Pop of the tops

Glenn Jones’ t-shirt designs are designed in Auckland, printed in Texas and popular all over the internet. Ulrika Hedquist tracks the success of Glennz Tees.

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Photographs by Stephen Langdon

Glenn Jones’ t-shirt designs are designed in Auckland, printed in Texas and popular all over the internet. tracks the success of Glennz Tees

Walking down a quiet street on Auckland’s North Shore on a crisp morning, who would suspect that one of these idyllic little houses is the hub of creativity for a skyrocketing international t-shirt company?

Opening the door, dressed in a hoody, shorts and jandals, is Glenn Jones—world-famous designer. In fact, judging by the pages and pages of blog posts and tweets from all corners of the globe raving about his designs, Jones is something of a celebrity to a large population on the internet.

Jones set up his online t-shirt label Glennz Tees two years ago and the company is growing by the day. “This is where it all happens,” he says with a sweeping gesture over his tidy lounge. He does most of his work from the sofa, with his feet up, he confesses, and only gets up to buy coffee and go for his daily run. He’s living his dream. “Especially on a nice day like this,” he says, looking out through the open French doors to a small paved courtyard surrounded by greenery.

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This is the archetypal online Kiwi entrepreneur success story. Jones is huge on the web and has made a considerable dent in the lucrative US market while keeping a low profile at home. Two years ago, 90 percent of Glennz Tees customers were US-based. Today, the rest of the world is catching up and now makes up 40 percent of the customer base. His designs grace the chests of hundreds of thousands of teewearers worldwide. Based on a totally unscientific assumption about the age and interests of Idealog readers, you probably know someone who owns a Glennz t-shirt—if there’s not one in your own wardrobe already.

Jones shakes his head as if he can’t quite believe it. “We’ve tripled in size in two years and are still growing. Once the big wheel starts turning, everything grows with it.”

And with an established US partner’s ability to scale up with him, there’s nothing holding that growth back. “It blows me away that I can live in New Zealand, that this can happen from my sofa,” he says.

But Jones didn’t strike gold by sheer luck. Not surprisingly, behind his success story is a combination of raw talent and 15 years of hard work in the design industry.

Rewind the tape a couple of years. Jones was leading a busy life as creative director of Auckland-based agency Dashwood Design. To refuel and relax in his spare time, he didn’t take up yoga or engage in heavy drinking: at nights and weekends he designed t-shirts as a hobby.

Just for fun, Jones submitted some of his designs to online US t-shirt retailer Threadless, a community-based website that lets members vote for their favourite designs. Each week, the six most popular designs are printed on t-shirts and sold for US$18. The winning designer receives US$2,000 in cash and, of course, unlimited kudos among the close to half a million members. After passing an initial screening, around 150 new designs are submitted to the site each day. Jones has submitted over 100 designs to Threadless.com since 2004 and he has won 20 times, making him the most printed and most popular designer on the site to date.

He credits Threadless for taking him to where he is today. “When I was on Threadless it went through an enormous growth, which gave me heaps of exposure,” he says. He started getting fan mail and business propositions on a daily basis. He could see the potential for his own label. But Jones, who describes himself as “definitely no risk-taker”, was cautious. “There are so many people out there who are just looking to make a quick buck.”

He had dreamed of starting his own label for years, so if he was going to do it he was going to do it right, he says. The biggest barriers were the warehousing and shipping operations and dealing with customers, nearly impossible to afford on his own and from New Zealand, he says.

The door to his new career opened on a quiet Friday afternoon. The owners of US website Despair, a company whose products mock the multibillion-dollar American motivational kitsch industry, had seen Jones’ designs on Threadless and contacted him for a design job. Jones delivered within hours; the relationship was off to a great start. Jones went on to design a few more t-shirts for Despair.

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To refuel and relax in his spare time, he didn’t take up yoga or engage in heavy drinking: at nights and weekends he designed t-shirts as a hobby.

The two brothers behind Despair, Justin and Jef Sewell, asked if he would be interested in a joint venture. “They flew me over to Austin, Texas, where they’re based. I met the team, they showed me around and we got on really well.”

The Sewell brothers had exactly what Jones needed: online retail experience and, through Despair’s sister company Amplifier, all the printing, warehousing, shipping and customer relations management capabilities he needed.

“I knew straight away this was a good opportunity,” he says. “I decided to give it six months. If it didn’t work out I’d just go back to being a graphic designer somewhere. I didn’t want to be five years down the track thinking, ‘I really should have given it a go.’”

The joint venture launched Glennz Tees with six t-shirts in March 2008. Now, there are 64 tees available on the online shop, as well as other geek must-haves like laptop skins, mouse pads, iPhone wallpapers and calendars. The growth in sales has been “massive”, says Jones.

Using social media has been a significant contributor to the fast growth of the company. Most of the exposure Jones has is through people tweeting and blogging about his work.

“Twitter has become massive for us,” he says. Every shirt release or new product is tweeted about and he holds a near-daily competition to win Glennz Tees vouchers.

“You need to keep on engaging with people. If there’s nothing happening on your site, if you’re not in people’s faces all the time, sales will decline,” he says.

In addition to a Facebook page, the company has a portfolio on Behance.net, an online network that connects creative professionals across the world. The site gets about 50 million page views a year and the most viewed portfolio by far is—you guessed it—Glennz Tees. The exposure on Behance has led to an explosion of blog entries about Jones’ designs.

“Looking back now, quitting my job and starting my own business is the best risk I’ve ever taken.”

Jones talks to his business partners in the US daily via iChat. “It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, communicating is so easy. I could just as well be sitting right next to them.”

In fact, when he visits Austin he quite often works at a desk just metres from his partners but still uses instant messaging. That’s what they’re all used to, and it works so well.

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I learned early on that the designs needed to be easily understood. If you want to make it in the US, Americans need to get it. If you’re aiming globally, people anywhere in the world need to get it. I typically take something well known and put a funny twist on it. That little twist is often what engages people.

Besides designing, an increasing amount of Jones’ time is now devoted to responding to emails from fans, as well as students and startups looking for advice. “It takes up a lot of my time but there is real value in it. People love it when they get an email back, and that makes me happy too,” he says.

Referrals can come via the offline world too. When submitting an order, people often leave a comment that they had found the site because they had asked someone on the street where they’d got their t-shirt from. “People are basically walking billboards for us,” says Jones.

So what is it that makes his designs so popular? Part of the recipe for appealing to the masses is making sure people get the design in seconds, he says. His pop-culture parodies became hits on Threadless because people immediately appreciated the visual gags. “I learned early on that the designs needed to be easily understood. If you want to make it in the US, Americans need to get it. If you’re aiming globally, people anywhere in the world need to get it. I typically take something well known and put a funny twist on it. That little twist is often what engages people.”

Jones doesn’t often use text to explain his designs—many people don’t like the obvious, he says. “They like to figure it out in their own head and go, ‘Oh, I get it,’ quietly to themselves.”

By now, Jones has come up with hundreds of ideas. Where does he get his inspiration? “I wouldn’t have a clue,” is his immediate response. “I don’t know. Often from something I see on TV, or I’ll go for a run or a drive somewhere and an idea pops into my head.”

Inspiration is totally unexpected and unreliable. Right now, he hasn’t drawn for weeks. He’s just come back from Austin where he combined meetings with his business partners with a visit to the legendary South by Southwest conference (where he saw lots of people wearing Glennz Tees, “a pretty awesome feeling”). “But I don’t panic about it,” he says. “I know that all of a sudden three ideas will arrive at once.”

When he gets an idea, he likes to sit down and draw it straight away. He always draws directly in Illustrator on the computer and usually spends two or three hours on the design before he leaves it. He comes back, sometimes a couple of hours or a day later, to look at it with fresh eyes.

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“Sometimes I leave an idea for months,” he says. “I’ve got about 50 drawings that I’ve started but not finished sitting in a folder. Every now and then I go back and have a look and see if I can change something or do it in another way.”

And when he gets a brilliant idea for a design, he always Googles it first. Chances are someone else will have thought of it too.

His advice to other designers, or entrepreneurs in general, who are looking at entering the US market is to know what you’re getting yourself into. Talk to people who have worked with partners or customers in the US, he says.

“Don’t rush into anything. Take your time. If they are serious about wanting to work with you, they will wait.”