Getting Our Story Straight

Cotton Bureau as it exists today didn’t arise in a vacuum, nor did it emerge from our shared consciousness in a fully realized state. Its quirks and idiosyncrasies, beauties and strengths, warts and blemishes are a textbook case of the intertwingled roles of nature and nurture.

Much of the original DNA, especially pre-orders and collaborations with designers and like-minded companies, came from our experience selling t-shirts and other gewgaws as United Pixelworkers.

Our adoption of the pre-order was in response to an existential threat. United Pixelworkers was a side project of our web design and development shop, Full Stop. While the idea resonated, the business model was lousy and the attention it demanded was a significant distraction from the work we needed to be doing for paying customers. If United Pixelworkers wanted to stick around, it needed to start carrying its weight. We took the site down for a few months to give ourselves time to think about what to do. If we couldn’t fix it, we were going to shut it down for good. Fortunately for fans of Cotton Bureau, we decided to give it another shot with a few modifications.

The first adjustment—limited time only pre-orders—was borrowed from John Gruber’s ephemeral Daring Fireball t-shirt store: it comes and goes as demand warrants. The pre-order model is a blindingly elegant solution (inverting the entire chain of retail dependencies) to the small business problem of maintaining stock. Instead of being subject to the caprice of customer attention, pre-orders allow sellers to accommodate an unlimited number of buyers while simultaneously moving the anxiety from the seller (“do I have enough stock?”) to the buyer (“am I going to miss out?”). It worked wonders for United Pixelworkers and immediately spawned the question that led us to where we are today: would it work for others too?

Which brings us to the second change we made. From that point on, in addition to selling t-shirts designed in-house, we would reach out to designers we admired, collaborate on a new shirt design, and split the profits. The results spoke for themselves. Sales before the changes were in the low double digits per month. Sales after rose to mid triple digits. It’s not often you can induce a 10x jump in revenue. By the end of 2010 we were working with industry heavyweights like Aaron Draplin, Jessica Hische, Meagan Fisher, and Bobby McKenna. In January 2012 we launched United Pixelworkers 3.0 and cracked the door open to select partners like A Book Apart, Rdio (RIP), and Dribbble. It worked. Now it was time to invite everyone else to participate. To do that, however, we needed to make one more change, bigger than any that had come before: launch Cotton Bureau.

Before we move on to the evolution of the business model and its conscious uncoupling from United Pixelworkers, though, there’s another piece of DNA we need to discuss. Cotton Bureau, United Pixelworkers, and Full Stop are or were products of the unions of at least two very different people. If you’ve ever met Jay and I, or heard us speak at a conference, you know just how different. With the exception of our commitment to product quality and a shared belief that nothing is good enough, we have almost zero in common physically, mentally, or emotionally—at least if you’re willing to look past the two-English-speaking-white-guys-in-their-30s-from-the-Northeast angle. We’re on opposite ends of the religious, family, and political spectrums. Finding a solution that works for both of us is an exercise in patience and self-control, but we believe running that gauntlet is imperative. The struggle (usually) separates the good ideas from the bad. As the company has grown, more voices have entered the conversation. When we talk about whether something is right for Cotton Bureau, we have to factor in this strange and volatile DNA.

So much for the pre-story, the origin story, the inception of Cotton Bureau. Nature did its part. Cotton Bureau is now only months away from its third birthday. In the weird, hyper, Tsetse fly pace of Internetland, that means we’re already several dozen generations old. Time to get our act together.

When we talk about the evolution of a company, in this case our company, what we’re really talking about are the thousands of decisions we make, small and large, and the external, unplanned events that force us to confront and test our beliefs. How long should shirts be on the site for? Who should be allowed to sell shirts on the site? Should we sell only shirts? What is our policy on international sales and submissions? Should we make money, lose money, or break even on shipping? Who is our competition? Does it matter? Should we bootstrap, self-finance, take on debt, or sell equity? Where do we get the shirts? Who prints them? Do we ship them ourselves or have someone else ship them? When should we focus on product and when on marketing? Is 40 hours per week not enough? Too much? Just right? Should we travel and sell our goods at conferences? What about wholesale? Traditional brick-and-mortar retail? I’ll stop now, not because the questions have run out but because, hopefully, you get the point. The questions neverend, and each one microscopically reveals or, often, changes who you are. Some of the consequences can be predicted ahead of time, many are shrouded in mystery.

Thankfully we’ve walked this road together for almost seven years now. We’ve answered all of those questions, at least temporarily. What we need to do is share those answers—and answers to other questions as well—with you. There are both selfish and altruistic reasons for us to do so. Selfishly, we need your support to stay in business, and that’s kind of a big deal. If we give you a glimpse behind the scenes, show you the people, explain our motivations. If we can possibly even give you a reason to believe in what we’re doing, we think it helps our chances of sticking around. Less selfishly, we think you deserve to know. We think it can help you as you try to make these decisions in your own lives and businesses. Most importantly, however, concentrating our internal conversations has a wonderfully clarifying effect. It reduces our cognitive load and allows us to be more consistent in our decision making. It’s not a roadmap as much as a framework.

When we started Cotton Bureau, we didn’t know what to expect. We were only hoping to validate an idea, the idea that if we took on the responsibility of providing the website, production, fulfillment, and customer service, anyone could sell t-shirts using our pre-order model. That idea has long since been validated. It’s time to set the stage for what comes next, a more mature, long-term focused company. So, without further delay, here are Cotton Bureau’s core beliefs:

  1. Stay in Business
  2. Enable Great Design
  3. Help Communities
  4. Have Fun
  5. Be Ourselves

Stay in Business

Not the most noble of places to start, is it? We’re okay with that. As much as our ideals influence what we do on one side of the equation, our very real need to put food on the table and keep the repo man from yanking the table out from under the food constrains us on the other. Staying in business means a lot of things. It’s not so much that it compromises our decision making as that it grounds us in what is possible. While we would love to have twice as many people working diligently to add features to the site and brainstorming ways of making our customers’ lives better, we have to be patient. Sure it would be nice to pay designers more, to let customers pay less, and magically make it up on volume. Yeah, that’s not the way it works. Someone always has to pay. We believe that by putting our hard costs on the top line, we are providing an invaluable service, that of sticking around. If you like what we’re doing, know that we plan on doing it for a long time and that means building a healthy, sustainable business.

Enable Great Design

Design is and always has been central to Cotton Bureau. You won’t have any trouble finding places to sell you cheap, ugly clothing. Let Cotton Bureau be an oasis for and an incubator of good design. From the design of the site to the design on the shirts to the design of the shirts to the design of the business, we’re committed to thoughtfulness, care, and attention to detail. If you encounter bad design, if you see room for improvement, tell us. We want to make it better. If you are a designer, work with us. Great design deserves an audience, and it deserves to get paid. We’re working to do both.

Help Communities

What is a community? A community is simply a group of people with a shared interest. United Pixelworkers was a community. Batlabels is a community. Programmers who love Bower are a community. Fans of The Incomparable are a community. We love supporting communities, and it just so happens, communities often need one or both of two things we happen to be very good at: merchandise and fundraising. Whenever a community intersects with great design (or even just good design), we want to be there to help. If you run a community or participate in a community and you want to give your fellow community members a way to represent that community, talk to us. If you want to give your audience, your fans, your customers, or your friends and family a way to support what you do, talk to us. We believe helping communities is a core part of what we do. Doing it well is essential to our future.

Have Fun

Designing t-shirts is fun. Selling t-shirts is fun. Wearing t-shirts is fun. If we lose sight of that, if our focus drifts too far toward units sold and average selling price and conversion rates, what’s the point? Anyone can game the system (for a while) with predacious, manipulative Facebook ads, incessant retargeting, and lowest common denominator design. It may be profitable, but it’s also a soul-crushing commoditization of people. Let’s not do that.

Be Ourselves

This is admittedly a weird umbrella-style category, one that probably overlaps with a lot of what we’ve already said. Having gotten to know ourselves pretty well over the years, however, we’d like to put a few things out there as non-negotiables.

Customer Service

Great customer service is a big deal for us. We don’t have a fancy name for it. We don’t have a handbook or a pithy motto. The customer is definitely not always right. We sometimes make mistakes. But we care. And it’s us calling the post office, answering emails and tweets, putting shirts in bags each day. To be honest, it’s not always fun. This may surprise you, but some people feel very entitled to a level of perfection we have yet to achieve. Thankfully, the hand-written notes, emails, and tweets we get thanking us for our care more than make up for it. Great customer service is certainly an investment we expect to pay off, but that’s not why we do it. It’s silly to quote the golden rule in the context of business, but it’s actually very apt. We try to treat our customers as we would like other businesses to treat us.

Product Quality

My dad has been a printer all his life. Guess what? There are many times I can barely tell the difference between shirts we approve and shirts we send back to have done again. The quality of the screenprinting of our shirts is second to none. We’re so far beyond the level of acceptable print quality that 99 percent of our customers would never notice if it started to slip. Is that a mistake? We don’t think so. We intend to stand for things we believe in, and our product quality is one of them. If digital printing reaches parity with screen printing, we’ll be right there to take advantage of it. (Full disclosure: we already use digital printing for kids tees and, for certain designs that screen printing is not possible, we would consider using digital at the designer’s request.)

What do you think of our shirts, do you like them? Good. We do too. You don’t? Funny story, neither do we. Relying on wholesalers to supply shirts is a messy and fragile dependency that we simultaneously appreciate and regret. We are constantly at the mercy of someone else’s decisions on color, sizing, and availability. If there’s one thing we could snap our fingers and change today, it would be our shirt sourcing. Off-the-shelf wholesale works for most people, most of the time, but it’s never going to work well enough for us to be satisfied. If the cost and complexity of creating and stocking our own shirts were not prohibitive, we would have done it long ago. When we do get to that point, you’ll be the first to know.

User Experience

The founding team at Cotton Bureau was three web people. We make websites, that’s what we do. If we had our druthers, that’s all we would do. Our intention is to continue to move the state of e-commerce forward with each iteration of the site. We’re proud of the site we’ve built, yet at the same time we see every flaw, every missing feature, every opportunity to make your experience using the site better. No matter what else happens over the next 10 years, continual improvement of the website is our expectation.

Beyond the website, we consider your entire interaction with Cotton Bureau to be part of user experience. Did you like the shirt packaging? Was the return or exchange process simple? Were your expectations met? Did you enjoy working with us to have your design listed? We love the challenge of improving and fine-tuning every aspect of the experience. It’s an endless job, but there’s nothing better.

Company Culture

Jay and I aren’t going anywhere. The company isn’t getting sold. We’re building something to last. If the people we surround ourselves with aren’t happy, if they can’t do great work, if they immediately regret signing on with us, we’re not going to be happy—and there isn’t some big payday waiting for us in the future as long as we satisfy our shareholders.

We all have to do things we would rather not do, but there’s a simple way to check to see if you’re on track: do you like your job? It’s a question previous generations didn’t spend much time contemplating. It’s a question many, many people do not have the luxury of asking themselves. It’s a question that goes beyond pay and benefits to responsibility, opportunity, autonomy, and camaraderie. If you ask anyone at Cotton Bureau, we like to think the answer will be “yes”. If it isn’t, we have a problem.

Cultural challenges change constantly. When we were three people, we had to work through those issues. Now that we’re six people, we have new issues. When we’re 12 people, we’ll have still different issues. Working remotely and working in an office. Working in one big room in an office and working in separate rooms. Moving office locations. Changing life situations. Opening up new markets as a business. Changing policy. The mental and emotional health of a company is no less delicate than that of a family. The reward for cultivating it may be just as great.


If design is one of the primary lenses through which we view Cotton Bureau, thoughtfulness may be the other. No decision is taken lightly. To the best of our ability, every consequence is considered. It’s an angsty, exhausting process. “Be careful and deliberate” is certainly no “move fast and break things” as far as slogans go, but it’s who we are. If job hopping every few years is your thing, if growth is more important than sustainability to you, if you prefer the speed of life in New York or San Francisco, if acting now and asking permission later is your mode of operation, if your attitude is that you miss all the shots you don’t take, you might not like our style. If this all sounds like an abundance of caution, we disagree. Cotton Bureau lives right on the edge in many ways, but the costs and benefits of moving up to (or over) that edge are never underestimated.

Our Story

A few weeks ago we introduced something of a mission statement. It’s not a coincidence that much of what I just wrote can be found there.

Success for us — and we think this is something every company should be required to state publicly — is building a sustainable company that helps designers and communities meet their financial, practical, and creative needs (at least when it comes to selling t-shirts and other odds and ends).

Zoom, enhance:

Success for us is building a sustainable company that helps designers and communities meet their financial, practical, and creative needs.

We started Cotton Bureau three years ago with a business model (curated, limited time only, pre-0rder t-shirts), a good idea of who we were as a team, and a very blurry concept of what exactly it was we stood for as a company. Today, we know what matters to us. We’re not trying to make a dent in the universe. We’re here to make a living by enabling great design, by helping communities, by having fun, and by maintaining our commitment to the principles we value.

If we can help you, submit a design and become part of that story.