Lessons from a T-shirt Guy
Great to meet you here! I'm a t-shirt guy… the head t-shirt guy around these parts. I aim to use this medium that I stumbled into, fought for, agonized on, and exalted for close to 20 years to inspire, encourage, and connect with the world. I want to share with you some specifics of the early days of my journey, in part to offer more insight into the origins and evolution of Solid Threads, but more so to demonstrate just how little I really knew about what I was doing as I was doing it, and how much learning, growth, and transformation is possible if you make the space for it to happen.
The Seeds are Sewn:
I've been drawn to t-shirts since I first came up with one for a college business "mock-company" class built upon the premise of creating and selling a product on campus. I came up with a drinking related shirt (no surprise at that point of my life) and it was denied by the "board" due to its alcohol related content. So I printed up 144 of them on my own and ended up selling out of them in a couple days. The seeds for my destiny as a t-shirt guy were thus ingloriously planted in the form of a "Frats of Bucknell" t-shirt. This drinking theme took center stage throughout most my early t-shirt making days, many of which still exist and hold a deserved place in the collection, but thankfully I've since gravitated towards more meaningful pursuits… for the most part.
Following this successful first run of shirts I contracted with a local screen printer and setup as a middle man on campus brokering t-shirt deals between students and the printer. I had shown some entrepreneurial glimmers in the past from the days I created a window washing business called "Three Panes in The Glass" and from my time running a Good Humor ice cream truck route (talk about a place to find t-shirt ideas) and I was apparently continuing this trend. I also used to wear a "Want a Quickee" shirt around campus that I accidentally acquired from my Dad, based on a real oil lube company. I was always amazed by how much attention this one simple t-shirt would get me. And I loved the "two-for-Tuesday" sales at the local Salvation Army. I would check out and stock up on random t-shirt goodness as often as possible.
After a post-college stint waiting tables on an island (my Dad was very proud), I finally resigned myself to follow my Dad's footsteps into an "acceptable" career in Finance. I got a job at a prestigious bond house (I know those words together sound ridiculous) and literally had the job title "Data Input Specialist." I was going places! As I mindlessly entered one trade after another, I began reflecting on ways to escape this number crunching sweatshop tucked inconspicuously into the Manhattan skyline, and I kept coming back to t-shirts ideas. After just 4 months of misery and contemplating a swan dive onto the subway tracks during my soul numbing commute, I inadvertently missed an incorrectly entered trade sent down to my lowly operations post by the powers that be. Ultimately the company lost a big sum of money as a result. I was shown the pavement for my contribution to the mishap and my career in Finance was mercifully cut very short.
Adventures in Advertising:
I headed into advertising, and through 5 years' operating from a similarly uninspiring position, acting as a "liaison" between departments (aka a glorified mailman), I slowly and steadily acquired the skills, knowledge, wherewithal, and most importantly, motivation to get Solid Threads off the ground. I proactively tapped into all the resources I had during my never ending rounds "mingling" through the various departments of the firm. At that time, I had no idea what brought me to this role shepherding useless, nonsensical sales materials on the latest drug to cure incontinence or some other trumped up malady, but I can now appreciate the significant role this has played in the larger story. These were not my proudest (or happiest) days, but without them, I would have never found my path.
During this time I taught myself design, and slowly (very slowly when you look at my first run of shirts) began to hone my t-shirt designing chops. I also acquired some pretty serious Ping Pong skills and spent a little too much time at the Limerick House, the local Irish dive bar that has since closed. I didn't come up with all those St. Patty's t-shirts simply by surfing the internet. When I did make it home from my 50 – 60 hour work week, I would kick back in my massaging La-Z-Boy chair, pour a glass of port wine, inhale some of mother nature's finest bounty, and tap into the timeless ease I found designing t-shirts late into the night. (Drinking and drugs are definitely not condoned or necessary for creative inspiration. As time has gone on, I've found the opposite to be true in fact. But I do highly recommend the massaging La-Z- Boy chair.)
After 5 years in the advertising game, and only seeing moderate success with the initial Solid Threads website I had mustered the courage to debut the Christmas prior, I was beginning to resign myself to a life as an Ad man, and a non-creative Ad man at that, as I was in line to pursue an Account Executive track. I applied for a "next level" position that opened up within my firm, but was ultimately passed over for the promotion. They offered the job to a coworker, who had only recently started working in the glorified mailman role I had been toiling in for years.
Several things about this irrational corporate injustice (as I viewed it) lit a fire in me and I was determined to bring about a change. There was an Arts and Music festival approaching in my hometown of Hoboken, NJ. I was even too late to officially gain admission, so I negotiated some space in front of a smoothie shop that I liked. I built a relatively crude t-shirt display, and actually had to recruit a friend of mine to run it when I realized that I was scheduled to attend my little brother's college graduation the same weekend. After the 6 hours festival came to an end, he called me tell me how we did; and I couldn't believe what he said.
A Street Vendor is Born, a T-shirt Guy is Made:
He gave me the total take for the day, and the profit from one day of (essentially not) working was more than I typically earned in a full month from my manic, angst-ridden, dead end 50 hour work week in corporate advertising. I went in Monday morning, quit my job, and headed over to town hall to get my street vending license. I started selling my wares on the street 3-4 times a week and exhibiting at craft fairs and festivals throughout the state on the weekends. I ultimately "worked the streets" for over 2 years and was paying my bills and putting all remaining capital into the business throughout the process.
During my first winter as a street vendor, funds were getting tight. I had bulked up on inventory for the approaching holiday season and no longer had consistent revenue due to the cold weather. I had however, randomly met the t-shirt buyer from Urban Outfitters one fateful fall evening while holding down my table tucked in between the McDonalds and the Rite Aid, around the corner from the homeless shelter where I had begun to establish a following of sorts. I had sent in a sales presentation to the Urban Outfitters buyer after we met, but it had now been months since that time. At this point, my funds were all but gone and I was actually applying for jobs to be a waiter again to make ends meet, because there was no way I was going back to the cubicle jungles. Then everything changed over the course of one short, entirely unexpected phone call.
It was the buyer from Urban Outfitters on the line and she said she was interested in my "I'm a Drinker, Not a Fighter" t-shirt for the upcoming St. Patty's season. She wanted to place a starting order for 2400 shirts! Wait… What! This had never entered the realm of possibility for me at this point, and the fortuitous twist of fate just got better from there. This shirt ultimately went on to become one of their bestselling graphic tee's of all time. They also began to order more designs from me. In the meantime, I attended my first industry trade show, which was another long, embarrassingly arduous foray into the unknown, but I ended up walking away with some new accounts, and eventually a much greater understanding of the industry, along with a platform to take my business to the next level.
Lessons from a T-shirt Guy:
I have since become a legitimate business success, selling my t-shirt line in thousands of stores all over the world and operating a much-heralded t-shirt shop in Hoboken, NJ for 8 years. It has been (and continues to be) a very challenging, fulfilling, and worthwhile experience; however, after years of doing this, I eventually began noticing more and more that I was grinding my way through my days. I was working harder and feeling more and more overwhelmed in my efforts to maintain and build upon the measure of success I had attained. Preserving the laid back, carefree, successful t-shirt guy persona I portrayed on the surface was fast becoming the biggest struggle of my life. Somewhere along the line I came to believe that the heavy weight I always thought I had to carry was not only a prerequisite, but an ongoing requirement for success to continue; and if I were to lay this burden down (as many great Blues musicians have exalted) it would all come crumbling down around me. Something buried deep inside was urging me to push harder and harder in pursuit of this ever moving place in the distance that I was absolutely certain I had to reach before I could truly sit down, breathe, and take a look around.
That is, until Hurricane Irene and Sandy destructively (and graciously as I now understand) broke me from this cycle and ultimately ushered in a brand new definition of my business and myself. After this almost indescribably difficult ordeal (learn more from my 'Lessons from a Washed Up T-shirt Guy' blog post), as I struggled and toiled to reset, reframe, and reinvigorate my business and myself, I came to some significant insights in how I wanted to proceed. I closed down the retail store, let go of many long standing employees, consolidated all my belongings, sold my house and extricated myself from the only home I ever knew, traveled extensively for a year, and eventually settled down with a very light footprint in Vermont. During this time of retreat and re-examination, I reworked and ultimately succeeded in transforming my business into one that worked with me, instead of against, and one that could be operated from anywhere in the world with only an internet connection.
Thinking back to the reasons I ever wanted to start my own business, my greatest motivator was always to find freedom. At first I thought that meant freedom from my corporate shackles, but I have slowly come to unearth a much deeper truth. I was actually searching for a sense of freedom from my own misplaced feelings of unworthiness. Somebody call a therapist! Seriously… call a therapist. I have come to find that this deep rooted sense of not feeling like I was enough, independent of my Head T-shirt Guy status, was ultimately what kept me chained to the relentless, dogged merry-go-round of external validation for so long. I have since learned that to truly find freedom, we must first not only realize, but fully appreciate that we are "good enough" at this very moment, no matter the circumstances; but simply because we inhabit these bodies… this life in this magnificent, inexplicable, awe inspiring time and place. When you start from this place of wonder, magical things begin to unfold.
I am now finally beginning to experience firsthand the truest measures of success; a sense of connection, ease, and joy in simply being alive. They are showing up in equal measure to my ability to appreciate everything I previously thought was broken about myself. I've chosen to share the full depth of my hard earned, newfound understanding in the hope that it may inspire a few others to begin and/or renew their search for freedom from where I have learned it is truly found - deep within the broken pieces of us, the pieces that mend into a heart that is whole through awareness, acceptance, and love.
I look forward to continuing to share this journey and engaging more proactively with all those delving into this great mystery, and all those that like rocking my shirts. They all come from a place of optimism, authenticity, and love, and each one means more than they may first appear. Please join into the community through the character section, the blog, and of course, the t-shirts! Here's to tuning in, going easy, and staying creative. One Love.