Startup Spotlight: Project RepatJanuary 10, 2016
GH: What does Project Repat do?
Nathan: At the core, we help people preserve their memories and we create textile jobs in the US by recycling T-shirts into quilts. I’m the CEO of Project Repat. My focus is sales and marketing, but it’s just the 2 of us founders so I do a bit of everything. Managing logistics is the bigges part with 2 factories and growing number of customers.
GH: How did you get started?
Nathan: My partner was doing work in East Africa and saw all those donated t-shirts everywhere. In a traffic jam he saw one that said ‘bar mitzvah 1997’ – he knew it came from the US. It made him think: the US prints and sells 2 billion T-shirts each year so what can we do with all of these leftovers?
First we made tote bags and circle scarves from t-shirts that we thought were cool – then people kept coming up to us asking about quilts – for memorials, graduation gifts etc. Eventually we want to be the company you choose when you graduate and get a diploma. Every graduate should get a ring and quilt!
But it’s not just students – it’s runners, Harley fans, sports fans… They all get so many t-shirts. It started off as a niche but if you think about who it applies to then it’s a much bigger market.
GH: What was an obstacle you had to overcome?
Nathan: The hardest as a new business is no one knows about you. It’s easy to create a website but it’s harder than ever to get people to it, get traffic.
Learning to manage factories and manufacturing is also hard: managing workflow with highs and lows in the year for orders.
It’s a simple product but we can only make it if people send us the raw materials. We also don’t have traditional margins – they are higher – since we manufacture here and not overseas.
GH: What did you learn from your first customers?
Nathan: Our product! We thought they only cared about having their shirts in one place, not that they cared if the pictures or writing was cut off. The best thing we did was to ask customers to cut the t-shirts along the seams and only send us the side they wanted – that cut down on expenses and got us what the customers actually wanted. We had to remove a lot of the issues that come up in factory process at front end.
GH:What has the Boston ecosystem provided you?
Nathan: There is a great community of software builders here (Klaviyo) and email automated customer response (Helpscout) to manage customer service.
Our factory is here – and there are more people thinking about making products in the US and textile work, but the biggest help has been from other e-commerce companies trying things out. We have great media publications showing and discussing new ideas, innovation etc: you need to always be reading about what is new for inspiration and lessons learnt.
GH: What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?
Nathan: We got lots of advice early on. Making a specific margin off a product was bad advice: you need to focus on getting people to your product and not worry about margins. We look to those companies who sell directly to consumers – it’s a specific biz. It’s hard to find advice from people who understand this is not a ‘small idea’ business. When we were starting we didn’t get help – people told us it would not work – too small of an idea, that lifestyle ideas are bad ideas because you are not making a gazillion dollars. So we look to other communities, and we also try to mentor others creating consumer focused startups. With startups, the attention is on how much money you raise – not sales – which doesn’t make sense. It’s tough to find expertise in the textile industry in this area – in MA we lost that 100 years ago.
GH: What does the future hold for your startup?
Nathan: To double our growth – and we are on our way. We want people to think of us any time they want to memorialize or recognize an accomplishment.
T-shirts are ubiquitous and you get them everywhere – our quilts are a modern form of scrap booking.
GH: What’s the best advice you have for entrepreneurs?
My advice? test and re-test as early as possible. Don’t take ‘it’s a good idea’ as a measure of success (from you or others). You need to base your decisions on whether or not customers will buy and pay for it. Don’t say your idea is changing the world: you will not solve the world’s problem, but do you add value? We recycle and produce in the US and that helps.