The startup t-shirt can be described in many ways. It can be both essential and useful, but also tacky and cringeworthy.
But regardless of how it’s portrayed, the self-branded startup t-shirt is ubiquitous and likely to make an appearance at some point in the journey of most early-stage startups. Love it or hate it, go to any startup conference and you’ll likely be confronted with a sea of logos plastered over mute colours.
So should your startup dish out the dollars for a few branded shirts? And if so, when’s the right time to deck your team out in your freshly minted swag?
Speaking to StartupSmart, self-confessed swag fanatic and Checkbox co-founder Evan Wong says he sourced branded shirts for his team very early on, from the first moment they started doing public events and speaking.
“The moment you go public facing you’re representing your company, so everyone should get a branded t-shirt. They’re not expensive and there are heaps of websites where you can get it done for quite cheap,” he says.
“It just means when people take photos the brand is there, or they’ll recognise you at future events because of your shirt. T-shirts are a form of branding, and the most important thing with branding is consistency.”
Wong said he spent the bare minimum — around $100 — for a few shirts for the founding team in the early days of Checkbox. As the team grew, more shirts were purchased, and then eventually sweaters, mugs, and stickers, and eventually some higher-quality shirts. As for what his team chooses to wear, Wong says it varies from person to person.
T-shirts “never a priority”
But like many things prominent in the culture of startups, the branded t-shirt has its fair share of detractors alongside its supporters. Co-founder of mentoring startup Mentorloop Heidi Holmes told StartupSmart she and her co-founder Lucy Lloyd figured there were better things to spend money on in the early stages of their startup.
“It was just never a priority. We were focused on growing our business and we were very conscious of what we spent money on, so going and spending a couple of hundred on t-shirts — well we thought that would be better spent on Adwords,” she says.
Holmes also says she saw the startup t-shirt as being a large part of startup “bro culture”, and questions who really wants to walk around with the company they founded emblazoned on their front? Also, she says, promotional t-shirts are often a “terrible” cut on women.
“It’s come from Silicon Valley, and it’s not something that really resonated with Lucy and I. It’s not that we’re opposed to merchandising, it’s just a t-shirt is not where we’d start,” she says.
“It seems like something very internal to me, not something necessarily customer-centric.
“When you do to a startup event with a t-shirt on, everyone knows where you’re from. Well, I’d just prefer to go up to someone and start a conversation with them about where I’m from.”
Shirts too casual for corporate-facing startups
For Leah Callon-Butler, the co-founder of adult industry-focused cryptocurrency and blockchain company intimate, the recognisable aspect of a startup t-shirt has been key for her and the intimate team, who are currently jetting around the globe to various tech and adult conferences.
She says the team’s t-shirts, emblazoned with ‘intimate.io token sale’ on the front and ‘crypto for grown-ups’ on the back, have been “one of the most successful components” of the startup’s marketing strategy.
“Our executive team wear their branded t-shirts everywhere, every day. I literally have 15 of the same tee in my suitcase, like a Bart Simpson style wardrobe, and it’s amazing how many complete strangers will come up to us on the street, or when we’re eating in a restaurant, or attending conferences, as they all want to know ‘what this intimate thing is’,” she says.
“We were even approached by a major crypto exchange when they saw us all sitting together in our branded tees mid-air on a United Airlines flight!”
While this approach works for the young intimate founding team operating in the nascent blockchain tech area, Holmes and Lloyd have to consider their customer base, which consists largely of corporate partners.
“With my corporate background, I saw t-shirts as a little bit too casual. We’ve also very much customer facing, so if we’re having a meeting with a corporate customer there’s a certain dress code we want to portray,” she says.
Wong’s still a fan though and tells founders t-shirts and other branded swag should be considered if it’s of “negligible cost” to the startup, and founders should always be balancing cost versus reward. One such reward, he believes, is a stronger culture.
“It’s not just for public-facing events, it’s for culture. Especially for startups without their own office, in a co-working space, having these shirts can create a company ethos, and that goes a long way,” he says.
But if you’re considering picking up some shirts, Wong recommends veering away from the “tacky” white-plus-logo look. Instead, he recommends picking any other colour as a base for the shirt, with a navy or coal base changing the look completely.
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