ColoradoCool Apparel John Clinton Interview
If you've ever wondered if you can turn your graphic design knowledge into a merch kingdom for your slice of the planet, read on.
We sat down in an exclusive interview with John Clinton, who not only survived the bootstrapping years of merch production, but who continues to churn out quality merch for Colorado natives and visitors alike. John was quick to tell us that his wife Erika also plays a huge role in the company (we told you he was a good guy).
Here are some takeaways from our time with John that'll knock your socks off no matter where you are on your merch-making journey.
There's No Shame In A "Soft Launch" Of Your Brand
While the industry may put the spotlight on splashy launches and viral social media debuts, the opposite approach may be just what you need.
John's low-budget, small-scale start allowed him to make mistakes and fix them before the fashion police caught on, or the mistake cost him too much money.
"I had a lot to learn. So it was kind of nice that it was so small because I made a lot of mistakes, but none of them were that consequential because it was on such a small scale."
With full control in a soft launch, you can pivot on a dime and create a brand that is uniquely you. That may look like selling your new designs to a small group of friends and family just to get the concept out there. ColoradoCoolApparel is certainly a testament to small beginnings leading to next-level opportunities.
A Talented Graphic Designer Can Change Everything
When John started his graphic design mission, he wanted to create something fresh, original and most notably; something that DID NOT include the Colorado State flag. However, the State flag and its logo were what people wanted the most. No wonder so many other companies were using them.
Instead of fighting it, John used his talent to create unique t-shirt designs that incorporated the flag in a way that no one else had. By doing so, he found a way to give people what they wanted while showcasing his abilities and standing out in a crowded market.
"Everyone was doing it that way for a reason. It wasn't that clever but I feel like we still have a unique offering where not everything is just centered around that, and it forced me to get better at designing other things and looking for other ways to represent the state."
John is a humble enough guy to realize when to give up the fight, and a smart enough guy to turn the battle in his favor.
He took an overdone design and showcased his incredible talent to create custom t-shirts, and other garments so unique that no other company could compete. Now his versions of the flag incorporate mountain artwork, and print design that people can't get enough of!
Confident Printing Comes With Testing Your Designs
HUGE INSIDER TIP HERE...so I hope you are leaning in close. At this part of the interview, John dropped a knowledge bomb, that can both make and save you thousands.
Test your designs on smaller mediums first.
Let's break that down; most companies are scared to print in bulk because they fear getting caught with pallets of shirts that no one wants, and worse yet when a small company produces merch that nobody wants, it can mean their financial demise.
So, John has unlocked a way to test a design's popularity simply by selling the design on stickers first. If customers are willing to put a design on their water bottle, Yeti cooler, or their vehicle...most likely they'll be handing over handfuls of cash (or at least their credit card number) to wear it on a shirt. Genius, right?
A High-Quality Print Shop Saves Time + Money
John was the first to admit that his designs are complicated, especially from a screen printing standpoint. Sometimes they incorporate super small details meant to give the design life and texture. But in the beginning, that texture was coming in the form of thick, sticky, and almost gooey ink prints, a graphic that was like wearing a shield (and not in a superhero kind of way).
It was frustrating because many of John's designs incorporate that detail into big graphics meant to stand out. What that meant for a long time was lots of misprints, and some pretty gnarly shirts.
Working directly with a printer that could not only explain how to make his designs work, and look the best...but also offer solutions when problems arise, gave his designs the canvas they deserved. Next level screen printing practices incorporate water-based ink and a white under base that give the color something to grab onto. This allows for a breathable design that won't gum up in the heat or crack in the wash.
Recognizing this as a must-have for his apparel he told us: "I'm selling to the people in Colorado. They are taking a shirt out hiking and camping...it's got to be able to take a little bit of a beating."
Something John didn't anticipate clearing from his to-do list was having to check each shirt for misprints and mistakes. He said with Superior Ink, he is confident that the shop checked for apparel flaws and printing mishaps, so he doesn't even check anymore. When was the last time you got a print order without any misprints? Yeah...you might need to give us a call.
Partner With People That Care About The Same Things
Let's be real, diving into a new business venture can leave any entrepreneur squeezing a nickel until the buffalo poops. Especially in the first few years of business *cue the stressed-out vibes*. But if you want to stand out in your niche and build a strong community around you, it's essential to form strategic partnerships with companies that align with your values. For example, John started to seek out partnerships with local businesses that shared his passion for preserving the natural beauty of Colorado.
"All of our products are representative of Colorado's outdoors. We spend a lot of time outdoors, That's important to us. And so it's super cool to be working with the company that does their best to not have a negative impact on that stuff."
So, ask yourself; "What values are the driving force of your brand? Are there any partnerships that are obviously aligned? Or any that you strive to work closely with?". And the converse is true. Beware of partnering with brands and businesses that don't align with what your business stands for. When you stay true to your values, it can attract others who aspire to do the same. That's when amazing collaborations and relationships form - businesses intertwined with customers that share a mutual passion!
The Final Takeaways
As a graphic designer, growing an apparel brand is not only great for your skillset—it’s also where business savvy meets self-discovery. No start is too small, because any start is more of a risk than most are willing to take. So, what are you waiting for? It's time to take that graphic design head knowledge and turn it into wearable art that makes a lasting impression on each wearer, and any onlookers that are lucky enough to catch a glimpse! If you need some inspiration... check out ColoradoCool Apparel on Instagram, Facebook, or directly at their website colocool.com