By Special to Capital Business
Monday, July 26, 2010; 23
Micha Weinblatt was still an undergraduate at the University of Maryland in 2005 when he and a buddy from high school started selling T-shirts with slogans and vintage graphics at the local college bar. They called their brand "Crooked Monkey" and five years later, the Potomac-based company has sold more than $2 million worth of shirts to wholesalers and through the company's Web site (http://www.crookedmonkey.com). Weinblatt's cheeky designs include slogans such as "Geek is the new chic" and "Facebook: It's my day job." Crooked Monkey tees have been sold by more than 500 retailers worldwide, from boutiques to large chains including Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom. The shirts have been seen on a host of celebrities -- Ryan Seacrest, Miley Cyrus and a "Glee" cast member, to name a few. Now, Weinblatt is poised to expand his business and launch a new high-end line.
Weinblatt is spending the summer in New York, meeting with buyers and sourcing showrooms and materials for the company's new line -- "Blueprint."
"It's a two-step, intensive process. We have industrial designers and architects reverse engineer industrial objects that we find in everyday life -- anything from the Brooklyn Bridge to a toy soldier to a motorcycle. Our graphic designers then simplify the schematic drawings and add their own special touch to make an edgy, raw-looking T-shirt. The shirts themselves will be softer and higher-end than our already-soft Crooked Monkey shirts. We will be targeting retailers like Saks, Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus and others."
"The biggest question we have is figuring out how much to invest into a new, as-yet unproven product line? And at what point do you determine whether to continue investing in the new brand or to pull the plug? Another unknown: With the economy potentially sliding into a double-dip recession, do we hold off on our launch for a few months or just take the plunge now?
Asher Epstein, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
"The first thing I would do is make a business case. One of the challenges when you have an existing entity that's profitable is you're not really tracking how much time and effort you're investing into a new line. You moved to New York, you have some start-up costs, you're spending a lot of time, you're spending money -- you need to quantify that and figure out the amount of money that you expect to spend upfront on launching this new venture. I don't know what the right number is, but that will be determined by what you forecast sales will be and what you think payback is. You guys know the industry really well. The challenge is you don't want to get on that slippery slope where you're investing too much time and money for too little a return.
"You should have a metric for success. You already have good knowledge on what a successful shirt launch looks like. If you're not hitting whatever that metric is -- whether it's 100 units or 10,000 units -- then it hasn't been successful. If it's successful, the question becomes how much more to invest. If it's not successful, why was it not successful and is it something that you just walk away from, or do you tweak it and try again?"
"We're producing samples of the Blueprint line this month, so we will know pretty soon whether there's traction for the brand or not. Everyone -- including salespeople and buyers for stores and showrooms -- has really loved the new line. My only concern is whether now is the right time to launch a higher-end line. Is it worth it to wait? I tend to think timing is everything. Right now the retail industry is hurting and stores are being very cautious about what they are buying."
"The reality is you don't really know what the economic climate will be like in four months. I don't know that our economic situation will really change any sort of noticeable amount. The market that you're going after is a bit more high-end and that market typically is less susceptible to economic downturns than any other segment of the market. The other thing is high-end T-shirts fall under the 'affordable luxury' category. It may actually work to your benefit to launch during a downturn -- people may not be up for splurging for the Gucci handbag, but they will treat themselves to a designer Blueprint shirt. Getting out there and trying to build a little bit of brand awareness before the holiday season would be beneficial for you. I think we need to get used to the 'new normal' -- we've got to get used to modest growth.
"Because of the marketing relationships already, I would focus on getting Blueprint onto the shelves before focusing on marketing and social media. You want people to be able to buy the shirts when you invest in marketing."