UW grads find perfect fit in building custom T-shirt empire
A decade after starting, Seattle-based Kotis Design has outgrown four offices, survived the Great Recession, and expanded to 400 college campuses around the U.S. and into Silicon Valley.
Seattle Times business reporter
Kotis Design at a glance
CEO: Jeff Becker, 33
Executive team: Jeff Becker, Nicolay Thomassen, 34; Daniel Becker, 31; Eric Hamlin, 30.
Full-time employees: 85
What they do: Design, print and ship shirts, apparel and promotional products for fraternities, sororities, breweries and companies around the U.S.
Revenue: $17.7 million (2013)
Tag Line: Best Shirts & Swag Ever
The founders of Kotis Design are 11 years out of the UW, but now they are making a living out of T-shirts rather than just wearing them.
Every Greek house and every significant event from date dashes to parents weekend comes with must-have T-shirts, and Jeff Becker and Nicolay Thomassen have been custom-designing them since their days in Delta Upsilon and Beta Theta Pi.
After graduating in 2003, the two men wanted to expand beyond the UW world — creating Kotis Design.
Now a decade after starting the Seattle-based business, they have outgrown four offices, survived the Great Recession and expanded to 400 college campuses around the U.S. and into Silicon Valley.
The company has seen a quadruple-digit growth in revenue — increasing from $1.3 million in 2005 to $17.7 million last year.
Kotis Design, which comes from the Greek word ktizo, meaning the act of creating, now designs, prints and ships band, brewery and corporate apparel as well as branded promotional products, such as pint glasses and pens.
The college community still makes up 25 percent of its business, though, and with a new batch of students arriving every year, the company has been recession proof.
“College is four or five years where you are living on borrowed money,” said Eric Hamlin, head of sales for the company. “Each sorority probably has 60 different shirts ... most students buy every one because it represents a memory they want to keep.”
The college influence inside the company ends there.
Gone is the bachelor pad-esque office with a mini fridge, George Foreman grill and piles of unfolded shirts. It’s been swapped for an office on the north shore of Lake Union fully equipped with tables made out of old bowling alley lanes or bought from the UW Surplus Store, and a fridge full of organic wraps and sandwiches.
Product samples are no longer in a heap, but neatly hung on racks and displayed on shelves.
Becker, now 33, is still intense with a nervous energy that pours out in spurts. His phone doesn’t leave his side, he taps his foot constantly and grabs any pen or marker nearby to keep his hands occupied.
“I’m blessed with the ability to not have to sleep much,” he said while fiddling with a dry-erase maker he grabbed from the whiteboard behind him.
But gone are the 70-hour workweeks of his 20s building the business; now he has a whole team behind him.
In 2005, after graduating from the UW, Hamlin joined the company as head of sales, and Becker’s younger brother Daniel Becker joined as part owner and head of technology.
Jeff Becker is CEO and Thomassen the art director. They now have 85 full-time employees working in sales, design, printing and technology development.
“Eventually you learn how to delegate and how to work smart and more efficient.” said Thomassen, 34.
Kotis Design was originally funded with a small bank loan and the money Becker had saved when he and Thomassen sold T-shirts in college. They didn’t have any expenses; Thomassen even moved back in with his parents for a while.
“If I started a business now, we’d have to have investors,” Becker explained with nods from his partners. “But I don’t have 10 years to get to where I am now.”
Not having to answer to any investors allowed Kotis Design to grow its own way. In 2011, the businessmen opened their own screen-printing shop, allowing them to print some of their own shirts rather than contract out to a network of national printers.
Now the company prints 43 percent of the T-shirts it sells each year.
With a full artistic team, the company does 95 percent of its designing in-house under Thomassen’s watch.
Operating a print shop allows Kotis to experiment with new techniques and add pockets and embroidery — giving it more options for customers, Becker said. It also allows the designers to better understand what a finish product will look like.
“Each color is added separately and each type of material and color of shirt will react differently,” Becker said while walking between the two growling printing machines working on a T-shirt for Skillet, a Tennessee band. “We wanted more control over the outcome of the products.”
He said he wants Kotis Design to continue its average 40 percent annual growth in revenue, eventually becoming a $100 million company.
“At 30 to 40 percent a year, we can build the infrastructure to keep the company going,” he said. “Fifty million is in the foreseeable future, so the decisions we are making now are to get us to $100 million.”
Becker is also quick to offer advice for other young entrepreneurs who want to start a company: “Facebook is an anomaly ... business is hard and you have to stick with it,” he said. “But you need to find a bunch of fun people to do it with.”
Coral Garnick: 206-464-2422 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @coralgarnick