How Cotton Bureau Became the Internet’s Coolest T-Shirt Store

Xconomy National — 

You may not have realized that it was possible to become addicted to buying T-shirts. But that probably means you just haven’t stumbled upon Cotton Bureau, a year-old website that has quickly become the world’s coolest T-shirt shop.

The four-person crew behind Cotton Bureau has managed to pull this off by stitching together an impressive number of cultural, technological, and business trends into an entertaining, beautifully designed package that delivers on its promises.

As business ventures go, Cotton Bureau is not going to become the next Amazon. In an era when high-tech entrepreneurship inspires Hollywood blockbusters, the founders aren’t interested in finding investor capital and don’t even like to call themselves a “startup.”

But they have managed to create a thoroughly 21st century company—a profitable online retailer that mixes the latest trends in product development with an open-ended creativity platform and the simple, old-fashioned appeal of a secret club.

“Not too long ago, we weren’t selling anything. And a couple of short years later, it’s paying my mortgage,” co-founder Jay Fanelli says. “Sometimes, we have to step back and say, `Wow.’”

There are a million places to buy a T-shirt online. It’s one of the many specialized functions that the Internet has helped make trivial, which has in turn led to an explosion of T-shirts as totems—there’s one representing just about every company, convention, or trend that you can imagine. As writer Glenn Fleishman put it, “T-shirts are to the Internet as cigarettes are to the prison economy.”

Many online T-shirt companies have a feature that lets you add your own design, while others tend to serve as endless vacuums of pop-culture sayings and Internet ephemera, recycling anything that a person might want to put on their chest into an instant piece of disposable fashion. Some do both. 

Cotton Bureau takes the opposite approach. While just about anyone with a computer and some software savvy can submit a design, only those approved by Cotton Bureau’s curators will actually get featured on the website and have a chance of being made.

That’s what you’d expect from a group that previously ran a Web design and development agency—these people have serious opinions about good taste—but it also lends a premium, exclusive feeling to the whole thing. And it’s one reason Cotton Bureau can charge around $25 for each shirt, which are based on American Apparel blanks that might cost $5 wholesale.

“If we came out and started making T-shirts for your uncle’s carpentry company or your charity’s 5K,” the company wouldn’t have much chance of standing out, Fanelli says. “The world is just full of terrible T-shirts, and we don’t want to make any more.”

Cotton Bureau Group

(L-R) Cotton Bureau’s Jay Fanelli, Nathan Peretic, Matthew Chambers, and Sara Gardinier

The work really begins when a design gets picked for a spot on Cotton Bureau’s main page. After helping the designer pick the shirt material, color, and other features, Cotton Bureau posts the design and starts the clock: shirts have two weeks to attract at least 12 pre-orders. If they clear that hurdle, the money is collected and the shirt gets printed. If fewer than a dozen people want it, no dice.

Twelve is the magic number because Cotton Bureau says that’s the lowest point at which it can make money on each project. If the shirt gets more than 25 orders, the designer also gets paid a cut of the proceeds.

That two-tiered setup is a fun way to reward successful designers. But it also means the point of getting a shirt printed on Cotton Bureau is more about seeing your idea turned into a real-life object, and less about making money coming up with cool T-shirts.

The crowdfunding element, popularized by startup and consumer-product sites like Kickstarter, makes the T-shirt buying process into a kind of game for the consumer. Really like that cool shirt with the astronaut helmet, or the funny one with “Smell Ya Later” in squiggly script? If it gets down to the wire and there aren’t enough orders, you may find yourself begging friends to chip in and buy a few more so the shirt crosses the finish line.

Sure, T-shirt designers can guarantee success by rallying a bunch of people to their cause. But the fact that just about anybody in the world can buy a design through Cotton Bureau also highlights a fundamentally cool part of the Internet: the ability to connect groups of absolute strangers, sometimes separated by enormous distance, around a shared sensibility and cultural experience they may have thought was too small or personal to matter.

It’s probably no mistake that T-shirts are a perfect medium for this kind of connection. They’ve been a distinctly American vehicle of expression and pop-culture cool since Marlon Brando wore one in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and quickly thereafter became all-purpose personal billboards for everything from corporate brands and political statements to family reunions and banal tourist nostalgia.

Eventually, the concept of T-shirt as a medium got turned in on itself. In the early 2000s, discount retailers like Old Navy began mass-producing cheap tees with slogans and insignia for things that didn’t even exist. Cotton Bureau allows people to take the idea even further—sure, you could get the logo of your actual company or club made into a shirt. But the truly great stuff on the site seems like a one-off in the best way possible: an idea you’ll never see anywhere else, dreamed up by someone out there with an eye for style or a wry sense of humor. 

That vision of the T-shirt happens to fit perfectly with the atomized nature of popular culture in the Internet age, when anyone can publish anything at any moment and powerful creative tools are in more hands than ever. The idea that you’d be wearing a piece of clothing only owned by a handful of people in the world is much more likely today than the chances of another “Just Do It” or “I Want My MTV” T-shirt craze becoming a thing.

“There are no real cultural monoliths anymore. Everyone is part of their own sort of nano-culture. And I think what Cotton Bureau is able to some extent to do is find other members of a nano-culture and display it on a T-shirt,” Fanelli says. “Someone is sort of putting a T-shirt out there as a beacon, and they’ll find a few dozen other people who respond to that.”

The blend of all these elements is what makes Cotton Bureau a little addictive. After pre-ordering a couple of shirts for myself, I started going back to the site to see if they’d make the cut or not. Then I’d find a few more designs I wanted, and plunk down a few more bucks to see if they could beat the two-week clock and go into production.

Soon after that, I was buying shirts for my wife and even thinking of other people who might like some of the designs that showed up—will my friend from Cleveland laugh at this “Ohio til I Die-O” shirt? I should send it to him as a housewarming gift!

The oddest part about Cotton Bureau as a business is that it probably shouldn’t even exist. The company grew out of a contract development agency, Full Stop Interactive, which was founded by Fanelli and Nathan Peretic. In fact, Cotton Bureau is the side project of a different side project: United Pixelworkers, a self-styled “fake union for Web designers and developers” that Full Stop started as a way to design and sell T-shirts to their colleagues around the country.

“We kind of used that as an excuse to launch a product, basically, which kind of ended up being a T-shirt brand. It wasn’t out of any great desire to make T-shirts,” Fanelli says. “It was more of an experiment in non-client revenue. It was a way for us to give back to our community a little bit. And it was a way for us to make a name for ourselves a little bit.”

This was 2010, and Fanelli and Peretic were growing tired of working in the client services industry. While the work paid the bills and allowed them do what they enjoyed, hitching their creative efforts and livelihoods to a rotating cast of outside bosses was getting old.

After sales of United Pixelworkers shirts began to grow, the pair asked outside designers to come up with new logos, which led to even more shirt sales. Eventually, people started asking whether Pixelworkers could branch out into different kinds of shirts that fans wanted to design.

With their experiment starting to look much more serious, the Full Stop crew decided to see if they might be able to take their T-shirt concept to a wider audience. That led to Cotton Bureau, a broader take on the Pixelworkers idea. It was launched in June 2013.

The problem was, T-shirts weren’t the full-time business—Fanelli and Peretic were still running Full Stop—but they thought it could be with a lot more focus. So they decided to grab one more big project, a redesign for Westfield, MA-based Westfield State University, their agency’s original big client. It was going to be “the last big score,” enough money to last through 2014 and maybe 2015, seeding their idea for a bigger T-shirt project, Fanelli says.

“We’d been saying, kind of as a backup to this, `Well, if we don’t get the job, we’ll just quit client services and just do T-shirts,’ never thinking that it would actually happen,” Fanelli says. “And then it actually happened.”

They decided to take the leap anyway, and in November, Full Stop quit taking on new clients. The final projects finished up this spring, and they began focusing on United Pixelworkers and Cotton Bureau as the sole businesses.

Cotton Bureau is profitable enough to grow on its own and keep the four-person team paid—along with creative director Fanelli and front-end developer Peretic, the business is run by third co-founder Matthew Chambers, who handles back-end development, and Sara Gardinier, in charge of customer service and fulfillment. Since they started producing T-shirts full-time, the business has doubled, Fanelli says.

“We have been subsisting exclusively on T-shirt revenue since about February of this year, which seems crazy to say,” he says. “We never thought, `One day, we’ll just sell T-shirts on the Internet.’”

As a business, it’s a little early to declare Cotton Bureau a total victory. But the fact that something like this could become a profitable, standalone business so quickly is a testament to the what’s still possible in the Internet age.

“The Internet is the great equalizer,” Fanelli says. “The means of production used to be what determined who had the power. And the Internet has provided so many means of production to so many people, that it’s really distributed the power to many more people now.”

So it doesn’t really matter that the creators of Cotton Bureau are based in Pittsburgh. It doesn’t matter that they don’t know where the next T-shirt design is coming from. A small group of people can find something they’re good at, connect with a larger group of people who think it’s good enough to pay for, and make enough money to feed their families. If you’re looking for T-shirts, there are worse ways to spend $25.