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One product brought a novelty startup back from the brink at the beginning of the pandemic. Now, Oxford Pennant has become a purveyor of perseverance for Buffalo as the Bills make a historic playoff run.

Business Insider logo Business Insider 1/23/2021 ahartmans@businessinsider.com (Avery Hartmans)
a sign on the side of a building: Brett Mikoll and Dave Horesh, the cofounders of Oxford Pennant, standing above their new banners hanging on Buffalo's Seneca One tower. Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant © Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant Brett Mikoll and Dave Horesh, the cofounders of Oxford Pennant, standing above their new banners hanging on Buffalo's Seneca One tower. Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant
  • Oxford Pennant is a Buffalo, New York-based business that manufactures wool felt pennants and banners.
  • In March 2020, the company created a banner that read, "Together we will see it through." The banner became something of a beacon of hope during the lockdowns, and Oxford Pennant has sold over 5,000 of them.
  • Now, as the Buffalo Bills make their first playoffs run in 25 years, the company has hung larger-than-life pennants over the city to cheer on the team. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In early March, when the world seemed to stop, everything shut down, and coronavirus cases were on the rise, Dave Horesh and Brett Mikoll had an idea. 

Horesh and Mikoll are the cofounders of Oxford Pennant, a Buffalo, New York-based business that designs and manufactures wool felt pennants and banners. Like most businesses, Oxford Pennant was hit by the financial side-effects of the pandemic: it closed up shop when the lockdowns began and furloughed the majority of its staff of 26. 

Inspired partly by a sign that was posted around Buffalo roughly 100 years ago - a period of time when the nation was recovering from both a World War and a lethal pandemic - Horesh and Mikoll came up with a new banner design: a simple, red-white-and-blue sign that read "Together we will see it through." 

The team produced just 12 of them, uncertain whether people would buy them or whether it was even appropriate to launch a new product during such a precarious time. 

The banners sold out in four minutes. By the end of the day, the company had roughly 900 sales. I'm from Western New York, and I've been living in Buffalo again since March. For me, spotting one of the banners in someone's window was a little beacon of hope as COVID cases rose and deaths mounted. 

At this point, they've sold over 5,000, sent to homes across the country, far beyond the reaches of Buffalo's nearly 53 square miles.

A post shared by Oxford Pennant® (@oxfordpennant)

For Oxford Pennant, the banners helped stave off what could have been a dire few months.

"That product became a lifeline for our company," Horesh told Insider. "We were able to take that product and we rehired everyone. We were able to just spread sewing machines throughout Buffalo and keep the company alive." 

Read more: The 25 best cities to start a business - or move your current one

Now, 10 months after the start of the pandemic, Oxford Pennant's - and Buffalo's - outlook is remarkably different. The company recently hung larger-than-life versions of its ubiquitous banners on the tallest building in Buffalo to cheer on the long-suffering Buffalo Bills, which are headed to their first AFC Championship game in over 25 years.

"It's one of those dizzying moments as a business owner where you're like, I think we did something really, really cool and special here," Horesh said. 

Building a company on nights, weekends, and bathroom breaks

a person sitting at a table: Oxford Pennant employees work on pennants and banners at the company's manufacturing studio in Buffalo. Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant © Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant Oxford Pennant employees work on pennants and banners at the company's manufacturing studio in Buffalo. Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant

Horesh and Mikoll met while working for an ad agency. Both creatives in their late 20s, they bonded during a road trip from Buffalo to Boston for work - three months later, they decided to launch their own company. 

Horesh said they never expected the pennants to be much more than a side-gig, something they sold at festivals or pop-ups. But this was 2013, when Instagram was picking up speed. Customers began posting photos of the pennants on their pages, which would lead their friends to reach out to ask for custom orders. 

"I always joke with people that I ran the company nights, weekends, and bathroom breaks," Horesh said. Four years later, he brought his ad agency in as a partner and began running the company full time with Mikoll. 

The turning point for Oxford Pennant came in 2018, when the company entered a startup competition run by 43North, a local accelerator, and sponsored by companies like Facebook and Amazon's AWS. Oxford Pennant won $100,000, which it used to buy equipment, hire more people, and open a store. 

Colleen Heidinger, president of 43North, said Horesh and Mikoll "clearly had no idea at the time what it was going to become." 

"I remember vividly the conversation and the review process had been around, how are we going to get them to remain in Buffalo?" Heidinger told Insider. "But their commitment to Buffalo is really why we found them attractive, in addition to the manufacturing."

Heidinger described what Oxford Pennant is building as both accessible and tangible. Pennants cost as little as $25 - or less, if you get a miniature one - and they're something everyone, from grandparents to Gen Z, can touch and understand.

a person standing in front of a building: Brett Mikoll, left, and Dave Horesh, the cofounders of Oxford Pennant. Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant © Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant Brett Mikoll, left, and Dave Horesh, the cofounders of Oxford Pennant. Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant

On top of that, the pennants, banners, and flags are made and sold on Main Street in Buffalo, at the heart of the city and in a region that still has the bones of the manufacturing hub it once was. 

Horesh said that legacy looms large over Buffalo, and over his company. 

"I think that when you're in a city like this, there is some feeling that you're connected to a heritage that's kind of specific to this place," he said. "Buffalo is a really big part of our brand - when we do business with really big companies, they tend to know us as the guys from Buffalo - but it's something that we're proud to wear on our sleeves."

This means Horesh and Mikoll are spreading the gospel of Buffalo to some of the biggest companies in the US, and the world. Over the years, Oxford Pennant has partnered with J.Crew, Adidas, and Shopify. Visitors to Jordan Brand headquarters in Oregon are greeted by 13 Oxford Pennants hanging on the walls. The band Wilco was an early fan of the brand, and it's become a years-long partnership. And in true Buffalo fashion, the company recently did a pop-up shop with a local band - the Goo Goo Dolls. 

A post shared by Oxford Pennant® (@oxfordpennant)

In 2019, echoing the company's commitment to its Buffalo roots, it worked with the owner of a downtown building to install a massive mural inspired by one of Oxford Pennant's popular slogans: "Keep Buffalo a secret." 

But perhaps their biggest collaboration to date, both figuratively and literally, has been with the Buffalo Bills. 

A historic season for the Bills

a large ship in a body of water: Oxford Pennants hanging on Buffalo's Seneca One tower. Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant © Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant Oxford Pennants hanging on Buffalo's Seneca One tower. Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant

On a breezy, gray Saturday afternoon three weeks ago, I was driving on the highway heading into Buffalo from south of the city. From miles away, you can see Buffalo's one big skyscraper, the Seneca One tower. 

But that day, something about it looked different. As I got closer, I could see why: On all four sides of the tower were gigantic pennants bearing the phrase "Let's go Buffalo." If I squinted, I could just make out what turned out to be Horesh and Mikoll at the top of the building. 

(Unlike Oxford Pennant's normal pennants, which are made from a stiff wool, the giant banners are made of a breathable mesh to allow air to pass through. If the pennants were made of wool and the wind picked up in Buffalo, as it often does, it could have gotten underneath the banners and caused them to fly off the building. But Horesh assured me the pennants are very tightly secured.)

The pennants are the latest - and biggest - Bills-themed banners Oxford Pennant has churned out this season, which has been the best season the Bills have had since the early 1990s. The collaboration began as a custom banner for every Bills win, which Bills players hold up on the team's Instagram account. They say things like, "Who has more fun than Buffalo?" or "Shout!" - a reference to the Bills' famously remixed post-touchdown song.

A post shared by Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills)

What in previous Bills seasons might have been as few as four banners quickly started adding up. Then, the Bills won the AFC East for the first time in 25 years.

"Nine wins became 10, became 11, 12, 13," Horesh said. "If the team had snuck into the playoffs at 9-7, I don't know if we would have done something like this, but the team looks like they might actually do something this year." 

As of publishing, the Bills are set to face off against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday after beating the Baltimore Ravens in last weekend's divisional game.

Read more: New York is unveiling mobile sports betting legislation that could be a gold rush for media companies. But big questions remain about the plans.

Dan Misko, senior vice president of business development for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Bills, told Insider in a statement that Oxford Pennant has played a key role in rallying support for the Bills, especially when fans couldn't attend the games in person. 

"It's awesome that everyone in Buffalo can be part of the excitement as 'Let's Go Buffalo' is displayed larger than life in some of the most prominent parts of our city," Misko said. "Dave Horesh and Oxford Pennant have done an outstanding job connecting our fans with Victory Banners all season long, and have taken that connection to the next level in celebration of our AFC East title."

a group of people walking down a busy city street: Main Street in downtown Buffalo. Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant © Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant Main Street in downtown Buffalo. Colton Wright/Oxford Pennant

Now, despite the pandemic, despite political turmoil in Washington and uncertainty about the future, there's a collective feeling of hope and excitement in the region, a feeling like things may be changing for a city, and a football team, that have been the butt of seemingly endless jokes for over two decades. 

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who's been the city's mayor since 2005, summed up the momentum that Western New York is experiencing right now, a collective spirit that he described as "hard work, creativity, giving back, moving forward, never stopping."

"It's an affirmation of certainly what I've always known about Buffalo: that this is a great place to live, work, invest, visit, and do business, and raise a family," he told Insider. "All of those attributes about Buffalo that might have been a secret to some are no longer a secret. Companies like Oxford Pennant are helping to get that word out." 

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