3 things I learned about business from selling t-shirts

 

La Muerta Indie Clothing Co. "The Argonaut" T-Shirt

“The Argonaut:” Art by Olde Soul, photomanip by La Muerta.

Once upon a time, I worked for a small, zany startup in Brooklyn. It was before the idea of a startup in a Brooklyn loft was cool — or maybe I’m remembering it wrong, and it was right as a startup in a Brooklyn loft stopped being cool, and started being incredibly expensive. Who knows? I thought it was cool, that’s for sure.

So much so that for the first few months of my tenure there, I would wake up almost throttled by my excitement and butterflies and big plans…for my job. I was going to NYU full-time and working whenever I could fit it in, taking night classes and often continuing work late at night in my tiny Brooklyn studio, listening to obscure music and writing pithy song-of-the-day reviews instead of finishing my term paper on classical Arabic poetry (incidentally, one of my top-5 classes of all time).

I was on cloud nine. “Overworked” wasn’t even a thing. I was happy.

But the job wasn’t what I loved. It had plenty of mind-boggling WTF moments, like any “real” job. What I loved was the culture — the feeling of being part of something, something I could pour my heart and brains into, and expect the people alongside me to the same.

Not coincidentally, my husband and I met at this startup, and we both had a chance to drink its cultural Kool-Aid — at least until a series of layoffs changed the vibe forever. Great company culture (our own, or someone else’s) is something we’ve both chased ever since, sort of like you do with your first love. So when he hatched the idea for a t-shirt company last year — this, after launching our own creative consultancy — I was skeptical. But I also knew he’d been bitten. Not by entrepreneurship per se, but by the idea that you could be part of a company you loved working for.

We launched La Muerta in late 2011. And as I reflect on what’s gone into building our own independent micro-clothing brand so far, I’m struck by how different the lessons are from those I learned in a client-facing business. Namely:

  1. If you’re passionate, it shows. When someone starts talking about following their passion, my eyes immediately roll, because I’m 12, and rolling my eyes helps me feel superior. But the thing is? Well, La Muerta has an extremely avid fan base — as the unofficial accountant, I can tell you that I find it incredible, every month, just how many people buy every single shirt within a few hours of its release, like clockwork. The people who love La Muerta love it more because they know it takes us time and energy to do what we do — and we put our money where our mouths are, paying attention to detail (we sign every invoice with a personal, handwritten note), using only the best raw materials, offering loyalty discounts, and generally doing things a business focused solely on profit might not. We still run lean and mean, just like we do with WVC, but the product comes first — because it stands in for the passion.
  2. Hierarchy is for losers, in art and business. Even big organizations today are flattening, and that is mostly a good thing. Something that was true about the Brooklyn startup and also about La Muerta is that you do whatever you have to to get the job done, no matter your title or renown, and you choose vendors with this same concept in mind. Ex.: La Muerta is mostly my husband, and he goes to the post office himself. We work with both well-known artists and those who are barely a blip even on the most underground art fanatics’ radars — because if the brand cares enough to commit resources to marketing, the art does speak for itself, and many of our customers are artists who can appreciate this democratic sensibility. Finally, our vendors are top-notch but often teeny-tiny — including another micro, one-man shop headquartered in New Jersey.
  3. Your ideas are better if you care about your mission (not your model). If you told me we’d have a t-shirt biz (along with our graphic design and copywriting services), I’d have told you you were nuts. And that I don’t know how to monetize such a thing, or promote it, or… do anything. But my partner was so committed to the mission (of recognizing the hard-working artists who pay their bills by creating art for big-name brands, usually without being recognized for it) that we were able to create a model to serve it, rather than creating a business plan and then trying to deliver on mere theory. We then settled on issuing limited-edition, small-run tees several times a month, featuring — and crediting on the hang tag — our favorite artists and illustrators from all over the world, who’d get love during their exclusive release period on our sites and social media. And we’d use a theme instead of a “line,” so artists could express themselves. Having artists both credited and responsible for conceiving the artwork — not being told what to do, as they are in most commercial design projects — meant we had a zealous, built-in audience on day 1, happy to promote their shirts and the work we were doing.
I’ve written here before about what I learned from jobs I hated — plenty! But learning from a company you’re surprised to be part of is really something special, especially when you get to watch someone’s dream take shape — and occasionally shift — in the process.

 

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