Teespring Wants To Be The Place Where You Can Crowdfund Anything, Starting With T-Shirts

At first glance, Teespring looks like it’s trying to become a Kickstarter for t-shirts, with its recently launched website that allows anyone to design custom tees which are then crowdfunded into production. But as co-founder Walker Williams explains, the two business models are not quite the same. Although Kickstarter also serves as a crowdfunding platform, the production of the item being promoted is up to those raising the funding. At Teespring, however, all production and the shipping are handled by the company itself.

Williams and co-founder Evan Stites-Clayton, recent Brown grads living in Providence, Rhode Island, first happened upon the idea when trying to save a local bar from shutdown. A designer prior to this entrepreneurial venture, Williams threw together a website featuring a “save the bar” type of t-shirt, and received a ton of interest from students who wanted to buy one. But when he approached a screen printer for a quote, the cost was steep ($1,500 is a lot for a student!) and the turnaround time was two weeks. He also wasn’t sure upfront how many shirts and what sizes he would need.

That’s when he got the idea for what has now become Teespring. He sat down with Stites-Clayton, a friend and coder, and in five or six hours, they had a website up and running where students could pre-order shirts via PayPal. They had the goal of selling 200 shirts, but they sold 450 and the site saw 3,000 uniques in just a couple of hours. More importantly, the inquires started rolling in via email. Other organizations, on campus and elsewhere, wanted to know: can you build us a website, too?

The two founders started working on Teespring full-time in August 2011, launched their first campaign in January, and opened up into beta in late April. The startup has been flying under the radar, but it’s grown quite a bit despite the lack of marketing. 1,673 organizers have now used the site to design custom shirts, and since July, they’ve begun clearing over $100,000 per month. “We’ve done over $500,000 in sales and have shipped 27,000 t-shirts to 40 different countries,” says Williams. “Every month is our biggest month.”

The advantage to selling shirts this way isn’t just the cost savings, it’s also the quality. “Previously, if you wanted to print t-shirts, you had two choices,” Williams explains. “Either you had to suck it up and pay the $1,000 bill, guesstimate the number of shirts you need, and go through all that hassle with a screenprinter or with CustomInk, or you could go to CafePress and there would be no upfront cost.” But CafePress shirts start at $20 and are digitally printed, he says. “Digital prints are a low-quality print, the colors aren’t as vibrant, and they wash out after 20 washes – it’s not retail quality.”

Teespring works with a network of screenprinters to make the shirts, routing customers’ orders to the one nearest them. The company’s business model involves taking a flat margin per shirt, and customers can turn around and sell those shirts for whatever they want. The site has proved popular with non-profits particularly, looking for other ways to raise money besides asking for donations. $150,000 of Teespring’s sales have been with non-profit groups, even including some larger organizations like Plan USA.

Now a team of seven, Teespring is a month away from releasing an API and widget that will allow shirt creators to embed campaigns on their own website. They’re also debating raising a venture round in order to grow further: Williams says he can see the company expanding to anything where it can control production and fulfillment – not just t-shirts and other promotional items. In fact, they’ve experimented with things like water bottles and hoodies and even snow globes. And they’ve even received some crazier requests – like those for surfboards and books.

“Eventually, we want to be the place where people can crowdfund anything and not worry about the backend,” says Williams.

Today, the company is nearly profitable. It has $600,000 in angel investment, from local angel Bill Cesare and Mark Weiner, who handles Obama’s merchandising.