Every once in a while, a bit of wit pops into your head and you think, “That would look great on a T-shirt.” Evan Ferstenfeld and Roni Lagin take that inspirational moment and run with it – they’re celebrating the one-year anniversary of their joint venture, Made With Awesome.
Lagin, a graphic artist, and Ferstenfeld, who works in an emergency room, design and print T-shirts, posters, bags and more that bear intricate images, sharp slogans and whimsical cartoons. They accept customers’ ideas and allow them to vote on what designs should be made into the next product. If that sounds familiar, then you should know that yes, Ferstenfeld and Lagin used to participate on Threadless.
Here, the business partners discuss how running Made With Awesome fits in with their other full-time jobs, how they’ve grown in the past year and where they get their design ideas.
You two used to contribute to Threadless – what made you break away and start your own T-shirt company?
Evan: Well, both Roni and I can testify that we still wish nothing but the best for Threadless and love to participate in its contests and community, but when Roni and I met we both saw how much passion for T-shirt design we both had and wanted to take our T-shirt hobby off into more of a full-blown way of life. We quickly decided to combine our efforts to create a new company that highlighted our specific brand of humor.
Evan: You work in ER – how does Made With Awesome fit into that schedule?
Evan: As for attending craft fairs and scheduling meetings with Roni for our business, it is sometimes tough to balance because I work until the wee hours of the morning, when most people are tucked away in sleepy world. In terms of coming up with ideas, the hospital provides me quite an electric and slightly off-kilter environment, where brainstorming for quirky ideas to appear on T-shirts is actually a very fostering place.
Working with other artists around the world on designs can be done at any time thanks to the wonderful world of the interwebs, making staying in touch at all hours of the day a snap. Progress can be made no matter what time you respond to a person’s query from across the continents.
What type of design do you do when you’re not working on Made With Awesome?
Roni: Up until recently, I was designing packaging for toys and entertainment. But currently I’m the graphic design manager at OLIN, a landscape architecture firm in Philadelphia, where I produce mostly print design. I also design websites and such through my freelance business
Is this your first small-business venture?
Evan: This is indeed my first adventure in the small-business world. Well, unless you count the Maze-A-Day business where I would craft a paper labyrinth for about 10 people each day at school in my youthful years. Man, what I would have been if I kept at that …
Roni: I’ve been freelancing on the side since I graduated in 2000, but my personal business really took full swing in 2004 and has been operating ever since.
What have you learned about starting up your own business?
Evan: That Roni and I have to scavenge the business world for as many good deals without sacrificing the quality we are known for. Back in our Threadless days, all we had to worry about was making a good design, and they took care of the rest. “The rest,” it turns out, takes a considerable amount of our energy and time in order to make sure the business has a healthy cash flow as well as runs smoothly and produces the best possible versions of our designs and slogans.
Roni: Since this is my first partnership in a business, I think that compromise and communication are key factors. We started with a loose plan, which allowed us to be flexible. But we still had some clear goals. We’ve kept it small, but have steadily grown. It’s a challenge to juggle a small business (or two) while having full-time obligations. Knowing our own limitations but still having a vision helps us stay grounded but see the big picture. Not compromising on quality and the creative process has made a labor of love grow beyond expectations.
What’s the process for a Made With Awesome T-shirt design?
Evan: In terms of slogan shirts, Roni usually goes through a slew of slogans I’ve created and picks the ones that make him squirt various drinks out of his nose from laughing too hard. Roni then takes those slogans and applies typographic treatments to them, in which we work back and forth in coming up with a nice balance of graphics versus slogan readability.
The process for a design is a bit different, which usually entails us working with other artists besides one another. I usually come up with a concept and describe it in as much detail as I can, which the artist then creates a sketch from with any of their additions/improvements to the concept as well. We then go back and forth in this process of inspiring one another until everyone agrees the design is 100 percent finished. And then it’s either off to the voting pages to see if others like it and then finally to the printing presses, which we use a variety of different ones. We’re always looking for interesting new ways to print a design as well as various other products people would be interested in buying with our words/pictures on them.
Evan: As you can see, Roni is more succinct than me, but no less as influential in our process!
What are your goals for Made With Awesome as a business?
Evan: Even though it sounds like a cliché business line, Roni and I honestly want to make the most original, groundbreaking products we can and produce them on the highest-quality material and print techniques. That and having lots of fun making things we would love to wear ourselves was our initial goal.
Our next goals are to continue to grow our company in terms of product selection and outreach at a level we can comfortably sustain until we try to climb to the next plateau. Of course, making T-shirts full time would be the ideal situation, but a successful side business for the time being would be a nice goal to have. But if we aren’t having fun while doing that, the products aren’t going to come through as powerfully as we want them to, and Roni and I never forget our original intentions and spirit in which we forged this company together.
What have you found to be the best channels to promote the company?
Evan: Since we are predominantly an online company, having an easy-to-navigate and fun-looking website that communicates our company’s humor and intentions is a great tool to deliver our message to prospective customers. As most people know, even if you have an excellent product, just shouting loudly on the Internet isn’t going to get you noticed when EVERYONE is shouting just as loud as you for customer attention.
Using all the online tools that go along with the main website hub are also a great way to direct traffic to our site and really engage with our customers on a more personal level. We have a Twitter account, a Facebook page, as well as free goodies and a voting area on the website itself.
And while we love our website, what energizes us the most is attending various craft fairs and other events where we can sell our shirts/posters/etc., face-to-face with our customers. Both of us agree there’s nothing quite like talking directly with others – and not only selling the products but meeting and conversing with lots of interesting people. During these fairs, we have a variety of publicity items, including business cards, stickers with our logo on them, and a mailing list to sign up and get the word out on any updates to the website and new products coming out soon.
Oh, and interviews on cutting-edge blogs don’t hurt either. *wink wink*
What inspires the designs and slogans for your shirts and other products?
Evan: For me, it all comes down to being open to every idea and funny notion that pops into your head from whatever inspiration that might come from. I read a lot of various magazines from around the world, see lots of movies, listen to music and try to absorb as much art as possible, which sometimes springboards into a concept that, by the time it is all finished, in no way resembles where the original idea came from. Also, many ideas come up from general conversations while talking to friends, family and the voices in my head.
Do either of you have formal training as designers or entrepreneurs?
Evan: While not having formal training in design, I minored in film criticism in college and have written movie and music reviews for several online and real-world newspaper publications in the past.
I have always loved art in all its forms and have been told by my parents that I loved putting on shows and entertaining other children and adults as a child. I now aspire to create a world within the T-shirt wearer/observer’s head in order to make them laugh, ponder something about our world or both.
Roni: I have a Bachelor of Science degree in graphic design from Drexel University. Being an entrepreneur – of sorts – came pretty naturally when I realized I could do something I loved and controlled my own hours. The hard part is juggling those hours.