I have been asked "What made you decide to start a business selling ‘80s t-shirts?” about 1000 times since I started 80sTees.com in late 1999. I am not a huge “talker” and I see modesty as a virtue so I always give a short answer, which goes something like this:
I bought a He-Man t-shirt at a small shop when I was in college. One day I wore it to a theme park and 6 people asked me where I got it. That gave me the idea that no one knew where to get it and maybe I could sell them on the web. So I made a deal with the store where I bought it to get a bulk discount, put up some Ebay listings and a rudimentary website, and it just grew from there.
Besides being an incredibly lame way of describing the founding of a fun company, this response doesn’t even answer “Why?”, it answers “How?” more than anything else.
It Is Your Destiny
When Darth Vader said “It is your destiny” to Luke Skywalker, he meant that simply by virtue of being the son of Anakin Skywalker he was destined to follow his footsteps and join him. My destiny was formed by a number of circumstances, and I’ll detail them below.
Born in ‘77
It helped that I was born into the golden age of action figures. Being born in 1977 meant that Kenner was kickstarting the action figure craze with Star Wars shortly after I was born.
It took Hasbro and Mattel a few years to figure out how to launch their own franchises to compete with Star Wars, but they eventually came out strong and in perfect timing for me to get sucked in. The Masters of the Universe line was first and it became my obsession. I had just about every figure, playset, and vehicle that came out until the time when I became too cool to like kids' toys.
In addition to playing and watching He-Man, I watched shows like Transformers, GI JOE, and ThunderCats. I never had a single GI JOE or ThunderCats figure, but I had quite a few Transformers including my favorites: the Dinobots and Constructicons.
I’ve Always Loved Graphic Tees
It’s very difficult to find a picture of me wearing anything but a graphic shirt of some kind. The one exception was LaCoste polo shirts, which I was willing to wear because of the alligator.
Although I eventually hit the "too cool for character shirts" stage, it didn't last long. By the time I was a junior in high school and no longer feared getting beaten up by upperclassmen, I started showing my personality again with character tees. This time it was Wolverine shirts and back to an old fave, Spider-Man.
Small Business is in my Blood
My father was a hustler. He maintained a full-time job as a mechanical engineer despite not having an engineering degree AND he did consulting work on the side AND our house had a laundromat in the front yard. I saw running a small business as normal, because I viewed myself and my family as normal.
Emptying Out The Penguin
My first laundromat job was emptying out the garbage can every night. For some reason our garbage can was shaped like a penguin. My dad was "frugal" so he didn’t pay for garbage bags or garbage hauling and the idea of a separate container for aluminum cans was unheard of at this time. So by hand I picked all the garbage out of and put it into paper grocery bags and sorted the aluminum cans to take to the recycler. As I got older, it became my job to burn the garbage in a barrel every night too.
By the time my middle brother went to college, I was mostly running the show in the laundromat. I had a nightly responsibility to sweep the floors, clean up the washing machines, load the change machine with quarters and collect the dollar bills, and take out the garbage (luckily my dad eventually sprang for plastic bags but we still burned it until the very end). Every few days I would have to load up the candy and Coke machines and deal with the money, as well as collect the change from the washers and dryers.
The House of Kashmir
Fast forward to 1997 when I went to the main campus of Penn State University and found The House of Kashmir.
I would have never thought about wearing a He-Man t-shirt if it wasn’t for this store!
Where Did You Get That Shirt?
In the summer of 1999 I was doing things I had never done before. I had a girlfriend who wasn't from Canada, which for a guy that was tall and gangly and socially awkward and always wearing He-Man and Spider-Man shirts (actually I’m still all of these things) was not something that happened before. I took my girlfriend to an amusement park. It was there that six people asked me where I got my He-Man shirt.
Besides being the first time in my life anyone wanted to dress like me, it was then that I realized I had some inside information. And I had been hearing a lot about Ebay and the idea entered my brain to consider selling these shirts there.
Senior Year Was The Best 3 Semesters of My Life
But not all the stars aligned yet. I caught another lucky break. I didn't graduate in 8 semesters. For most people this would be terrible. I would not graduate until December of 1999 so I would have to wait 7 months and my parents would have to pay for another semester of college, and I doubt the laundromat funds were still in tact by then.
But for me it was great. It meant that I would be going back to House of Kashmir. I doubt I would have driven 2 hours to State College just to make a test buy of t-shirts, but since I was already there it made sense.
In December of 1999 I made a deal with Saghir to give me $5 off each shirt if I bought 10 or more. I built a website and launched an auction for a size large He-Man t-shirt. That auction sold for $32 and drove traffic to my rudimentary website where I didn’t even take credit cards.!
Just A Side Project
My ambitions initially were to make a few bucks on the side while I pursued a job in environmental engineering. But eventually our selection grew as I found suppliers other than House of Kashmir. I used the proceeds from the first sales to buy more inventory.
Eventually I was making just as much money from 80sTees.com as I was with a full-time job, and I really didn’t like wearing Dockers every day so the idea of quitting my job was appealing. Eventually sales grew to the point that I had no idea how I’d manage the Christmas season in 2002 while still working full time so I quit that job in September 2002.
Not Going to Stop
It's been a crazy ride since then. 2008 was our highest revenue year. We aren't as big as we used to be in terms of sales or number of employees back then. But if I had been thinking of having a huge business from the beginning, I wouldn’t have built a business in a small niche.
I feel so lucky to have a business where I can provide people who love the same things I love with a way to share their memories with the world.
I plan on offering retro t-shirts for as long as I can, and not just because the alternative is to get a job. After all, I am where I am supposed to be and doing what I am supposed to be doing.
It is, afterall,