Three years ago, Joe Johnson was a guy with an idea. Now, he’s the owner of a T-shirt company cranking out 1,500 shirts per month.
The idea is almost too simple. Obvious, really.
It was September of 2015 and Johnson ’11 was feeling great. The software salesman was watching his beloved Chicago Cubs barrel toward the playoffs on the stellar right arm of Jake Arrieta.
Start after start, Joe watched Arrieta mow down opposing hitters and had a thought: Jake Arrieta is Good at Baseball. He had a friend print a shirt with that emblazoned on the chest and Joe wore it to Wrigley Field for Arrieta’s next appearance.
The bearded hurler delivered 11 strikeouts in a complete game shutout over Milwaukee. Joe delivered as well.
“I got bombarded in the bleachers,” says Johnson. People were asking to buy the shirt off his chest. “I left with 30 business cards, and thought, Okay, there might be demand here for some obvious, way sarcastic t-shirts.”
He had 50 shirts made and sold them all in four hours through word of mouth and those business cards.
The Obvious Shirt Company was born.
His creativity took it from there. Maybe you’ve seen one of his shirts—“Kyle Schwarber Crushes Baseballs” or “Kiss It Good Baez” are two of his top sellers—in a line that has expanded to 79 different slogans, covering the Cubs, other sports (“8 Points in 9 Seconds”), ‘90s pop culture (“You Can’t Triple Stamp a Double Stamp”), and general lifestyle (“Running Sucks”).
Obvious Shirts was never intended to be a full-time gig. At first, Johnson was selling software from nine to five and filling shirt orders at night. Over time, the shirts caught on. He saw fans wearing them at Wrigley. Friends in the suburbs would text him after seeing people in them in restaurants.
Soon the orders piled up to the point that filling them ate up all of his nights and weekends. He had boxes stacked floor to ceiling in his apartment. He formed an LLC in November 2016, but there wasn’t enough time to get everything done. Faced with the prospect of a growing business, he quit his job in June 2017 to run Obvious Shirts full time. Joe gave himself three months to make it work.
“I took a leap of faith, which I remember vividly,” the former rhetoric major says. “I gave it 90 days. I haven’t looked back since.”
Learning on the fly was overwhelming. Even though he had dabbled in t-shirts in college as a Sphinx Club member, he knew nothing about production. To learn the business from the ground up, he brought his own ink system and printed shirts himself. He learned of price points, the cost of a gallon of ink, and the value of his time, and the benefits of outsourcing. In the end, Jonson learned that he needed to be marketing and making connections. It’s the only way to sell shirts.
“The t-shirt game is a volume game,” he says. “The margins are ok, but if you want to make some serious cash in the business, you have to sell serious volume.”
He caught a few breaks along the way. A chance meeting at a Cubs Convention in 2017 led to a warehousing and product deal with Clark Street Sports that gets Obvious Shirts in 26 stores across Chicago. An impromptu product mention on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball led to 500 orders the next day. Johnson also leaned on a few Wabash alums for guidance in key areas.
Wesley Zirkle ’98 serves as Johnson’s lawyer and helped him forge a licensing agreement with Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.
Entrepreneur Tony Unfried ’03 proved a valuable sounding board for navigating the start-up landscape.
“Wabash made me so resourceful with different people, with ways to find information, because you go from zero to 100 very quickly,” he says. “I picked the brains of people like Tony and Wes because every business is unique. You need people who have been there and done that. Fortunately, for me, there are plenty of Wabash alums to refer to.”
What excited Unfried about Obvious Shirts was how quickly Johnson carved a niche, especially through social media, and could see customer preferences in real time. Johnson gathered more than 10,000 followers on Instagram in the first year and that number is nearly 15,000 now.
“He had already gained traction,” Unfried says. “It’s the way he uses social media to market. He found a very good process and niche, built a following, and found ways to keep growing. He’s always trying to look around the corner to see what’s next.”
That following gives Johnson a readily available test market. He regularly asks followers for a thumbs up or down on new ideas. If the response is 80 to 85 percent positive, he’ll crank them out. It’s good business.
“Instagram is a money maker,” he says. “It’s essential to know where my customers are coming from—I’m a huge analytics guy, and the numbers tell me that 85 percent of my sales come from Instagram.”
It also helps to have a big personality, and that oozes through Obvious Shirts. Unfried says Johnson’s personality is a key ingredient to his success.
“He is able to be himself, be charismatic, free thinking, and witty,” Unfried says. “He’s created that persona around himself and the business, that people want to take pictures and share it. He has other people doing his marketing for him.”
He added an intern over the summer in Justin Raters ’19 through the Small Business Internship Fund to aid in customer service and order fulfillment. That freed up Johnson to spend time planning for the future and having the meetings to keep focused on the goal of being a national brand.
“There was a lot he had to do to keep things in order,” Raters says. “Once the season got going and new shirts debuted, it was very interesting to see the sales increase, how much work we had to do to keep up.”
Fortunately for Johnson, the hard work continues to pay off. New ideas are jotted down constantly on his iPhone as he preps for different teams and markets. He likes the fact that his efforts still feel fresh.
“The brand is growing way faster than I ever imagined,” he says. “The cool thing is that it’s all been grass roots. It’s been completely organic.”