5 Things We Can Learn From The Johnny Cupcakes Story

This is the follow up to the 5 Things We Can Learn From The Threadless Story article that I wrote last month. People enjoyed it so I thought I would follow it up with a brand that one of my readers suggested – Johnny Cupcakes!

1. Hustle, It Pays to Sell Things Out of Your Trunk. This is how Johnny Cupcakes made his money initially, by selling tees out of his trunk as he traveled with his band at the time. More importantly, Mr. Cupcakes hustled a heck of a lot so that he could get his tees into as many hands as possible. More importantly, because of his hustle, he created word-of-mouth which caused people to search him out at different shows. The point is, do whatever you can to initially get your brand recognized and you can do this by making it easy for customers in your demographic to get your stuff (for Johnny Cupcakes, this meant selling at the various shows that his customers were attending). 

2. People Like Parody But Like Consistency More. Johnny Cupcakes has made a ton of money poking fun at pop culture. This isn’t new, parody has been around forever. The trick here is that Johnny Cupcakes heavily incorporated its “bakery” theme into his parodies. Everything about the Johnny Cupcakes brand is consistent with the “bakery” theme, from the designs, to the retail store to the outfits that the workers at the retail stores wear, to the website, to the packaging, and on and on. If you have a theme, push the theme 100%. People dig parody, but they appreciate consistency even more. 

3. Stay Away From Chain Stores. Mr. Cupcakes entertained the idea of selling his items wholesale and distributing them to various retail outlets and boutiques. In the end, Johnny Cupcakes decided against this. His argument was that people want what they can’t have and if they are available at every mall then eventually his brand would just become a fad that would fade quickly. Granted, had he gone the distribution route, he would have seen a quick return, however, it could have costed him longevity. So instead, he decided to invest in opening his own, themed, boutique. This worked out pretty well for Mr. Cupcakes. 

4. Extreme Pricing Can Be Enticing. Johnny Cupcakes is able to sell his T-shirts for $35+ because of three reasons: 1) he has built a cult-like following with fans that obsess over his tees, 2) he makes quality products, and 3) he treats these products as limited-edition collectibles (and markets them as such) rather than mass produced goods. Because of those three reasons, extreme pricing, i.e. $35 for a T-shirt, works for him. If you are able to replicate the three stated reasons above with whatever it is you sell, then higher than normal or extreme pricing may work. 

5. Don’t Forget Family and Friends. One of the most important, and probably most loyal, thing that Johnny Cupcakes did was hire close family members like his parents and close friends to work for his company. His mom is noted as handling much of the paperwork involving copyrights and trademarking and his dad is noted as helping him build and construct his first retail store. Not only was he able to keep the brand, “in the family”, but it also allowed people that were close to him to quit their day jobs and actually do something they loved to do (and earn a nice living doing it).

Photos courtesy of johnnycupcakes.com.

Indie Tee Spotlight #9: Dance Party Massacre

Welcome to Indie Tee Spotlight #9! We’re back after a one-week hiatus (hey we did two of these things two weeks ago!). 

With this week being Halloween week I thought it was fitting to feature a company whose central theme is centered around horror! With inspiration from old horror flicks floating around in his head, Alex Dakoulas created Dance Party Massacre out of his love for horror and dancing. Before DPM, Dakoulas would often hold movie screenings of old horror flicks in his apartment and then follow it up by having a dance party. He explained in a recent Boston Globe interview:

“You go to a dance party, and everyone there is young. You watch slasher films, and they’re all about young people having fun,” Dakoulas explains. “They don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, and then they get killed for it.” – Alex Dakoulas, Boston Globe, July 2008

I had the great fortune to chat it up with Alex about Dance Party Massacre, some of the creative things he has done to promote DPM and how he was able to mesh together his interests to create his brand.

“I mean, first you need to have an awesome product, but then half of selling it is getting it out there.” 

Coty: Tell us a little bit about your brand, Dance Party Massacre, and what it’s all about. How did you come up with the name and what does it mean?

Alex: I’ve loved horror movies since I can remember, and designing t-shirts became a big part of my life once I started “becoming” a graphic designer. It was probably inevitable that the two would come together. There came a point in my life that fighting for your life, from the literal to the metaphorical, really connected with me. Watching horror movies, doing what I wanted, living it up with friends, and not letting things beat me down was such a release.

Dance Party Massacre was a phrase, and an idea, and imagery that kept floating about in my head during that time. At it’s core DPM is about taking the bad and making it good. It’s a fun take on how we all have demons out to get us, but we just have to kill ‘em and move on!

Coty: Dance Party Massacre was launched in Boston just last year. In that short amount of time you’ve created a successful brand that revolves around knives, blood and gore. When you started, did you expect to be embraced by the mainstream so much so that DPM would be available in boutique stores in England, Australia and Canada?

Alex: I launched Dance Party Massacre with the thought that although it’s not mass marketable, perhaps it could catch on in at least some niche-like capacity. I know that the horror movie crowd (although the indie-dance and t-shirt crowds are pretty tight) is intense, so I was hoping some of that aura would latch onto this. What I didn’t expect was this slew of horror-graphics that started to rise about. I think that trend has both helped Dance Party Massacre with getting into stores, but also hurt it because the line might not be perceived as original. Trust me, if you would have told me the whole indie, DIY, t-shirt trend was leaning towards horror I would have never believed you!

Coty: What would you say has been the DPM formula for success?

Alex: Trial and error. I’m just making something I like and and trying to get it out to people. I try something out, and if it doesn’t work I stop. If it does, I continue. For advertising we’ve done dance nights, online advertising, talking with people directly, a street team, guerrilla marketing, and selling in-person at certain events. I mean, first you need to have an awesome product, but then half of selling it is getting it out there.

Design goes the same way. You try out one thing, and it sells, so continue with that idea. If it doesn’t, don’t keep doing it! I keep everything within my vision of this project, but I try to also keep in mind this is a business that needs to make money so I can continue with it.

Coty: You obviously embrace social media, considering that DPM can be found on MySpace and Facebook. How important have these online social media sites been to the success of DPM?

Alex: I think it’s been a big part. Being a really small company there’s no money to have a flagship store. Having recently started there’s not enough exposure to have boutiques coming to us begging to carry DPM. The internet is a great way to cut out the middle-man, and get to customers and fans directly. I think it also makes the customer feel connected more to the brand, and that’s important.

Coty: You already work as a successful designer for a major brand, Converse. Why did you decide to start your own brand?

Well, I had been designing t-shirts for years when I finally decided to start a line with cohesive designs and a strong idea. I interned for Converse right after school, with the idea for DPM developing during that period. When I didn’t land a job directly after the internship I had free time (and some money now) so Dance Party Massacre flourished. It came out of my brain, and it just made sense to me. I launched the line and landed a job at Converse the same month, but that’s just how it worked out.

Coty: What has been the most challenging aspect of marketing DPM? What have been some of the creative things you’ve done to promote DPM?

Alex: Definitely the content. I have friends and family who love to support each other. When I started up a line with knives, and blood most weren’t too keen on wearing it. If you can’t even get your crew to wear your stuff, who will probably like it even if it’s crap, how easy is it going to be to get it onto strangers? There’s been so many times that I’ll sell DPM at events and people look at the designs and kind of laugh or ask me questions, but then they never purchase it. People are intrigued by it, but it takes a certain person to wear our stuff, I guess.

I’ve tried a lot of things to get DPM out there to people, but I’d say the most unique thing we’ve done is start up our “What are U afraid of?” campaign. I really want Dance Party Massacre to not just be a t-shirt line, but a brand with a way of thinking behind it. Being new it’s been really important to push what our concept is about, so that people understand it. “What are U afraid of?”, which simply poses the question to people online (whatareuafraidof.com) and in real-life (stickers), has that double entendre of danger and fun that DPM is all about. It gets people involved, and depending on who the person is someone can answer it directly or playfully. It’s a literal question, but also one that could have people question what’s stopping them from doing something in their life.

Coty: DPM has just made a year, and is just about ready to rollout “Season 2″, your newest line of tees. What sets Season 2 apart from Season 1?

Alex: With Season 1 I was so into it. I didn’t have much else to do, but spend nights developing not only the first season of designs, but the whole concept behind the brand. It became very much about the idea behind Dance Party Massacre, and having everything make sense with each other.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure if people really noticed all that underlying stuff. I put so much time into it, that for the second season I just wanted to make awesome stuff. The groundwork was laid out, and now it could be more fun. So for Season 2 I didn’t focus so much about cohesiveness or drawing inspiration from one direct source. And I think that was a good decision. After coming out with a strong statement to grab people’s attention, the line has to grow and get designs from different areas to stay fresh.

Coty: What are your future plans for DPM? Do you aspire to open a themed boutique store similar to fellow indie Boston tee designer turned mainstream t-shirt icon, Johnny Cupcakes? Or do you see DPM as mainly an online only venture?

Alex: I look at the line as a premium brand that I want to continue getting into boutiques around the world. We will continue to have an online presence, too, as we can control that so well, and it’s accessible to everyone. I would be all-for a retail store if the line ever makes enough money to produce that, but right now it’s not in the works. If a store does happen it would probably be some odd mixture of someones basement, a movie theater, dance club, video rental place, candy store, and a haunted house.

Coty: Finally, what bit of advice do you have for aspiring DIY indie tee designers?

Alex: DON’T START ANYTHING WITHOUT THE REALIZATION THAT IT MIGHT FAIL. I think people should be realistic. If you’re gonna start up a “t-shirt line”, everyone and their grandmother and uncle have started one too. It’s not going to be easy to make it succeed. You should just be happy with making it for yourself, and if it doesn’t catch on with others don’t let it ruin your life. Don’t put all your money into it and go bankrupt. Don’t beat yourself down if it doesn’t make you a million bucks. Having your own business, I think you can have it run your life from day to night, but if you just sit back and let things unfold I think you’ll be happier person.

Thanks to Alex for taking the time to talk about Dance Party Massacre! Be sure to check out this goods by going to their online store! If you would like to be featured in the Indie Tee Spotlight then please feel free to contact me!

Indie Tee Spotlight #7: Word! Apparel

In this weeks Indie Tee Spotlight I feature Levi Hardeman and his clothing brand, Word! Apparel. Word! Apparel was started just 5 months ago by Hardeman in his hometown of Houston, Texas. In this short amount of time, Hardeman has created an indie tee brand that has become a fan favorite. He has sold ooodles of his tees here in the US and overseas. 

His comical and often oversized prints scream look-at-me! Wear a tee from Word! Apparel and you’re sure to get noticed! Hardeman doesn’t plan to stop with just designing and selling t-shirts, though. He has plans to expand his line to other types of merchandise, all the while keeping with his comical style. 

I had the opportunity to chat with Levi! (as he is known on the Emptees forums) about Word!, his influences and his expectations for Word! I also have to admit that Levi! is one of the coolest guys I’ve worked with so far on the Spotlight. He kindly sent over a tee for me to checkout for the Spotlight (I feature only brands from whom I’ve bought from in the past so that I feel comfortable promoting them. Occasionally I receive tees in the mail and if I like the tee and the brand they get featured). Along with the You Crazy Banana! tee that Levi sent me was a handwritten letter. I just found that pretty awesome that he took the time to write. I totally appreciated that!

Coty: It’s obvious by your past designs like You Crazy Banana!, You Don’t Mess With The Tasties and Shark vs. Man that Word! Apparel uses comedy very heavily in its designs. However, you’ve mentioned that “future releases will differ.” Explain how you plan to shake up your product line and what changes we should expect.

Levi: Well, living in Houston, TX, one of fastest growing metal scenes in America, all the merch that we see coming through our town, is mostly black shirts with “metal” designs on them, or shirts with big lettering across the shirt. I thought to myself, that maybe kids would eat up something different or just reject it. I went ahead and tried it. I made the first 6 designs really simple but colorful with more of a comical feel to it, and the scene down here tore it up. I sold out of the first 6 designs within just a few days and then from there I started to hire designers from Emptees. They have been great with the artwork and the feel that I’m looking for.

As for changing my designs a little, I want to release a few shirts with more of a darker feel to it. I would like to keep the comical style but lean a little bit dark. Lines like Electric Zombie is really a line to look up to for me because of the style he has. A little comical but horror. I would like to capitalize on that style with the next few release to attract a larger customer base. So expect something a little more dark coming from Word! Apparel.

Coty: You’ve been an active member in the indie tee community for 5 months now, producing and selling your own tees. What do you think is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned during this entire process? What has been your best experience so far? Any surprises?

Levi: For the 5 months that I have been doing this, I would say that the best thing to realize is that you can’t expect people to come to you all the time. You have to reach out to them. Just like in a sales job. If you are selling something, show people. Within the first 5 months, I have sold at probably over 25 shows and at many events. You just have to be where the people are. After you have a big enough base in your home town then your Internet sales will pick because you got all your friends telling their friends. Its a cycle. So I guess the lesson is, find your customers, don’t want till they find you. There are hundreds of clothing lines out there, and the few that will make it successful are the ones that are willing to do what it takes.

Funny thing is, for some reason, Ohio is my biggest state that I sell to. Even bigger than here in Houston. On any given week, I’ll almost double my sales in Houston with orders in Ohio. Not sure why, but I guess Ohio says Word! a lot!

Coty: How and why did you get started in the t-shirt design business? Who were some of the people that influenced you? Is there a particular brand that you’ve modeled Word! Apparel after?

Levi: For awhile, my buddy Andre Frye with Crashtide Productions, let me help out with Crashtide Clothing, a small line here in Houston. After a few disagreements, we parted ways, but I learned a lot about the industry and what to expect. That was about a year before I started Word! Apparel, but in the mean time, I never lost interest in the industry. For the longest time, I followed Johnny Cupcakes, Rockett, and even Electric Zombie. I always wanted to start something on that scale, but never did it. It’s funny how Word! started. Me and my buddy Tom Payne were sitting on my couch watching Family Guy, and I jokely said I wanted to start a t-shirt line based on Family Guy. Right when I said that, Peter, from the show, said Word! Haha, right then I knew I wanted to start a line called Word! Apparel. For a while, I followed Monstar Clothing too. They gave me something to model after.

Coty: You’ve collaborated with a lot of people within the tee design community, including Wotto who designed Happy Monsters! and Awaken Design Company, who designed the official Word! Apparel Myspace page. What is it like to work with the people in the indie tee community? Is there anyone that you haven’t worked with yet that you would like to collaborate with in the future?

Levi: As far as future designs, I have a design coming out by Edgil, and that shirt is expected to be my biggest release yet. For other designers, I have no preference who I use but I do like to work with SittingDuck. He is great about working with you to get what you need and everything is nice as can be haha! I look forward to using as many designers as I possibly can.

Coty: Word! Apparel currently sponsors that bands Before There Was Rosalyn and Novista. How did you hook up with these bands and what has it been like working with them? Do these bands represent the type of music you’re into?

Levi: The dudes in Before There Was Rosalyn are some of my favorites dudes. They are all good friends and support everything I do, and are there for whatever I need from selling shirts at shows that I can make, to girl advice with the girl that designed the Shark VS Man design mentioned before ha! Seriously though, they are some gnarly dudes, and they put out some good tunes always. They recently were signed to HoldFast Records and play shows with The Devil Wears Prada and they tour nonstop. Their music is passionate and in your face metal, but also you can sit down and bust some nasty chill to it. I would recommend them to anyone. Novista puts out some super quality music. I am not as close to them as the latter band, but they are some good guys. They put on an amazing show, and their CD is killer.

Coty: What indie tee brands does Levi! have stocked in his closet? Who are your current favorites?

Levi: I stock up on shirts like a mad man! I love picking up some new shirts, and I would have to say my favorite is either Electric Zombie or NIWL. Kyle and Darin put out some quality work and it shows. I love wearing their stuff. An example of what shirts I have bought I guess would be Johnny Cupcakes, EZ, NIWL, Monstar, HotLife, KidRobot, 32 (rip), and of course I sport some Word Apparel :)

Coty: Indie Labs, the creators of Emptees and Big Cartel have created an excellent set of tools for indie merchandise designers. With the infinite amount of people that you can reach through the Internet and your online store, do you even think that there is a need for opening a physical merchandise store like the popular Johnny Cupcake Boutiques or do you think that having an online presence is enough to suffice?

Levi: I have a business plan in account with my financial backer, but I am more focused on just getting my name out right now. I think that Big Cartel is really a great tool for anybody to use. Its super easy to use, and it does what its made for, selling shirts. Without Big Cartel, I actually wouldnt be any where near the success that I have.

In the future, I would like to have a shop open down here in Houston, but that will be later on. I am really focusing on getting my name out across the globe, and then maybe in the near future, I can start looking into adventures such as my own store.

Coty: So you’ve got a successful online store and you’ve networked with some of the best indie designers today, what’s next for Word! Apparel? What are some of the expectations you have for Word! Apparel for the next 2 to 3 years?

Levi: The sucess I have seen has been fantastic. I couldn’t be more grateful to all the hundreds and hundreds of kids across the globe who have bought my gear. They make this worth while. The kids and God have blessed me more than I could ask for. The satisfaction that I get when I see just one order on my emails, is more than worth the while. I love it. Everyday, I track my sales, with the HUGE calender that I have in my room, and I make down the names and shirt that they have bought on the day with it. I have it near my door, so whenever I enter my room and leave it, I am reminded of the names that have helped me so much.

I would say look out for Word! Apparel releases to be pumping out like mad in the next few years. I have a goal of releasing 2 shirts every month next year. That is only the shirt part of it. I am actually working with someone right now for hand bags, and shoes. I am stoked beyond belief for that. Look out!

To everyone who reads this interview, thanks so much for the support and kind words that yall have emailed me or told me. I couldnt have gotten this far without yall!

For all the active Emptees users, Ima put a discount code in place for a HUGE discount on any shirt, and for all others, use code BLOG15 for a sweet 15% off!!!!

Thanks so much guys. Please email me with any feedback on my products! Good or bad! I want to hear from everyone and talk to everyone!!!

I’d like thank Levi for taking time out to chat it up with me! I totally appreciate your time. Keep doing what you’re doing, man, and you’re sure to succeed beyond expectations. Word!

Also, this week I’ll be doing a special double Indie Tee Spotlight. So be sure to check back in a day or two for Indie Tee Spotlight #8!

Indie Tee Spotlight: Never In Wonderland (NIWL)

This is the sixth edition of the Indie Tee Spotlight and this week I highlight Daren Girdner and his brand Never In Wonderland Clothing, or, as it is often referred to, NIWL.

Daren started NIWL in July 2007 with the help of his girlfriend, Kassie. Since then, NIWL has been a team effort between both Daren and Kassie with the both of them sharing promotion, packaging and selling duties. I was fortunate to have a word with Daren and we talked a bit about how he runs NIWL, the secret behind the NIWL name, that Johnny Cupcakes incident and how he has used the Internet to market his brand. 

Coty: You started NIWL just a little over a year ago (July 2007) “for fun”, what has the experience been like for you since turning your fun idea into an actual business?

Daren: It’s been really fun! It’s amazing to see how well the reactions are from all these kids who enjoy what my girlfriend, Kassie, and I are doing. NIWL is like our baby, we watched it start out from just a few ideas, and now we are watching it grow.

Coty: The first tee you produced for sale was “Hungry for Cupcakes”, you no longer have that one available for sale on your website. What did that tee look like?

Daren: That tee was printed on American Apparel, and it featured only a 12 inch print, with a little zombie monster holding cupcakes. After we released it, we sold a few, and Johnny Cupcakes and his designers sent us threatening messages, saying we ripped him off, and that we must take it down. At the time I designed that shirt and got it printed, I had no idea who Johnny Cupcakes was, or what he was about. After selling all those shirts, we decided to never print anything with cupcakes on it again. We respect and love what Johnny is doing, we had no intention of copying him! But you live and you learn.

Coty: Your brand name, Never In Wonderland, is an interesting choice. What does it mean and how did you come up with it?

Daren: Honestly, there is no real story about where Never In Wonderland came from. After brainstorming some ideas, I just came up with that name. People think that since Kassie and I don’t use drugs, Never In Wonderland was meant as an anti-drug reference, which is not what our company is about at all. We do what we like, and you do what you like.

Coty: You run your own business and yet you just graduated from high school a few months ago. Other than running NIWL, what else are you up to? Have you followed through with your plans of majoring in photography? If not, what other things are you up to?

Daren: Currently, I am just working on NIWL. Next semester I plan on going to college for photography, but I’m not sure where yet.

Coty: Many indie brands hire artists to design tees for their brand. Do you design the NIWL artwork yourself or do you hire artist to do the drawing for you?

Daren: In the beginning of NIWL, I used to design the stuff myself but after awhile I felt that I would be better off hiring artists.

Coty: There are a ton of quality indie tee brands out there at the moment, which are some of you favorites? Was there any particular brand that inspired you when you first started out?

Daren: Right now I am currently into 410BC. I really enjoy what they are doing, and they have a little bit of something for everyone. I believe that they are going to go a long way if they keep at it.

As for inspiring brands that helped me start there really aren’t any. I mean, when I was growing up my uncles and aunts were all silk screening their own shirts and trying to sell them over the Internet. So I guess I just picked up from that and did my own thing with it. I’ve never really looked up to any brands because I was way to busy looking up to bands like Blink-182. I never figured I would be selling shirts over the Internet. But I love it and seems like a lot of kids are enjoying what we do so that makes it even better. If I had to pick one brand that I look up to currently I would say Johnny Cupcakes.

Coty: One of the most important things for new brands is to get exposure. What are some of the things that NIWL is doing to get the NIWL brand noticed? How have you used the Internet to maximize your brand exposure?

Daren: Well so far we have only used the Internet for exposure. We haven’t sold at any shows or things of that nature. But it seems like the Internet has been getting the job done for us. As corny as it is we just have a MySpace account that kids see and they check out our website and if they dig it hopefully they buy a shirt, and if they don’t then they move on. It is as simple as that. But don’t get us wrong we would love to sell at shows and things like that. We just haven’t had the chance to yet.

Coty: Finally, you’ve mentioned on your blog that your goal would be to open up a NIWL boutique. Running a physical store takes a lot of dedication and hard work. In an ideal world, what would be your time frame for accomplishing this goal? What other goals do you currently have for NIWL?

Daren: Depending on how things go with NIWL we hope to get our own store 2-3 years from now. Man, we have so many goals that we would like to accomplish it just takes time. When we first started out one of our goals was to get cut and sew t-shirts made, and we did it. We want to get into a lot more cut and sew things such as sweaters, denim, etc.

*I’d like to thank Daren for allowing me to interview him and also his patience in waiting for me to get the interview questions to him! I’d like to wish both Daren and Kassie the best with NIWL and that in the near future I can shop in a NIWL boutique!

Be sure to check out the NIWL site to buy some awesome NIWL gear and also visit the NIWL MySpace to upload pictures of you in NIWL gear!