University News

Alums’ startup lands $35 million investment

Teespring, which allows users to sell original shirts, has seen revenue growth since founding

Contributing Writer
Monday, December 1, 2014

Evan Stites-Clayton ’11 and Walker Williams ’11, above, founded Teespring with Anthony Staehelin ’10 in 2011.

When Evan Stites-Clayton ’11, Walker Williams ’11 and Anthony Staehelin ’10 founded the custom apparel company Teespring, they never thought they would receive $35 million in venture capital and find themselves at the helm of a successful startup.

Teespring recently gained this new funding in a Series B round, a type of funding round in which early outside investors buy common stock, multiple news outlets reported last month. The Series B round was led by Khosla Ventures, a venture capital fund based in Silicon Valley, and followed a $20 million Series A round led by Andreesen Horowitz, another venture capital firm in Silicon Valley.

“We are growing a lot, and this funding is going to help us as we continue to scale our platform and build up our team,” Stites-Clayton said. “We want to be able to provide our entrepreneurs with the best possible tools to create their products.”

Teespring allows users to design and print their own t-shirts, but its broader mission is to “democratize commerce, empower entrepreneurs and make products for passionate people,” Stites-Clayton said.

The process is simple: Customers can create and market their own t-shirt designs on Teespring, and the shirts are processed, printed and shipped only if a set number of them are sold. Customers are not required to pay any money upfront — the revenue from sales covers the production cost. Teespring takes care of shipping and handling and lets customers collect the profit.

The company has sold 6 million t-shirts this year and hit $750,000 in monthly revenue in March 2013. Additionally, about 200 customers have each made more than $100,000 in total selling their own designs through the company.

“You no longer need to have deep pockets, an appetite for major risk and expansive knowledge about production and distribution to sell a product. … All you need is a great idea,” said Staehelin, who currently serves as the company’s head of special operations.

Starting up
Walker and Stites-Clayton met in 2009 while working on their first startup, Jobzle, at the accelerator program Betaspring, which enables “teams with a strong start on a high-growth venture to rapidly transform into fundable, scalable companies,” according to its website.

A student-job-finding website, Jobzle “was more of a building block,” Stites-Clayton said, adding, “Ultimately, we had to confront the reality that the execution plan we had wasn’t very promising.”
Teespring was born in 2011 after the popular Providence bar Fish Company was closed as punishment for altercations at a party it hosted. Students were upset about the demise of one of their favorite bars, and Williams and Stites-Clayton saw an opportunity.

They designed a t-shirt with the slogan “FREE FISHCO” but found it difficult to produce because of the upfront costs and sizing, Stites-Clayton said. So instead, the two used their computer programming skills to create an online tool that allowed users to choose their sizes and preorder the products. They made $2,000 in one weekend.

“Just the fact that we were able to make more money in one weekend than we could in one summer (with Jobzle) was a pretty clear sign that we should be doing something different,” Stites-Clayton said.

That year, Stites-Clayton, Williams and Staehelin worked hard to build the company. They started to research and set up the operation, create different versions of the website, talk to users and negotiate with printing and shipping services, Staehelin said.

“While there was traction with the users, the service providers took a little more time to get on board,” he added. “They didn’t think a few college kids could really set up a business. I remember regularly wearing a tie as I drove around meeting with potential business partners in order to look a little older.”

After graduation, Stites-Clayton and Williams started working full-time for the company while Staehelin took a hiatus from Teespring. He returned as head of special operations in 2014.

“It definitely takes a leap of faith to work on something like this because you have to believe in what you’re doing, and it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel sometimes,” Stites-Clayton said.

“I was stupidly optimistic about entrepreneurship at certain points,” Stites-Clayton added. “I never doubted we would be successful.”

In January 2013, Teespring successfully applied to Y Combinator, a seed accelerator based in Silicon Valley that aids early stage start-ups by providing funds, advice and connections in exchange for a small percentage of the company’s equity.

Soon after, Teespring received the $20 million in the Series A round and the additional $35 million in the Series B round, putting the company in a good position for growth.

Brown and beyond
Barrett Hazeltine GP’15, professor emeritus of engineering and a valued adviser for Stites-Clayton and Williams when they were at Brown, said he didn’t realize Teespring would turn into a $55 million business.

“It really comes down to Walker’s genius in recognizing the opportunity he had — which I think a lot of people would dismiss,” Hazeltine said. Stites-Clayton and Williams “are really nice people. They’re friendly, and they’re concerned about others. They had a really positive influence on everyone around them,” he added.

Chad Jenkins, associate professor of computer science and Stites-Clayton’s former professor in two robotics courses, said he wasn’t surprised that Teespring took off.

“At Brown, we have amazing undergrads with amazing ideas, and they go off and do great things,” Jenkins said. “Teespring is just another example of that.”

Stites-Clayton “is an extremely creative person who has a lot of talent,” he added. “It’s been interesting to see him mature from the kid who comes to class in flannel high-top Converse to the head of a major company.”

Teespring currently employs around 200 people in three different locations: Providence, San Francisco and Hebron, Kentucky, where the company is building a manufacturing plant that will assume a large portion of t-shirt printing, Stites-Clayton said.

The company has seen success not only in terms of finances, but in terms of its influence on real people, Staehelin said. “We’re making a major impact on the entire industry but most importantly on people’s lives,” he said.

“We see this impact in the laid-off parent who was able to free their family from debt by building a business on Teespring,” he added. “We see this impact in the designer who finally found traction in his vision and was able to build a brand.”

It’s not a coincidence that Teespring began at Brown, Staehelin said. “Brown teaches us to think independently and challenge the status quo, and that’s exactly what this came down to: Could we see past how things work to how they could be and should be?” he asked. “To me, that’s a very Brown thing.”

A previous version of this article misstated Anthony Staehelin’s ’10 title. He is Teespring’s head of special operations, not head of operations. The Herald regrets the error.