Strip District firm Cotton Bureau links artists to T-shirt lovers
Cotton Bureau certainly is not the only T-shirt purveyor in the Strip District.
Its Smallman Street office holds no inventory of shirts, though. Nor does it actually design shirts or print them. And the “store” exists only online.
“What we do is really not identifiable as work to so many people,” said co-founder Jay Fanelli, 35, of Collier, noting the business he and his younger partners grew from a web design firm is hard to explain to generations who worked in factories or corporate offices.
“It still seems a bit surreal sometimes, like I can't believe this is working.”
Their idea is working, though, generating more than $1 million in gross revenue during the past year by linking artists to customers through e-commerce.
“We help designers and illustrators ... make physical stuff and sell it on the Internet,” Fanelli explained.
That stuff is T-shirts, and some sweatshirts and hoodies. Fanelli, his partners Nathan Peretic and Matt Chambers, along with Sara Gardinier, who handles customer fulfillment and service, collect about 200 submitted designs per month from designers, artists and groups and approve about 25 percent of them for potential sales.
A website that Fanelli and Peretic designed, which Chambers maintains, features chosen designs for two weeks at a time, with a half-dozen shirts added (and an equal number removed) each weekday. If customers — who either regularly check the site or are directed there by designers — order at least 12 of a particular shirt, Cotton Bureau will handle payments, get it printed at Clockwise Tees in North Point Breeze, and ship it to buyers. If it doesn't hit 12, it's not printed.
Designers get paid if their shirt sells at least 25 units, and payment increases with orders. Some have sold more than 1,000.
“For my generation of people who look at Internet shopping as something as normal as walking into Macy's, Cotton Bureau has really catered to us,” said devoted customer Anthony Craig, 27, a dentist and blogger in Loma Linda, Calif., who has bought more than 20 shirts at the site.
He noted the unique designs targeted at “techie” buyers, an easy process for making purchases and a crowd-sourced vibe for deciding which shirts get printed.
“If you want it, you need to jump on it and buy it,” Craig said. “We don't want things to pass us up. Buy now, or you might miss it.”
Cotton Bureau attempts to meet that buying impulse with a responsive web design that functions the same on a small smartphone screen or a large desktop, said Chambers, 30, of Aspinwall. If people waiting for a bus see a mention of a Cotton Bureau shirt in a tweet on their phone, they can buy it on the spot, instead of forgetting about it before they get to their home computer.
The business model, adopted and adapted from other sites, allows Cotton Bureau to be picky about the designs it chooses. “We see ourselves as defending the high ground of these sites,” Fanelli said.
They won't sell cheap shirts bearing designs they don't like; most shirts on the site sell for $27 or $28.
“We're not going to take shortcuts,” said Peretic, 29, of Murrysville. “We know we could make more money by accepting anything or using lesser printing.”
The trio learned that lesson in its first venture, Full Stop Interactive, the web design firm started in 2009. It competed with larger agencies by emphasizing relationships with clients and quality design over quantity of sites. Full Stop quit taking clients in November 2013 because a big account in Massachusetts passed over the firm for another agency.
By then, the partners had started selling T-shirts online, first through a venture they called United Pixelworkers. It featured two shirts per month: one made by a high-end designer they met through the web shop and another featuring a different city. The business gave them some real-world experience in e-commerce while designing sites for clients, and gave Full Stop what Peretic called “a prong in our marketing strategy” as it generated buzz on social media.
“It was a sandbox to play in,” Fanelli said.
They started Cotton Bureau several months before quitting Full Stop and by the end of 2013 were selling hundreds of shirts a month. They stopped United Pixelworkers in December to focus on Cotton Bureau.
Last month, they sold 4,500 shirts.
With success, the partners have looked at possibly expanding products. But they doubt they will sell to a larger outfit or look for outside investment to grow.
Peretic likens their situation to an action movie scene, in which the main characters are in a souped-up car eyeing the “nitro” button.
“You know it will go fast, but can you control it?” he explained. “We're not confident it would go in the right direction if we took that step right now.”
David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.