June 29, 2012

Online t-shirt business thrives on geek memes


By Ashante Infantry

Frustrated by the 9-to-5 treadmill, Russ Montague borrowed $10,000 from his parents and turned his love of pop culture and eye for design into ShirtPunch http://shirtpunch.com/, an online t-shirt business.

Each day, the company offers a new geek-themed illustration — featuring sci-fi video games, movies, toys or internet memes — that’s only available for 24 hours on a $10 shirt.

In just seven months ShirtPunch has grossed nearly $1 million.

“This is like my wildest dream come true,” said Montague. “When I launched this my thought was, ‘If I can just cover my mortgage on 250 shirts a week I’ll be fine.’ By the end of the first day I had already moved 271 units. That first week ended with over 1,000 units sold.”

Now selling 15,000 shirts monthly and having outgrown two printers, Montague is planning to expand to more products and move the business out of his basement. But first comes an $80,000 website revamp this summer.

Turnaround time has been the biggest challenge.

“Because the business grew so quickly, we’ve been playing catch-up,” explained Montague who is working to get North American delivery from three weeks to 10 days.

Born in Scarborough, to insurance industry and hospital employees, Montague studied advertising and marketing and worked at promotions and public relations jobs. Weary of the paycheque-to-paycheque existence, he started ShirtPunch while working as marketing manager at an auto financing company, determined to find a way to make a living fuelled by his juvenile passions.

“Because I’m an only child, I grew up watching a lot of TV and movies, and playing with toys and just doing things on my own,” said the 30-year-old. “I’ve never outgrown it and I just nostalgically live in 1985 to 1995.

“To be a geek is totally OK now; it shapes all the big movies, TV … I realized that there were so many creative people out there doing these really great designs that people wanted.

“I set on a price the working man can afford. You can produce an incredibly great product at a very low price if you’re willing to accept the small profit margins.”

Montague spent $2,000 on the website, $3,500 on bags, and $4,500 on lawyers to incorporate and structure the business, and launched ShirtPunch.com on Oct. 25 — with “zero advertising, promotions, or even a dollar to my name.”

Even with his wife and parents (and some of their neighbours) pitching in to help bag shirts and answer some of the 200 daily emails, he hasn’t been to bed before midnight since. By the beginning of March he was able to quit his day job.

Montague, who has a Halifax-based assistant, collaborates with a California-based art director to choose from submissions from more than 300 designers worldwide.

“If it’s a video game I’ve not played, I’ll reach out to that community and say ‘Hey guys, what do you think of this?’ I’ll let them be the judge.” The artists are paid $1 for each shirt sold and keep the rights to their designs.

The site’s top seller, at just under 3,000 orders, has been May 3’s Baby Fett, an infant version of minor Star Wars assassin Boba Fett.

“We do our best not to break any type of copyright infringement,” Montague said. “We stay on the parody and fan art side of things. It really comes down to individual brands. Some, like Star Wars, are phenomenal and they love this and see this as walking billboards. Not everybody is like that. We do our best to approach everyone that we can and work with them.”

A few weeks after ShirtPunch launched actor Warwick Davis (Star Wars, Harry Potter) responded to Montague’s email appeal and wound up codesigning Nov. 21’s Willow Ufgood, based on his character from 1988’s Willow. Proceeds went to Make A Wish International, but the publicity was priceless.

One of Montague’s favourite designs is Nov. 1’s Tools of Destruction, based on the original Karate Kid movie, which he calls “the ultimate film in my life.”

“I love that underdog story, and ShirtPunch is an underdog story,” he explained. “I don’t have any knowledge of the fashion industry. I don’t know anything about t-shirts, or about running my own business. We found a market and we pushed through.”

In addition to producing licensed designs for brands like the Speed Racer cartoon (May 21 A Family Tradition) and director Kevin Smith’s Comic Book Men TV series (shirt is slated for August), Montague is in talks with department stores about carrying his merchandise and is thinking about establishing a storefront.

Besides paying back his parents and splurging on an iPhone, he’s reinvested in the business he’d like to see become a geek staple.

“I consider it a routine website: you get into work and get a coffee and check Facebook and check ShirtPunch,” he said. “For the brief minute that you’re on our website, I want it to feel like you’re a kid and its Saturday morning and you’re running downstairs to get a bowl of cereal and jump in front of the TV, because you know there’s three hours of awesome cartoons.

“It’s tough to evoke an emotion on a website and kind of silly to think of it like that. But to the same degree it shouldn’t just be a shirt website. It should be a lifestyle site, a community where you go and chat, and other people have similar interests, and no one’s afraid to be themselves.”

Torstar News Service




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