In this weeks edition of The Indie Tee Spotlight, I highlight a cool little small business venture led by Steve Orlando, self-described as a reluctant leader, disillusioned romantic and uneloquent philosophaster. Orlando started Robit Studios earlier this year with friend Jeff Gerzseny out of their frustration with graphic tees.Â
I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Steve about the company he founded, Robit Studios, and why he aspired not to be “just another pretentious t-shirt company.” He discusses his love for small-business and why it’s smart (and worth it) to go “green.”
1. How long has Robit Studios been around? What inspired you to start a T-shirt brand?
We launched our website in March of this year. However the original idea and preparations for that launch began a few years ago. The inspiration to start a brand started when Jeff (the other half of Robit Studios) and I were frustrated with the unfunny slogan tees and obnoxious graphic tees that dominate the retail world. This was before we knew about places like Threadless. Jeff had some screen printing experience and a small wooden press from school so we decided to give it a shot.
2. The tagline “just another pretentious t-shirt company” can be found on the Robit Studios site. What do you mean by this?
When we first began brainstorming ideas and concepts for shirts we thought we were going to revolutionize the t-shirt world. However, as we began studying our competition and becoming familiar with the t-shirt blogging scene we realized that a lot of people not only had the same ideas, but were sometimes better executed. It made me realize that we can’t take ourselves too seriously.
3. Many of your tees have some sort of political message associated with it. Did you start Robit with the intention of producing politically inspired tees?
It wasn’t intentional. But, like a lot of people, we’ve been caught up in the interesting political environment we’ve had over the past few years. I also think that there are very few political t-shirts that are subtle in their message. For example, I would never wear a t-shirt that said “Buck Fush”. I think there was an unmet demand for shirts like “Chance of Reign”.
4. Strong ideals seem to be a huge part of the way Robit operates. From using only environmentally friendly inks to printing on sweat-shop free tees to hand printing each shirt. What made you decide to go the “green” route (and market yourselves as such) and why is this so important for Robit Studios considering the higher cost of these environmentally friendly products.
When we first seriously began discussing the creation of Robit Studios we knew we wanted to do it in a socially and environmentally friendly way. Since then I began working on my MBA in Environmentally Sustainable Management which helped us implement those ideas into our business model. I believe that true sustainability is the solution that will allow us to continue living on the planet in a way we’re familiar with. The beauty of sustainability is that it doesn’t conflict with capitalism, but actually complements it.
5. Your about page says “We [Robit Studios] gear our product toward anyone that appreciates the small businesses and creative minds, or the efforts of individuals against careless corporations that pander to the lowest common denominator.” What is it about small businesses, as compared to huge corporations, that gets you excited? What has the experience of owning and operating a small business been like for you?
Small businesses rock, simple as that. Just imagine if your only choice of t-shirt had to come from Wal-Mart. It doesn’t take much more than that to get me excited about the hundreds of small independent t-shirts brands that are available at my fingertips.
The experience of being a small business owner has been great. Knowing that there are people around the world who are wearing something I created feels incredible. This summer we got to do some festivals and I met a lot of amazing people, artists and bands. We’re teaming up with an amazing artist, Sean Madden, for some new t-shirts as well as another project which we’re hoping to launch soon.
6. Two of my favorite tees from the Robit Studios Store are “Chance of Reign” and “Ragingly Inefficient.” What message are you trying to send with these two tees?
Rizzo Tees is a new online t-shirt store with a focus on creating and selling funny political tees. Having been open for just a few days, it’s rather impressive that they have an initial 32 different shirts available for sale. The tees cost just under $20 each and are printed on American Apparel.Â
I really dug the Rizzo Tees website. I thought it was easy to navigate and the designs are all there for you to see on the front page. They also provide nice and large preview images of each design, but my only complaint is that they do not provide model shots posing with the tees on, nor do they provide close-up images of the actual printed t-shirts.Â
If you’re into politically inspired tees, be sure to check out Rizzo Tees, you may find something that sparks your interest. You can use the following coupon to get yourself an additional 20% off your order. Just enterÂ 3JBEE84CÂ at checkout to save cash and get cool tees!
I had the opportunity to chat it up with Chris, owner of Rizzo Tees. As the sole owner Rizzo Tees, Chris sheds light into how he took an idea had back in October 2007 and turned it into an upstart business. It’s a great read for anyone interested in launching their own t-shirt design company.Â
Coty: How long has Rizzo Tees been in the works? How long have you spent in the planning stages?
Chris: I came up with the Rizzo concept in October 2007. I really thought I was onto something great, so I began planning immediately – dreaming up and designing shirts, hiring a web design firm (twice, ugghh), and researching funny/cool/vintage shirts. I did a ton of research on Snorg, Busted, Threadless, DBH, Sackwear, funny-shirts, screenprinting, and on and on. You name it, I read about it!
Coty: Why did you decide to start Rizzo Tees? What does Rizzo mean? Did you have any previous experience selling tees before?
Chris: I’ve always had a sort of entrepreneurial bug. My grandpa started a window manufacturing company in 1949, and I used to spend time running around his factory as a kid. Running my own business was an idea that was instilled in me from an early age. Problem is, I couldn’t decide what kind of company to start. Either it would be really fun but not a great way to financially support myself, or it would be really lucrative but soul-sucking. With t-shirts, I believe there’s a ton of opportunity out there, and I’ve never had more fun than I have putting this whole thing together. As far as the name, I’ll be honest – the name Rizzo appeared to me in a dream. I literally woke up and said, YES! True story. As I thought more about it, I figured it was better than the standard type of tee company name like Wacky Tees or TeeTime or Eventuali-Tee. There’s probably enough t-shirt companies like that! I have no previous experience selling t-shirts like this – I learned a tremendous amount in the year before my site went live. Now that Rizzo Tees has been up and running for a week, I’ve sold 12 shirts – I’m an old pro at it now!
Coty: I think you’ve done a great job with the site layout. What made you decide to go with a fully custom coded site as compared to using something like Big Cartel? Did you code the site yourself?
Chris: Thank you for the compliment! I am really happy with how the site turned out. Let’s be honest – it’s not the first t-shirt site to look like it does. But there was no reason to break what already works – the site is very straightforward. I like my designs and think others will too, so I’ve designed a site that makes it as easy as possible for you to take these shirts off my hands! No flashing stuff, no embedded movies, no forced account setup – just great shirts. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong here, but I enjoy shopping from a site that runs smoothly, doesn’t ask me for a ton of info, and that ends up promptly delivering what I ordered. As far as custom coding vs. an off-the-shelf solution, I talked with my web firm, and based on my needs, they didn’t think an off-the-shelf solution would satisfy me. I was pretty particular with what I wanted the site to be able to do, and just didn’t want to live without certain features. I am not a coder, so I hired some folks smarter than me to build the site.
Coty: You opened up shop with an impressive selection of tees, 32 different designs to be exact. Did you design these or did you hire designers?
Chris: I came up with all of the shirt concepts. If the shirt contains actual artistry, i.e. more than just words, I would create a pencil sketch of the design, and then hand it off to several freelance graphic designers. I have a few really talented folks that help me out on that end. As far as 32 designs, I’m glad I was able to afford going up to 32! That number was as low as 8 at one point, then it was 36. Eventually, as I reached the mid-20′s on created designs, I started looking at money and time and settled on 32. I have more designs in the pipeline, and will be bringing those out as soon as I can.
Coty: Most of your tees have some sort of political message. What made you go the political-funny route for your tee designs? How do you come up with the witty one-liners found on the tees?
Chris: My shirts are ones that I would personally wear – most of them are just thoughts that have occurred to me. I know there are some riotous shirts on sites like T-Shirt Hell, and that they sell a ton of ‘em. But I wouldn’t wear 99% of them, as they’re just not my style. So even if I could bring out a highly controversial shirt and sell it, it’s just not me. On the political side, my “Freedom Rock” shirt is a very mild rip on our President and the state of U.S.-Middle East relations. (Of course, if you don’t remember the Freedom Rock commercials on T.V., or are not from the U.S., this shirt won’t make a lick of sense!). My “Do Not Want” shirt is another shirt that I’m proud of (and it’s actually the best selling shirt so far). There’s nothing funny about it. Most of the other shirts are silly or funny, but it’s OK to have a few serious shirts too, and I like how that sets Rizzo Tees apart. I must admit that one shirt that I did not come up with entirely on my own is the 756 shirt, which is of course an homage to baseball’s new home run king. One of my competitors has a similar shirt. It has an asterisk like mine, meant to symbolize the dubious achievement of hitting more home runs than anyone else ever while being totally hopped up on steroids. To make the shirt better, my asterisk is made out of syringes. Bonds is old news now, but I just had to do this shirt.
Coty: Of your current lineup of Rizzo Tees, which are your current favorites and why?
Chris: Tough question, as I am clearly biased! As far as designs go, I like Kama Supra, BILF (Breakfast I’d like to F**k), Barack that Ass Up, SPAM, and Spinners. The Kama Supra one seems to elicit the biggest belly laughs (lol haven’t sold one yet, though). For me, there’s another element to great t-shirts, and that’s the shirt color. I spent alot of time thinking not only about the design, the concept, and the joke, but about how to make the shirts look good too. I tried to pair shirt and dye colors to really have the designs pop off the shirts. I’m a big fan of navy tees, so the “I Support Ribbons” shirt and the “Do it for the Halibut” shirt are two that I love to wear around. A final word on the SPAM shirt – I am unclear as to whether or not your international readers will even know what SPAM is, but here in the U.S., SPAM is a canned, spreadable ham that has a cultish following. So I designed a can of SPAM and then threw a “Nigerian scam” spam email on the front. This was shirt #29 that I finished, and as I am a complete novice at all of this, it was the one design that I said to myself, “I think I came up with an idea that the heaviest hitters of t-shirt design would actually respect.” Perhaps I’m delusional!
Coty: Is Rizzo Tees a one-man-show or do you have a staff that helps you out?
Chris: Rizzo Tees is a one-man operation (don’t tell my wife that). I am the sole owner, and do it all, with the help of a few freelance graphic designers and a screenprinting company. I run everything off my MacBook Pro, and I have four shelves in my finished basement containing over 1,400 shirts, folded and ready to ship. Yes, Rizzo World Headquarters is in my basement. I had a friend that once had a small t-shirt company that told me, “You cannot do this alone – you gotta get a partner.” I didn’t really want a partner, so I asked him why, and he basically said you needed someone there for you to tell you a design sucks – a check-and-balance on your unadulterated ability to print up a batch of 100 crappy shirts! To mitigate this, I go over potential designs with a bunch of friends that basically donate their opinions to me. They may be sick of me by now, but I try not to pummel them with too many, “So what do you think of this design” questions.
Coty: During the process of building a brand and opening an online store, what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned?
Chris: Two things: 1.) As I cooked up concepts, and then designs, I just kept reminding myself “Not every shirt will appeal to every person.” I think that is key. Some people are really gonna dig my site. Some people, say, a computer programmer, might like one shirt, like the TCP-IP one, and not really care about any of the others. Some people might leave my site scratching their head. And some might blog about its suckiness until they’re blue in the face. All of this is OK and to be expected. My goal is to obviously find the first and second groups of people – if I can find the big fans, plus the niche fans that just want a cat shirt or a St. Patrick’s Day shirt, I think Rizzo Tees will do OK.. ….. . and 2.) Sh*t can and will go wrong. Be ready for the rollercoaster ride, and save up just a little more than you thought you’d need.