Career Path: Former computer store owner turns T-shirt giant | Crain's

Career Path: Former computer store owner turns T-shirt giant

Josh Kent, founder and CEO of Michigan-based T-shirt company SunFrog, said he’s always felt like an entrepreneur, selling gum at school and mowing lawns as a teen while his friends were out having fun.

“My parents didn’t deprive me of anything. I just had this innate need to hustle and strategize,” he explained. “It wasn’t really about the money. It was about the process of business. It was seemingly ingrained into me.”

After three years of business, SunFrog has grown to 400 staff members and hosts 11 million designs for customers to choose from. SunFrog allows users to upload their own designs and sell them, while the company handles printing, shipping and distribution. Kent said the company has grown more rapidly in the last few years than he hoped, but it’s not the only project he has in the works.  

Kent spoke with Crain’s about why he loves working with T-shirts and his advice to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Where did SunFrog begin?

In my case what happens is, one business births another business. I owned a small computer retail store. I had about six employees who were servicing and selling computers, but then I started hiring web developers. The computer store birthed a web development firm, and the web development firm birthed a T-shirt company called FunFix that offered wholesale T-shirts. That company birthed SunFrog. SunFrog is birthing a new company called that launched in early May. I always use the momentum and resources of each business to birth the next.

It was almost a side hustle to FunFix. We were already in the T-shirt business but we were selling large volumes of shirts at low prices. I feel like we were struggling to make it as a company for years as FunFix, but I felt if I just took one step to the left or to the right things would change.

We didn’t get into a new or different business, we just went into retail. SunFrog is retail e-commerce versus FunFix being wholesale. Instead of selling $3 T-shirts we started selling $20 T-shirts. Our initial goal was to sell 100 shirts a day, and if we could do that then we could be in a position to focus on it more. That 100 shirts a day quickly became 10,000 a day and kept going. It was bigger than I had planned or hoped for.

Tell us more about

It’s a charity crowdfunding website, similar to a GoFundMe business model. My wife and I have a heart for certain organizations, and we feel that sometimes people don’t give because they don’t trust that the money is going to the organization. With ShowYourLove 100 percent of the money goes to the organization. We run the site for free. We’ll work in the monetary part later, but right now, if somebody gives $100 to an organization that organization gets $100. We cover the credit card and processing fees.  By letting people use it for free they will become familiar with the platform and get to know and trust it. We’ll add the fees in after we get serious momentum, but we’re committed to the first couple million dollars at least going through for free.

Would you say the culture of the SunFrog site has helped its growth?

We’re giving the majority of the money to the person who sold it, and that’s why we’ve grown so fast, because people can go to our website, pick out a shirt of any interest, and share it with their Facebook friends and make $8 or $9 every time it sells.

This is why we have high school kids making more than their parents. If you have a bit of a social following, it doesn’t matter if you like golf or fishing, or unicorns or elephants—you can find a shirt on our website.  Ninety-five percent of our sales come through social media, which is unheard of. For most dot-coms, social is not that big, but it’s almost all of our sales. We designed the website for social sharing.

Culturally, five years ago we weren’t all walking around with smartphones. Now more than two-thirds of our sales are on a mobile phone. It’s a different world we live in and our site was built to play in that world. When our site launched three years ago it was mobile-friendly while a lot of our competitors three years ago did not have mobile-compatible sites. We knew social was going to play a big part in where we were going to go.

What’s next for you and SunFrog?

I think we’re just getting started with SunFrog. I have people ask me if I’m going to sell it.

One of my competitors that’s a lot smaller than SunFrog sold for $100 million, and I’ve had a few people tell me, “Hey, you’re a lot bigger than that competitor, you’re worth a lot more and you should sell,” but I’m having so much fun I will ride this thing down before I sell it. I jump out of bed every morning, come to work, and I’m probably the last to leave.

Some people probably think “T-shirts, what’s so great about T-shirts?,” but T-shirts float my boat. I’ll take a bad day over not doing it.  [However,] there may be a day when that focus shifts a bit because I now have

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Many people may have an interest in business but just aren’t acting on it. I think entrepreneurial thinking is in you and when you’ve got that in you, you’ve got to take action.

A lot of entrepreneurs don’t focus, and that’s the biggest advice I have when I talk to a young entrepreneur. We see so much opportunity sometimes but that opportunity can be your curse if you act on it. When I focus the needle moves.

A book I read recently was “The 10X rule” by Grant Cardone. The takeaway that helped me with my perspective was he talks about times in life [when] people feel like they can only win in one area, meaning you’re really good at your job, but your family suffers, or your family is your top priority and your career suffers. We have this mindset that you can’t have it all. In this book he kind of beats that out of you. Again, if you’re intentional you can have a thriving marriage, a thriving family, thriving friendships and a thriving business. You can have it all by being intentional in these areas.

My takeaway from the book was abundance. I’ve been kind of living that, but it gave me even more permission to do so.

June 7, 2017 - 5:54pm