Twelve years ago, Jeff started designing his own graphic t-shirts and developing his own brand. Today, Ugmonk has grown to offer many products that all embody Jeff's own design philosophies. We recently partnered with Jeff and Ugmonk to offer the Ugmonk Face Mask to our customers for custom printing 2, 10, and 100-pack orders.
We sat down with Jeff for an interview on how he started in t-shirts, began to create his own blank tees, expanded into different home and office products, and came to his latest product launch: Analog. Read the transcript below for a summation of our favorite parts of our interview with Jeff.
A special thanks to Jeff for participating in our interview.
Our Interview with Jeff Sheldon
Introduction to Ugmonk
Gabriel Santiago / Marketing Specialist - Real Thread
We'd love to have you introduce yourself to our audience. If you could, tell us more about Ugmonk. What it is today and what it started as. What's been the journey between your first day to today, when you have face masks and Analog coming out?
Jeff Sheldon / Founder & Designer - Ugmonk
Yeah, my name is Jeff Sheldon and I founded Ugmonk back in 2008. Fresh out of college, had no idea what I was doing. I just love to design things. And here we are 12 years later and now I'm running Ugmonk full time. But a little backstory on how I got started was actually designing teachers, which is, you know, we're talking about talking to a screen printer right now. So none of this is brand new for you guys, but that was the first physical product that I was actually designing, um, and studying graphic design and actually seeing a tee-shirt printed for the first time. Uh, after winning an online contest was such a cool thing to like, hold the product, hold the thing that I designed. Um, and that's how I got my feet wet into, um, t-shirts, which then led to launching Ugmonk, which was my side project to just design t-shirts on my own. Um, build a website, didn't know anything about building a brand. It was just to keep my hands busy. Um, and that has slowly grown over the last almost 12 years to what it is today.
For some more background on kind of the process of creating these t-shirts, what's the background of processing the garment, getting that construction, dying it, and that whole supply chain process with your t-shirts?
So that really came about recently. For a while, I was just using off the shelf blanks. Brands that everyone knows, and I'm sure you guys print on every day. And my whole philosophy is like, if something can be better, I want to make it better. And I'm continually optimizing things to the point where, you know, I drive my wife crazy because as soon as I'm done with something, I'm like, I think I could do that a little bit better next time. And being in the t-shirt world for so long and feeling all the different shirts and being familiar with all the different brands and always looking for something better, led us to say last year, "Can we go fully custom, work directly with the manufacturer, and see if we can take the actual garment to the next level and not just focus so much on the graphic applied to the garment itself?" So yeah, we ended up working with a great small manufacturer in Los Angeles and we've been able to see the whole process.
There's a video on our site (shown below) where you can see some of the behind the scenes. The garment dye process and what it looks like to cut. You'll see the shirts going into the dye and the wash and stuff. So now, we're actually selling t-shirts without graphics on them. Which has come full circle and people are, you know, *laughs* like, "Well, you're not designing anything at this point. You're literally selling a blank black shirt." But my goal was to make it, those shirts that you grab every day. The ones that you love and the ones that you're like, every time you travel, those are the ones. You grab them, throw them in your bag. And then we're also printing on those exact same ones.
The Ugmonk Face Mask
Brandon Shaw / Marketing Manager - Real Thread
To change subjects over to your face masks, obviously you know, in the climate that we're in right now, it's, essential and it's really, really cool to see you get involved with them as well. Who came you with the idea of face masks? Was it just internally or was it your manufacturer?
I remember when everything was breaking out in the U.S. with COVID. Really early on and none of us really knew what it was going to be. We thought it was a two-week thing where we'd be locked down and our normal sales were just going down real fast. And I was like, I don't know what we're supposed to do here because everyone's kind of panicking. We're only buying essential things. I joked, I think I put a tweet out, like "maybe we should make face masks and toilet paper, minimalistic toilet paper." So we're going to have to get creative to weather this. Cause we're a small family run company. We're not venture backed. We have to make this work. And then how quickly things shifted from that to two weeks later, to where we were all like, "Oh crap, we need masks." Like we actually need this. And where do we get a mask? And then the shortages and all of those things started happening. It was probably about a month later, our manufacturer who makes our, t-shirts sent us a sample mask that he had been working on.
So he actually designed it. It's got the nice contour around the nose and the super, super soft fabric. He designed that and sent a sample to us and he's like, "Hey, I'm allowed to open again. I got a permit to be back in business through all this COVID stuff. And do you want to sell some of these masks? Maybe we can print on them, support the screen printer as well." And I was like, "Yeah, let's go for it!" because I didn't have a marketing strategy behind this. None of us knew at that time that masks were going to be an essential thing forever. That's how it got started. The story was really, we wanted to support them because we want to keep making t-shirts with them. Now, several months later, you know, tens of thousands of masks later, the masks have been like such a key thing to keep them employed and then to keep customers coming to us. (Purchase an Ugmonk Face Mask here)
Trends in the apparel industry
To shift gears just a little bit, you had started way back, as a graphic designer. Here in 2020, obviously things are way different than they were, you know, 12 years ago. What are some positive trends you see in the apparel industry?
Yeah, a lot has changed. I mean, in 2008, finding a screen printer, putting a website up, all of the basics of building a brand were really hard. And that's why there were so few. If you look back, I think some of the success I've had is attributed to me being one of the few people doing this early on. Now it's like, you know, you can get a brand up and running. You can make an Instagram page. But, what's changed I think is the accessibility to making t-shirts and making like really high-quality t-shirts. And so with water-based and discharged printing, it was the same thing like 10 years ago. No one was doing that. There were only a few people that knew what that was. And every other screen printer is still using, the super thick plastisol with sweaty prints on the front and the accessibility to that has changed.
You guys are a huge player who I know have advocated for the water-based inks and that super soft feel. But that used to be really, really hard to find. You had to find it on some forum somewhere like, "This one guy in California has this new ink." The positives are that if people do want to start something that barrier to entry is so much lower.
For your apparel, you lean pretty heavily on screen printing rather than going direct to garment (DTG) or print on demand. Why have you stuck with screen printing versus moving to a more digital type of printing?
The last time that we've done some side-by-side comparison, you still can't get that water-based screen-printed feel on a t-shirt with, with DTG. Which has come a long, long way. DTG used to be awful. And now that there's a lot of really great printing that would almost rival screen printing. But I feel like you can't get the very, very top quality, unless you're going to do screen printing. And that's where, even though it may not make sense because we have to carry a physical inventory, we have cash tied up in that physical inventory that's stocked, we can't just print on demand. But the product is still superior. Maybe it's just me as an artist and a purist but I can't compromise on that. I can't just switch to carrying no inventory, going direct to garment, and printing on demand. Just because I know the screen printing process is still, at least in my opinion, is still the top way to make a quality product.
So, you've been in this business awhile. What's the journey been like. You started out designing t-shirts and all that. That was your first physical product and now you've got different objects like journals, pens, and Gather. What has it been like for you to expand into these spaces?
It's been a winding road. The game plan in 2008 was not to make this broad lifestyle brand, that's all focused on minimal design. I think another thing that entrepreneurs need to be able to do is adapt and see when things are working and move towards those things. The only reason I'm designing the Gather desk organizer or the Analog cards, it's really because if you connect the dots, it's all of these little things that I did way back when. Which started with designing leather journals and working with a lady on Etsy who made the journals by hand. I ordered like 10 or 20 of them and fell in love with the process of leather. And that led to getting a square sample of leather and using it as a mouse pad. Which has now become one of our top selling products, the Ugmonk mousepad. You can see the leather wherein over time and it's just a really cool object. That led to creating more of a workspace aesthetic. And I just wanted to make this workspace that felt inviting for me to sit at in my home office here. And then that led to, needing to organize these things. So I designed the Gather desk organizer. Which eventually led to Analog, which is more of like, how you organize your thoughts and tasks? So it's not like I planned to ever be selling physical note cards on Kickstarter, but if you connect all those dots, I think there is some consistency in there both in aesthetic and also making products that solved things for myself, things that I wanted. And that's why it's kind of like, why is no one else, no other t-shirt brand make desk organizers. I was like, yeah, I think it's because it's just kind of these little things that have added up into this, this larger brand. So yeah that's kind of where it came from.
To dive in a little more, because we are very curious on this, what do you feel is your own strength? Maybe it's something about yourself or your brand that gave you the kind of confidence and ability to design such a great product when venturing out of t-shirts. So going into journals and going into Gather, task organizers. Because, as you said, it's not a natural progression. Obviously it felt natural for you, but you know, for a lot of people running their own brands and their own shops that might seem like such a huge jump. So what was it about, you know, how you approach those things that you think really helped you be successful?
Yeah, there's probably a lot more that goes into it than I could even expand on like in this short podcast, but like the way I see the world is just the way I always see things. And I've realized over time that not everyone sees the world through the same lens. And by that, I mean, even as a kid, I would spend hours and hours like obsessing over details. My parents tell me about like, that'd be collecting rocks. Just a whole big row of gray rocks. But I'd be sitting there, analyzing them, and picking them, collecting certain ones, and seeing these details. That's just something that's in my DNA and caring so much about those details doesn't mean I'm necessarily a perfectionist or that what I make is perfect. But I just love obsessing over all of those little things to get them just right. And that's carried me through from t-shirts to how do we make the t-shirts better, to how do we make desk objects, how do we tell our story better, how do we improve our product photography, how do we communicate to our customers better? And how do we tell our story that like, "Look, I'm the guy that designed the thing you just bought." As opposed to trying to grow into this faceless, larger corporation. And all of those things are born out of personal passion. And I think that's why it's easy for me to tell that story versus manufacturer some ethos that we came up with out of thin air.
We’d love to talk about Analog, which is something we're excited about. I know internally over the last year we've gone from productivity apps to productivity app, trying to find the best thing right now. So we'd love for you to tell us more about Analog and what's been the biggest impact on your own life while using Analog.
It's the simplest product I've ever designed because it's literally a three-by-five note card. And the reason that I'm using that is not that I hate digital apps or because I don't like productivity systems. I'm actually a huge fan of digital. I couldn't do anything that I do without using digital apps and, and collaborating and, um, you know, all sorts of ways. But the thing that the problem with them is that every time I go to swipe up on my phone to go check whatever the notification was for me to do next, I'm down the, you know, there's a text message. Oh, I gotta check Instagram. Let me just see this real quick. And you know, an hour later, what was I trying to do? Or sometimes I'll pick up my phone, open it and just staring at it. And I'm like, why am I staring at my phone? I can't even remember, by the time I've swiped up. I can't even remember what I'm supposed to do. So I've been using a pen and paper for a long time. It's just to complement that by transferring things down from Notion, Asana, Dropbox Paper, or anything that I'm using to track things and get it on a piece of paper and literally stick it right below my monitor. So that thing is staring at me all day long. I can have it in the holder and the difference between that and having to swipe up to look at your phone or click over to the tab it's crazy because I can't ignore this piece of paper. And you can do it with a regular index card, you could do it with a Post-it note. But what I'm hearing from a lot of people is they don't have a system for that. It's just Post-it notes, falling off their monitor. It's a journal that they don't want to ruin. They don't want to write their to do's, they'd rather keep it for nice things. Or it's a notebook that gets trashed in the process. So what Analog is, is a physical system to really pull those to do's out of my apps, force me to focus on only a few of them and it just feels good to cross them off every day and see that progress build up over time.
Advice for starting you own brand or business
When you look back since the beginning of your career, what are some major things you could've done differently? And of course, we preface this saying that, of course, hindsight is 2020, So there's always things we could have done differently. But is there anything that stands out to you as a lesson to others?
So I'm very forward-looking and that can be a bad thing or a good thing. And I definitely have a vision for the future. I'm always on to the next thing. Like I can see, you know, where Analog is taking us and I'm just like, so amped on that. And it takes me a lot to look back and be like, man, I should have done this differently. Because a lot of the things that I would change, I don't think I would actually change, but they were learning, they were lessons that I learned by going through it the hard way. Whether it was working with a manufacturer that wasn't reliable or doing things in a way that wasn't scaleable, maybe delegating or outsourcing something too soon, and realizing that it's not what I wanted. So as far as like specific things that I do differently, I don't know that I would go back and change things. I think probably the first thing would be setting up Ugmonk as a business. So I'm not getting hit with the taxes of like self-employed taxes, cause I had no clue what I was doing. Um, and didn't even realize, you know, Oh, I should at least be an LLC or something to protect myself. But at the same time, if I had approached it that way, I would have been like trying to put this business hat on every time I made a decision trying to act like I'm this business and I'm trying to build this thing where really for a while it was just like, I love doing this, people love the products, and I want to keep doing it. So should I have done things, or set it up more properly? Probably. Would it have changed how I did things? Probably. So I don't know that I'd go back and change it. I think a lot of this is just a learning experiment and process to rather than try and find somebody that's like the best photographer in the world, to instead pick up a camera, get a cheap light, try shooting your own photos, and learn that process. And maybe later you'll have the money to hire somebody and hire those things out. But I've learned so much just from like getting my hands dirty and doing literally every part of the business at some point so that I could learn how to do it all.
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