Where the Styled Things Are: OMUNKY

omunky1There are a lot of cool T-shirts: those that glow, those with hometown pride, those better suited for the runway than the weekend. Basics are so yesterday. Nix the pretension but not the ease and the cause with super soft 100% cotton tees made in the USA, each sporting humorous takes on wild animals. Throw on one of twenty-something’s Rick Waters OMUNKY limited-edition tees ($25), emblazoned with an adorable giraffe wearing sunglasses or bucks acting like a couple of bros out on the town to help raise money for WildAid, joining Harrison Ford, Kate Hudson, Leo DiCaprio and Jackie Chan among others.

 Why? If you could talk to the animals, you would. But until then, settle for silent-but-heavy bonding with critters foreign and domestic, with plenty of time with the so-called Big Four: lions, tigers, elephant, and gorillas. Divided into animal-themed series (like “Farm” and “Aqua”), each tee has a message (sometimes we’re innocent lambs, sometimes we’re predator sharks), but Waters’ work never takes itself too seriously. Wild, farm and sea animals mingle with American pop-culture icons like Superman and guerilla marketing. Sharks swimming laps in a pool and multi-tasking octopus make you want to dive right into his fantasy world. Because you were born to be wild. Sized from toddler to adult, 5% of proceeds go to support WildAid, a non-profit that fights illegal poaching and sale of animal parts.

 When? Before they run out.

 How? Online at www.omunky.com

How did you get into the T-shirt business?

It started as a hobby in 2009, with me creating a start-up T-shirt company, OMUNKY, around my love of animals. It’s still an online business, run out of my house, with shelves and shelves of inventory. We now also do street fairs in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Westchester.

How did you get your business off the ground?

In 2011, I got serious, and focused on building a brand with the animals as the star, making fun of pop culture, like putting sunglasses on a giraffe or a skunk wearing 3D glasses going to the movies with popcorn. I added silhouettes—more adult designs—to the cartoon quirky and began to donate 5% of proceeds to WildAid, a nonprofit specializing in stopping the sale of illegal wildlife products like tiger blood, animal tusks, and shark fins for shark fin soup. A loan from Community Capital NY let me take it to the next step. I was able to purchase bins for inventory—really important for doing street fairs in New York (City), Brooklyn and Tarrytown. I was able to invest in biodegradable poly mailers—the standard shipping for T-shirts is a poly mailer, because they’re so light. These are good for the environment. You can compost them, or if they end up in landfill, they’ll degrade.

How did your business evolve?

Shirts can be expensive, and when it’s a hobby you’re not paying attention to expenses. In preparing for the loan application, I had to reevaluate my business and understand and calculate my expenses. I realized I needed money for inventory and refinancing. My financing had been atrocious, paying 21% credit card interest fees. Now I pay 7% interest, and was able to invest in  a tent, change to a better quality printer, and still use high-quality T-shirts made in the USA.

What’s the best advice you got along the way?

Involve customers in the process. Before sending designs to the printer, I post them on the OMUNKY Facebook and Twitter pages. If I’m torn between two designs, the OMUNKY fans and followers make the decision on which will be produced. I do a lot of social networking contests. And I produce limited edition runs. No more than 200 shirts are made per design at a time.

What did you wish you knew?

I wish I’d known about Community Capital NY’s small business loans sooner. And I wish I knew what this brand could become. Initially, I wasn’t using a good screen printer. My older stuff is not up to par. I wish I’d known not to display my T-shirts on hangers. On a bungee cord you can see the designs at street fairs. When it’s on a hanger, the design bunches up in the middle. And the process of using fishing line takes too long. I wish I’d kept track of inventory better. Now I use the bins purchased through my loan, so I can easily pull out a Large or Medium for a customer, and keep track of inventory at street fairs. I also had to learn to design to a business schedule. When I first started, I did a design a month. But this is physically daunting, and it takes a month before a design can be screen printed by my Florida partner. Then I moved to doing seasonal series, fall/winter/spring/summer. In 2013, I moved to a “series” approach, doing series releases around a theme, like Farm, Aquatic and to using focus groups.

When did you know you’d arrived?

I produced 3000 shirts last year–but won’t feel I’ve “arrived” until I can do this full time.

What’s next?

To move out of my apartment and into a warehouse, and bring the printing in-house and not have to wait so long for shirts, and be able to notice an error on the presses and be able to say ‘Stop.’ I want to do the holiday market in NYC, as a great way to establish my business, either the ones in Bryant Park, in glass rooms you can set up as a pop-up shop in the heart of tourism central, or at Union Square or Columbia University, but a month in holiday season runs $9000 to $15,000, and then you need huge inventory. But it’s a great way to test for a shop, my ultimate goal. I also want to see my T-shirts in Zoo Shops—but right now the wholesale price is too high, but I don’t want them manufactured in China. I also want to hire employees—to do sales and marketing, and web design, to help me get these designs out faster. Right now I start with a drawing and it takes a great deal of time to translate it into an online image.