What's in a T?
The sociology of the startup T-shirtBy Kate Jonuska
Anthem Branding principals Ted Church and Pete Burhop would never be mistaken for TV’s most popular advertising executive, the slick 1960s Don Draper. At the Boulder office of their advertising, design and merchandising company, the two share a love of cycling rather than a love of booze, and there is nary a business suit in sight.
In fact, these two advertising execs are standing over a pile of the most lowbrow, casual clothing in existence: T-shirts. “This is your personal collection of Anthem gear?” asks Church, pawing through the collection of shirts overflowing the office coffee table.
“This is just part of it. I archive everything,” says Burhop. His collection depicts, in soft cotton, the seven-year-old company’s evolution.
Burhop is wearing an Anthem T coupled with a pair of jeans. Fifteen years ago, this look would have been unthinkable in any office. Today, the T-shirt is a small but vital plank in most clients’ advertising strategy.
“In the startup community, the T-shirt really complements the splash that a startup is making,” says Church, adding that word of mouth about new companies now includes “word of shirt.” “If your shirt is seen at the right spots, it kind of legitimizes you,” he says. “You could see it as a passport stamp or a badge of honor.”
“Outsiders would probably roll their eyes and say, ‘It’s just a T-shirt,’” says Clare Tischer, communications manager at the Boulder branch of TechStars, a startup accelerator. But in fact, she says, T-shirts are a vital part of the process for startups using the accelerator. At a TechStars event, “you can literally differentiate who is who by the color of their Ts.” Novices, graduates, mentors and investors all wear different colors. Startups fortunate enough to be acquired earn the gold TechStars T, an honor only 19 companies have earned.
the shirt on your back
Since the shirts are so significant and so often worn, it’s lucky for wearers that companies today aren’t all producing stiff, boxy promo T-shirts. “People are very discerning now,” Tischer says. “When you’re offered a T, you want to see if it’s soft. Women hold them up to see if they’re flattering.”
Char Genevier, founder of SocialEngine custom social networks in Boulder, recently made an entire quilt out of her surplus shirts because she was unable to wear them all—or unwilling to, because of low quality in fabric or cut.
With the glut of T-shirts and the pool of human billboards becoming more discerning, the T-shirts that someone does choose to wear in public carry more weight and show honest support from the person beneath the fabric.
“Companies like McDonald’s will give their employees a collared shirt with the name of company, and they’re expected to wear it,” Genevier says. “At a startup, you’re choosing to wear it, usually because you’re genuinely excited [about the company].”
Rather than references on paper, T-shirts can also serve as unspoken résumés for entrepreneurs and tech professionals. Your shirts can convey your work history or the events you’ve attended, like the South by Southwest music festival or the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Burhop says his company makes a point to educate clients about T-shirt culture. “They’re brand-extension items. If you make a crappy T-shirt, that’s a negative representation of your brand or product,” he says.
“One cool, inexpensive way entrepreneurs can kind of beat their chest and demonstrate their love for their work is by making good T-shirts that people will wear.”
Church compares a T-shirt collection to a trip down memory lane. “Our drawers are pretty much full of Anthem shirts. Other people, maybe it’s every tech startup they’ve been a part of, or other things that have resonated with them. Really, who doesn’t love a good T-shirt?”
Kate Jonuska (www.katejonuska.com) is a Boulder freelance writer of fiction, features and food. She also blogs about food and tweets as @kjonuska.