I’m writing this as my Mom is laying in a hospital. Since I can’t visit her due to covid protocols I have decided to write a tribute to her work with 80sTees. I really hope she gets to read this.
80sTees.com has been around since December of 1999, just after I graduated from college. I had accepted a full time position that started shortly after the new year and I was back at my parents house with about 3 weeks to kill and nothing important to do. So I spent that time building a little website and some Ebay listings for a few t-shirts I purchased at retail. You can read about the founding here, as that’s not what this post is about.
Since the ebay listings were successful right out of the gate I kept at it. I was using my parents’ computer, phone, and house. It wasn’t too long before one box of t-shirts became 2 boxes of t-shirts became 10 boxes of t-shirts. And it wasn’t long before answering emails and packaging orders only in the evenings after work wasn’t enough.
My mother was a stay at home mom and never went back to work. Around the time I started college she was having some severe symptoms from a chronic disease that took a long time to even identify. At some point it was identified as Wegener’s Granulomatosis, but for ease of understanding it was an autoimmune disease. She was able to manage it with chemotherapy but had frequent flare ups and many bad days because the chemo is pretty rough. Basically she couldn’t go back to work a normal job even if she had wanted to. But she had been a secretary before she had kids and is a damn good typist. She’s also much more particular about grammar than I am.
She began to help me out, and didn’t ask for any pay. After she had been doing it a while I said she should own 10% of the company for the work she was putting in. Thus my mother is a 10% owner of 80sTees.
She was quite instrumental in the success of 80sTees. Originally I was buying my tees from a small shop in State College near Penn State. I knew I needed to find other sources, and I wanted to sell officially licensed tees. But this was 2000 and the companies that sold wholesale licensed t-shirts used sales reps and trade shows to find their customers (not that I even knew that when I started). Thus the web wasn’t a focus for them and their websites were fairly rudimentary and not easy to discover. But I tried continuously and failed to find new suppliers.
One day when I got home from work my Mom told me she found a company I should check out. They had Goonies and other t-shirts that would be perfect for us. To this day I don’t know what search terms she used, but it was a huge find. And one that I wasn’t capable of finding myself. She found our first real vendor, a company that we still buy from to this day. After buying from them for months I saw a sticker on one of their invoices that said “come see us at MAGIC in Las Vegas”. I didn’t even know what MAGIC was but I called one of the owners of the company and he said I absolutely had to go to MAGIC. It was THE tradeshow in the apparel industry and we’d be able to find more vendors there.
So my mother and I went to Vegas, stayed at the cheapest hotel we could find that was kind of close to the convention center (which was the Sahara and on a map looks close but ended up being a half an hour walk), and we went to the section of the show that our vendor was in. At our first booth we met a sales rep who then spent the rest of the day taking us to all of the vendors he represented. We placed lots of very small orders at that tradeshow, and the business really started taking off after that.
As our business and inventory grew my Mom and Dad were very patient as I filled up an ever larger portion of their house with boxes of t-shirts and I commandeered their dining room table as a shipping station. Eventually Mom said I needed to find another place to run the business but I think most people wouldn’t have put up with it for even a small fraction that she did.
She’s been there for the entire 21 year run of the company. Over time Mom’s main role has become checking on orders to make sure they aren’t using stolen credit cards or otherwise trying to scam us. She’s probably one of the oldest and longest tenured e-fraud prevention specialists in the world.
Ironically as our business has adapted to changes we’ve now become a distributed work force and she’s back at her house/our original headquarters. She never worked because my parents needed the money, it was about being a part of the company she helped build and staying engaged in something to help her maintain mental sharpness. With a history of dementia in her family I think it’s been a factor in keeping her sharp.
It should be noted that while she was instrumental in the actual company being created, she was laying the foundation for 80sTees say back when I was a kid. She brought home the VHS of Karate Kid on the first day we owned a VCR, back before I even understood the concept of “renting” a movie. But that choice made Karate Kid my favorite movie probably just as much for the quality of the movie as it was for the magical thing that just happened on our TV.
She’s also the one who did the shopping in our house, which means that my collection of Spider-man, Dukes of Hazzard, E.T., and of course Masters of the Universe t-shirts was her doing (along of course with my Dad who made it all financially possible). And since I’m writing this two days after Christmas I can’t help but think of the magical Christmas mornings filled with He-Man wrapping paper and opening up the toys that inspired me to buy my first He-Man t-shirt as a college student, which of course is another seminal moment in the founding story.
Despite being such a pivotal factor in the existence and success of 80sTees she’s never wanted to be part of the spotlight, which means we don’t have many 80sTees pictures with her in them. So here she is hugging the Easter Bunny at one of the many occasions where she has taken my kids to see him and Santa. In addition to being a great Mom and a key part of 80sTees, she’s also a great “Gram” to her grandkids.
Thanks for reading about Mary Ellen Stecko, a key founding member of the 80sTees.com team.
P.S. I will update this area later but as of right now Mom’s vital signs are steady and we are hoping she gets to come home soon.
1/4/2020 Update:Just wanted to give an update on Mom.