“You’re on mute”: How Alan Jones turned his love for a pithy T-shirt into $3,500 for charity

M8 Ventures founder Alan Jones. Source: supplied.

Alan Jones — ‘the good one’, startup investor, co-founder of M8 Ventures, and all-round startup guru — bloody loves T-shirts.

In what has not been the year any of us were expecting, he’s combined that passion with his desire to help people, designing a range of silly, poignant and pithy shirts, sold online to raise money for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), and to bring a bit of joy to your Zoom calls.

For each Communitees shirt sold, the $15 profit is directed to the ASRC. So far, that’s totalled about $3,500.

It’s not a huge number, Jones tells SmartCompany. But, this was never necessarily about the money.

Rather, he wanted to put some good into the world during a not-very-good time.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first reached Australia, Jones admits he “didn’t respond immediately in a positive way”.

Like many of us, he was feeling powerless. Based in Sydney, he wanted to support friends in Melbourne, but “there’s only so much you can do over Zoom”.

Ultimately, he just happened on a cheery idea, and the project grew organically.

For years, Jones has been mocking up shirts for himself, using Sydney business Das T-Shirt Automat to help out with the design and print the finished product.

Earlier this year, he got a shirt printed for himself that read: ‘You’re on mute’.

“I thought that was funny,” Jones says, (and we’re inclined to agree).

Soon a friend asked where he got it from, and so he offered to print one for them. Then the friend asked for two more tees, to give to friends.

Jones realised he was onto something, and started creating more quippy, fun designs, as well as some with more serious messages and political statements.

He also knew he didn’t want this to be a money-making venture for himself. So, he asked Das T-Shirt Automat to set him up a little online store, with all profits going to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

“There are opportunities in startups to have a triple win — to come up with something where there’s no downside,” Jones explains.

People are willing to pay $35 for a shirt if it’s for a good cause, he notes. He simply wanted to help cheer people up during the pandemic, make some cash for a good cause, and support a local printing business while he was at it.

And it resonated. People have been sending Jones pictures of themselves in their shirts, and sharing them on social media.

“That’s really moving,” Jones says.

It turns out, silly tees bring people together, even when they can’t see each other in person.

“Yes, our industry has an element of making money … and disrupting other industries,” he notes.

“But it’s also populated with some of the most beautiful humans you’re ever likely to rub shoulders with.

“This has been a project that has reminded me of that … It shouldn’t be about making lots of money, it really should be about making the world a better place.”

The power of the tee

When Jones first got involved in startup life back in the 90s, declining to wear a tie to work made him and his peers “culture rebels”, he recalls.

Fast forward a few years and they had swapped dress pants for jeans and carried backpacks instead of briefcases.

By 2001, T-shirts in the office were finally in vogue.

“I just locked into that like a comfy beanbag,” Jones says.

Before too long, any tech company worth its salt was printing T-shirts to celebrate big wins, commemorate events and welcome new employees.

Now, of course, founders sport their company colours at pitch competitions and networking events, and in their media imagery.

At SmartCompany, we’re accustomed to seeing Airwallex and A Cloud Guru staff sporting their tees in Melbourne’s CBD.

On one level, it’s a marketing tool, getting your brand in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

But a T-shirt is also a statement. It says you believe in a business, Jones says.

“I could wear any sort of clothing, but I’ve chosen to wear this logo or brand literally millimetres from my heart.”

In the Zoom era, this becomes all the more pertinent. Somehow, with in-person events out of the window, startup fashion has become more important than ever.

Any meeting effectively becomes a presentation. What you wear says something — whether that’s a shirt that says ‘what a time to still be alive’ or one emblazoned with a startup logo.

In the early days of the pandemic, Jones notes, we would see a lot of spare rooms and kitchens in people’s backgrounds. Now, we see carefully curated bookshelves and branded backdrops.

In the same way, people are choosing their upper-body dress code a little more carefully.

“I think we all instinctively began to realise that the version of myself that appears on that little screen … is the version of myself many people will get to know exclusively,” Jones muses.

“So you’ve got to make sure you get that logo in the shot.”

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