Harvard graduate left Wall Street to start CustomInk T-shirt design business

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 5:15 PM

"Everyone at Harvard is inventing something or starting a new business in their dorm room. Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than getting one."

- From the movie "The Social Network"

Marc Katz didn't get the entrepreneurial bug at Harvard. He grew up with it in his home near Philadelphia, where his father built and sold businesses.

When the Harvard graduate walked away from a promising Wall Street career at age 23 to build an online T-shirt company called CustomInk, he was already bitten.

"I wasn't really scared of failure," said Katz, 34. "I grew up with entrepreneurship in the house, for better or for worse.

"Dad had ups and downs in his career. He is very resilient and real smart and very hardworking. I didn't think consciously about it at the time, but in retrospect it set an example as an entrepreneur."

Katz owns a big chunk of CustomInk, which grosses $70 million a year, is profitable and employs 280 people at its casual McLean headquarters. It occupies 50,000 square feet that once housed offices for Sunrise Senior Living.

CustomInk is where you go if you want a dozen T-shirts for your family reunion, your small business, your religious group or your student association. Picture 50 T-shirts emblazoned with "The Smith Family Reunion" or 150 baseball caps marking the local 5K fundraiser.

Its business model is built on efficiencies and on customer service that simplifies the process for selecting and decorating custom T-shirts. Most of the company's costs don't kick in until an order is placed. CustomInk representatives talk to customers at length, walking them through the process and assisting with design. The company has artists on staff to help special requests.

"We're nuts about customer satisfaction," Katz said. "We get that."

CustomInk displays its uncensored customer responses on its Web site and on a wall outside Katz's office.

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