German Web 2.0 Clothing Retailer Spreadshirt Finds Boston Fits It to a T

6/12/09Follow @wroush

When you’re a technology reporter and you stumble across the same startup two or three times in quick succession, it’s the journalism gods telling you to write a story.

I first stumbled across Spreadshirt on Tax Day, April 15. (As I’d later learn, the Leipzig, Germany-based startup has been famous among Web-savvy fashionistas for years, but I’m an ignoramus about the clothing business.) I’d just finished a visit to Mocospace, a mobile social networking startup that occupies the second floor of an old building at 186 South Street in Boston, in the funky little office district near South Station. On my way out, I noticed the Spreadshirt logo on the window of the first-floor space, which had the look of a former art gallery but seemed to be occupied by some Euro-stylish people doing something related to T-shirts and the Internet. I stopped in and left my card.

Two weeks later, I intersected with Spreadshirt CEO Jana Eggers at the Nantucket Conference, a meeting of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists on tony Nantucket Island. Eggers was the most outspoken member of a panel of startup leaders who all spoke very frankly about what CEOs have to do to steer their companies through recession. What struck me most was Eggers’ defiant tone as she recounted how Spreadshirt was savaged by the German press after the company laid off workers despite having wads of new venture money in the bank. “The press came after us, but I said, ‘I will not be torn down for being a responsible CEO,’” Eggers told the audience. “Spending the money was not the right thing to do for the company. And it’s not for the press to tear down leaders who are doing it in the right way.”

Spreadshirt CEO Jana EggersWhich brings me to what Spreadshirt actually does: it’s an online boutique for personalized clothing, from T-shirts to aprons to baseball caps, where every item can be imprinted with a message or design that you create and upload. Individuals and organizations—like the Nantucket Conference, for example—can set up their own Spreadshirt “partner” shops online and sell customized apparel. The Boston office is the company’s headquarters in North America, where it does about 20 percent of its business. And as it turned out, a line I penned about the Nantucket meeting was one of 17 quotes from the conference that Spreadshirt will emblazon on your very own Nantucket tee. (The line was, “One blue dot, on my way to a gold starfish.” You had to be there to understand.)

Clearly, I had to do a piece on Spreadshirt. One evening about three weeks ago—it must have been well after midnight in Leipzig—I got Eggers on the phone. She’s been leading the company in North America since 2006 and globally since 2007, enough time to line up a couple of rounds of venture funding from the likes of Accel Partners and Kennet Partners and to arrange a few highly publicized deals, like Spreadshirt’s work with CNN to put the network’s headlines on T-shirts or with Adidas to put Boston Marathon runners’ personal times on branded shirts. For a CEO, Eggers is refreshingly unguarded, and we had a long, freewheeling discussion about how the company is trying to meld technology and fashion, why she thinks the Spreadshirt formula is so appealing, and where she hopes to take the company over the next few years.

Below, I’ve gathered up some of the best parts into a few bundles. This is Jana Eggers in her own words.

On who Spreadshirts’ customers are, and what they get:

What we’re really selling to people is self-esteem. When you are wearing a shirt that you came up with yourself and someone compliments you on it, your shoulders go back. There are times when I’m on the subway and I see people looking at my shirt, and they either smile or look puzzled, but either way, they are noticing me. That’s what we call our brand promise—self-esteem. So if you ask me who our customer is, the crappy answer is “everyone,” but I’d start with the people who are really expressing themselves now, who are the people out there blogging and tweeting and going on Facebook.

On whether Spreadshirt is primarily a fashion company or an e-commerce company, and how it’s different from CafePress or the local T-shirt shack:

The fashion part is important to us because we’re not just about the boxy T-shirt you would get at a store. We carry 21 types of T-shirts, not even counting long-sleeved shirts and polos and hoodies and bags and visors. A personalized coffee mug is nice, but you leave it in the sink at work. Most people don’t leave their shirts in the sink at work. What you wear and put on your body is a lot more important. It goes back to that self-esteem; my clothing represents me in a very … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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