Making It

SHIRTS THAT TALK: Micha Weinblatt with one of his tamer tops --
SHIRTS THAT TALK: Micha Weinblatt with one of his tamer tops -- "Go Green or Go Home." (Copyright Keith Barraclough)
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By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, June 29, 2008

For many college graduates, moving back in with Mom and Dad means swallowing some pride to save money and get started. For Micha Weinblatt, it provided a springboard to success.

After graduating from the University of Maryland three years ago, Micha launched Crooked Monkey, a T-shirt business aimed at the college crowd, from his parents' basement in Potomac. Among the novelty shirts' more printable slogans are "Butterface" and "Keep the Ratio Strong."

If you don't get the jokes, Micha says, you're probably old, or at least beyond your early 20s. But enough young people appreciate the hip humor that, Micha says, Crooked Monkey grossed $500,000 last year and is on pace to hit $800,000 in revenue this year. The shirts sell in 550 stores across the United States and in Asia, Saudi Arabia and Canada.

"We want to make them edgy enough for college students but tame enough for department stores," says Micha, 25. "We walk a fine line."

Micha and a childhood friend, Jon Mervis, came up with the idea out of necessity in May 2005. Recent college graduates, they both needed jobs.

"We knew we wanted to work together and not wear a suit to work," Micha recalls.

They also knew that funny T-shirts sell well. Four months earlier, Micha says, he and Jon made $3,000 in profit from shirts they'd designed for a Maryland vs. Duke University basketball game. Micha says they sold 500 shirts, adorned with a colorful "[expletive] Duke" message, in three days.

They launched Crooked Monkey with the Duke T-shirt profits and several new credit cards. They spent that first summer touring the country in Jon's Honda Accord, its trunk stuffed with T-shirts to sell to stores along the way. Retailers now include Urban Outfitters and some Nordstrom department stores. Jon left the company in late 2006 to attend business school.

The T-shirts, which are made in China and printed in Howard County, are soft and slim-fitting, and they sell for about $28. Micha says demand has increased steadily -- from 18,000 shirts sold in 2006 to 60,000 last year and a projected 96,000 this year.

Antione Kelly, store operations manager for Urban Outfitters in Georgetown, said one edgy Crooked Monkey T-shirt has sold briskly for the past year.

"They're a hot item," Kelly said. College-age customers like them because "they're funny and can start a conversation at a bar."

For those who have been out of college awhile and want in on the jokes, Micha offers a primer. "Butterface," he says, is "guy code" for a woman whose body is attractive "but her face" isn't. "Keep the Ratio Strong" refers to having parties with more girls than guys. The best-selling women's designs are a bit more self-explanatory, including "Don't Waste My Daytime Minutes" and "I [recycle symbol] Boys."

Micha still operates Crooked Monkey out of his parents' basement. But he says he was able pay himself enough of a salary last year to rent his own apartment.

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