The T-shirt business has always been and will probably always will be a popular one. I mean, what’s not to love? Consumers have the ability to wear designs right on their shirts that are specific to their interests or hobbies.
But what if I told you a fathers T-shirt business, one that would come to earn him nearly $5,000 in monthly revenue, was an idea crafted by his 8-year old son? Or that in just 3 months, another entrepreneur in the T-shirt business would create a politically-based company that would come to thrive in the T-shirt market?
Chris Durso, owner and creator of The Foodnited States and Kevin O’Connor, creator of Identitie Politics are prime examples of how quickly an idea can take off.
The Foodnited States
“The concept behind The Foodnited States is U.S. States made from food and renamed with a proper pun,” Durso explains. This includes Fishigan (Michigan made out of fish), Avocolordo (An avocado-Colorado hybrid) and New Pork (I think you get the idea at this point.)
Yes, Durso’s 8-year old son really did suggest the iconic food-state combo to his father.
“His idea to “make each state out of food” turned into a photo series that I developed and it eventually went viral on Instagram in 2015,” Durso explains.
This father and businessman also credits his experience as both an art director and professional cook for the creative side of his T-shirt business.
“I created all 50 states out of food by hand,” he explains.
This photo series included fun, food-shaped states. One of his more popular designs was California made out of kale, and called “Kalefornia.”
But after the series was over, Durso was confronted with what to do next.
“After the series was over, merchandise seemed like a logical next step, after many requests from fans to do so.” Thus the T-shirt idea was born.
Durso used many of the photos from his original series as inspiration for the T-shirt line.
“I was lucky enough to find an illustrator whose style fit this transition perfectly, ” he explains.
Through a search on Dribble, Durso eventually found his artist: Gustavo Zambelli. And, soon after, the perfect T-shirt company.
“Threadbird in Orlando has been with us since the beginning.” Through Threadbird, Durso’s company offers 100% cotton shirts, allowing very specific ink transfers for the artwork.
The Foodnited States officially launched on Shopify in 2017.
“I designed it, built it and promoted it myself -- taking only a chunk out of a credit card,” Durso claims.
He also says he launched his business without a thought of a budget - he just wanted to see his dream come to life. The company gained some traction by being picked up by a few blogs and this, combined with an already established audience from his photo series, was a quick recipe for success.
Durso explains that financing for new inventory has been an issue he’s been trying to overcome. “Since we do not dropship our tees, the challenge is pre-selling new states to hit our minimums.” He notes that Shopify Capital has been a great resource for helping with this problem.
Tools For Success
So how did this young father do it? Durso says that his business still “relies heavily on organic social media and an email list.”
In addition, one of the most profitable aspects of Foodnited States is that it still has room for growth. Currently, only certain states are offered so each new state that is launched gives Durso the opportunity to gain more attention. He says there could be as many as 25 states offered in the year 2019.
“I’ll often target ads for a new tee or sticker launch specifically to that State, or rely on social media followers that have been patiently waiting for theirs,” he explains.
Furthermore, Shopify has successfully served as a shipping host for Foodnited States. “During my initial research to find a shop platform, it seemed like every site that I was using for inspiration was powered by Shopify,” he explains.
He was drawn to the idea of simply choosing a theme and then immediately selling. In addition, Shopify’s ability to maintain unlimited traffic was a major pro to using this particular platform.
Durso’s favorite Shopify apps include Judge.me, PushOwl, Privy and Viral Sweep.
Durso notes that he and Foodnited States will be experimenting with affiliate links and more influencer-based marketing in 2019.
“I’ve tried to keep sales of The Foodnited States just on our website, not selling on alternate sites such as Amazon or Etsy,” he explains. “This is something we may explore as we grow the line and finish the current redesign of product.”
In addition, Durso hopes to increase production for a more profitable business as well as reduce overall prices for consumers. (A win-win!)
Advice for Entrepreneurs
Firstly, Durso says that research into your market and niche is crucial for creating and maintaining a successful business.
“I wished I’d done more research into current design trends and competitors when I launched the first set of tees,” he says. It’s important to know the market you’re getting into and what works vs doesn’t work.
Collaborations have also been a major asset for Foodnited States as well, specifically with brands who have a natural similarity with Durso’s content.
As an example, Foodnited teamed up with Unique Pretzels when Durso debuted the “Pretzlevania” state tee. This included a National Pretzel Day gift basket that had the shirt, stickers and products from Unique Pretzels.
Lastly, Durso claims that when you’re unsure about future products, your fans might have the perfect answer. “It also doesn’t hurt to reach out to fans when you’re stuck.”
He recalls a time when he couldn’t figure out what color to make a new T-shirt and decided to reach out on social media.
Another entrepreneur making waves in the T-shirt community is Kevin O’Connor, founder of Identitee Politics.
“Identitee Politics was inspired by the divided times we live in, a time where people define themselves by their political beliefs like no other,” O’Connor explains. The T-shirts sold by O’Connor feature political messages or stances that allow consumers to express themselves.
O’Connor says that using a combination of paid Instagram/Facebook Ads has been fundamental in producing sales for Identitee Politics.
“Like most new store owners, I wasted a lot of money on paid ads without a solid strategy. Now I mainly use paid ads for retargeting rather than gaining traffic at the wider end of the sales funnel,” he states.
Like Durso, O’Connor has made use of Shopify, staring that it “is a very versatile and stable platform with integration for payment systems and suppliers.” He also loves the easy use of the platforms mobile app for managing his business while out of office.
And while he does limit his use of Shopify apps, his favorites are Print on Demand, KIT and Privy.
In addition, O’Connor explains that it’s important for customers to have the ability to easily contact you/the business.
“Having a prominent 'contact us' link with a simple email form means potential customers can get instant responses during business hours,” he says.
Moving forward, O’Connor hopes to focus more on content marketing and PR online. “Because of our original designs, we are able to let the product speak for itself,” he explains.
He also says that while his business currently only targets one market, he would like to target three, explaining that, “The aim is to open three sites instead of one and tailor the content and products for each market.”
O’Connor says that having a specialized niche was one of his keys to success, noting that “it's important to respond to the market.” This means researching and producing a product that is wanted.
O’Connor’s other advice for aspiring business owners? “Your best selling product might not always be what you first expect and it's important to respond to the market.”