What began as a DIY T-shirt design is now a precommerce platform for customised products, Real Business was told by the UK-based Teespring VP of commercial Chris Lamontagne.

During our cruise around London with Lamontagne for Black Cab Entrepreneurs, we heard how the channel initially allowed people to design T-shirts to raise money for charity before it was given an overhaul once the true potential of the business was realised.

Today, Teespring users can design far more than just T-shirts, with jumpers, mugs, bags and even homeware available. Athletic goods for exercise, such as leggings, are also an area of growth.

Furthermore, people are making serious cash on the platform before they’ve spent anything at all, thanks to what the company refers to as precommerce.

Explaining how Teespring has changed the design process, Lamontagne said: “For T-shirt design, ordinarily you would have to find a manufacturer, design a website, find a payment platform to accept cash, think about shipping, find customers and hope they buy – there were so many barriers to even starting a really simple T-shirt brand, so initially that’s how the business set out.

“We’ve flipped that on its head to a model called precommerce. You can come onto our platform, design a product, say this is what I want to push out there and if it’s successful and it sells then we’ll manufacture the product.

“We don’t have to manufacture anything before understanding the demand, which is very powerful and disruptive on the supply chain.”

He said that, ultimately, what was being created was the concept of a micro-brand, an independent for smaller communities that allowed a shift from major labels, effectively driven by the power of social media and commerce.

“The business went through an evolution of early traction, then a period of exponential growth – from zero to half a billion dollar-valued company with some of Silicon Valley’s best investors, Andreessen Horowitz and Khosla. Teespring also went through the Y Combinator incubator,” recalled Lemontagne.

Having grown out of San Francisco where much of its engineering talent can be found, a London office helmed by Lemontagne was opened, with the UK capital centred around creativity and design. Altogether, the business has around 300 employees at this point.

In addition to opening the doorway to building a business, Teespring cuts back on waste with its model too.

Lemontagne referred to the likes of Nike and Adidas, which conduct mass amounts of market research to look at new trends for different seasons – only for stock to end up going on sale or stuck in warehouses. With Teespring, people can react to a trend at a moment’s notice.

Truly acting as a brand ambassador, he was sporting a T-shirt created via Teespring with the slogan “Nevertheless, she persisted”, which came on the back of a US senate gathering in February, during which senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced. The moment went viral and inspired one individual, who went onto make $300,000 in two days.

“A young designer in Brooklyn thought that was a really good idea for a T-shirt. At about 8pm he retweet ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ – and at 9pm he decided he’d going to make a T-shirt,” Lemontagne detailed.

“This guy had never sold a product before, but he came onto the platform and designed the T-shirt with a really straightforward slogan. By 11pm he’s done, pushed this out on social media, responded to tweets and goes to bed with no cost whatsoever.

“When he woke it up, he had sold 1,000 T-shirts. In 48 hours, he’d made over $300,000.”

This is a real demonstration of the power of social media and also how viral trends can ignite a business like never before. With this in mind, Teespring hopes it will be able to act as an alternative to brand giants – for example, allowing yoga teachers build their own brands as an alternative to Nike, so that their students become a community.

“We’ve got over 30 guys who’ve become millionaires as a result of selling on Teespring. They’ve quit their day jobs and become entrepreneurs using our platform.

“We have huge traction in the US, but we want to build that out in Europe, and London is the hotbed of where that begins. All major European markets, particularly France, Germany, Italy and Spain make lots of sense,” he said.

Teespring shirt

Teespring was founded by Walker Williams and Evan Stites-Clayton in 2012

Looking ahead, Lemontagne said: “We’re truly in the space where we can be a multi-billion dollar company.”

Given that business potential, he explained that copycat companies have sprouted up, attempting to replicating the Teespring model, which is one of the main challenges. He explained the model is defensible to an extent, but his job is to make sure strategic moves are made to keep challengers at bay, whether that’s quality of products or speed of service.

Although the business has been used for B2B purposes by the likes of Snapchat, Google and Slack, which have ordered products for staff, it’s not the core part of the brand strategy. Nor is usage by celebrities including Beyonce and Jared Leto.

“Thinking of that scale perspective – if we can capture millions of people designing their own brand, we become a completely different player. Suddenly, we’ve got not tens of thousands of brands, but hundreds of thousands,” said Lemontagne.

“Dead stock, outlets, there’s a whole retail ecosystem based on waste. We understand what to make and when – that totally changes the game.”

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