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

6/12/09Follow @wroush

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personal way. But that’s why the e-commerce is important, because we can offer more of that fashion. It’s enabling those individualized tees, but for a lot of people.

We did a Boston Marathon promotion with Adidas where people go in before the race and get technical sports shirts to wear in the race, and afterward they could get a personalized shirt with their marathon time on it. We believe that this was the first time something like that was done on a massive scale. People could always go to a local print shop and say, “Could I have eight of these shirts for my team or my friends,” but not with a brand like Adidas, in a sponsored way, with the actual Boston Athletic Association logo on it.

On why people seem to enjoy marketing companies like CNN and Adidas on their bodies:

Because it’s not about the marketing message, it’s about them. One of my favorite accounts that we worked with was a 24-hour fitness chain. They came up with this idea of giving away personalized shirts when you sign up. The shirts said “I do it because…” and then people could go and type in their own responses. Some people would put in things you would expect, like, “I do it because it’s my 20th high school reunion,” or “I do it because my grandkids can outrun me.” But there were also some really creative ones, like, “Because at the bottom of every beer there is a pork chop.” The fitness chain said more member clubs participated in this T-shirt campaign than any other campaign they’d ever run, and 40 percent of the people who got free shirts actually bought another shirt too. So people are not afraid to wear a marketing message when they are really wearing a statement about themselves and their own creativity.

Spreadshirt LogoOn Spreadshirt’s choice to make Boston its North American headquarters when it expanded here in 2006:

Fashion, technology, and e-commerce are our three areas, and Boston is one of those places where you can get all of that. In California, you can get a lot of technology and e-commerce, but you are missing out, typically, on the fashion side. Boston is one of those great places where you have a lot of creativity and the arts side and you also have the technology side and that deep history. As a bonus, it’s only 6 time zones from Europe instead of 9, which makes a huge difference.

We originally went into the Cambridge Innovation Center, which is a terrific place to get started, and I love what Tim Rowe does there, but what we really wanted—which was exactly what we got, thanks to our agent—was an old art gallery or studio at street level in that creative area of Boston. That’s the vibe the company has.

On Spreadshirt’s unexpected scramble to catch up with the Web 2.0 and social media phenomenon:

We were really early on the Web 2.0 chain. It was way before social media. We were crowdsourcing before people even had the word crowdsourcing. The Facebooks, the Twitters just weren’t around. It was funny and striking to me that as such an early player on the Web, we would be kind of slow to react to Twitter and Facebook, just as examples. It was just two months ago that we added the ability, when you buy something on Spreadshirt, to post that to your Facebook page. You would think that a company like us that was progressive and early on the Web—that [social media] would be where our natural genes are. And I think we saw it, but it was just one of those things where you’re so caught up in your own product that you don’t have time to step back and take a breath.

On the company’s most important growth markets:

We’re excited about all of them. I’m not going to play favorites. The U.S. is a little over 20 percent of our business, which is really unusual of course, because most technology startups have their primary business in the U.S. We are a funny little outlier, because we were started in Europe and that’s where we have the majority of our business. As far as what’s growing, we’re still seeing a lot of growth in Germany, which is terrific—it tells us there is a lot of power in our model. The U.S. is obviously growing for us, and growing quite well. Those are the strongest growth markets. Down from that, it gets kind of interesting. In the U.K., for example, we are growing more on the shop-partners side than on the direct sales side. Why, we don’t know. Sometimes it’s just who the partners are that you catch and how they do, or may some great article has hit the press. Honestly, in Europe running this business is like running 80 different businesses.

On being an entrepreneur in Germany:

Germany does have a very strong startup community, but it’s different from the U.S. Unfortunately, from my perspective, I’m used to the U.S. way. It’s not as supported here. Here’s how I describe it: in the U.S. you get more false positives and in Germany you get more false negatives. Meaning that in the U.S. there is so much support and respect for entrepreneurs that you can probably get farther, and get more money to go farther. In Germany there is less support and less respect for entrepreneurs, so therefore there are probably some businesses that fail that maybe could have been viable had they had a little more support.

Speaking as an American, I would rather have more false positives, and some Germans would probably say they would rather have more false negatives. That’s the mindset. There is definitely a balance—I’m not saying the American way is the right way. It’s somewhere in between. People have asked me “Would you start a company in the U.S. or in Germany?” I’m not stupid—I would do it in the U.S. because I know all of these things about how the system works and I’d want the best chance for my company, and I’m American and my network is there. But you know, when I ask myself would I feel better if my business was a success in Germany or in the U.S., I would say Germany, because I know it’s harder here.

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

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