If you want something done right, it’s said, do it yourself. Couple that with Lennon and McCartney’s wisdom of “we get by with a little help from our friends,” and you’ve come up with Glenn Jones’s business model. A graphic designer from Auckland, New Zealand, Glenn uses a do-it-yourself approach to running his online t-shirt business and the power of social networking to get the word out. With his signature ironic twists on the mundane, this Kiwi is storming the gates of pop-culture fashion.
So you’re a t-shirt designer. How’d you start in that — through fashion, or graphic design, or something else?
I started in design; I’ve been a graphic designer for eighteen years. I did illustrations for a newspaper for a while; I got hired there at eighteen, right out of school. Then I did what a lot of Kiwis do and went abroad; I was in London for three years and worked there. When I got back to Auckland, I started at another graphic design company, where I stayed for five years, working up to Creative Director. In the meantime, I was drawing pictures in my own time and putting them up on Threadless, which is a t-shirt website founded by two guys from Chicago about ten years ago. They’re sort of the forefathers of consumer-generated content. Users upload images that other users vote on. They’ve got more than two million voters, and the designs that get the most votes are printed.
So I was drawing these pictures as an artistic release… you know, when you’re working on a project, you’ve got the opportunity to be creative, but you have to meet certain requirements of the client, and you’ve got a timeline and all that. And so I made these drawings just as an outlet. And while I was putting designs on Threadless, it was growing very fast — it quadrupled in size every year for the first five years. Eventually it got to where my designs were the most-printed on the site. I thought I should start my own site for my designs; I got some help from the guys who run despair.com and amplifier.com, and we launched Glennz Tees.
Are your sales mostly U.S., or international?
When we started, it was about 90% U.S., 10% everywhere else, but it’s grown to about 50% U.S. and 50% international.
What kind of advertising and publicity do you use?
It’s all been online and viral so far. We have five and a half thousand people on Twitter, so every time I would tweet about a new design or a new concept that I’d put up, a small percentage of those people will talk about it. And literally sometimes they’d just go viral, which is amazing.
A lot of your designs seem to be based off of pop culture phenomena. Do you find that to be limiting at all to your market, or is that something you try to play up?
What happened when I was on Threadless is my first couple years I didn’t really have much success, but then I had a design which is now something I’m probably known for most; it was Darth Vader trimming a topiary tree with a little divot out of it that looked like a Death Star. It became sort of like my trademark tee. Everybody who knew me from Threadless knew that shirt as well, and it’s literally been ripped off all around the world. So it was sort of like the penny dropping to me, that putting a twist on pop culture just resonated with people.
Not all of my designs are pop culture-related. I guess I became known on Threadless for my pop culture stuff, and it sort of became my thing, so when I went out on my own, I tried to trade on that. Even today, I try and push into a territory, but at the same time try to put a twist on everyday stuff. I think that’s the recipe — even broader than pop culture, if you can find something that people can relate to, but then put a bit of a twist on it, it seems to resonate with people.
Are you looking at expanding the company at any point?
I think we would like to expand, more so getting into more retail. More and more stores are wanting to take on our tees as well, which is great. We already do mouse pads and laptop skins, calendars… so we might look to extend our product range as well. But you know, we see steady growth just because of the power of the internet. People every day are learning about our tees. So from that, we grow and sort of have our exposure, so as we grow in exposure, we grow in size as well over time, so hopefully we’ll be able to launch a whole lot of different products.
And your sales are primarily online now?
Yeah, basically all online. We do sell to retail stores who buy our tees wholesale, but that’s — at the moment — a very small percentage of our operation.
What’s it going to take to get into more brick-and-mortar stores?
It’ll probably just take more focus from us. We have the ability to inquire about it on the site. We’ve so far actually just been concentrating on the site itself; for a long time there we decided we would keep it exclusive to ourselves. But we’re just seeing the proof and a lot of people are asking to hold our tees. It’s just about actually having the time to pursue a lot of those inquiries, so I think moving forward, we’re going to start concentrating on that sort of business more.
So you’ve got stores coming to you, rather than you reaching out to stores?
Oh, definitely. We’ve never gone out to any stores, they’ve all come to us.
What can Daily BR!NK readers do to help out your company and further your work?
I hope people just enjoy my work. If people want to follow us on Twitter and follow us on Facebook, great, but I’m easy either way. And if people enjoy it and sort of get a laugh out of it, that would be the only reason I’d want people to follow our work.
I think the greatest thing about our company is we’ve made mistakes. But I think we’ve learned from making those mistakes. To be honest with you, 99% of our growth has just been from trying stuff; trying something on the site, or trying something with a t-shirt. And if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, we stop doing it.
Lessons learned the hard way stick better.
Yeah, I think so. I just think if we hadn’t gone through the process, we probably wouldn’t have refined to where we are now. And that’s not to say that we don’t have heaps to improve on, because we do, but I kind of like that. I kind of like that we learn as we go.
Yeah, it gives it a more authentic feel. Like, “This is my company that’s been built with my mistakes.”
Definitely. And I think it’s more satisfying, as well. It’s exactly that: I think at the end of the day, where we get to with this, we’ll be able to say, “At least we’re having fun doing it.”