Global Economics

Spreadshirt: From Rags to Riches


The German outfit will take your T-shirt idea, print it, and sell it on the Web. Now, Spreadshirt is No. 5 on our list of European Hot Growth Companies

You're walking the dog or you're in the middle of Pilates class or whatever, and suddenly it hits you: a great idea for a T-shirt slogan that you could sell for a small fortune. Maybe something cashing in on the gay Western craze, like, "Brokeback Mountain Riding Club." Or something appealing to worshippers of TV martial arts lawman Chuck Norris, such as, "There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris allows to live."

Just one problem: You don't know anything about printing T-shirts, much less marketing them online. Luckily, there's Spreadshirt, No. 5 on Europe's Hot Growth list. With a few clicks and keystrokes you can make your brilliant T-shirt idea a reality and post it for sale on the Web. Leipzig (Germany)-based Spreadshirt will take care of the printing and fulfillment and pay you a commission if your design sells. "Anybody can design their own T-shirt," says Lukasz Gadowski, Spreadshirt's 29-year-old CEO.

The cost to T-shirt designers is the same as what it cost Gadowski and co-founder Matthias Spiess to found the company in 2002: nothing. Gadowski and Spiess were still studying business at German universities when they developed an online platform to peddle T-shirts with slogans such as "Bin ich Sexy?" (the German equivalent of "Am I hot?"). They advertised the shirts on the Web, while outsourcing production and delivery. The beauty of the business model was that they could collect payment for the shirts up front, but didn't have to pay their suppliers until the end of the month. Life doesn't get any more capital unintensive than that.

PROFITABLE FROM THE START

Since then, some 200,000 people, whom Spreadshirt calls"partners," have designed T-shirts, which they try to sell via online "shops" set up with Spreadshirt's help. Besides handling shirt production, Spreadshirt takes care of shipping and even customer service. Some partners are small operations with names like Amorphia Apparel or Latino Tees, but many are good-sized businesses such as German football team Borussia Dortmund, which allows fans to design their own club shirts online using a menu of team motifs.

Somebody's buying those shirts. From just 60,000 euros ($76,000) in 2002, Spreadshirt now has sales of 8.3 million euros ($10.5 million) and has been profitable from the start, says Gadowski, who won't reveal precise numbers. The company has some 230 T-shirt clad employees, subsidiaries around Europe as well as a U.S. unit based in Pittsburgh, and has branched out into other logo-friendly products, such as coffee mugs and underwear.

Even Silicon Valley has taken notice. In July, Spreadshirt won "several million" in venture capital from London and Palo Alto (Calif.)-based investment firm Accel Partners. Spreadshirt already seemed to have an ample supply of online entrepreneurial hubris. Gadowski says his goal is to double sales every year and to become the global market leader in micro-merchandising by 2009.

"We want to grow," says Gadowski, who's taciturn in a telephone interview but voluble and irreverent in his blog, lakattack.com. One recent posting included quotes from himself that didn't make it into the Accel press release, such as: "We plan to spend the funds on things that are funny." Might look good on a T-shirt.

Ewing is BusinessWeek's European regional editor .

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