T-Shirt Startup 'Repatriating' Textile Jobs to U.S.

Small Business Spotlight: Project Repat, @projectrepat

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Who: Nathan Rothstein, president/co-founder and Ross Lohr, co-founder

What: A socially conscious upstart creating U.S. jobs out of old t-shirts by upcycling them into quilts.

When: February 2012

Where: Boston-based with production outposts in Fall River, Mass., and Morganton, North Carolina

How: “People love free t-shirts, really,” Rothstein explains.

Two years ago, Rothstein and Lohr, inspired from development experiences in post-Katrina New Orleans and abroad in Nairobi, respectively, teamed up with the goal of starting a business that made “money but also prosperity for a lot of different people.”

From high school dances to college intramurals, company 5K races and beyond – the old t-shirt pile can become overgrown. And, according to Rothstein, all these shirts capture a memory and “represent who you really are.”

Rothstein likens the young t-shirt quilt-making company to “modern-day scrapbooking,” and says it can also make a great gift idea. The young startup rang $1.1 million in sales just last year, he says.

“What’s cool about our business is that we’re bringing back t-shirt jobs to North Carolina and Massachusetts, but in a new upcycling format,” Rothstein says.

Over the past ten years 20 billion t-shirts have been distributed and sold in the U.S., but about 90% of them are made overseas, according to Rothstein. Both Morganton, N.C., and Fall River, Mass., where Project Repat’s production partners are located, were once thriving textile industry hubs in America. But since the 1990s, North Carolina alone has lost some 250,000 jobs as textile ventures moved overseas, says Rothstein.

He wants the company to help bring jobs back to the U.S. Already, he says Project Repat has given 20,000 hours of work to U.S. textile workers.

At the outset, the pair handled everything, but through partnerships with Opportunity Threads and Precision Sportswear, they’ve been able to “let experts take care of production and fulfillment.”

To have a t-shirt quilt made, customers go to the Project Repat site to select a quilt size (ranging from $60 to $250), opt to send an image with the pattern they want, or let the company design it. They then send their shirts to the company. It takes about two to four weeks to turnaround a quilt.

Rothstein says the social mission is integrated right into the business model.

“We see ourselves as creating a supply chain with a mission,” Rothstein says.

Biggest challenge: “I think we have two challenges,” Rothstein says. “How do you scale manufacturing operations, and then how do you let as many people know about your business without spending a ton of marketing money?”

Rothstein says Project Repat has several solutions in place: they’ve created an extensive supply chain and unique manufacturing process. The company follows self-designed “ecommerce pillars” to help spread the word and keep overhead costs low. They use commerce platform Shopify to handle transactions, use daily flash sales to acquire more customers and place ads through search engines. The company has sold thousands of vouchers through deal sites like Groupon.

One moment in time: At the end of their first year in business, sales slumped after the holidays. But in January 2013, they launched their first national deal on Groupon and sold about 6,000 vouchers. He says things really started to pick up after that.

“It was just amazing to see the pent up demand for an affordable way to preserve t-shirt memories.”

Best business advice: “The people who have been successful … have been able to see that the idea isn’t what makes them successful – it’s the execution.”