’re looking at the company culture, the people inside of our business, and then the community aspect. All those things are what create culture. And so community’s always been important, giving back’s always been important, and it’s been a joy to be able to do more and more over the years. And that’s how we got connected.

LaVon Colhour:
Yeah. That’s awesome. Tell me a little bit about the Heart of KC Foundation, ONE KC, the OneKC for KC campaign and then your Communi-TEES collection.

Chase McAnulty:
Yeah. So the Foundation was just kind of a microcosm of, “Hey, we need a place to put some money to do more than just t-shirts.” We were building a nice brand name and we had a voice, we had a platform, and people wanted to support that. And so I was trying to figure out, okay, how do we build a foundation? And I got hooked up with Jenn Nussbeck, who you are close with. And then we all hit it off and understanding what you guys do. And knowing that I didn’t really want to do a 501c3, that would’ve been a whole nother business to run. I didn’t know much about the nonprofit space. So we started our Heart of KC Foundation through you guys.

Chase McAnulty:
And the first major initiative we did was 1K For KC. I had texted Jen. I was on vacation with my family and I saw a story of a mom that had three kids, she wasn’t going to be able to pay rent this month. She had just had COVID and it was really scary, obviously, early on for all of us. We didn’t have any information in the beginning. And so, I just thought, “Hey, we can help this person and I bet there’s a lot of other people that need help too.” So we came up with the idea of the average rental cost in Kansas City is about $1,000 a month. So we said, “Well, what if we ask people for $1,000?” That’s a relatively small amount to go to businesses to.

Chase McAnulty:
And we set it up so people could sponsor a family, and you can also nominate a family. And so we had all these families being nominated for these grants, and we would give them $3,000 at a time during the holiday season; November, December, January, to pay their rent, so they can focus on other things like groceries Christmas presents. There were so many people that they weren’t going to be able to buy Christmas presents for their kids. You can’t imagine that. So we had to do something, and so 1K For KC, we set out to raise 250K. I think we ended up raising $360,000. We helped 130 families. We pulled eight of them out of eviction and two families out of foreclosure, even though landlords weren’t supposed to be doing that at the time. But it was just a wild moment in our history, and I think it gave us a great chance to step up as a company.

LaVon Colhour:
Yeah. That’s awesome. That’s awesome. And then the Communi-TEES, how does that tie into your giving?

Chase McAnulty:
It kind of started with Big Slick, and there’s all these different organizations that were coming to us to do different things. So really, we had a couple of girls in the business; our marketing director, Katie Martincich, and Emily, who runs our operations. They kind of came up with this way to put it in a box and make it make sense for our business, and Communi-TEES was born. And so every month, we’ll have a different organization or company that comes to us. And we’ll come up with a t-shirt. 25% of that will go back to the organization that we’re supporting. And they get behind it. And fun stuff is like a Operation Breakthrough or something, when you get the kids involved, or Children’s Mercy, we’ve obviously done a lot of work with. Noah’s Bandage Project.

Chase McAnulty:
What’s, I think, most exciting is you get to learn about all these organizations that are doing amazing stuff within our city. And you can’t help but want to be a part of it. But yeah, every month we’ll have a new t-shirt that comes out and it gives back. And it’s our way also as a brand to really be involved in cause marketing. And it serves a purpose, it drives our purpose as a company, and that’s to evoke happiness. And I think Communi-TEES definitely do that.

LaVon Colhour:
That’s awesome. So what does the future look like for Charlie Hustle, and how do you plan to continue to give back in Kansas City?

Chase McAnulty:
I think it’s just integrated now into, again, our culture and our purpose as a company, so that’ll be something we always do. We’re going to new heights. We’re really trying to focus on the middle of the map. We’re getting back to some of the things that I was really interested in; collegiate licensed apparel. I always wanted to see something better out in the market in Lawrence for KU fans and K State fans, Mizzou fans, and we’ve been able to do that now. So, how do you grow? That college licensing is a great way to do that. So we’re making a lot of headway in Nebraska and Iowa and Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas. So really focusing on the middle of the map and growing outwardly, not trying to grow too fast, and seeing what can we do in those other areas?

Chase McAnulty:
We have a lot more unlicensed stuff coming out for people that live in Omaha. It’s not going to be your Omaha inside of a heart, but what is their version of that? What do they connect with in their communities? So it’s been fun. I think the sky’s the limit. There’s a lot more to do, and we have the biggest and best staff we’ve ever had. And it’s fun. I can’t wait to get people back into the office because it’s like, I’m invigorated by just being around our team. And it’s such a fun, creative environment.

LaVon Colhour:
Yeah. A lot of times, small companies will come to us and just, “We don’t have the means to give back.” So what advice would you give to other businesses of your size, similar size, that want to make a difference but feel limited by their size or resources?

Chase McAnulty:
Just do it.

LaVon Colhour:
Okay. Nike.

Chase McAnulty:
Nike, yeah. There you go. I think it’s always the message of the more you give, the more you get. It’s so true in business. You hire people for this, but I’ve never been one to worry about the bottom line. It’s kind of, you do, you drive, and then you figure it out. But what giving does is it brings back the attention and it helps you also… We’ve leveraged a lot of great connections. We’ve met a lot of amazing people through just supporting their causes. And it leads you to different places. It opens up other doors. And so, just do it and see where it leads to. Don’t be afraid to open those doors and just go.

LaVon Colhour:
Yeah. Yeah, I get that. So is there anything else you want to share?

Chase McAnulty:
You know, I love hanging with you.

LaVon Colhour:
All right.

Chase McAnulty:
But like I said, we’re very blessed and it’ll be fun to see where else we can take this thing.

LaVon Colhour:
Well, Chase, thank you so much. From my heart to your heart, from my KC Heart to your heart. Yes.

Chase McAnulty:
That wasn’t even a heart. I don’t know what I-

LaVon Colhour:
Try to make that with your hands. Thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. And thank you and Charlie Hustle for the amazing work that you continue to do in this community. And thank you for choosing the Community Foundation as your corporate giving partner. We appreciate you so much.

Chase McAnulty:
I know no other way.

LaVon Colhour:
All right. Thank you.

Chase McAnulty:
Okay. Thanks, LaVon.