How Three Friends Launched $2.4M T-Shirt Startup RIPT Apparel

$200,000
revenue/mo
3
Founders
0
Employees
product
RIPT Apparel
from Chicago
started June 2009
$200,000
revenue/mo
3
Founders
0
Employees
153K
alexa rank
69.2K
followers
29.2K
followers
platform
email

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hey everyone, my name is TJ Mapes, co-founder @ RIPT Apparel.

RIPT Apparel is your destination for nostalgic, pop-culture parody and limited edition mashup artwork sold on t-shirts, hoodies and more.

Our artwork is crowdsourced from independent artists from all over the world. For every product sold, we give an artist 10% of the revenue. We handle everything else like marketing, customer service, printing, fulfillment and more.

Did I mention the impulsive nature of our business model? No? Ok, well each day at Midnight CST, three new designs go live at a discounted price and are available on many different types of products. Prices start at just $13.00 for a “daily t-shirt”. Our daily designs are really the backbone of this company and we’ve been offering the daily deals since our first day in business.

Over the years we’ve worked with hundreds of artists and paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to our community of talented artists.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel “Snitch Please - Exclusive” by artist alex.pawlicki - concept sketch to complete finished design

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

RIPT Apparel was created by myself and two of my oldest friends, Matt Ingleby and Paul Friemel.

We grew up together in Bettendorf, Iowa. Matt and I played on the same pee wee baseball team and Paul and I played in a pop-punk band together for many years. We all attended the same high school and later college at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

After we graduated college, we found ourselves spread out for a few years but ultimately all ended up in Chicago.

So one way or another, you’ve just gotta get over your fears and go for it because, in the end, regret will probably feel much worse than failing.

RIPT was conceptualized around the time Obama was running for president. One day, one of us randomly found ourselves on a website that was selling a t-shirt donning a sketchy style pencil drawing of Barack Obama’s face on it. We noticed there was also a countdown timer on the website and soon realized once the timer reached zero, the opportunity to buy the Obama shirt would be over... forever.

The pure FOMO they were creating was incredibly intriguing to us. This site had a sales graph on their homepage under the daily offering that charted sales by the hour. I was so intrigued I tried to reverse engineer it.

I dug into the source code and tried to determine their daily sales. I even ordered that Obama shirt so I could study the packing slip and see if I could figure out their sales based on the invoice number/ID.

While we didn’t discover anything super concrete about their daily sales volumes, we did discover the true genius of their business model - they carried no inventory!

I’ll be honest, RIPT isn’t an original idea. How many businesses are truly original ideas? We figured there were enough artists out there that needed a platform to showcase their art, so why not create another one for them.

My background was in web design/development and my partners brought logistics/operations, art and merchandising skills to the table. With those three things, we had enough to launch a full-fledged business with just the initial investment of $1,000 each.

Leading up to launch day we did a lot of outreach to blogs for coverage and to artists for their artwork. This was pivotal in helping us create some buzz and build a small email list. Our first design was called “More Trees For Birds” so, for example, we reached out to nature and bird blogs.

Sounds crazy but it worked. Not all these blog posts helped sales, but some really did and the best part was, these bloggers needed content to blog about!

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel “More Trees For Birds” - The first design ever sold on RIPT Apparel

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel This is the real spreadsheet we had for our first shirt and pictured is the article that came from it on 10000birds.com. Not too impressive, but it was something :)

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

The next piece of this puzzle was to find a screen printer who could print all the millions of t-shirts we were about to sell (hehe). We actually lucked out because Matt’s Dad was an investor in a small screen printing company back in our hometown.

This was a huge break for us because we didn’t have to search for a printer and we ended up getting a great deal on printing. PLUS they were going to fulfill all our orders for us too.

Things didn’t stay peachy for long though as the daily nature of the business proved difficult to keep up with and also this small printer wasn’t used to printing highly artistic designs with lots of colors and detailed halftones.

I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome for years. I think it’s easy to fall victim to it especially if you’re more an introvert like me. I also believe that time is limited and we only get one shot at life.

Quality and shipping times quickly became major issues. The worst part was, we weren’t even in the same city so there was no real way to see samples of the prints before they were sent to customers. The complaints came rolling in and eventually we had to find a new partner.

We ended up finding a printer (in Alabama) that printed for other artists and creatives in our ‘world’ like Johnny Cupcakes and FullBleed. We ended up working together for a couple of years and it was great in the beginning. Our prints came out better and our customers were much happier.

They were a much larger operation, so we felt great about this partnership. Especially because to start this partnership, we had to pack up all our inventory and drove it down there ourselves! So we had a lot invested.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel Our trip taking our inventory down to Alabama and meeting Mammoth for the first time.

Eventually though, with the volume and again, the constant pressure of the daily model, orders began to back up and we had to once again, come up with a new game plan.

But this time had to be different. it had to be one we were in control of.

So we opened up our own print shop.

We rented out a 5,000 sq ft space that had some offices and a break room. We bought an automatic press, hired some employees (our first two employees were from our printer in Alabama: Mammoth), build infrastructure and started printing and fulfilling all our own orders.

This way, we could inspect every single detail of the finished product and make sure our customers wouldn’t go elsewhere.

We were finally in control.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Our first product wasn’t actually a T-Shirt. It was our website. I knew close to nothing about building an e-commerce site back in 2008. Let alone a safe and secure one that people would trust going to and opening their wallet.

To make things more complicated, we needed functionality to support launching new products every day at Midnight while hiding the old products too. I had to find a way to schedule this nightly occurrence we call “the flip”.

Luckily I had built a handful of Wordpress sites back then for clients and knew HTML/CSS very well. Since I knew Wordpress could schedule posts, I built a custom post type with the data I needed for our daily designs, and the rest was history.

Was it like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? Hell yes, but it worked! #shipit

One more roadblock stood in my way and that was taking payments. Back then (to my knowledge at least) Wordpress didn’t really have anything to handle payments so I had to look elsewhere. Enter - Ultracart (FTW).

Ultracart was a ‘bolt-on’ shopping cart solution. It wasn’t super expensive and did the trick. I would build out the products in Ultracart, copy the link they gave me to the ‘buy button’, and then go back into WordPress and paste it into a custom field in the post which then made the t-shirt purchasable.

But when someone went to our website and clicked “BUY NOW” they were actually redirected to a totally different domain name and a totally different UI for the checkout process! It’s comical now when I think about it, but we did what we needed to move forward.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel This is how RIPT looked just before launching.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel This was V2 of riptapparel.com

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel This was V3 of riptapparel.com

To touch on the financials of starting RIPT, we bootstrapped the whole thing and still have never taken any outside funding. In the beginning, it came down to pretty simple math; how many shirts do we need to sell each day to cover our expenses (hosting, etc).

We didn’t pay ourselves for a few years and operated as lean as possible. We wouldn’t even expense a pizza, everything went back into the company.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Customer Service:

You live or die by your customer service. Part of good customer service is delivering a good, quality product. We had opened our own shop to oversee quality control for just this reason. Another key aspect of customer service is knowing your customers.

Every year we send out a customer survey and compare the results YOY.

Earlier this year, we did things a little differently and sent out two surveys; one for our VIP customers and one for our “lost” customers. We REALLY wanted to get in the minds of each group to learn what we can do better, why people keep coming back, or worse, why people end up leaving and never returning.

Do they just have too many t-shirts? Is the pop-culture thing getting old? Is there too much competition? Did we screw up?

Speaking of getting to know your customers, on the thank you page of this year’s survey, we included a quick note telling people they could schedule a call with us.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel

We didn’t think anyone would want to talk to us. To our surprise and delight, our schedules literally filled up with calls. We learned SO much from these calls, we filled a spreadsheet and trello board with ideas on how to make 2019 even better, and have been making strides to execute on these ever since.

I HIGHLY recommend personally reaching out to your customers to pick their brains. You don’t have to always be available, rather just pick one day a month to start and make it your goal.

If you have loyal brand advocates, they will have great ideas, unique thoughts and opinions on how to improve YOUR business, and it won’t cost you anything but time.

Facebook has always been our number one paid acquisition channel. We’ve had fantastic success over the years acquiring customers via Facebook ads. DNVBs (digitally native vertical brands) are all competing for the same eyeballs which have led to increased ad costs over the years. We are finding it harder and harder to put all our eggs in the Facebook basket.

We’re also testing new channels and ideas to reach new audiences. We’re finding great success on Instagram and have been playing around with Messenger marketing a lot too due to it’s much higher engagement and open/click rates.

Giveaways:

After listening to an interview Steve Chao gave about his giveaway strategy, I quickly developed a plan for giveaways using the ViralSweep platform. The interface is fantastic, it plugs into Shopify and Klaviyo and has a ton of features.

Our most recent successful giveaway was when we gave away a PS4 + the new Spiderman game. I hosted the giveaway on our site and then let our audience know about it via email/social channels.

Entrants earned different amounts of entries for entering in different ways (tongue twister!), for instance; enter via email, get 10 entries. Follow us on Facebook, get 5 entries. Subscribe on Messenger and get 25 entries.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel

I also built out a drip sequence in Klaviyo that contained four emails to encourage entrants to take more action, like referring friends and liking us on social.

Email #1: Thanks for entering!

The first email was a plain text email that told them what emails were coming next and it also asked them to reply to the email with an answer to a question. This was to improve deliverability for the whole campaign.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel

Email #2: Explained how to earn bonus entries:

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel

Email #3: About us

The goal of the third email was to pull back the curtain a little and humanize the brand and the people behind it.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel

Email #4: Coupon for entering

This last email in the sequence just thanked them again for entering and also included a coupon to a specific (related) collection of designs with an expiration date on it to incentivize purchases.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel

Since entrants could enter by subscribing to us on Messenger, I had to set up a bunch of flows for that using ManyChat. At the time, I wasn’t really sure how to best do this and play nicely with Facebook’s rules, so I kept it pretty informational, v.s. salesly.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel (this screenshot is actually a flow from when we gave away an xbox, but you get the idea - huge open and click rates 💯💯💯)

PS4 Giveaway Results:

We ran it for 2 weeks and recorded results in a meticulous spreadsheet to analyze the data. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Giveaway page pageviews - 67,355
  • Total entrants - 26,137
  • Conversion rate - 38.80%
  • Total entrants in Klaviyo (not suppressed) - 24,515
  • New emails acquired - 16,363
  • Emails we already had - 7,521
  • % of new emails - 66.75%
  • Cost of item - $350
  • Instagram visits - 10,618
  • Instagram followers gained - 3,496 ( total followers lifted by 6.9% )
  • Twitter followers gained - 4,194

We did have a little paid media behind this campaign but all in, in just two weeks, we estimated our ROI was 555.06% and brought in about $10,000 in revenue.

Obviously email can be powerful for things outside of just sales, promotions and new product announcements.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Our business has changed a lot over the years with big players like Amazon coming onto the scene and with advancements in print on demand technology. In general, we’ve always had a lot of competition, but today, the barrier to entry is literally nothing.

Anyone that can click a mouse can launch a company and it’s getting harder to stand out from the noise.

Today, RIPT looks much different than it did in years past and although we are a much leaner team now, our dedication to our artists and customers hasn’t wavered.

Our customer retention rate is over 80% which speaks volumes to us. We wouldn’t be here without our artists and customers and we’re humbled by that every day.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years, but I’ve always tried to learn from them.

We’ve been swooped up by flashy sales guys at agencies that showed us amazing powerpoints with pretty charts and graphs, illustrating how we will 10-15x ROI blah blah, yadda yadda. Yup, been there, fell for that. Been burned 🔥

I’ve learned to trust my gut and listen to what it tells me.

I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome for years. I think it’s easy to fall victim to it especially if you’re more an introvert like me. I also believe that time is limited and we only get one shot at life.

So one way or another, you’ve just gotta get over your fears and go for it because, in the end, regret will probably feel much worse than failing.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Shopify is hands down my favorite tool in our tech tool shed. We migrated from an in-house ecomm site built in Python to Shopify Plus in 2015 and have loved every minute of it. It’s easy to take for granted, but not having to stress over uptime and security is a HUGE weight off.

Our site actually went down during my bachelor party, so I was on the phone with them at 1am, after many adult beverages, surrounded by people partying.

So moving to Shopify allowed me to sleep better at night.

how-three-friends-launched-2-4m-t-shirt-startup-ript-apparel Riptapparel.com select exclusive t-shirts

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Books:

Podcasts (currently listening to):

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Just do it! Seriously though, forget about failing, forget about what you don’t know and just take action.

There are enough free resources out there (like StarterStory) that you should be able to pretty much accomplish anything you put your mind to, even if it’s not perfect.

If you don’t take action, someone else will!

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
TJ Mapes,   Founder of RIPT Apparel

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Diane White
5 months ago

Did you have to request any permissions or licensing for some of the designs?

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