From supporting Boston Marathon bombing victims to providing clean water in Uganda, Milwaukee-based Ink to the People’s platform has played a role in raising funds for altruistic causes across the globe.
The custom shirt ordering and crowdfunding platform emerged in response to a problem identified at its sister company, apparel decorator Visual Impressions Inc. In 1990, Todd Richheimer and his brother-in-law Jay Berman founded Visual Impressions, which today is a 125-employee operation that runs out of a 100,000-square-foot facility on Milwaukee’s northwest side.[caption id="attachment_379765" align="alignright" width="255"] An Ink to the People tote bag.
While operating that business, Richheimer and Berman discovered the need for a different approach to the custom-designed T-shirt ordering business, one that would mitigate some of the logistical hurdles that stand in the way of customers making a profit when selling their apparel.
Customers often purchased their custom T-shirts in bulk, but sometimes the shirts wouldn’t sell or they would end up with too many of the wrong size. The result: an excess of inventory and little to no profit.
“We came up with this idea of instead of just building a site where people can come and buy what they think they need, we should develop a site that allows them to sell the T-shirt before they make a commitment, and collect the orders for them,” Richheimer said.
They developed Ink to the People, an online platform that allows users to design and market their T-shirts for free, while allowing individuals to order their own T-shirts. Eliminating the guesswork of bulk ordering, Ink to the People takes on the burden of transactions, inventory and distribution.
The site went live in April 2012, which happened to be the same month that Teespring, its much larger competitor, launched.
“Basically for the first year, we sat and twiddled our thumbs,” Richheimer said. “We tweaked it and fine-tuned the site, fixing bugs and enhancing the site, never thinking it was good enough.”[caption id="attachment_379767" align="alignright" width="350"] Ink to the People produced T-shirts for a campaign launched by nonprofit organization TrapKing Humane Cat Solutions.[/caption]
Activity sped up in April 2013, when the terror attack at the Boston Marathon prompted unexpected demand for Ink to the People’s services.
On the night of the attack, two students from Emerson College, looking to help the victims, found Ink to the People’s website and launched a campaign selling blue-and-gold “Boston Strong” T-shirts for $20 per shirt. Ink to the People agreed to charge $5 per shirt, allowing a net profit of $15 for the cause.
Within hours, traffic to the site, which had remained largely dormant until that point, skyrocketed.
“The traffic was insane; it was like our lives were turned upside down,” Richheimer said. “They thought they would raise a couple thousand dollars. After the first week, they had raised $583,000. They had sold 32,500 shirts.”
To date, the campaign has raised more than $1 million for the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Exposure from the Boston Strong campaign led to hundreds more T-shirt campaigns launching on Ink to the People. It carved out a new – more altruistic – lane for the company: helping organizations and individuals fundraise.
Most customers develop their own designs for the T-shirts – although Ink to the People offers that service free of charge – and upload them to the website.
Customers can then choose the color and style of their products, from options including hoodies, crewneck Ts, tank tops and other apparel. Customers price their items however they choose above a certain threshold, which covers production and shipping costs. If the T-shirt costs, for example, $16 to make and it’s priced at $25, the net $9 will go directly to the cause.
“As they sell more, prices come down quite a bit,” Richheimer said. “In the end, the price might come down to the $9, $10, $11 range. They net the difference on every item sold, if they’ve priced everything equally.”
Customers set a timeframe, up to 30 days, during which people can place orders on the item. After orders are collected and the window closes, production begins on the apparel.
Referrals drive a lot of Ink’s business, and many are repeat customers.
Georgia-based Faithful Adoption Consultants regularly uses Ink to the People for the adoption agency’s T-shirt fundraisers, which raise money for hopeful adoptive families who experience financial losses after a failed match.
Through T-shirt campaigns, the agency has raised about $40,000, with its first campaign alone bringing in nearly $10,000.
“Typically when an organization does a campaign on their own, if it’s not a huge organization, a good fundraiser is probably about $1,000,” said Emily Caldwell, director of marketing and social media for Faithful Adoption Consultants. “We’ll typically make between $3,000 to $4,000 per shirt. We’ve had some up in the $8,000 range and the one that was almost $10,000.”
Last year, 2,000 campaigns launched on Ink to the People, raising more than $300,000. At the current pace, the company is on track to exceed those totals in 2019.[caption id="attachment_379764" align="alignright" width="255"] Ink to the People produced T-shirts for a campaign launched by Zack Snyder, Marvel film director, producer and screenwriter, to raise funds for suicide prevention.[/caption]
Recently, Ink to the People worked with Zack Snyder, director of “Justice League” and producer of “Wonder Woman,” to design a shirt for an American Foundation for Suicide Prevention fundraiser, prompted by the death of Snyder’s daughter to suicide in May 2017.
More than 4,200 shirts have been sold since the shirt went up for sale on Jan. 10, raising $82,365.
“People from all over the world have bought the shirt,” Richheimer said.
On the whole, the results of the T-shirt campaigns are mixed, Richheimer said. Because it’s free, some users will launch a campaign, not follow up and never sell a T-shirt. A campaign needs six orders before Ink will fulfill it.
The most successful are typically driven by heavy social media promotion.
Ink to the People largely runs as a two-employee operation – including Richheimer and a recent Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design graduate – although it is able to lean on the resources of Visual Impressions.
After running Ink to the People largely as a side job for the past seven years, Richheimer said he plans to invest in growing the business this year. One of his future goals is to build a Facebook application that would allow customers to launch campaigns from the social networking site.
Richheimer also envisions adding embroidery services to further distinguish Ink to the People from its competitors.