On Starting A Shoe And Apparel Brand With Designs From People With Disabilities

Published: April 28th, 2020
Drew McNamara
Founder, Creative Souls
Creative Souls
from Chicago, Illinois, USA
started June 2018
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I am Drew McNamara, the founder of Creative Souls. We print designs created by individuals with disabilities onto canvas shoes and apparel. Our artists earn money every time their design sells on one of our products. Our customers are people who want to make a difference in style!


Since August of 2019, we have paid our artists over $1,000 and are looking to make a greater impact in 2020! Today, we average about $1,000 a month from our sales.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I grew up with a learning disability. My disability is known as Auditory Processing Disorder. When people ask me a question or if I am learning something it may take me longer to process the material. The majority of the people who know me now would never have known I had a disability if I didn’t say it here. I had speech therapy starting in the first grade once a week, every week up until my junior year of high school when I was told that I had essentially overcome it and did not need the extra support anymore.

Overcoming my learning disability meant that I have learned to work around it. It’ll always be here, but I have worked hard to get to where I am at today. During high school, I was told by a school counselor that I would never get into my dream school which was the University of Illinois (UIUC). They said I should aim lower. I ended up attending the University of Illinois and eventually graduated with my Masters in social work from there as well. I have been told that I couldn’t achieve something, people didn’t always believe in me or give me the time of the day due to a disability. Fortunately, growing up I had an amazing support system that included my family, case managers, teachers, and many more.

In the 4th grade, I met an individual who has Down Syndrome. He was the brother of one of my friends on my baseball team. I became quick friends with him too. I remember wanting to be around him because he brought so much joy and excitement to the dugout. He truly is an amazing person and a friend of mine. Looking back now, I realized he impacted my life so much. I would go on to be involved with various programs like Buddy Baseball, Best Buddies, and Keshet. After high school, I knew I wanted to do social work because I loved working with people who have disabilities. After I graduated from college, I started working at an agency that provides services for people with disabilities.

Through my experiences, I’ve learned that Individuals with disabilities are not given enough opportunities to be successful. The national employment rate for individuals with disabilities is at 17.5 percent compared to the 65 percent of those without disabilities. Millions of people with disabilities are impacted due to unemployment. Creative Souls provides a workplace where people with disabilities design the artwork that goes on each pair of canvas shoes, shirts, etc., allowing them to express their creativity and individuality. I created it because I knew that their needs to be a company that provides real opportunities for these individuals to not only have a support system, but also the opportunity to earn money by creating art.


Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

When Creative Souls was in its idea phase, we had artists hand paint on shoes that we purchased from Amazon. As soon as we were able to purchase our direct to garment printer, we started the search process to find shoes that were high quality and look awesome. Our first step was to find manufacturers of white canvas shoes on Alibaba. Over the course of six months, I ordered almost eight sample pairs of shoes. Ultimately, we found one pair of shoes that we loved and chose to order.

This manufacturer stated we had to order a minimum amount of 1,000 pairs. We were able to break down our order into two different styles. One style is a high top and the other being a low top style. Knowing that we could do both styles, we chose to do 500 pairs of low tops and 500 pairs of high tops. The manufacturer said that we could also do five sizes per style, so the decision was to order the five most popular women sizes in low tops and the five most popular men sizes in high tops. Fortunately, when we order shirts we get them from a website known as S&S Activewear, which has a warehouse near our company.

Our first order of 1,000 pairs of shoes was made in December 2018 and we received it in the middle of May 2019. Although I was nervous because you never truly know what you will receive, I was extremely happy with our first batch of shoes. Occasionally while I am pulling shoes to print, I will find a shoe that has threads missing or dents on the soles, which I am unable to use. Another concern I had was if the shoes would be true to size. The shoes fit true to size and I’ve had very few customers exchange them.

The thousand pairs of shoes in my garage!

All orders are completed in house by myself (Drew) using our direct to garment printer. The printer we use is called the Brother GTX-4. A new GTX-4 costs more than $25,000. Color ink cartridges (CMYK) and white ink cartridges can cost more than a few hundred dollars in total. Now that I own the printer, ink is definitely the most costly aspect of the business. An important part of the process is using a heat press as well. A high-quality heat press can cost close to $1,000 or higher. And lastly, we recently purchased a pretreatment machine which was a few thousand dollars. Pretreatment is a solution that is used to help white ink adhere to shirts that we print on. It is an essential part of when we print on shirts that are not the color white.

Over the course of a year, I went from knowing a bare minimum about the printing process to having extensive knowledge in this area. However, I find that I learn something new each and every day. In order for Creative Souls to get started, it cost about $45K. One option we had was to have another company print our shirts, but the goal of Creative Souls is to hire people with disabilities in all areas of the business. We want to provide opportunities for these individuals to complete the printing process. As of now, I complete the printing process, packaging, shipping, etc. but I am hopeful I will have help soon! Also, most printing companies do not do shoes, which is our main product. Therefore, we went with going the route of purchasing the printer and everything else necessary along with it. If you want to go through a printing company, you can start a shirt company for less than $5K.

The designs printed onto our shoes and apparel all come from our artists with disabilities. They create all their art on their own at home, a studio, or wherever they would like. Their designs can be created on a piece of paper, digitally, or any canvas. After the artists have completed their design, we ask them to send a high-quality photo or file in a PNG or JPEG format. As soon as we receive it, we determine if any part of the image needs to be transparent. If we feel that it does, we send it over to a designer on Fiverr which takes a day or two to get back to us. In order to print, we have to line up the shoes or shirts on a structure called a platen within the printer. The designs are uploaded onto a software application on my laptop where I align the design exactly where we want to print it. As soon as we press print, it takes approximately 1-2 minutes depending on how much ink is used for the print. We started with eight artists and about twenty different designs. Recently, we added more artists from agencies that work with people with disabilities and hope to add many more artists with amazing abilities!

Don’t let others tell you that you can’t do something. You have to believe in yourself and really be willing to put in the work.

Describe the process of launching the business.

In my first semester as a Junior at UIUC, I was in my social entrepreneurship class where my professor asked us to create an idea that could change society for the better. I knew immediately that I needed to have my idea revolve around making an impact on people who have a disability. I had seen one non-profit that had artists with disabilities creating art that they sold on shirts. I thought it was so amazing. But, the one thing I noticed that they nor any other company were doing was printing artists with disabilities designs on shoes.

This class helped me form my original idea where I would have artists with disabilities hand paint on shoes. I realized that I could not scale the idea into a business due to people wanting certain designs on a size 6 shoe, but the design the artist painted was on a size 7. This meant that I could end up with 30 pairs of shoes painted and no one to purchase them. I would be sitting on a lot of inventory. I also saw that it would take some artists an hour to create four pairs and other artists would paint for four hours and make only one pair at that time. I ended up in an internship for social work during the second semester of my senior year where I would get to really bring my idea from class to life. Even though the internship had nothing to do with disabilities, my supervisor had asked me what I wanted to do this semester - to which I said, “I have this idea from a class that I really loved, but haven’t been able to do anything with.” My supervisor would allow me to work on it the entire semester. I was able to make the first version of my website, work with seven local artists with disabilities, and participate in a couple of art festivals. In the last week of the internship, I was explaining to my supervisor how I would not be able to scale the business if I didn’t make some changes. I found a Direct to Garment printer that would change Creative Souls forever. The only issue was that the printer cost over $25,000. I can tell you… I did not have $25,000 at the time.

I entered my Master’s program in the fall after my senior year with the idea still brewing in my head. A couple of months go by and I wasn’t making progress. I searched entrepreneurship events on campus and found a pitching event that I entered at the last minute. In fact, it was the next day and I had never pitched anything especially about Creative Souls. I was the last person to pitch that day. There were over 100 people watching. I had one student come up to me after saying she would love to help because she loved the mission. She was a Master of Business Administration student who had a lot of experience with startups and the business world. On the opposite end, I had zero experience with the business. I was a social work student who never thought I’d be doing business!

She would help me out through the year by creating a business plan. I launched a Kickstarter campaign in the Spring that raised $15,000 in 30 days. My goal was $50,000 and on Kickstarter, the money goes right back to the people who backed your campaign if you do not reach your goal. Even though the Kickstarter was not completely successful, there were many positives that came from it. During the campaign, I received a call from someone who was starting a fund with a non-profit called Camphill Soltane. This fund was created to provide funding to companies who were either run by someone with a disability or helping people with disabilities. Little did they know… I checked both of those boxes.

After several months of talking, they funded my company the money I would need to order the direct to garment printer with the expectation that I would pay off an interest-free loan in the next few years. Remember that Kickstarter campaign I talked about? Since that technically “failed”, I launched a new campaign on a website called YouCaring where you keep the money no matter if you reach your goal. I was able to raise $10,000 this time. I considered this a huge success because people were donating to support the business and not get anything out of it whereas on Kickstarter people are backing your campaign to get a reward (product). Between the YouCaring campaign and the funding from the Camphill Soltane Fund, I was in business!

Creative Souls was an idea on a sheet of paper that is now a reality. Over the course of four years, it went from hand-painting on shoes to printing designs directly onto our products like shoes and apparel. My first website had been created on Squarespace where I started off by selling hand-painted shoes. Once I realized that hand-painted shoes would not be my path forward I took them down from the site in the spring-time of 2018. I started to sell shirts created by my first eight artists as soon as I received the DTG printer in November of 2018. Before the summer of 2019 hit, I realized I wanted to move my website to Shopify for a better E-commerce experience.


We take a design like this from our amazing artist Natalia and print onto shoes and apparel!

In August 2019, I launched my new and much-improved website - Becreativesouls.com. On the launch day of the new website, I also put the very first direct to garment printed shoes up for sale. Since August, we have been adding new artists and designs to our website. Our goal is to reach as many artists as possible. Because of the printer, we are able to work with artists from anywhere in the world. We no longer needed to have an inventory of finished products. The printer gave us the ability to print on demand as soon as we receive an order. Now a customer gets to choose a pair of shoes and/or apparel in any size/style while also being able to choose any design we have.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that not everything is going to happen quickly. Sometimes, great ideas can take a while to come to fruition. I firmly believe that a lot of people in my shoes (pun intended) would have stopped after a couple of years of Creative Souls being in the idea phase because of how daunting it can be. There are days where it is super stressful and not easy, but there are also days where your work really starts to pay off. I always had a goal to make this bigger than myself. I want to make an impact on thousands of individuals with disabilities for years to come. My suggestion is if you have an idea for a company, validate the idea first, and go after it! Not everything will work out the way you want it to at the time, but over time it will work out for the best.

I’ve seen plenty of ups and downs. I have thought to myself, should I give up and do what a normal 25 years old would do?

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

As of now, word of mouth has had the biggest impact on my company. I am one person running all aspects of the business and have not been able to devote my time to figure out the advertising section of the business. However, I’m positive this will be changing in 2020 as I am finding others who want to help out the business.

When someone first hears about my business, people are very excited and think it’s awesome. I have found that when I can get people to my website, I have a good conversion rate. People in my community or the agencies I work with have really shared my mission with others around them, which helps drive traffic. Social media posts on Facebook and Instagram have helped me obtain a lot of sales as well.

Networking is one of the biggest things I can stress for growing your company. In my case, the more agencies I can work with the better because I can find more artists to provide opportunities for. If I have more artists on my site, that means I also have more designs available for customers to choose from.

People who have ordered from Creative Souls have come back to our website again because they not only loved the designs, but they also love that they are impacting someone else every time they purchase one of our products. It is super important to me that I share each artist’s story with customers. Everyone has a unique story that makes them who they are. I love the idea that each design embraces those stories of the individual who created it.

Lastly, I know that I am a small business but I want to make sure that when a customer opens their package, they love the presentation and what’s inside. Each order comes with a Thank You postcard with care instructions included and also a Creative Souls sticker. I think the little things can go a very long way! Who doesn’t love getting a sticker?!

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today, my business has slowed down a bit due to the virus! My revenue tripled from 2018 to 2019. I would like to at least double to over $25,000 in 2020. My goal is to not let the virus stop me from achieving this, however, things have slowed down. Recently, I purchased the pretreatment machine, which now increases my productivity and makes printing bulk orders easier. Due to that, I am not only expanding my options in terms of sizes, styles, and colors of apparel on the Creative Souls website, but we are also doing custom orders for companies and individuals who want apparel for their teams, gifts, and much more!

My ultimate goal as I expand Creative Souls is to move into office and warehouse space that will allow me to grow my business even faster. Today, I am fortunate to be able to operate the business out of my parents’ home AKA Creative Souls Global Headquarters, which helps keep my overhead costs low. In 2019, I essentially ended the year at breakeven for my operating costs. Everything that I have earned has been reinvested back into the company. My goal for the near future is to outgrow my basement as soon as I can. I also am working full time and doing Creative Souls on the side. My long-term dream is to be running Creative Souls full time. I’d also like to hire several individuals with disabilities in different areas of my business while having hundreds of artists.

To date, the majority of my orders have been through my online store on Shopify. I have attended several pop-up events where I sold a few items. Interestingly, at these events, I generated a lot of excitement, but that did not translate into many sales. As far as ads, I spend a minimal amount of money due to not knowing enough in that area right now to be worth the investment. I recognize that this is a key component of my marketing plan. I hope to add someone to the team who does have that knowledge. I have recently started using Klaviyo to send out email campaigns. My open rate is averaging over 35% with a click rate of 8%. Creative Souls was established to share the stories and amazing abilities of artists with disabilities while helping them generate an income. Our customers are helping us make an impact one Creative Soul at a time!

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I have learned everything from the ground up. I have never owned a business or thought I would be running a business before Creative Souls. After all, my major was social work. But, I realized that founders come from all walks of life and it doesn’t have to be only business majors.

I heard that running a business was a lot of work, but that is an understatement. When I graduated from school, I started in my full-time job and also was running my business. Most 23-year-olds out of school would go to work and then relax, play video games, or hang with friends. I, on the other hand, live at home, go to work, come home, and do more work. I do occasionally have time to play video games and hang out with friends, but it’s really not as much as I’d love to. But, my goal is to make Creative Souls a viable business and that means you have to give up certain things to make it work.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I started off with Squarespace when I first launched Creative Souls. There, I sold shirts only. At the time, I thought my website looked amazing and professional. But, I was having some issues with adding products, shipping prices, etc. through the platform. The platform was super easy to learn and customize how you wanted things to look.

I realized if I wanted to grow Creative Souls I would need to go to a platform that better suits E-commerce. Don’t get me wrong - Squarespace is a powerful platform but I think it is best suited for artists' portfolios, blogs, or businesses that aren’t selling products on their site. One of my brothers uses Shopify for his company No Cold Feet. He stated I should look into Shopify. I found that Shopify was a great E-commerce platform that would allow me to do exactly what I was trying to do. I struggled at first with building my new site, but over time I realized Shopify was very easy to build out a site how you want. It wasn’t as easy as clicking and dragging images where you wanted to like Squarespace. I reviewed many different templates to build out my site and the one that I found having amazing reviews was by Out Of The SandBox - Turbo Theme. It is a professional template that costs around $300, which comes with many great features. After creating my site, I realized that the first website on SquareSpace was not as clean and professional as I once thought it was. The site now, in my opinion, looks like a company that is super successful.

Shopify has a lot of great Apps that I utilize. I recently started using Klaviyo which allows me to send emails to my followers.

Shipstation is another software that has been a lifesaver for fulfilling orders.

Fiverr -- making images transparent and photoshop help. I have worked with multiple individuals on Fiverr. Eventually, I identified one individual who I go to every time I need help.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I find a lot of inspiration from Podcasts like How I Built This, The Startup, and The Pitch.

I love hearing stories from founders of companies that have found success. Their stories show me that anything is possible with Creative Souls. Not every founder who comes onto the podcast called The Pitch ends up being successful with finding funding. However, hearing how they pitch, tell their stories, etc. has helped me when I am talking in front of others about Creative Souls.

Aside from podcasts, I love going onto YouTube and searching for random videos that have to do with business and provide tips. Reddit also has been a huge help. I use subreddits like r/Shopify, r/Entrepreneur, and r/smallbusiness. Being able to ask other entrepreneurs who have their own experiences allowed me to think differently and grow.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

My advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started is to not let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do. Throughout my experience in life, I’ve been told that I wouldn’t get into my dream school which was the University of Illinois. Well, I did get in and I received my Masters there as well. I’ve been told that I am doing Creative Souls the wrong way and that I have to do something else to achieve a level of success. The truth is, there is no one way to do something. It may take me longer to get to the point where I want to be, but I am happy with my path. I’ve seen artists with huge smiles on their faces. I’ve seen customers who were ecstatic to help out others while also receiving something super unique and cool. Don’t let others tell you that you can’t do anything. You have to believe in yourself and really be willing to put in the work.

With this said, you have to be honest as well and know that burning out is real. Many people who start a business don’t continue with it once they see it going downhill. I’ve seen plenty of ups and downs. I have thought to myself, should I give up and do what a normal 25 years old would do? But, this business is something bigger than myself. It’s become a part of my life and others. I know that Creative Souls can make a difference in so many lives. When you create your business, make sure it is something you are truly passionate about. It’s easy to get frustrated and tired of the process if you aren’t.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are not looking for any paid positions currently because we are such a small business at this point. However, I am always looking for help with graphic designs, marketing, and social media.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!