Case Study: Wild Fire Tees
After the horrible wildfires in Texas in 2011, a Texas design company called AIRSHP designed T-shirts and sold them as a benefit for Texas wildfire relief. Austin Buck, co-owner of CoPilot Creative in Colorado Springs, remembered that idea as he returned home on Monday, June 25, to a state (and specifically, our city) on fire. Instead of feeling helpless to do anything, Austin pitched the idea to his CoPilot team, who immediately committed to the cause. Knowing the power of teamwork, he called up several designers, marketers and artists in Colorado Springs who are also friends—Chris and Jenny Schell of Design Rangers, Sara and Troy DeRose of Fixer Creative Co., Tucker Wannamaker of Magneti Marketing, Mathias Valdez and Inaiah Lujan at LastLeaf Printing in Pueblo, Colorado, and several other artists—with a question. Can we do this same thing and help our city? Everyone responded immediately with a resounding YES.
With plans to launch Wild Fire Tees on Friday, June 29, our group of cofounders began putting designs, the website and the plan together, expecting to sell 200 to 300 shirts and hand-screenprint them ourselves over several weekends. We reached out to designers and artists we know in Colorado Springs to request designs.
Then, on Tuesday evening, June 26, a perfect storm of hot conditions, a blazing fire and 65 mph winds from thunderstorms united to send the fire over the ridge and raging down into the city. After days of watching smoke pour from behind the mountain, we all watched as orange flames erupted down the hill, followed by blankets of smoke, and 30,000 people evacuating out of the neighborhoods in and around the blaze.
We knew then that we needed to take action quickly. We launched the website at 12 o’clock noon on Wednesday, with our only goal being to raise more money collectively than we would be able to give individually. By the end of the first day, we had reached $50,000 in sales. At that point, we called in another immensely valuable team member, Jedd Erfurdt with ACS Apparel, when it became clear that we could not feasibly handle the printing and fulfillment ourselves, as planned. We made a (lofty to us) goal of $100,000 in sales, which we passed quickly (more than $600,000 grossed to date).
One hundred percent of our profits are going directly to wildfire relief. That means that the only money not going to those who have been affected by the wildfires in Colorado is the money we need to produce, ship and handle the customer service on the packages, plus some costs that we had to add in for lawyers and tax accountants to make sure we are legit once the scale got so big—everything else is volunteered, donated or underwritten. The profits from our first batch of shirts (we’re on a pre-order system) were divided evenly between the Colorado Red Cross and Care and Share Food Bank Colorado, with both organizations serving the immediate needs of wildfire evacuees and victims—food, shelter, relocation assistance, etc. The profits from our second batch of tees is going to the governor’s Colorado Fire Relief Fund 2012, with some of it set aside for immediate relief needs. Our third and fourth batch of shirts, at this point, are continuing to go to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund 2012 and the NOCO Rebuilding, which is helping residents affected by the High Park Fire in Fort Collins, Colorado, rebuild their homes sustainably. We set up a fund with the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, which disperses the funds to these organizations and also notifies us when there is an immediate relief need that we can meet.
We have a current feature that allows people to buy a shirt for a firefighter, and over 1,300 people have donated to put our signature “C Fire” design on a firefighter’s back. We have had the opportunity to deliver some of those shirts to all of the Colorado Springs Fire Department firefighters, as well as the 52nd Engineering crew at Fort Carson, and we continue to coordinate for the rest of the shirts to be shipped across the state. It has been an incredible honor to tell the brave men and women who served our state that people appreciate them—and to give them a shirt that a complete stranger wanted to give them as a token of their appreciation.
From the beginning, we wanted other artists and designers to share in the effort, so we sent out a call for open design submissions. After the initial launch of the site we were bombarded with designs from all over the state and around the U.S. At that point, our team designed a lot less and acted as curators for the shop, gathering the best of the designs we received and getting them ready to launch future batches of shirts.
Because this was a volunteer, self-directed charity project, there really wasn’t any prescribed budget. We knew that we wanted to donate as much money as possible to the cause, so whatever we could give, buy and contribute was what we wanted to do. At the start, we thought that we would spend a few weeks keeping this going by designing about eight shirts, maintaining the website, and printing and packaging shirts on the weekends, all while keeping our regular jobs and client work going. Literally, we said that if we could sell a few hundred shirts, we’d be happy. We had no idea at the outset that this project would explode and consume our entire summer. That being said, between everyone on our team we easily have more than a thousand hours in time to maintain Wild Fire Tees in its mission to raise as much money for Colorado wildfire relief as possible.
Basically, none! Austin (CoPilot Creative) saw this model of business executed in Texas last year, so we had a basic idea of how it worked. We have all owned our businesses for several years, and we have experience selling products here and there and doing some screen-printing—so for the scale we had planned, we already had the information we needed to launch.
Hindsight being 20/20, there are all kinds of things we know now that we would have wanted to look into before launching. However, because we were reacting to an event and needed to mobilize quickly, we did what we knew and built out the rest as we needed it.
Because of the quick launch of this project, there wasn’t a lot of completely planned-out strategy at the beginning. We had a few principles in mind that guided our future decisions. One, we simply wanted to raise more money for wildfire relief—and quickly. Second, we wanted to make great-looking, good-quality shirts that people would love, and we hoped that these shirts—combined with the desire to help those in need—would be enough to make an impact. We used our design, web, copywriting, marketing and printing skills in every part of the launch. We reached out to a few design blogs to tell them about the project the day it launched, knowing that the design community would be a target audience for us. However, the majority of our success happened organically, with us sharing with our network and people sharing the site and cause on social media. Nearly 85% of our web traffic the first few days came from Facebook alone. It literally spread like wildfire!
At every phase we experienced great success as well as challenges. Because we sold nearly 21,000 shirts in the first two weeks, every challenge we faced really came from the immediate success of the project and the need to scale up the project quickly.
After the first few hours, as orders poured in, we had to start figuring out how we were going to print and ship all of the shirts that we were selling (at that point it was only one thousand or so but we had already exceeded our expectations). We were fortunate to find Jedd Erfurdt, owner of ACS Apparel/Ruckus Apparel in Denver, who has handled the production, fulfillment and a good deal of the customer service. Without him showing up in such a timely way, we would have been up against a wall.
We faced legitimacy issues throughout the first week, with both Twitter and PayPal questioning whether we were a scam despite having had reputable businesses for many years (which we linked to on the homepage of our website). Because we raised so much money so quickly, PayPal was naturally skeptical and it took several days of negotiating with them to prove that we were a legitimate charity and that it was safe for them to release our funds so that we could start printing shirts. We were able to overcome this by partnering with some great people like Eric Cefus at Pikes Peak Community Foundation, who set up our fund and disperses the donations for us.
Once production was underway we started to run into supply issues on a few of the T-shirt colors that we needed to fulfill our orders. We literally sold Hanes out of some sizes and colors (particularly the smoke gray color from the wildly popular C-Fire design), and had to find alternate companies to supply us with shirts that were similar to those we were already using.
There were also thousands of customer service emails, questions and address changes from people who hadn’t updated their PayPal accounts, plus requests coming into our site. We had to scramble to set up systems to handle all of it an organized fashion. We found and developed some systems to help handle all of that communication in a way that was friendly, timely and professional.
All of these things were happening while orders were coming in, while we were all running our own businesses with plenty of client work and while one member of our team had his fourth child and another had shoulder surgery. We basically were building the plane while flying it, which is never the ideal business plan. Needless to say, the challenges were great but we have a great team who work well together to make quick decisions and take action when needed.
Our project was successful for a number of reasons, but mostly it was a combination of the right things at the right time. Great designs were submitted by all kinds of designers, and they really matched what many were feeling about the fires (anger, hope, sadness, gratitude, solidarity). They hit right when everyone was paying attention to our city and our state.
What we believed, which was confirmed by the orders, is that great design matters, period. Firefighters to whom we gave shirts would tell us that they often have “fire followers”—people who follow these major disasters and sell commemorative shirts out of RVs in parking lots—who sell shirts that are of poor quality and poor design. People buy them because they want to support the cause, but they don’t get any audience outside of those who would give anyway.
People wanted iconic designs that commemorated this tragic event but also represented the way our community rallied together. They wanted designs that matched the emotions they felt at the time. They wanted some that made them laugh or remember why we feel so strongly about our state. We wanted to provide design that was compelling whether or not one had any connection to the cause, as we knew that would end up raising awareness about what was happening to our great state; we also wanted to use that audience to raise as much money as possible for the people who need it. If we had sacrificed good design or quality, the response would not have been what it was.
We think that a reporter from MSNBC said it best after she interviewed us: “Never underestimate the power of enthusiasm.” It’s really true. When people build relationships with each other and foster their community, when they need to band together in a time of crisis, great things can happen.
With such a great response, we decided to put together a dream list of graphic designers whose work we love and ask them if they would be willing to submit a design. From that list we got seven designers who said yes and submitted designs to us, which we are incredibly excited and honored to produce. We are releasing this as our fourth batch, which we are calling the “All-Star Batch.” It includes designs by Don Clark from Invisible Creature, Riley Cran from the Lost Type Co-op, Jay Fanelli from Full Stop Interactive and United Pixelworkers, Ryan Brinkerhoff from Bandito Design, Co., Matt Stevens, Luke Flowers and Ryan Putnam of Rype Arts. These guys are all great at what they do and, despite being incredibly busy, they agreed to give us a design. We launched the All-Star Batch on September 6. It will run for two weeks, with shipping beginning the following week.
Now that, thankfully, the fires in Colorado are out, we want to remind people that the victims of tragedies are often the victim of short attention spans—the cameras chase other news, and people forget the very real problems that exist after a tragedy. In our case, hundreds of people across the state have lost their homes and need to rebuild, businesses in the affected areas are in danger of closing, tourism is down and our beautiful landscape is scarred. We need to rebuild, and we need to have the funds there to help people do that.
This case study is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.