My name is Josh Perkins. I’ve been running Go Ape Shirts for over 9 years, since mid 2006. I own and run the company by myself. I work with the artists and our print shop, do all order fulfillment, handle customer service, the whole shebang. The company has always been a fun side project and hobby for me. I started during my junior year of undergraduate school, stacking my bed up high and using all available closet space to keep inventory. I started out with four designs, 100 printed of each, and grew it from there. The company truly thrived during the times of my life where I had more time to devote to it.
Recently, I have been so busy with my career that it has taken a side seat, though I still send out weekly shipments of orders. A lot has happened in 9 years for me. I went through optometry school, which is a 4 year program after getting a bachelor’s degree, plus one year of residency. Now, I keep myself busy as a full time optometrist. Unfortunately, with the career, Go Ape Shirts has been a bit quiet for the past few years due to this.
Way back when I started the company, there weren’t all that many websites releasing quality designs and shirts. There were, of course, several big players, but the independent online scene was small. The focus has always been on quality. The artists that I’ve been lucky enough to work with are so incredibly talented. It was such a fun process making both mine and their dreams come to life in t-shirt form. Then to know that people were wearing these around proudly was just a great feeling, almost surreal. Also, we always printed on American Apparel shirts. Though a good percentage more expensive, the comfort and fit was always worth it to me. We had a few popular parody designs, which set us apart at first. However, nowadays, there’s an overabundance. Any design imaginable is out there now, and the quality has stepped up. However, I think our American Apparel shirts still keep us a cut above, since not many shops use them anymore due to cost. Some of our designs are truly classics. No matter what comes out now, we were still first in a few areas.
What were your biggest mistakes running a clothing company? How would you of done things differently with the experience you have now?
I have no regrets. Like I said, this was always a side project for me. It was a way to use my creative and entrepreneurial sides in my spare time. I used the profits to help build the company and have some extra spending money on the side. Therefore, it wasn’t stressful. I wasn’t doing it to put food on the table. I got enjoyment out of the happiness that many of these shirts brought people. Some of the stories that I got back were great. That was such a rewarding experience. I guess if I had a lot of time to work on things, I would put more time into social media, as the landscape has shifted towards there. We’ll talk about that a few questions down.
What is your most memorable moment running your clothing company?
There were many times when our shirts got written up by some amazing websites, which led to massive explosions in sales. This was such a great feeling, knowing that we had dome something right that connected with people. We’ve been featured on too many websites to list. Besides t-shirt blogs, we’ve been on gizomdo, io9, boingboing, uncrate, geekologie, IGN, the front page of reddit, and many more. We made it into a few magazines including an in-flight magazine and actually the final issue of Stuff magazine. It was awesome packing up piles of orders to send out, very rewarding.
What was your breakthrough moment?
I started out in the t-shirt world submitting designs to threadless.com. I owe a lot of gratitude and respect to those guys. They are such an amazing company. They were the ones that got me started with the whole thing. I started learning to use Illustrator in order to submit designs to their website. I started to improve, continued to submit designs, and eventually, one of my designs clicked. It scored amazingly well and was printed. During this time, I had also made friends through there since it was set up with such a strong social aspect. I used the money from my first winning design there and my connections to some awesome other designers that I had met there to print my first batch of shirts. I printed one of my own design and three from other artists. I would say that first win on threadless and then being able to build up from such a small amount of shirts was when everything really broke through. From there, it only got better. I continued to submit to threadless, too, and even ended up winning what they called a “Bestee” for most groundbreaking design, which came with an additional $10,000 prize. That was huge for me. Doing something that I loved and getting paid for it, what else could I ask for? Without threadless, I wouldn’t have been able to start Go Ape Shirts. They helped me break through, and I am forever grateful.
What is the best form of advertising you use and how has your advertising changed since you started?
The greatest success that I had with advertising was through internet word of mouth. The t-shirt blogs that were around back in the earlier days were such a great help as well. Seriously, there were some great guys behind those sites. If you were nice to them, they were nice to you. I was happy to hook them up with shirts to review. This has changed, though, or I haven’t kept up with it. Due to the overwhelming amount of t-shirt websites out there now, the market is just simply oversaturated. It’s hard to stand out, even if you’re putting out an amazing product. The way to advertise has definitely shifted, and be it my older age or decreased amount of time nowadays, I haven’t successfully kept up with it. If I had more time, I would probably try to work more with instagram, tumblr, twitter, and facebook. Maybe I’m getting too old for this stuff.
I met most of the artists through threadless while I was submitting designs over there. Occasionally, I would see art that I liked and contact the artist from there. Sometimes, artists would contact me, and we would collaborate. It has been such a treat to get to work with such talent.
What has worked best for you in social media?
I mentioned this above when asked about advertising. I haven’t stayed as on top of social media as much as I would like to. It really takes a lot of time and work. Blogs were my biggest friend in this arena. Reddit was good to me once or twice in the past, but I feel like that is a lot of luck.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
Really, I’m happy with the history of the business. Things are slow now, yes, but I would expect that. I don’t have as much time to put into it. After undergrad, I took a few years off to work on Go Ape Shirts a lot more, save up some money, and travel. It worked. I was able to build the company and successfully save up for optometry with the help of scholarships. I do think part of that success is also due to timing. Back when I started, there were a lot less t-shirt sites to choose from. Now there are so many that it makes it difficult to be seen. There are some designs that have been slow to sell, so I maybe would rethink a few of those if I had to do it all over again. However, I like them, and the artists like them, and that’s actually enough for me.
Keep good records. About a third of your gross will be going towards taxes. Keep this in mind, and put a third away in a savings account. You don’t want to be owing money that you don’t come tax season. It might be a good idea to pay quarterly if you have issues with spending.
What advice would you give someone that is starting a clothing company?
Do it if it’s something that you love. Don’t get into it for the money; don’t try to make a quick buck. I know this sounds cliche, but it’s really not work if you’re having fun doing it. Also, start small. You can always build.
Where do you do the majority of your business, online, trade shows, craft shows, stores?
It’s all online. I think a trade show would be a ton of fun. Maybe I can do one some day.
What changes do you see in the future with your company, the t-shirt industry, and the internet?
My company is nearing its final days, sadly. After 9 years, there’s not much new ground to cover. I also just don’t have the time to put in the amount of passion that it needs. If you’ve been following us, you know that new shirt releases have dwindled. I don’t have any plans to do any more reprints at this time. It’s time to move on for now. I’d recommend you take a look around the shop if you’re looking to get some limited edition graphic tees. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. I’m still keeping up on fulfillment, so no needs to worry there. I think the t-shirt industry is on the decline. There are just too many companies that they’re all starting to blend together, no matter the quality. The t-shirt will always be around, but it’s popularity will fall and rise just as any trend. It’s not going anywhere, but I can’t see popularity increasing at this point any more than it is at now. The internet? The internet is here to stay!
What keeps you passionate and motivated about your clothing company?
I do take great pride and happiness in my company. It’s been such a long road though, and due to my new career, my energy for passion and motivation is shifted towards my day to day. I love my job as an optometrist, but at the same time, it’s very draining. While I love my shirt company, honestly the energy for passion and motivation for it is on the side. However, it has always been a side project and done for fun. It’s sad to see things slow down, but it’s not unexpected. I’m just happy that I’ve been able to keep the site going for as long as I have, and I’ve had some great times while doing it.
What question do you think would be good to ask clothing companies to help other entrepreneurs starting?
I think that in this competitive market, it’s important to ask why. Why do I want to start this company? It’s also equally important to ask yourself: what will set me apart? You have to be different and have a strong passion for it, just like anything else in life.
Notes from Jon Kruse: I’ve known Josh for a while when I was first starting out and he has made some awesome shirts over the years that still hold up today. I think a lot has changed in the t-shirt industry and there is definitely a lot more competition out there. One huge difference these days is how you can reach your customer. There is social media and so much targeting you can do to reach and advertise to your customer. We have more tools then ever to succeed. Its all just about finding your audience and targeting them.