COMMUNITY: DISCOVERING OPPORTUNITY IN IMPROVING THE REGION
Strip District company pushes back against 'terrible T-shirts' of the world
May 12, 2015 7:00 AM
Jay Fanelli, 35, of Collier, one of the founders of Cotton Bureau, helps to pack a shipment of T-shirts from the company’s Strip District location.
By Mackenzie Carpenter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There are a lot of lousy T-shirts out there, but a small Pittsburgh company is trying to change that with good design and an innovative business model, and it’s getting noticed for its efforts.
Cotton Bureau, whose offices are in the Strip, has been designated “the Internet’s coolest T-shirt store” by Xconomy.com, a Boston-based website that reports on innovative companies.
There are plenty of cheesy websites selling design-your-own T-shirts made in overseas sweatshops, but order one from Cotton Bureau, its owners promise, and you’ll get a curated, crowdfunded, well-designed piece of clothing made in America.
“The world is just full of terrible T-shirts, and we just didn’t want to make any more,” said Jay Fanelli, who co-founded Cotton Bureau along with his longtime business partner Nathan Peretic. “A great T-shirt, on the other hand, is a lot of things to a lot of people and a way to visually connect with a community.”
Mr. Fanelli, 35, and Mr. Peretic, 30, ran a web-design firm, FullStop Interactive, before forming United Pixelworkers — a play on Pittsburgh’s “old economy” steelworkers union — working with talented designers and selling tens of thousands of T-shirts, hats, notebooks and other items.
Then they came up with an even better idea: Cotton Bureau, where people can submit designs for T-shirts and use crowdfunding to decide which ones to manufacture.
It’s a business model that has allowed the owners to grow the company at its own pace, make enough money to be comfortable if not rich, and best of all, combat the insidious problem of T-shirt pollution. Call it merit-based retail — where talent is rewarded and the whole notion of a T-shirt as cheap, disposable merchandise is upended.
Cotton Bureau only looks like a startup. There is the obligatory brick warehouse (on the second floor above Kaya, the restaurant on Smallman Street). The dress code is blue jeans and hoodies.
But there’s no seed money, no investor capital, no plans to scale so large they have to move to California. Instead, Cotton Bureau is entirely self-funded, with three full-time and two part-time employees, producing between 2,500 to 4,000 T-shirts a month, with revenues that approached $1 million last year.
“Instead of trying to build a rocketship to the moon with someone else’s money … we just want to build a small, sustainable online business here in Pittsburgh,” Mr. Fanelli said. “We have a pretty uncompromising set of principles focused on putting quality goods into the world.”
Not every design is accepted. This is an online marketplace for community-submitted design apparel, Mr. Fanelli says — with no offensive content, irrelevant content (“no ugly tees for your uncle’s carpentry business” ), copyrighted material or just plain lame slogans. (“That may sound unfair, but hey, it’s our site.”)
If a design is selected for a spot on Cotton Bureau’s main page — along with shirt material and color — the clock starts ticking.
If, within two weeks, there are at least 12 orders (the shirts are $25 each), the T-shirt gets printed. That’s the lowest number Cotton Bureau can make and make a profit, and ensures there’s no waste or unsold inventory.
If there are more than 25 orders, the designer gets a percentage of the profits, based on a profit margin he or she selects up front, which in turn factors in the quality of inks used and the complexity of the design.
There have been a few glitches: On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving the company was in the middle of processing its largest batch of T-shirts ever — more than $100,000 in sales — when it began double billing customers because of a computer malfunction.
“Because our code hadn’t been optimized to handle that many simultaneous transactions, a routine function ended up running repeatedly instead of just once,” Mr. Fanelli said. As soon as they noticed the error, the code was halted and automatic refunds were sent to each customer who had been incorrectly charged.
But the business model is succeeding — not just in terms of revenue, but in quality of life. The employees work very hard four days a week and not at all three other days, “and best of all, we work for ourselves, not for someone else,” Mr. Fanelli said.
“I stay home on Wednesdays and take my kids to doctor’s appointments,” Mr. Peretic added.
“You won’t see me sleeping under a desk and eating ramen. The assumption that we have to be a billion-dollar business just doesn’t work for us here. Instead, we have created a sustainable business where designers get rewarded and we actually enjoy what we do.”
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