Did I say 15 easy steps? My bad. I meant 15 insane years. But bear with me…
This week marks the 15 year anniversary of Goodie Two Sleeves. That’s… a long time. And this fellowship has certainly been an unexpected journey. (Sorry. Force of hobbit.)
On June 5, 2002, we were both overly ambitious and woefully short sighted about this little endeavor to “make funny t-shirts.” Far less had we set out to start a successful clothing company. But the beauty of it was we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We weren’t anxious about the pitfalls and plateaus we’d experience. We were just excited to be doing something new and fun. And as we grew, and hurt, and soared, and fell, we learned. We adapted. Much of what we do today is little like the company that was able to churn out just 30 designs during its first year.
Today, we’ll design more than that every week.
So, in honor of our achievements, I’ve put together a 15 step method on starting a successful clothing company. Follow this simple technique to grow just like Goodie Two Sleeves did!
Step 1: Have No Idea What You’re Doing
When first starting out, make sure you know nothing about the industry you’re about to enter.
We didn’t do any research. We didn’t know our customers, or how much anything should cost. We set out to manufacture hundreds of our first design, and had no plan on how to sell them. Literally, all we knew was there is a thing that exists called a t-shirt and they often have pictures on them. PERFECT! Let’s do that!
Keep in mind, this was fifteen years ago. There were no resources for kids like us. There was no ‘print-on-demand’ or YouTube tutorials. We were sprinting into this new venture blindly. And it was amazing.
Step 2: Make ridiculous goals
Sit down and put to paper the most innocent, confusing goals any business has ever had.
Our headquarters was Centennial Park in Arroyo Grande, CA. Our office was an unused picnic bench. Someone had suggested we write down a 5 year plan. That seemed like a good place to start. Now, I can’t tell how we planned on making $5,000 in our first quarter considering that goal predated having any actual product by two months. Clearly we were ahead of our time.
It may interest you to know the reverse of this plan also shows the first sketch of our logo. And an angry Julius, apparently. I also snapped our first homemade business cards and California Resale License. It was a productive first month.
At any rate, this plan wasn’t accurate by any measure and we woefully underestimated the number of designs we would make. That first year we only made a select few, but all of them were printed and sold in retail. And by the close of our first year, Goodie Two Sleeves made its first $1MM.
Step 3: Design an ugly logo
Don’t worry about your brand’s identity, just use an inside joke that no one will ever understand!
“Why is your mascot the Lego guy?”
Not to be confused with our mascot, Big Red, Chester is our logo. Truth be told, I was still learning Illustrator when I drew our logo. Simple shapes were the easiest to draw.
We had planned on our first design being the retelling of a story. My old partner Dillon was neighbors with a deaf kid and every few days he would go to that kid’s house. Dillon would sign “Can you play?” to this kid and they’d go play video games for hours. They never spoke, but they had a memorable friendship.
Well that was too hard for me to draw. I mean I tried, but the best part of the whole drawing was that kid’s face. Even though he didn’t actually have a weird rectangle face. Anyhow, we printed that face as our first shirt, and kept using it as our logo. We still use a version of this face today, albeit a happier one.
The funny thing is, it fits. The story, and the face. People may not have known the story behind it, but once they heard it the whole thing worked. Even without any context, we still receive mail from people talking about how much they love Chester.
Step 4: Get kicked out of your first store
Convince a friend to do you a favor. Make sure your designs don’t sell. That should do the trick.
So our friend Robbie owns a surf shop called Esteem. We asked him to carry our ‘line’ which consisted of 1 horrifying logo tee and 1 t-shirt with an apple core on it. Robbie was understandably cautious, so he carried these designs on consignment. That means he didn’t buy them, he just let us sell them there for a few months.
Over the next 3 months we worked our butts off creating an actual line of over a dozen tees. There was some really good stuff in there too, including our first ‘real’ design shown above. When we finally had something we were proud of, Dillon walked into Esteem with the intention of selling our new designs. But before he could even speak, Robbie said, “Hey, you here to take your stuff out?”
Filled with all of the confidence any young entrepreneur has, Dillon said, “…uh… yeah” and grabbed our tees without ever showing Robbie the new line. It was a huge disappointment and I don’t think Esteem ever carried Goodie again.
While it was disheartening at the time, it also put a fire under our toes and Dillon drove from that failure to a new store in town. He asked for the owner and told him, “I promise we don’t do business like this, but I have some shirts in the trunk of my car…”
That store became our second retailer. It was called Lady Luck and she was true to her name because her owner Malachi became our first sales rep and eventually a partner in the company. Although both he and Dillon have moved on, that was a really special chapter in Goodie’s story.
Step 5: Make sure your office is 77 sq. ft. or smaller
Get a space to call your own, but make sure it’s embarrassingly small and dirty.
We got an office pretty early on. It was a closet. In an unused storage room. In the back of my dad’s auto repair business. It was 7 feet wide and 8 feet deep. A door in the back led to an even smaller space, just 3′ x 7′. So the ‘back room’ became out ‘warehouse’ and the the front was our ‘office.’
Talk about starting a successful clothing company!
It fit a desk and a recliner which meant only one person could work at a time while the other slept. From this room we got into Esteem, Lady Luck, and then our 3rd retailer Hot Topic. And then Urban Outfitters. And Delia*s. And hundreds of independent retailers.
And this tiny room, these clearly defined limits that represented everything we should not have been able to achieve, highlighted these monumental sales. From a room in a room in an auto shop, with no money and little understanding, two teenagers defied all odds and made a real business.
This location remained our headquarters until we moved away.
Step 6: Make everything yourself
Because who ever heard of outsourcing?
Certainly not us. From the beginning, we immersed ourselves into this crazy t-shirty world and did things the hard way.
I mentioned earlier there were no print-on-demand resources when we started, and I am forever grateful for those lessons we learned.
That meant we built our own exposure unit with a shop vac and a cut up wetsuit. We coated our own aluminum screens with emulsion. We registered our press and printed our shirts. We also had our own re-purposed conveyor dryer we bought from our friends at AMBSN. They had named it the POO II, which you might spot in a different image.
The thing is, and perhaps you caught on by now, this wasn’t really a bad thing. We were given a crash course in design, productions, sales, and administration. Within a short time we know our business inside and out.
Step 7: Ship everything yourself
Because who ever heard of USPS?
Again, not us. I mean, we’d heard of it, and used it in fact. But when we started receiving orders for thousands of pieces, the standard ways of shipping no longer worked.
So we printed, ticketed, and packaged everything and threw it in a trailer. We drove down the night before so we could ‘deliver’ our order early the next morning.
When we showed up at the distribution center in City of Industry, they didn’t know what to think of us.
“These are supposed to be on pallets” they said.
“What’s a pallet?” we said.
As embarrassing as that was, we learned a lot about quick thinking (and our routing guide) on those first few orders. We also figured out how everyone else ships large orders so our time could be better spent elsewhere.
Step 8: Grow too fast
Here’s a novel idea: Give a lot of money and success to children. They’ll know what to do with it and definitely won’t make poor decisions.
The bottom line is Goodie Two Sleeves grew far too fast. We weren’t ready. We didn’t have the acumen or temperament to handle the money or notoriety we were receiving.
And it was nearly our undoing. In many ways, it did change things for good.
My old partner and I went in different directions and Jason and Hector and I started working together during this transition.
Things moved quickly. We were facing a new learning curve head on and we stumbled. We thought we’d lost our momentum, and luck. But in that eleventh hour, and from unanticipated directions, everything changed.
The beauty of growing too quickly, and being too young is that it doesn’t happen to everyone. Don’t get me wrong. It sucks. That… sucked. Transitioning between partners and cities was one of the more difficult chapters in my life. And then, before too long, I was on the other side of it. Time… progressed.
And we adapted. And we flourished. And we wouldn’t have without the problems achieved through our untimely growth.
Step 9: Move someplace you’re scared of
You heard me. Take your stuff and move away from everyone and everything you ever knew.
That’s what I did!
I had my colleagues, but no family of friends. My wife didn’t even have colleagues. And it was probably the next most difficult chapter in our lives.
And we are so thankful for it. Most of these steps orbit around work, and the idea of starting a successful clothing company, but I’m going to take this one for myself.
We made a leap of faith to do what we thought was right, in our utterly limited scope of the big picture. And it worked out. Sure, the recession started immediately after. Of course, it became impossibly difficult to sell funny shirts to depressed people. Perhaps we started skipping paychecks to make ends meet…
And every day was a new adventure. A new trial we had to face. And new freedom we weren’t yet aware of. And if any part of our journey has God’s name written on it, it’s this one. Because we wouldn’t have made it without that care.
But not only did we make it, but our company ultimately grew from it.
Step 10: Make incredible assets that no one ever sees
Spin your wheels and make great stuff. Then don’t show it to anyone.
Over the years we’ve made a lot of catalogs and sales tools. Above are just a few catalogs, but between line sheets and presentations, we’re ABC. Always Be Catalogueing. At first it was because every new client deserved it. We were small enough to be able to afford the time spent on such things.
And eventually… they were still worth it. We never really got out of the habit of merchandising exclusive presentations for individual customers.
As a designer, let me lay this out there: It’s not the ‘fun’ part of our job. But it has always been an important one. Having a successful clothing company only works if you’re helping make successful retailers. And you can only do that if you care about them passionately, which we always have.
So, if we spend a long time on a presentation and the only person who ever sees that assortment is one buyer from one store… then we hope they see the care we’ve put into it.
Step 11: Don’t market your brand
Really. Don’t tell anybody about it. BOOM. Successful clothing company.
In reality, this is only part true. Chances are you’ve heard of Goodie Two Sleeves (since you’re reading this) but a lot of people haven’t. They may have seen our shirts or some of our extra curricular activities, but they’ll inevitably say, “Goodie Two Shoes… like the song?”
And this step is really interesting. Until recently, our growth has been 100% organic. Meaning if you bought our shirt, or heard of our brand, it probably wasn’t due to an ad.
And for better or worse, we really like that model. We’ve cared deeply for our customers, and met their needs over the years, and it has been a slow burn that has really made an impact in our business. We never tried too hard, and I think that’s come across in our company.
Step 12: Work with the world’s best photographers but don’t use the photos
Be friends with talented people, and make sure you don’t know how to take advantage of that.
We’ve been privileged enough to work with some of the most talented people in the world. I’m talking about legit award winning photographers and artists. And it’s good to know when you’re rubbing elbows with irreplaceable talent, and to be thankful for it.
But I think the most important lesson is to be decent. Treat the people you work with well. Let them know you appreciate them and love their work. Don’t try to get ahead be taking advantage of others.
I think the only thing we regret is not using more of these artist’s work over the years. Styles get discontinued, and some of the best photos don’t show enough of the shirt. So we sit on this wealth of beauty, hoping for the day we can somehow show the world, all the while feeling so honored to work alongside such talented artists.
As for the photos above, fortunately the one on the left became part of an ad campaign we did ten years ago. David was wearing a Women’s Small shirt just for fun, and it worked. The second photo happened when David realized he couldn’t actually get out of the shirt. And Jeff immortalized his majestic escape from his cotton chrysalis.
Step 13: Keep growing too fast
If you skipped that step before, catch it this time.
Goodie kept growing. It was intense. A lot of the time we were just trying to keep up, and learn how to do things differently for different customers. Sometimes we didn’t figure it out.
Most of the time however, we did. And we learned a lot. And what we didn’t know, we were fortunate enough to be able to hire those who did. Super talented people, through and through.
Those new people helped us in our growth, and if you can believe it, helped the company grow even more.
I constantly joked ‘We’re finally a real company’ every time we did something remotely good. Got new business cards, had a photo shoot, remodeled our website… But I haven’t said that in a long time.
And it’s because, even as a joke, it would be a disservice to the marvelous talent we’ve brought into this family. We are a real business because these incredible people make us one.
Step 14: Keep making everything yourself
Talk about repeating lessons. Once you’ve learned how being hands on can help, don’t stop.
There is a skill set known as delegation, and we certainly use it. But sometimes, we don’t. Although we have a couple dozen of the finest men and women in California, we still consider ourselves a small team compared to the kinds of tasks we often face.
We’ve pulled together impossible accomplishments within even more unbelievable time frames. We still create things by hand. We still answer the phone when it rings (Seriously. Try me. 1-888-RAD-TEES).
We are still the same hands on people we were when we started. We know how things work in different departments, because it helps us do our jobs even better. We take the time to do the work that a lot of other people overlook.
And in this way I think we still have a lot to learn, but I don’t regret for a moment that we are still the type of business that reads notes on orders or wraps them in decorative paper just because it’s a nice thing to do.
Step 15: Never forget where you came from
Remember the trials. Remember the stories. Remember the people.
There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t recall a person or event that helped us get to the exact place we’re in. Old friends. A few fights. Lots of laughter and impossible circumstance.
And on the evening of Goodie’s fifteenth birthday, I just want to thank you. Whether you know me, or a member of Goodie’s family, or just spent thirty minutes reading a stranger’s post, I just feel like I have such a debt that I owe you.
You have cared, and helped, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Even at conventions when people laugh at our shirts but don’t buy anything, that’s inspiring.
People enjoy what we do and we are genuinely honored to be able to do it. Thank you for being a part of this adventure. Thank you for your chapter in our story.
Thank you forever, from the bottom of my heart.
Oh, and happy birthday to me.