Upcycling Memories and Bringing Jobs Back to the U.S. Has Brought Success to One Startup

Nathan Rothstein, president and co-founder, and Ross Lohr, co-founder of Project Repat, have created a socially conscious business that is creating jobs in the United States and providing consumers with a novel way of preserving memories. Project Repat upcycles t-shirts into quilts in an array of sizes and has been doing so since February 2012.

The pair said they found their inspiration from post-Katrina New Orleans and Nairobi development, coming up with the idea of collaborating the start of a business that made “money but also prosperity for a lot of different people,” they say. “People love free t-shirts, really,” Rothstein notes. T-shirts commemorate all sorts of events and T-shirt collections are often unwieldy. Says Rothstein, these t-shirts contain a memory and “represent who you really are.”

Rothstein compares his t-shirt quilt-making company to “modern-day scrapbooking,” noting that the quilts make wonderful gifts. Consumers agree. The startup enjoyed $1.1 million in sales in 2013 alone, he says. “What’s cool about our business is that we’re bringing back t-shirt jobs to North Carolina and Massachusetts, but in a new upcycling format,” Rothstein adds. The Boston-based start-up has partners in Fall River, Massachusetts and Morganton, North Carolina.

In just the past year, some 20 billion t-shirts have been distributed and sold in the United States; however, most—90 percent—were manufactured overseas, says Rothstein. Both partner locations were, at one time, thriving textile industry locations; however, since the 1990s, some 250,000 jobs in textile ventures have been lost in North Carolina and sent overseas, according to Rothstein. He says he wants Project Repat to bring jobs back to America and notes that the startup has returned 20,000 work hours to domestic textile ventures. “We see ourselves as creating a supply chain with a mission,” Rothstein says.

Initially, the duo took care of everything, but since entering into collaborations with Opportunity Threads and Precision Sportswear, Project Repat is now able to “let experts take care of production and fulfillment.” Customers visit the site to create their quilt, selecting a size and pattern image (or deferring the pattern design to Project Repat), and ship their T-shirts to the company. Between two and four weeks later, the finished quilt, which ranges in price from $60 to $250, is sent back to the consumer.

Repat’s greatest challenge? Rothstein says, “I think we have two challenges…. How do you scale manufacturing operations, and then how do you let as many people know about your business without spending a ton of marketing money?” Project Repat has several solutions in place. The startup created a large supply chain and unique manufacturing process following self-designed “ecommerce pillars” that enable cost control through word of mouth marketing, the Shopify commerce platform to handle transactions, daily flash sales to drive customers, and ad placement through search engines.

Sales dropped following the first year’s holidays so the startup launched its first national Groupon deal, selling about 6,000 vouchers. Says Rothstein, “It was just amazing to see the pent up demand for an affordable way to preserve t-shirt memories.”

Rothstein’s best business advice? “The people who have been successful … have been able to see that the idea isn’t what makes them successful—it’s the execution.”

Reference:

Angulo, Natalia. “T-Shirt Startup ‘Repatriating’ Textile Jobs to U.S.“; Fox Small Business. February 20, 2014.

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