Fast Growing New Company Could Turn Gaylord into the T-Shirt Capital of the World
Aug. 13, 2015
In a nondescript industrial park on the outskirts of Gaylord, young workers have their fingers on the Internet’s pulse. For instance, take their approach to March 14, 2015.
"I didn’t think anything of Pi Day, but when Pi Day hit, we sold tens of thousands. I’m going to guess we sold 50,000 Pi Day T- shirts, and that just came out of left field," said Josh Kent, founder and CEO of Sun Frog Shirts, an online T-shirt store. "I was like, "˜Wait, what’s Pi Day? Oh yeah, the day of Pi, 3.14.’ I love it when they go viral."
WIDEN THE ROAD
Sun Frog has only been around for two years. Before that, Kent spent three years operating a quiet wholesale T-shirt business. has been anything but quiet over the last year, as it’s become Gaylord’s fastestgrowing employer.
"We outgrew our building, so we started parking on our front lawn," said Kent, 35. "The front lawn kind of became a parking lot and that’s when people started to talk. "˜What’s going on over there? What are they doing there?’" What Sun Frog is doing is printing and shipping T-shirts. With 3 million available designs, they offer the largest selection of T- shirts on the Internet. Kent hopes that soon Sun Frog will be the largestseller of T-shirts in the world.
"We’d tell people we make T-shirts and they’d be like, "˜What do you mean you make T-shirts?’ We make T-shirts. And they’d be like, "˜Really? Where do you sell them?’" he said. "And then we started hiring – a crazy hiring frenzy. I mean, we went from 20–40 people to over 200 within a year, so we’re taking up quite a bit of the labor force."
Last month, Sun Frog moved to a new factory and increased their square footage from 18,000 to 72,000. The Michigan Department of Transportation agreed to widen the road in front of the industrial park to accommodate the semi and vehicle traffic Sun Frog now generates, and road construction is now underway.
"When shift changes happen, there is a real traffic situation there," Kent said.
NO. 4 EMPLOYER
Gaylord City Manager Joseph Duff said Sun Frog became one of Gaylord’s largest employers almost out of nowhere. They are currently the largest employer among manufacturers and they are fourth largest overall.
Sun Frog employs 215 people, while Otsego Memorial Hospital employs 471, Gaylord Area Public Schools employs 366 and Wal- Mart employs 359.
Although Kent has been a member of the Gaylord business community for years, people didn’t necessarily see this scale of success coming.
"Not to the extent that we see it today," Duff said. "I think if you asked Mr. Kent that, he'd say the same thing to you "¦ we’re thrilled with the success of that company."
Even though Sun Frog is considered a manufacturer because they make T-shirts, Kent says Sun Frog is really a tech company. They owe their success to their ability to handle tens of thousands of individual orders for unique T-shirts every day.
Inside Sun Frog’s facility, originally constructed to house an auto parts manufacturer, most of the employees are young – lots of them are in their 20s – and high-tech work stations can be seen everywhere, even in warehouse rows filled with boxes of T-shirts.
"The printing industry is Stone Age. I mean, screen printing really hasn’t changed since the "˜50s. It’s the same squeegee going across the screen," Kent said. "What we did is, we infused technology with that process."
MADE IN GAYLORD
Kent grew up in Gaylord, where his father owned a construction company.
"He was one of the first companies in town to have a computer, so I played on that and it was one of the first computers [in Gaylord] to be on the Internet," Kent said. "It was all custom-built stuff, back before the brands were really even that strong. It was all local computer companies building them and I started tinkering with the building process."
Kent also helped his dad make company T-shirts.
"I mastered the art of the iron-on transfers and I can remember burning shirts and having a pile [of mistakes] on the kitchen floor, and he was like, "˜That’s OK, that’s OK. You’ll master it, you’ll master it,’" he said. "He was investing in me as like a 12-year-old and, eventually, I got it down. He still has some of those shirts today. He’s been retired for 20 years and he comes in and wears a Kent Construction shirt that I made him."
Kent graduated from high school in the late 1990s, at the height of the dot-com boom, and he wanted a piece of it. He taught himself how to code and build websites from a book and he
took a job at a small computer company that had offices in Traverse City and Gaylord.
"Everybody was getting rich right and left writing websites, right?" Kent said. "I was not one of those guys who got rich. I was the guy building the website for those guys."
When the Internet boom busted, Kent moved south to Naples, Florida and worked at a parasailing company.
GAYLORD WAS A CHOICE
Kent noticed something in Florida: people pay a lot for T-shirts.
"We would sell $20 shirts and we would sell thousands of them," he said. "And the problem with the shirts in the industry was that they were clip art and they were junk."
Kent returned to Gaylord and met the woman who would become his wife, Kristy, who today works as his CFO. He also started a store called Alpine Computers.
Around 2010, he decided to start a wholesale T-shirt business for clients in the "thrill-seeking tourist adventure" business.
"It was simple math. It’s like, "˜Hey, you need a thousand shirts? I’ll sell you a thousand shirts for $4,000,’" Kent said. "You’ll sell those shirts for $20 and you’ll make $20,000. So that’s a gross profit of $16,000."
The wholesale T-shirt business morphed into Sun Frog as Kent’s company grew and he realized how integral the website would be to taking and fulfilling orders.
"Somewhere along the line, I just decided: I’m going to build my own website. For a decade I’ve been building them for other people," he said.
As the business took off, Kent wondered whether he would be able to remain in Gaylord.
"Early on, the shipping was a big issue because we were in Gaylord," Kent explained.
Then, as he got larger and shipments from his warehouse grew, something happened.
"The beauty of size is that they started running trucks directly from here to Traverse City, and then they skipped Traverse City and they started sending them direct," Kent said. "Now we use a company – Mail Innovations that’s owned by UPS – and they run directly, I want to say to Cincinnati. Every day they run a semi up just for us."
Kent is pleased he could stay in Gaylord. "This is home," he said. "This is where our friends are, our family, our roots."
HOW SUN FROG WORKS
There’s nothing extraordinary about making a T-shirt or setting up an online shop. What’s extraordinary about Sun Frog is the volume of their work. They process tens of thousands of orders every day, printing T-shirts of multiple colors and sizes with one of more than 3 million designs.
Kent believes one of his key innovations is the software he designed to move shirts through his factory – from when they are ordered, through the printing process and into packages addressed to customers.
"It actually gets quite a bit complicated on this side of the wall," Kent said. "That’s why another shop could not open across the street and do what we do, because of the technical side."
Kent said the real "magic" of the Sun Frog business is on the other side of the website.
"It’s a technical platform that allows affiliates and artists to sell shirts; it allows us to be the middle man," he said. "Sun Frog Shirts is not in the T-shirt designing business. We partner with designers. So designers from all over the planet come here and upload their designs. The tech’s got to be dialed in for that to happen or we’d just be another big shop."
Designers get 5.5 percent – on average $1.05 – each time one of their shirt designs sells. Affiliates, people who are successful selling shirts through Facebook or through another website, get 35 to 50 percent of the sale price, roughly $8 or $9 per sale.
"If you have, say, a dog fan page, you push dog shirts to your dog audience and you rake it in. That’s the magic," Kent said. "That is the secret sauce."
Sun Frog has 50,000 affiliates around the world. Top affiliates make over $1 million a year, he said.
SOCIAL MEDIA MAGIC
The ability to generate sales through social media explains the rapid growth of Sun Frog, said Justin Hamel, online sales expert and president and CEO of MasterMinds, Inc., a developer of niche sales websites based in Brighton, Michigan.
Hamel said he became aware of Sun Frog in the last year, but he only learned they were based in Gaylord when he was contacted by a reporter.
"I was surprised. I’ve been on their site before and I instantly thought, "˜This is a California-type company,’" Hamel said. "I think it’s great that they’re staying in Michigan and staying in a small town."
Hamel said the genius of Sun Frog is their ability to leverage social media.
For example, a nurse sees a shirt with a silly slogan about nurses on his Facebook page. He buys the shirt and then shares it on his friends’ pages, many of whom also happen to be nurses. That’s how one sale is amplified many times over.
"They’re doing that for electricians, they’re doing that for doctors, they’re doing that for mothers. It just goes on and on and on," he said. "Basically, they just really utilize the power of social media and the power of affiliate marketing."
Hamel said a business like Sun Frog probably has staying power, unless the mar ketplace gets too crowded with other businesses doing the same thing.
"I don’t see it going away any time soon because the advertising is so laser-targeted right now," he said.
ANOTHER MODEST GOAL
Kent’s next goal is to make Sun Frog a household name.
"At this point, because it all happened so fast, most people don’t know Sun Frog, but they’ve probably seen us," he said. "Like, if you use Facebook for any amount of time, you’ve probably seen a T-shirt ad that targets your interest. And throughout the Internet, people have seen our shirts and probably have bought our shirts, but they don’t know our name. So, to become a household name, we need to start a strong marketing effort on our brand."
Kent said the company is also considering adding a Traverse City office. He believes that would help attract people who see Gaylord as too small.
"Some of these programmers and stuff, when they look up Gaylord, it’s like, some of them want to be here because they’re into hiking and outdoors and stuff, but others, it’s not enough of a draw for them, where Traverse City offers quite a bit more."