Pfff… I Could Do That : The Verbal Street Saga

In the winter of 2008 I was browsing the web at work in a store with a co-worker/friend. The store was a modern, trendy carrier of over-priced  home furnishings, with computer kiosks at which we could sit down with clients to redesign their rooms. These computer kiosks faced out toward the public at all times. We wanted a stylish desktop wallpaper to replace the boring Windows default. After a bit of browsing, we came across a vector graphic of a city-scape with flourishes and paint splatters. My co-worker, Ryan, made a comment, something along the lines of how cool the graphic would look on a shirt.

Pfff… I could do that, I said.

What followed, after some back and fourth, was we agreed to start a t-shirt company. However, the truth of the matter was, I really didn’t know if I could do that. I had reasonable confidence in my abilities, but I’d never taken on a project of that scope. We had some idea about what we needed. Here are some lessons learned:

  1. A Brand
  2. A Web Site
  3. Merchandise
  4. Customers

1. A Brand

We based our style off a character I’ve always drawn who we dubbed Skatchman. This character who I’ve drawn back as far as I can remember, was born out of my own inability to draw. He’s essentially a stick-man with a body. His blank expression and round features lend him this cutesy, loveable appeal. He was the perfect subject for an apparel style because he’s a blank canvas. So, using this as a launching point, we started throwing around design ideas. Eventually, we came up with about 10 of them. We had a face, but we needed a name. It was easy. I’ve been using a brand for all my work for years, Verbal Street. I already had the domain name reserved  — and the brand name was a good fit for our style.

2. A Web Site

I had mentioned I knew how to make websites. But, this was 2008, and I hadn’t touched HTML in nearly 8 years. Anyone who has worked with the web knows how much the Internet changes on a yearly basis, let alone in 8 years. Tables were a thing of the past, and there were daunting new words being tossed around: CSS, Jquery, CMS, PHP. We needed a system where customers could come in, purchase and send the completed order to us without our involvement. After a bit of research, what determined that what we were looking for was a CMS (Content Management System). We quickly settled on Drupal, which, as it turned out, had a razor’s edge learning curve. It’s like going in for Nursing and starting with Brain Surgery. We stuck it out though. We met up at least two or three times every week to see this through.

The Verbal Street homepage

Most of the learning came from looking at other sites — picking apart the code and “Frankensteining” the rest together. I completed the first site on January 2009. Verbal Street now had a store.

3. Merchandise

We ordered 200 Black & White blank t-shirts: a combination of men’s and women’s small, medium and large. To save money, we decided to do our own screen printing — a process where, using chemicals, you burn a stencil into nylon, and push ink through to the shirt using a squeegee. Some good advice for new comers looking to get into doing the same thing: Don’t! After blowing through about 10% of our stock creating failed prints, we came to the following conclusion about what a good screen print needs:

  • Simple colors. Ours had anywhere from 2-8. After you get the first color down, it’s nearly impossible to line up your next color. Unless you have…
  • Expensive Printing Equipment. The pros in the industry use a large octopus-like machine that lines up your prints for you.

We outsourced our prints to a Johnny at pinhole printing on Hastings. He did an amazing job, much better than we could ever do.

Skatchman in a box

Sample Print Jobs

It’s now October 2010, and we need a catalog. A longtime friend of mine offered to do the photo shoot for our t-shirts, and even lined up a couple of models. We had everything a business needs, except for one key component.

4. Customers

I’m a right-brained thinker. I “art” things. I don’t “number and math” things. This is where I was lucky to have every designer’s greatest tool: a business guy. Ryan came from a promoter background. He also had a large list of contacts. Using our facebook page, his connections and word of mouth, we started our no-budget advertising campaign.

On November 11, 2010 we released Verbal Street Series Zero (trial run) to the world.

Sample T-shirts for Verbal Street

Things kicked off pretty quickly. We cleared about half of our stock in the first month. Our most successful design was the character eating a banana on the front, with bunches of bananas forming wings on the back. We spent the next few weeks packaging shirts for shipping and fulfilling orders. Then, things quieted down after the first month.

The Aftermath

After the success of our launch, we ran into troubles that prevented us from continuing. We lost our shirt manufacturer, who disappeared off the face of the planet. He couldn’t be reached by email, phone or anything. We sought out a new manufacturer, but after a few run-ins online with some less than savory characters, we put the project on hold. Ryan got a job in management. And me, armed with my new design and web skills, I began freelancing and traveling. We still talk about getting back together to continue Verbal Street, but it’s yet to happen. There’s definitely something to be said for owning your own business though:

  • You’ll pick up skills you need to survive.
  • You don’t always have people who you can ask for help, sometimes you gotta rip things apart and see how they tick.
  • There’s nothing like working for yourself.
  • Sometimes you have to say you can do something and figure it out when you get there.

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