Published October 18, 2013
For startup companies with overworked skeleton staffs that primarily “live” in the digital realm, connecting with customers and spreading brand awareness can be difficult. One entrepreneur says his startup offers the solution.
The business model? Create, print and ship cool startup “swag” (think t-shirts, stickers, etc.) to “fans.”
“A high quality t-shirt that’s done well can definitely spread the word about a company,” says Frank Denbow, founder of Startup Threads. For a fee, Denbow and a small team of designers create, print and ship t-shirts and other branded merchandise to a company’s customers—aka website members and/or ecommerce shoppers.
Denbow initially created Startup Threads as a side project while working as a consultant in 2011. He had volunteered as a coach several times with the nonprofit Startup Weekend, and says he found a common obstacle attending upstarts faced: interacting with customers from their digital platforms.
“It’s a really innovative idea, both for the customer and the startup,” says Mark Hayes, head of public relations for Shopify. “Especially startup fans (they’re quite the passionate group) love company swag.”
Denbow used Shopify - an ecommerce platform for creating online stores – to build Startup Threads’ ecommerce store, which according to Hayes is “killing it.” According to Denbow, in the two years since launching, Startup Threads has worked with at least 50 companies sending swag to their customers.
For Denbow, who bootstrapped the entire project, working solo has proven as much a thrill as challenge – especially when it comes to pushing forward.
“The greatest challenge has been figuring out what to focus on so that the product moves forward,” Denbow says.
Currently, Denbow works out of his New York apartment. He works with a printer in Chicago who he says can handle bigger orders. He says he hopes to find a similar printer partner in Europe to make shipping internationally easier.
Susan Schreter, entrepreneurship educator and author of “Start on Purpose,” says it’s not uncommon for American companies to turn to international markets to gain extra revenue.
“This works best for companies that have proprietary technologies, a process, a brand or a lot of marketing resources that the international partners can’t duplicate,” Schreter says.
In the case of Startup Threads, she says, the first step before going global is to do a competitive analysis and research its target audience to ensure the market isn’t already saturated.
Denbow credits Startup Threads’ popularity to the monthly “swag bag” deal. Each month, fans who pay a $15 monthly subscription fee receive swag bags filled with information about and t-shirts bearing unique designs of that month’s “sponsoring” company. Companies that are sponsors of the month don’t pay for production, the only charge is the cost of the t-shirt.
“For these companies, they get 300-plus new people wearing their shirts and learning about what their company does,” Denbow says. “This month we have a Gandi.net [collaboration] with an awesome glow in the dark t-shirt!”