The story of the Ohio State Sweater Vest T-shirt
The story of Jupmode begins with the Ohio State Sweater Vest T-Shirt. It was the one simple idea that started this company.
The idea for the shirt came on a whim. It was while watching Ohio State play Florida in the 2006 National Championship game that I casually said to my dad who I was watching the game with, 'Someone should make a Tressel sweater vest t-shirt - a tuxedo t-shirt but for Ohio State.'
Upon hearing that, he challenged me to make it. So with a little encouragement and help from him, I set out to do that.
Manufacturing a cut and sew shirt is complicated
The original sample for the shirt was made in China. My vision for the shirt was for it to be more than a simple screen printed sweater vest and tie. I knew that in order to truly stand out, it needed to be separate fabric sewn together.
At the time that I set out to make this complicated shirt, textile manufacturing was much different in the United States than it is today. Most factories had moved outside of our borders or they were down south where I didn't have familiarity or easy access to them. The internet also wasn't the help that it would be now.
The domestic textile factories that I did manage to get in touch with indicated the cost to produce a shirt like this would be as much as $15. Unfortunately, that made the product too expensive for the market.
Through a family friend, I made contact with an individual in China who had a relationship with a factory. While the language barrier was incredibly difficult to cross, I managed to get them the information necessary to produce a physical sample.
In retrospect, the sample I received wasn't that great. But I was young, ambitious, and couldn't be bothered by imperfection.
There was some finishing that I had to do once I received the sample - I screen printed a tie under the neck and a Block O on the left chest. Once that was complete, it was ready to be sent to the Ohio State University for Licensing.
I was lucky I was applying for a license with Ohio State
At the time, Ohio State had an unusual trademark and licensing process relative to other universities. I learned later that they were considered an independent licensing university. This meant that they made decisions on trademarks and licensing in house.
It is more common for schools to outsource their licensing decisions to companies such as the Collegiate Licensing Company or Learfield (they were separate companies years ago when I applied but now have merged) that specialized in this area. By keeping decisions internal, OSU was much more flexible and willing to take a risk on young kid with a single shirt idea.
A few weeks or months, I can't quite remember now, after mailing the application in, I received a letter notifying me that the shirt was approved for licensing. That was a really exciting moment for me!
A few years later when I met the director of Trademark and Licensing at OSU, I asked him about my application. He said that while they had hoped one of their larger licensees would have created the OSU Sweater Vest T-Shirt, it was too good of a product to not approve it. No matter how imperfect it was or inexperienced I was.
I had a license, but needed to figure out where to get shirts
After receiving approval for the shirt, I knew that a full production run in China was more than I could handle. I quickly set out to find other options. After digging around on the internet, my dad found an article about a textile factory in Alabama. We couldn't quite tell if it was still open or not, so we looked up the man that was interviewed in the article and called him.
When we got in touch with him, we learned that the factory was in fact closed and he was retired. However, his son was still in the business and working in Mexico.
And that's how our first production run of shirts was made in Mexico.
As if making the shirts wasn't hard enough, I now had to figure out how to sell them
I received the first batch of shirts in the middle of football season that year. Since the football season was already in full swing, I had to play catch up in order to sell them.
Most stores place orders for apparel well in advance of the season. While I had reached out to stores about the incoming shirts, they were reluctant to place an order. For starters, I was just some kid calling off the street to try and sell them shirts. I was an unknown and unproven entity. Additionally, I was trying to sell them a shirt some of them had not seen and would only have a short window to sell.
Fortunately, there were a few places that were excited about the idea. College Traditions was the first store that sent us a purchase order. I'll never forget that when I got Kelly, the owner, on the phone, she told me she was waiting for me to call her. She was a part of the approval board for Ohio State licensing and was excited for the shirt when it was submitted.
Two stores that I was chasing down were Meijer and the Andersons. The store manager at the Meijer store on Central Avenue in Toledo loved the idea. She told me it was too late in the year to place an order and that purchasing decisions came from corporate. She put me in touch with her contact there.
When I got in touch with the purchaser, my expectation was that I was getting in line for the next football season. But very quickly he placed the largest order I had received by far!
Since the Andersons was the local Toledo store, I really wanted them to carry this shirt. Their buyer kept dragging his feet on making a commitment, but when he heard that Meijer had placed an order, he jumped on the bandwagon and put in his own order.
The most fun I had selling the shirts was going down to Columbus and selling them at the 7-Eleven on Lane Avenue before the games. I felt this was the easy and most direct way to reach Ohio State football fans.
In order to sell at the games, I applied for and received a peddler's license with Franklin county and had to get permission from the 7-Eleven property owner to use their space.
On Friday nights before games I would pile a bunch of shirts and a table into the back of my Honda Civic and stay at my cousin's house in Columbus. I'd hopefully have a friend or two with me to help set up in the morning and sell before the game.
This was way back in the time before Stripe. Taking payments wasn't easy. I remember I had to pay $1,000 for a wireless credit terminal.
I enjoyed selling at games so much that I even took the show on the road. I went to several bowl games. When Ohio State played in the Sugar Bowl, I found store owners in the French Quarter who sold the shirts. When they were in the Fiesta Bowl, I drove out with my brother and found a store near the stadium to sell at.
Who knew that the Tressel T-Shirt would be the foundation for what Jupmode has become
While selling at games was as much fun as work, there are still lessons that are valuable to me today. I got to know my customers better, I learned how to navigate permits and develop relationships with stores, and I learned that I could go further with other people.
Most importantly, I eventually learned that I needed to take it more seriously in order to make it a real business.
Year two of the Tressel T-Shirt presented as many challenges as year one. Most notably, my manufacturer in Mexico stopped responding to me.
Left without enough inventory and no leads on a new manufacturer, I asked Ohio State's Licensing and Trademark director if he had an advice. He put me in touch with Atlantis Sportswear in Piqua, Ohio. They helped me source the shirt from there on out.
The relationship with Atlantis allowed the design to grow from one shirt to a red and gray version, youth and onesie sizes, and a bib.
When Coach Tressel resigned, the interest in the Ohio State Sweater Vest T-Shirt faded. My sales peaked in his final season and I knew I had to get rid of my inventory and find a more reliable business model.
We don't make the Ohio State sweater vest t-shirt anymore and no longer have a license with the Ohio State University, but we keep our Buckeye State pride alive with our Ohioan collection of apparel and gifts.
For a condensed version of this story, you can listen to the story in the video below.