Tim Cigelske was always drawn to quirky T-shirts yet frustrated by their prices. “I got really sick of paying $25 for a T-shirt that’s going to be entertaining for about a week because it’s got a certain slogan on it,” he explains. “It’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction, that you need a new T-shirt — a new T-shirt.”
Teecycle — the virtual company that Cigelske runs with his wife, Jess, from their Whitefish Bay, Wisc., home — resells gently used T-shirts for children, men, and women for about $7 each (plus $3 shipping). Some might even qualify as collectables, such as a vintage Budweiser shirt and a summer 1997 Phish tour tee. Sourced from rummage sales, friends, and thrift stores, $1 of each sale is donated to River Revitalization Foundation. Teecycle’s slogan: “Change your shirt, change the world.”
Initially, Tim photographed each shirt artfully arranged on the floor. Not satisfied with the results, he asked Jess to model. Their friends soon donned the T-shirts, too, posing in parks, along Lake Michigan, and in other natural settings. “I didn’t want this to be like Craigslist or eBay. I wanted it to have personality – the more entertaining, the more visual,” says Tim, whose day job is in marketing and communications at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
With no startup capital or outside financial support, social media allowed the couple to get Teecycle off the ground. After a year of hosting a self-designed site on Blogspot.com, and then WordPress.com, iWeb, and SquareSpace.com, Tim decided it was time to amp up the marketing by tapping into social media.
In 2008, he joined Twitter. At first, he was unsure how the site worked, but he quickly figured out its potential. Intent on spreading the word about Teecycle through tweets, Tim typed in “T-shirts” in the search box on Twitter.com. Soon he was following Tcritic.com’s Twitter feed and asked if a blog post about Teecycle was of interest. (It was.) “I didn’t even know a T-shirt blog existed before I joined Twitter,” Tim says. “I instantly started getting orders from London, Atlanta, New York City – worldwide.” Teecycle also has a presence on YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Flickr.
Two cash awards have also provided a boost. In 2009, PepsiCo awarded Teecycle a $4,500 grant in its “What’s Your Pitch” contest, in which entrepreneurs had 60 seconds to pitch the company behind Pepsi soft drinks, Frito-Lay, and Quaker Oats. In early 2010, Teecycle won the Best Social Venture track in Marquette University’s 2010 Business Plan Competition. Prize money allowed Teecycle to hire a professional web designer and give the site a fresh look.
“Social media has helped me reach a worldwide audience on a shoestring budget. Making connections on places like Twitter has directly led me to sales as far away as Denmark and Australia — and the best part is it’s free,” says Tim.
Tim says he also listens to dozens of business books each year via Audible.com while jogging and driving. He’s also working toward an MBA degree at Marquette. He says he’d like to pursue partnerships with companies that have cast-off tees to unload, perhaps as a result of misprints or unclaimed orders. Teecycle would re-release these tees with a different logo. But first, he’ll need to acquire warehouse space, which presents a new challenge — but more room to grow.