By Tim Feran
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio.
Like most Americans, Tanisha Robinson and Michael Limes watched the Super Bowl with great interest.
But the business partners at Columbus-based apparel company Print Syndicate weren’t interested in the final score — they wanted to see what catchphrase, image or incident would have people talking, and then turn that buzz into a T-shirt.
“By the time the Super Bowl halftime show was over, we had a ‘left shark’ T-shirt out,” Robinson said, referring to the comical shark dancer in Katy Perry’s halftime performance.
Millennials’ passion for wearing their personalities — or whatever catches their interest — on their chests has sparked local entrepreneurs into creating apparel businesses, including Print Syndicate and a gaggle of others such as Homage, Local Liberation, Lamp Apparel, Where I’m From T-Shirts, State of Devotion, Traxler Tees, Capital Roots Clothing and Alison Rose.
Unlike past generations who sought jobs in corporate America, millennials have jumped into running their own businesses with great fervor, said Doug McIntyre, CEO of Cult Marketing.
“One of the things our research has uncovered is that millennials have a really high propensity to be entrepreneurs,” he said. “Some research out there says over 54 percent either want to or have started a business. More than half — that’s pretty amazing.”
Several factors have pushed the young generation into becoming entrepreneurs.
“One, of course, is that a lot of kids came out of college during an economic disaster,” McIntyre said. “There were no jobs, so it made sense to do something on their own.”
Another point that drives the young entrepreneurs: “They don’t live to work,” McIntyre said. ” Millennials really are more about the experience — am I doing what I like? Is the company I work for contributing to a better world?”
Local Liberation, for example, promotes itself as “a gay-owned and operated business” that hopes, “in some small way, that our shirts can help to change the world.”
While those are strong motivations for starting a business, it is technology that has given young entrepreneurs an advantage that their Baby Boomer parents never had.
For one thing, setting up a website on which to sell T-shirts is far less expensive than investing in a bricks-and-mortar store.
“An e-commerce site is a very low barrier,” Robinson said. “For us, even five years ago, business would have been lot harder than it is now.”
Websites are not only easy to set up and for consumers to use, but they have an added benefit for the companies that run them: New products can be posted quickly, as Print Syndicate showed with its Super Bowl “left shark” T-shirt.
Such speed in getting a product to market is “amazing,” McIntyre said. “If you’re a traditional retailer, that’s tough to beat.”
Even so, a lot of startups fail, said Zachary Traxler, co-owner and founder of Traxler Tees. ” But those people who succeed are trying multiple designs and putting (them) out to market faster than anyone else.”
Changes in technology have also affected the printing process, because companies can not only design a mockup and post it online quickly, but can do so without ever making a single shirt. Then, depending on the reaction from customers, the company can decide to print a small number of shirts, a larger limited edition or a mass product, all with the confidence that there won’t be many unsold leftovers.
The integration of computers into today’s presses has made an enormous difference for startup companies, too.
A generation ago, when Traxler’s father created the iconic “Surf Ohio” T-shirt, “it was all by hand,” he said. “To get the screen
prepared, that could take a whole day for one job. Then it would take a whole other day to print. … You could probably do 72 to 100 shirts per hour manually.
“Now, with LED technology and using Photoshop (to create a design), we can have a shirt ready for press in an hour, and off the press in another hour. … You can do about 1,100 shirts in an hour.”
Technology has opened “a lot of doors for us,” Traxler said. “I started this business essentially off a homemade press. If you’ve got twenty grand or a rich uncle, within the first year you could net $100,000.”
Another big factor helping T-shirt companies to succeed is that young consumers feel well-served by the creative designs on the products.
“This generation really feels some power to be creative,” McIntyre said. “They feel their voice means something. Growing up as a digital culture is huge. They’re very connected through social media. But also, they fully expect that their voice is going to be heard, whether on Pinterest or Facebook or wherever.”
That impulse has been a big part of why so many young entrepreneurs make shirts with clever images and phrases that serve niche segments.
“My mom thinks this is a T-shirt company,” Robinson said. “In reality, we say we’re in the business of self-expression.”
Millennials also are fond of retro fashion, something that has helped almost every startup apparel company in central Ohio, including Homage, which built its reputation on old-school designs, as the name of the company implies. The company’s ’70s-inspired Script Ohio shirt and mid-1980s style Cleveland Browns “Kardiac Kids” shirt are among its well-known garments.
Why are the nostalgia designs so popular?
“Retro designs are just really cool,” Traxler said. “All of our parents had T-shirt collections in the 1970s and 1980s. My dad passed down a portion of his collection to me.”
Young customers’ nostalgia isn’t just for the design, but also for the comfy feel of those old T-shirts.
“The garments originally weren’t really super soft,” Traxler said. “But after being washed thousands of times, now they’re really comfortable.”
Shirt manufacturers have responded by coming up with fabric that’s soft right off the rack.
“And now that’s it’s softer, why wouldn’t you want it to hug your body?” Traxler said. “So American Apparel started to taper in their garment. The tapered style is extremely popular with millennials, too — it lets us show off our bodies.”
With so many factors working in their favor, little wonder that the T-shirt and apparel startups are booming.
“I washed dishes at the Tip Top (restaurant Downtown) about eight years ago,” Robinson said. Today, she heads a company that employs 127 people. “So we’re plugging along.”