Jake Kehlenbeck and Alex Alfaro know the tiny chest pockets on ordinary T-shirts are useless.
So, they hatched a business idea to fix the problem and recruited Kehlenbeck’s mom to sew up a few prototypes.
Then they wore them out on the town.
“Everywhere we went, someone had something to say about it,” Kehlenbeck says of Bucket Tees’ namesake T-shirts, which can hold your phone, wallet, keys and maybe even the family dog.
The public reaction pushed the pair of recent college grads to turn their idea into a full-fledged design operation. John Grellner soon joined to round out the trio.
Now, BucketTees.com sells nearly a dozen designs, with more on the way — and often brings in more than $1,000 a day.
What does it take to make it as a designer and purveyor of funny T-shirts with gigantic pockets?
I called one of the founders to find out.
Why Local Manufacturing Matters
Kehlenbeck, who has a psychology degree, said he often jokes with Alfaro about being fashion designers.
“Being in this field we meet people who are into fashion, and they get really excited,” Kehlenbeck says. “But we’re just having fun.”
Although Alfaro has a business degree, starting Bucket Tees still involved a steep learning curve.
It was clear the shirts were a hit, but Kehlenbeck’s mother wasn’t the right fit to run the company’s manufacturing department in the long term.
He turned to the community to find a solution, picking up business cards for seamstresses at JoAnn Fabrics and searching a directory of local fashion professionals.
Bucket Tees found a screen printer and a seamstress, who ended up referring the team to someone else who could better meet their needs.
The decision to locally produce the shirts came mostly from convenience. Big manufacturers, most of them overseas, require large orders from designers.
Making the shirts in the founders’ Tampa Bay area means Bucket Tees can easily customize its stock needs.
“We’re not sure about the future, but for now keeping it local is very convenient,” Kehlenbeck said.
“We can go see the ladies who sew our shirts face to face. I was actually at their office this morning, and visited the screen printer’s office. It’s super convenient to have a personal relationship.”
Growing Pains from Going Viral
Even though Bucket Tees started with just a few designs, building the business has been unpredictable at times.
Tees with pockets showcasing mustache and bacon patterns have done well, but customers by far prefer a beachy vibe.
“The Floridian,” which features bright pink flamingos, “is by far our biggest seller,” Kehlenbeck says.
But while that particular shirt’s design is laid-back, it’s caused some stress for the team. A photo of Grellner wearing the Floridian packed with ice and a couple of beers landed on Reddit and humor site The Chive.
“Orders were flying in and we didn’t know where they were coming from,” Kehlenbeck says, initially wondering if the influx of orders was a prank.
“Later that day we learned [the shirt was] on the Chive, and Alex had to call out of work the next morning to help ship all the shirts.”
They’ve handled a few big order rushes since then, but they’ve also streamlined their shipping process.
Bucket Tees routinely sees sales as high as 50 shirts per day (for $25.95 each), but don’t assume the trio is living a startup life of leisure. Alfaro recently left his full-time job to focus on the company with Kehlenbeck, and Grellner still has a full-time job.
“When I started this, I thought I would be making money,” Kehlenbeck admits.
“That’s not the case yet. The company makes money, but every time we sell out of shirts, we have to reinvest to make more shirts.”
And while the three have done their fair share of research, there are still surprises along the way.
“Planning ahead is the biggest challenge,” Kehlenbeck says. “We thought we would sell twice as many mediums, but extra-large is our second most popular size (after larges).”
Large Floridian styles sold out the day of the Chive feature, and again before Christmas. Selling out means answering lots of emails from anxious customers, “And calling manufacturers, like, let’s get this on the move!” Kehlenbeck laughs.
Lessons from a Lean Startup
Kehlenbeck says the trio will try to run the business lean as long as they can.
Girlfriends and cousins have been excellent salespeople at in-person events in Florida, and we suspect mom would be willing to lend a hand — so long as she doesn’t have to sew any more shirts.
“That’ll be a good day when we need to hire somebody,” Kehlenbeck says, anticipating a shipping assistant will be their first role to fill.
Starting small has helped them stay sane.
“Before we started thinking about starting a business it seemed overwhelming,” Kehlenbeck says. “But we started really simple, with three designs. With that simple idea, we made a few sales and built up on that to get to where we are.”
His advice for wannabe entrepreneurs: “Start simple. Keep going.”
Listening to customers has helped too, both in determining design options and sizing needs.
They’re starting to order shirts in larger quantities, which has helped the profit margin increase little by little. But Bucket Tees is focused simply on tees and soon-to-come tanks for steady growth.
The crew just shipped its first order to France, while most of the others are spread far and wide throughout the U.S.
“Minnesota,” Kehlenbeck responded quickly when I asked where Bucket Tees are most popular. “There must be group of friends somewhere in Minnesota, because we keep getting orders from the same area.”
Your Turn: Ever thought about starting an apparel business? What’s holding you back?
Lisa Rowan is a writer, editor and podcaster living in Washington, D.C. She loves clothing with pockets.