Two years ago in early June, Ript co-founders Matt Ingleby (managing partner), TJ Mapes (director of technology), and Paul Friemel (design director) were roadtripping to visit an old friend in their Iowa hometown of Bettendorf. While en route, their conversation winded to starting their own T-shirt startup company -- a sort of hybrid of Groupon and Threadless.
Here's how it works: Everyday, the site lists a new T-shirt with an original design from a different artist. Customers have until midnight to decide if they want to snatch it up, and it only costs $10. Unlike Threadless -- who owns the designs outright -- one of those dollars goes to the artist. Like Groupon, the model has been a huge success: The trio just quit their day jobs and as of this week are now running Ript full-time.
To get a better understanding of Ript and how it works, why it works so well, and where they go from here, I called the three of them at their Friemel's home office.
So now that you've gone full-time, how has your setup changed?
Matt Ingleby: Well, before we basically all just worked from home. We would meet once a week, every Monday night, for three to four, sometimes up to five hours. In those meetings we would select artwork for the upcoming week, talk about promotions we wanted to run, social media, and any other issues or improvements we could think of for the site. And then beyond that we worked from home, worked during our commutes, things like that.
Currently right now we're all in Paul's living room. There's a dining-room table we're all set up at. We're looking for office space currently. Yesterday we looked at a few places, and today we're looking for some more. That's kinda the next step for us.
What made you decide to go full-time? How long have you been considering it, and why did you pick this week?
MI: I think the main reason we decided to do it was the company is basically making enough money for us to support ourselves with what we were getting at our full-time jobs. At the same time, the workload was becoming far, far too great. It was becoming too much for us to work full-time and work on Ript at the same time. It would have been great to have double salaries, of course, but it wasn't feasible in the long run. The three of us, all being in the same room together and focus when we need to, and not just on a four-hour period on a Monday we figured we can drive sales even higher and hopefully eventually get back to the double-salary number we were at before.
But at the same time, to clarify, we weren't taking money out of the company while we had our full-time jobs. We kept everything in there so we could re-invest. Right now we're working on a new back-end of our website. We wanted to have the cash, and now have the cushion and feel like we can make investments that we want.
Paul Friemel: The goal was always to go full-time. But it was a matter of when we'd be able to. We had a road map since we started and it's been pretty accurate thus far.
When most people in Chicago think of T-shirt companies, they think of Threadless. How crowded or open do you feel the market is for T-shirt sellers? Is it overly saturated or hard to get noticed?
PF: We might all answer that a little differently, but people in Chicago think so. But people on the Internet, in general, we have our own following and our own circle. It's kind of a different world from Threadless is doing just based on how we sell the shirts.
TJ: The model separates us for sure. I know I personally follow the founders of Threadless and the company in general, and they're always an inspiration. Even though we're not doing the same thing.
MI: I think within the past month or two I've found the best way to describe what we do. We're kind of like Threadless meets Groupon, because we do artist designs but then we do one a day. But when you describe it that way, it's cool that both Threadless and Groupon are Chicago companies. I think it's interesting that's the best way to describe exactly what we do.
You guys didn't invent the product-a-day model for online sellers -- woot.com certainly comes to mind -- but I'm curious how you guys arrived at it for Ript.
MI: Basically seeing a site like woot.com, to be honest. I was in inventory management, so my job was always to make sure I had product necessary but not too much product. So when I saw a site like shirt.woot.com, my initial thought was, "Well, this is perfect if they wait to print all the shirts until after they sell them. Then they're not carrying any inventory." They're only printing what's sold, and they're never going to have to do markdowns to get rid of stuff.
How often do you run into demand surpassing supply? Does that ever happen?
MI: Yeah, it does. The good thing is we carry a decent level of blank shirts. Shirts that aren't printed yet. When we get our sales everyday, we send the order to our printer and they print every single one for us. If we over-sold, say, a gray shirt and sell 15 more than we have, our supplier can get it there the next day. So there can be a delay if we oversell, but it's only really a day or two additional to our normal turnover time.
PF: It's not like we print a set amount of shirts everyday. It's determined by what's sold.
Are you able to predict what designs are going to be runaway successes as opposed to just ones that sell respectably?
PF: We're getting much better at it after two years. There's definitely skill involved in guessing what's going to sell, but it's definitely a lot of guesswork. There are some things that are obvious slam-dunks. We've been surprised in both directions here and there.
MI: There are probably some we haven't printed that would have blown our minds. It's really hard to know. The thing is that everyone who comes to our site has such diverse interests. They like things that we know nothing about. It's hard to even know. It's hit or miss. Lately we've taken the approach of, let's just try it. We don't want to miss out on those opportunities. If it ends up failing, we can use it to figure out what makes us lose traction.
What ideas have you tried that have been less successful?
TM: Probably not too many, but there have been a couple I guess. We tried to do a couple things with bands, as sponsors.
PF: I think we did the wrong bands, though. We're a little bigger now, so if we tried it again later down the road, we might be able to get the right group involved.
MI: The thing about that, though, was it was just one day's sales. And to Paul's point, we weren't very big when we did it. So in the grand scheme we weren't making a lot of money so it wouldn't have been huge if it did well anyway. But I'm sure we had some other failures.
PF: We've had a few, but they're insignificant compared to the successes because I can't even remember them in all honesty.
TM: We did some promotions that we tried to do that just didn't work out.
MI: There's always been a saying: "If you fail in Internet marketing, it's all right because no one really knows." Everything changes so quickly.
How do you think you guys have been able to grow so quickly in two years?
MI: One of the things we didn't really talk about for this is social media. Most of our growth is off that. We've never really paid for advertising. There was one site maybe we paid a hundred bucks a month to, but other than that our growth is off Facebook, Twitter, and contacting blogs and Tumblr. I think that's pretty impressive. That's how we've grown as a company.
When we started this two years ago, we just put a thousand dollars each into the company. After two years of hard work, we've finally been able to do this.