Monday, June 15, 2009

Spotlight: Teecyle Tim of & his SXSW Pepsi Win

This is a transcript from the interview with Tim Cigelske. Photo at left by Troy Freund
Welcome Back to Solessence BlogTalkRadio, and right now we’re going to have a little Spotlight. We’re going to be talking with Teecycle Tim (of recycled t-shirt biz, Teecycle) and discuss his winning Pepsi's 60 Second Pitch grant.

Why don’t you give us a little background on your company?

TT: Sure. Well, Teecycle started a little over a year ago, and it's kind of a hobby that evolved into a little bit more. It’s still a side business. I don’t know if I should call it a hobby, or a part-time business or what, but my full time job is at Marquette University, and this is growing bigger and bigger by the day. But the background is, it is just a used t-shirt website. It started off with the idea that I just like vintage, old t-shirts, and I couldn’t believe no one was selling them online in a centralized spot, so I just started with the website and it’s kind of picked up steam ever since.

So did you initially do this to boost your own inventory? Or really was it the intent to resell?

TT: It was a good excuse to get as many used shirts as I could in my house, with the rationale, to my wife, that I would get rid of them someday. And I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t really keep any shirts that I found through this. You know, there are previous shirts in my closet that I wouldn’t get rid of anytime soon. But if I started keeping some of the shirts I gained from this, it would just be game over for our house, because there have been quite a few that have come through the doors, and gone out now, all over the country, all over the world. But the nice perk of it is, I do get to sample the shirts, I do get to wear them, get to model them, get my friends to model them, so it’s a nice little side perk of it.

I think that is one of the fun things about your site, is that you – for people who haven’t visited – you’re putting on these shirts, and you put people in funny modeling situations, then you go all over. How did you come up with that?

TT: Well, when I first started the site I just had shirts on the floor that I took pictures of…

That’s a pretty common format you see (on ebay, etsy)

TT: Right, yeah, pictures of the shirts themselves, and it is really boring. Not just someone visiting the site, but for myself. I’m like “I’m going to get really bored of the business if all I’m doing is taking pictures of shirts on my living room floor.” And I think I first convinced my wife to put them on and go in the backyard. And she had no clue (embarrassed laugh) that her photos would end up all over the Internet. There have been some articles written about Teecycle and they’ve pulled her photo, and it kind of evolved from there. I realized its kind of fun to model tee-shirts all over the city, in all different kinds of situations, and since then we’ve done photo shoots everywhere from Lake Michigan to the Washington Monument to the National Mall in Washington DC to when we go hiking. Just wherever we can just to add an element of fun when you throw in a silly photo shoot with it.

So you’re saying it’s a hobby, but even as a hobby you’ve got a lot of things to do to get it all into an action. Did you have this name beforehand? Was it a nickname into a business, or has the business handle become the nickname?

TT: Oh the Teecycle? The origin of the name, I had some lame name to start with, like The Tee Shirt Recyclery or Shirtcycle or something, and my wife Jess is like, “That’s not going to appeal to many people if you call it that.” I don’t know where it came from exactly, Teecycle. It became my online entity. Merged into one where Teecycle Tim became a way to market Teecycle.

It seems to have all flowed so easily for you. Have you had any real challenges up to this point? You’re getting press, selling shirts.

TT: I guess you hear this from most people who start projects that grow more than they expected it to, but it is more work than I thought. I’ve now kind of reinvented the format a few times. It started out as, well, it was going to be a website first and I thought that was just going to be too hard, so it became a blog. And I’ve changed it from Blogger to WordPress, and now I have my own software, so I’ve migrated it to that. Just some of the format changes and how I have just had to deal with certain things that came up – like shipping overseas. That came up pretty early on. I was thinking, you know, this is a small potatoes sort of thing, and right after I got started it got picked up by a t-shirt blog in San Francisco. I immediately started getting orders from England and I’ve had orders in Australia and Malaysia and, it’s little things like that you didn’t plan or expect in the beginning that you learn to deal with along the way.

Who knew? Now, do you have any outside help at this point, or is your wife working with you (other than in the “unsuspecting model” position)?

TT: (laughs) Yeah, I think we trade me doing household chores for convincing her to model as much as possible. We definitely bartered – you do the dishes and I’ll model for you now. She’s definitely now doing more of the business side of things that I don’t necessarily have expertise with. She has a background in management so it works well with that. But it’s been primarily me, and then an outpouring of support from people who have like-minded environmental ideals on the Internet, and a lot of local business and local organizations have helped us out when they can. It’s pretty encouraging.

Do you have an idea of how many shirts you’ve shipped worldwide?

TT: I don’t know how many I’ve shipped worldwide. I think about 329 total. I keep a running tally on the site, so I don’t know globally, but Europe, Asia, Australia, North America, so a couple more continents to go, but we’re getting there.

You’ll probably hit them, especially after the news of this award. Now, Pepsi thought your simple idea was pretty impressive, and gave your a $4500 grant. Congratulations.

TT: Thank you.

There was a lot of competition for that – why don’t you give us a little background.

TT: Sure. It was kind of just a whim I entered that contest. There was a “60 Second What’s Your Pitch” contest. All you did was call a number and say in 60 seconds or less why you have a business idea that’s both viable from the business side, and has a positive impact on the community. When I got the first email from them I was expecting it to say “You didn’t qualify.” Instead it said “You are a finalist,” in this nationwide contest, and a couple of weeks later I got an email that I again was not expecting that said “You’re the winner”. So I ended up getting a $4500 grant, which is kind of overwhelming for a company whose only revenue has come from selling $7 used t-shirts and donating a dollar of that to a local non-profit. Now, suddenly having a budget. So we have to be smart about what we’re going to use it for and plan on the long term, hopefully, and not just “Oh we have this money now, what should we do with it.”

Will Pepsi offer you any guidance on it or are they just cutting you a check?

TT: No, they are just handing it over, just mailing a check. Fortunately in Milwaukee there is a pretty good budding entrepreneur business organization named BizStarts. I have not been very active with them and I hope to be more active in the future. And because I work at Marquette, it is kind of a nice deal that they are starting a certificate of Entrepreneurship this fall and it’s good timing. I’ve enrolled in that, so during the Fall I might get more business savvy, more business sense to go along with this crazy idea.

You’ve got a real life lesson for the class.

TT: Exactly.

Now, you also mentioned the dollar donation. That’s pretty cool. You are doing green in two different ways: 1) recycle t-shirts, which would normally end up in landfills and 2)donations. Let’s talk about the donations you are making.

TT: When I first started this, a couple of things: I had done river cleanups, we live right by the river, and I wanted to help a non-profit. I’d also read, right around the time I’d started, a great book I recommend to everyone called “Let My People Go Surfing” by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. It’s a really quick read, but he lays out his business and environmental philosophy and what they’ve done to be as green as possible, an eco-friendly company. And in their goals, they don’t even have to make a profit, they just have to take care of the environment as best as they can, and profits will take care of themselves after that. So I figured if I am using these shirts in one way to be environmentally friendly, I can also give back. So early on I formed a partnership with the River Revitalization Program and donate a buck to help rivers and trails. To date it’s been over $300, and it’s kind of nice.

I read once, I can’t remember who said it, but someone made a comment that you were one company that did so much with so little, and it is true. You said it’s such a little idea, but it has made a lot of people happy, contributing a lot to the area, and, obviously you are getting rewarded back already, so congratulations.

TT: Well I really appreciate it, thanks for the kind words about that.

Visit the site,, to check out current inventory or donate a gently used shirt.

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