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Interview: Spreadshirt CEO - Lukasz Gadowski

 
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Interview: Spreadshirt CEO - Lukasz Gadowski
Interview: Spreadshirt CEO - Lukasz Gadowski
Published by Rodney
May 11th, 2005
Post Interview: Spreadshirt CEO - Lukasz Gadowski


Lukasz Gadowski is the founder and CEO of SpreadShirt, Inc. Spreadshirt is a t-shirt fulfillment company that allows individuals and companies to open an online storefront selling t-shirts, hats, and other custom printed items with no upfront costs. They use a unique flock and flex printing technology to allow them to print on dark colored garments on demand.

Lukasz agreed to answer a few questions for this exclusive T-Shirt Forums interview. We thank Lukasz for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions folks might have about SpreadShirt. Lukasz has asked that you pardon his English in any of the answers below since English is not his native language.

Can you you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Yes, I'm 27 and I grew up in Germany and studied computer science as well as business. I am originally from Poland - in fact, I spent the first 8 years of my life there. Hmm, what else there is to say... I'm a big fan of science and technology and went to Georgia Tech (Atlanta) for an exchange semester.
How and when did Spreadshirt get started?
I started spreadshirt while enrolled at business school. This was late 2001.

Back then I financed my school with part-time jobs as well as internships and various consulting jobs (in Germany there are student clubs who do consulting projects to gain practical experience, since school is much more theoretical compared to the US).

I did project work in different areas, for example I was project manager for Siemens at an IT project which made me very proud. Also, I did strategy and organizational consulting for a small apparel printing company.

Combining IT and my textile printing knowledge the idea of spreadshirt was born. It was also inspired by the Amazon.com affiliate program - when you can have books on your website relating to your topic, why not T-shirts as well?

So, with no money I put together a first prototype of spreadshirt in May 2001 (it was not possible to set up an shop on your own back then. I had to mount images in Photoshop myself and upload them into the database. So I worked only with larger sites at the beginning). My contacts to the textile industry enabled me to get a fulfillment partner - which was cool, otherwise I would not have had the money to buy the necessary machines, presses, etc.

Shortly after the first version was up and running a friend made me aware of CafePress. This was cool to see, since it was encouraging that a similar business model has already a proof of concept in an other market. But it is very important to me to note that we did not copy the CafePress idea. It was always possible at spreadshirt to print on dark colors, while CafePress does not offer this possibility.

However, after the first steps - still done part-time besides studies and earning a living - it was critical to get a partner for the IT side. One of our first clients was dotcomtod.com, which back then you can say was a German version of ****edcompany. Matthias Spiess did a large part of their code and he was also one of the first to use a spreadshop. He was not very happy with the very limited options the first spreadshirt version offered, but he was very intrigued by the business model and believed in it.

So we teamed up and from October 2001 on he created the first version of Spreadshirt which allowed for setting an shop up on your own. This was released in May 2002 at spreadshirt.de

We looked for VC capital or business angels to buy into our great project and so we would be able to hire IT persons as well as service, production, marketing, and other employees. However, 2002 was the year after the bubble burst and nobody liked the idea of starting an e-commerce company. So we bootstrapped the whole thing working out of our flats (me in Leipzig and Matthias in Berlin) and as soon as we had enough money we hired a first service person (Dec. 2001). As we had more money, Jens Struwe, joined us on a freelance basis for working together with Matthias on the development while I was working on the marketing and fulfillment side.

After the success of our German-centered Spreadshirt.de, we then launched a European version at SpreadShirt.NET and most recently we have brought the SpreadShirt printing service to the US with SpreadShirt.com.

So that’s our story, hope it's not too long...
Where did the name SpreadShirt come from?
I brainstormed it with a friend at the very beginning. I liked the idea of having the word spread in it: we 'spread' t-shirts to consumers.

At the same time we are 'spread' throughout the internet, since there is not really a main site where the products are sold, but thousands of shop partners having their own spreadshops on their websites.

Also, the most important marketing mechanisms for us is referrals - other shoppatrtners 'spreading' the word about us.

Cool, don't you think? Hope everybody likes it...
Can you briefly explain your printing process for those that aren't familiar with the flock and flex printing methods?
Love to. First, the characteristics of flock and flex are, that you can print single pieces on dark colors. Also, the quality is very high. That is, the print is very durable and the colors will not fade even if the garments are washed a thousand times. Now the downsides: you are restricted in terms of colors, that is, you have only a palette available of about 20 colors.

There are very cool colors, however, like shiny flock for example. Furthermore, you can not combine more than 3 colors at the same time and each color more makes it much harder and more expansive to produce a shirt. This is why the base price for a shirt with one color is $12.90 and for a shirt with two colors $15.90 at spreadshirt.

As to the difference between flock and flex: flock has a fluffy surface while flex is very sleek. Both of them are cool, but some like flock more and others flex.

As to the technology itself: the basis of it is related to what sign-making companies use for their operations. But there are some tricks and tweaks to make it much more efficient, so you can sell a shirt for $12.90 and everyone can still make a profit.
Throughout the US version of Spreadshirt there are still artifacts of its EU origins - like banner ads in German, the odd link that goes to the German site rather than the US site, and small charges for EU VAT being deducted from commissions. Is this something that is being worked on?
Good question. Well, by the time this interview is published, most of these bugs should already be fixed.

The reason for the artifacts is that we had a so called 'soft launch'; that is, being online and in beta with little marketing efforts while still developing. However, it might be, that there are still some minor bugs left. We appreciate any feedback on this.

We are also still improving our service here in the US to get to the European levels. Especially in terms of the product assortment as well as the print types. Also, we will add a shop directory and some other features that are now available in Europe only in the course of this year.
So we can expect that eventually a US customer will be able to use the site without ever wondering if the merchandise is being shipped from Germany?
Yes, we want to make the best shopping experience possible. Just to clarify: we ship everything from Louisville, Kentucky, which gives us quick delivery times to east as well as to west coast.
Many of the most successful print-on-demand shops are highly customized, using a shopowner's own graphics, navigation, and links. In the Spreadshirt system it is possible to use custom graphics for a store: but all of those graphics must be stored at Spreadshirt with an upload limit of 150k, and once uploaded, the names of the graphics are changed.

This makes writing custom HTML with custom graphics very cumbersome, and it seems that it would be far simpler to allow shops to remotely link to images stored elsewhere on the web. Is this a change that's likely to happen?

Spreadshops are highly customizable, not only on the main storefront pages but also for the order basket as well as the checkout pages.

You can achieve this by using the shop in a frame or by custom HTML stored on our server. The HTML and all used graphics have to be stored on our server because:

1. Including content from 3rd parties is a big security threat for our customers. Any 3rd party webmaster could easily take over the session and violate the privacy of a customer.
2. Malicious code or graphics are threats for the customers client and for our server.
3. Because checkout has to be secured by a SSL connection it is not possible to include any elements or graphics from 3rd parties that do not have valid SSL certificates without getting browser warnings.

If there is need for more storage place than the upload limit will allow please send us a note.

To make the addition of custom HTML on our server more straightforward we will consider a redesign of this functionality.
The flex print and flock print products make it possible to offer print on demand designs on black and other dark colored shirts. This is great!

But there are some limitations on the level of detail in a design that are difficult for a designer to visualize in advance, and at the moment the only way to find out if a design will work or not is to submit it, have it analyzed, and see if it's rejected. Are there any plans for improving that process?

No, unfortunately not. This are technological limitations that are determined by the printing technology.

All we can do is to try to do a better job in explaining what is possible and what is not.

Also, in future we will add other printing technologies for dark colors without these size-limitations. However, this will take some months and the other technologies will have other limitations... life is hard

Our goal is to focus on making a very good product since we strongly believe that quality pays off in the long term!
Will you be introducing a wider variety of product choices that can be customized for the US SpreadShirt merchants? For example, in the German version of SpreadShirt, you have windjackets, lanyards, umbrellas, and many more t-shirt styles.
Yes, we will add much more during the next weeks and months and we are always open for suggestion. Also, we are very open to growing our team; so if anyone of you web-savvy people is looking for a cool job with a fast growing internet start up, we are in hiring mode!
Will you ever offer Maternity Tops for pregnant women?
Not on the list yet as far as I know, but why not? We'll consider it.
Since you have launched German and European Spreadshirt versions, you have probably seen several successful SpreadShirt Shops. Without giving out any of of those SpreadShirt merchant's "secrets", what tips can you give for new SpreadShirt merchants that will help them create successful store?
We actually have great marketing tips available on our website. When a shopartner is logged in, just go to the menu link called 'marketing': Marketing : Spreadshirt - Custom T-shirts - Design, Buy and Sell Customized shirts
I noticed there are affiliate banner links in the SpreadShirt shops that link back to SpreadShirt with the merchant's ID tied to it. You also have an affiliate program through CommissionJunction.

Can you explain how your different affiliate program(s) work?

The program at Commission Junction works only for spreadshirt-designer.com. The items are priced significantly higher on the 'designer' than in the shops.

So when an affiliate signs up for the program via CJ they'll get 15-25% commission on the sales he brings (percentage depends on monthly sales volume).

The affiliate program within the shops is just for internal tracking. There is no incentive program for existing shops bringing us new one. On one hand this is due to technical restrictions on the other hand it would not work out for us cost wise.

However, for very big affiliates who wish do send us new shoppartners we are very open for special deals (very big would be, that you should have at least 2,000,000 impressions per month). For smaller traffic we just do not have the capacity for tracking, deal making, etc. We invest our time rather in adding new items to our site
Can US Residents operate a European shop at SpreadShirt.net and having commissions paid to them in the US?
Yes.
What can US users expect to see in the upcoming months at SpreadShirt.com?
A lot more items, a shop directory, a cooler, more US look of the homepage, international shipping, more payment methods and...well, what you would like to see most?
Again, thank you for your time. Do you have any final thoughts to share for our readers?
Not really, well, maybe one: it's cool to be in the US and we want to thank all of you who are the first merchants on the spreadshirt US platform!
__________________
Rodney Blackwell
PrinterListings.com: Find a company to print your t-shirts - list your own t-shirt printing company.
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