With 89 stores in 27 states, Big Frog Custom T-Shirts and More is leaping into the deep end of the garment decorating pool, and finding a comfortable niche in that otherwise tight-fitting $54 billion industry.
The Dunedin-based company was a pioneer in the commercial use of DTG (direct-to-garment) printing. Unlike its predecessor, the bulky and time-consuming silk screening process, DTG uses inkjet printing technology linked to a computer.
This allows for much greater customization -whatever you can create on a PC, you can put on a T-shirt – and a much faster output.
Perhaps most importantly, with DTG, there’s no minimum order – it’s just as easy to create one T-shirt as 100,000.
In 2006, Leeward J. Bean was president of Dream Niche, LLC, which created novelty products for the internet age. Ron DeFrece and Christina Bacon-DeFrece were vice presidents. All three of them had backgrounds in science and engineering.
They went looking to have T-shirts made, with wacky “geek sayings” printed on the front. “At the time, the minimum was a gross of T-shirts – 144 units per design,” Bean says, laughing at the memory. “Well, we had 100 designs. When you figure that out, it’s about 15,000 T-shirts.”
That was a lot more inventory than they were prepared to deal with. So silk screening was out.
Then Brother International Printing Co. introduced the inkjet printer for garments. Dream Niche bought one of the first ones off the production line.
And a lightbulb went off over Leeward J. Bean’s head.
He met with his vice presidents. “We asked ourselves: What can we do to break down every barrier there is for somebody to buy a T-shirt?”
At the time (2008), DeFrece says, customer service was “all but dead” in America; the internet was the newly-crowned king of retail. And so the trio decided their T-shirt shop would not only spotlight the convenience, speed and low cost of DTG, it would feature in-house designers, to help customers fin and size their images, and to co-design the actual product.
“No minimums, no setup fees, no artwork charges, a 24-hour turnaround,” DeFrece says proudly.
As for the online shopping “advantage,” they had an answer for that, too.
“You can do anything on the internet except you can’t touch anything, you can’t feel anything,” Bean explains. “You can’t try it on.”
From Day One, it was miles away from the old-school silk screening experience. “Our store is in a boutique setting,” Bean says. “It’s not like going into a screen printing shop where you’re in the middle of an industrial park, and when you walk in, there’s a counter and everything smells like acetone and paint thinner.”
And it’s not impersonal – like the internet. “Once we get them into the store, there’s the ‘Oh wow’ factor – ‘Now I understand!’”
“Our original, brick and mortar store was on Gulf to Bay, across from Clearwater High School,” recalls Bacon-DeFrece. “We decided hey, this is really viable and awesome. Then one of our customers decided he wanted to own one of our stores. We said ‘Go buy a printer – you can do it yourself.’ And he said ‘No, I just want to buy a franchise.”
Laughs DeFrece: “We couldn’t spell franchise at the time.”
Franchising, Bacon-DeFrece adds, “made a lot of sense. It was either that or opening six of our chain stores in the area. Franchising just seemed like a good idea when we ran the numbers.”
They were doing fine, holding their own, creating shirts for churches, private schools, Little League teams, landscaping firms and a couple of large companies, enterprise brands, which ordered thousands at a time.
“But when you push the numbers on franchising,” says Bean, “it’s ‘Oh my God, you mean people will pay you this amount of money, and sign a contract that says they’ll give you five or six percent of their gross income for the rest of your life?’ I’m thinking, what a great country this is.”
The Dunedin headquarters is home to “Big Frog University,” where franchisees are trained in the ways of the printers, the computer programs, the garment inventory and the Big Frog customer service manifesto.
The three principals are fiercely protective of their brand. To that end, they provide extensive training, with business coaches, project managers and an always-open help line.
“We’re really their business partner,” DeFrece explains. “Their business consultants. So if they have issues, they’re calling in. We want to go out there in the field every year and make sure people are adhering to brand standards, and are not diluting the Big Frog brand, things like that.”
Adds Bean: “If they franchisees aren’t happy, you’re not selling franchises. And the only way to grow a brand is selling franchises.”
Today, there are Big Frog stores as far away as California and Oregon. Texas is a huge state for them. DeFrece reports the company did $25 million in revenue in 2017 – that’s about 2.5 million T shirts, averaged out.
And the goal is to keep growing the franchise numbers. “This business,” says Bean, “is huge.
“Custom Ink, the largest player in the marketplace today, will do about $650-800 million this year. And everything is done on the internet. There’s three other online companies that will do north of $250 million. So those four companies alone will do almost $2 billion worth of business.
“All we want is 10 percent of that. We’ll take $200 million and be the happiest people in the world.”