Quitting My Job To Start A Short Sleeve Button Down Brand

Published: December 10th, 2019
Steve Radke
Short Steve Butto...
from New York, USA
started January 2019
market size
starting costs
gross margin
time to build
210 days
business model
best tools
Shopify, Loox, Adobe Suite
pros & cons
35 Pros & Cons
3 Tips
Discover what tools Steve recommends to grow your business!
Discover what books Steve recommends to grow your business!
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Steve Radke and I’m the Founder and CEO of Short Steve Button Downs.

I live in New York City and I started a company that specializes in producing high-quality short sleeve button down shirts (SSBDs) out of really soft, breathable performance fabric.

I received my first batch of shirts in May 2019 and I’m currently making about $5,000/month in revenue. This revenue has been mostly organic with a high volume of repeat customers. Follow us at @shortstevebuttondowns!



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

My backstory took a turn when I started this because I was working in commercial real estate and had no experience in the apparel or fashion industries. The abridged version is that I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I went to college at Villanova University and upon graduation in 2013, I took a job in Baltimore with a commercial real estate investment advisory firm.

I have no background in apparel or fashion, so I did what any millennial with a question does, I Googled it. I typed in ‘How to make a shirt?’

I lived in Baltimore for four and a half years before moving up to New York City in June 2018 to work for a commercial real estate development firm that constructed the building next to Katz’s Deli. In September 2018, while working my full-time role in real estate, I came up with the idea that would become Short Steve Button Downs. From there, I legally formed the company in January 2019 and quit my job in real estate in May 2019 in order to pursue this full-time.

The concept of the shirt sprouted from a personal problem: what do I wear when I want to look nice but know that I’m going to sweat. I’m a huge fan of short sleeve button downs (SSBDs) and have been wearing them for probably the past 5 years. These are predominantly worn in warm weather, so the problem I kept running into is that as soon as I started sweating, all my SSBDs would turn into incredibly uncomfortable sweat rags because they were made out of 100% cotton.

The idea itself came to me after a few specific events. It started when I attended the US Open tennis tournament with my friend and it was about 90 degrees and 100% humidity. I knew I was going to sweat so I narrowed my clothing choice down to a Nike golf shirt or an Under Armour t-shirt. A few days later, on my morning commute, I was waiting for the subway in a cotton long-sleeve shirt and saw someone walk by in a SSBD. I then realized I hadn’t worn any of my SSBDs the previous summer because of how uncomfortable they became once I started sweating in them. After piecing these facts together, I decided I was going to figure out how to make a breathable, comfortable short sleeve button down.



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

As mentioned, I have no background in apparel or fashion, so I did what any millennial with a question does, I Googled it. I typed in “How to make a shirt?” After sifting through a few links, I stumbled upon a manufacturing website called Maker’s Row. I typed out my idea “short sleeve button down shirt out of comfortable, breathable fabric”, filled out some very basic information and posted to the forum. I ended up getting about 10 responses from firms located across the country. I selected Blank Canvas Development for several reasons, one of which was because they have a studio located 10 minutes from my apartment.

They took me through the entire process of making a sample and provided me with a list of materials vendors who I could reach out to as I had to procure all the materials myself. The most important component is the fabric. The specific fabric blend I wanted to use, and ultimately ended up using, was based on the aforementioned Nike golf shirt. The other component that was particularly important for me was the ability to create my own designs and be able to print on the fabric via sublimation. I should mention that I didn’t know how to make designs. I simply knew which designs I liked based on shirts I already owned. As such, another part of the learning process was figuring out how to use Adobe Illustrator to create the designs that I wanted to.

As for the prototype / samples, this was a bit of a process. Please excuse the mirror selfies, but below is a photographic depiction of the various samples. Given my lack of experience, I didn’t pay enough attention to detail on the first sample. As you can see below, I bought the wrong size buttons and the collar was way too big. The second sample was a little closer, but still wasn’t quite there. I had an idea to have an extra button towards the top of the shirt, so that you could unbutton it and not show too much skin. However, as you can see, this looked really weird, so I abandoned that idea. I also had a straight cut for the hem, which also looked very strange. As such, prior to the third sample I tried on all of the SSBDs that I own to see which aspects of each I liked the best. From there, I took detailed measurements of each component of the shirt in order to make sure it was as close as possible to how I wanted it. After the third sample, I made a few minor adjustments, and then it was on to production. The fourth picture is my factory sample for my first batch in the Original Logo.

Sample #1

Sample #2

Sample #3

Factory sample

I was fortunate that Blank Canvas also had existing relationships with factories that are located in NYC, so I didn’t have to source these myself. I’ve used two factories thus far: one is located in the Garment District in Manhattan and the other is in Industry City in Brooklyn. As this was my first time through this process, I was terrified that the shirts weren’t going to turn out right. I had to constantly remind myself that these factories produce clothing all the time.

The most fun part during the early stages was creating the logo. I don’t think I’d picked up colored pencils since I was in about fifth grade, but I had a clear vision in my head of what I wanted the logo to be so I just started drawing different variations. I’ve always liked the hidden messages in logos such as the arrow in FedEx or the A to Z in Amazon, so I wanted to incorporate one into mine. You’ll notice that the puffin forms the letters “SSBD” for Short Steve Button Downs. I detailed the entire logo process in an Instagram post (embed:instagram), but below are a few of the highlights.





Describe the process of launching the business.

When I initially came up with the idea last September, my entire goal was to launch before Memorial Day Weekend as that’s the unofficial start of summer. Having this goal really forced me to focus on creating a timeline and working backwards to ensure I could complete all of the necessary tasks.

Don’t tell yourself you can’t do something simply because you haven’t tried it before. At some point, we all knew nothing about the industry we now work in, but we learned along the way.

Since this was my first time through this process, I had to get a lot of information from vendors on how long it would take for things to be completed. Since I previously worked in real estate development, I knew that time estimates given by vendors tend to be overly optimistic. Given that, I added a buffer to every time estimate that a vendor provided. Even with the buffer, I was able to determine that I would be able to launch well before Memorial Day Weekend.

When the time came, I built my website myself using one of the free templates on Shopify. This was fun and scary because I had never built a website before. I spent a lot of time checking out other apparel brands’ websites to see how theirs looked. Prior to launching, I ordered (and returned) shirts from competitors to go through their entire order process and see what features I liked about each customer journey. This included the layout of the website, photos, product descriptions, checkout, order emails, shipping emails, packaging and return processes.

I didn’t promote an official launch date because my #1 concern was quality and I didn’t want to sell anything until I had confirmed that the shirts were up to my standards. Once I had the shirts and was happy with the quality, I had some of my friends attend the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in NY. They wore a few different shirts and matching white hats and I gave them access to the Short Steve Button Downs Instagram account. They posted a bunch of great stories, tagged themselves and shared to their own stories. That served as the unofficial launch because I had a lot of friends find out about it that way (embed:instagram).




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

Since the PGA Championship, my sales have been almost entirely through word of mouth. While I’m fortunate to have great friends who were willing to wear the shirts and spread the word, they wouldn’t have done so if they didn’t believe in the product.

Additional proof was in the fact that initial customers have come back and purchased more including people who aren’t my friends. Coming out with new designs has been the best way to retain customers. As mentioned, this was one of the most important factors in selecting the fabric.

While I would consider myself an ecommerce company, three of my best four sales days occurred at a Trunk Show that I recently took part in. For those unfamiliar, a trunk show is basically a small version of a trade show for retail customers. When I thought about why this was so successful, I realized it was due to a few factors. First, people were able to feel how soft and comfortable the fabric is. Second, people were showing up with the intent to purchase. Third, they could clearly see the patterns and colors of each design.

The fourth most successful sales day occurred when I released my four most recent designs. Prior to these designs going live on my website, I ran a naming contest on Instagram. I posted photos of each design and had people comment with a potential name on each one. The people whose name I selected for each design won that design for free. Anyone who participated in the contest was entered into a drawing to win a new design of their choosing for free.

I was shocked at how many people participated in the contest and was amazed at how creative some of the names were. The winners were: Frost, Dealer’s Choice, GeoMintry and Salt Water Taffy. Interactive Giveaway Contests will definitely be a part of my social media strategy going forward.

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

Given the number of repeat purchasers and positive comments / reviews, I have full confidence in the product.

Because of this, I’m now focused on spreading the word and increasing sales. Contrary to the popular route of increasing followers on social media or running digital ads, I believe my most successful route will be doing in-person sales. One specific market I’ll be targeting with this route is golfers. As such, I just signed up to attend the 2020 PGA Merchandise Show, which place takes in January in Orlando.

As mentioned, I started all online, which has been great for friends who live in different areas to purchase as well as to produce repeat customers. However, given that I only have new designs coming out every few months, in order to grow I have to expand outside of those initial customers and acquire new ones. Since the Trunk Show was the most successful channel (in terms of return on spend) in acquiring new customers, I believe in-person is the best route.

I’ll eventually look to produce other items with focus being on comfort, but before I start producing these I want to make sure that I’ve carved out a niche with the short sleeve button downs.

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

I would say the biggest thing I’ve learned is how willing people are to help. This whole experience has pushed me out of my comfort zone with respect to reaching out to people and seeing if they’d be willing to talk through their experiences in the industry.

Whatever it is that you are thinking about doing, figure out what the first step is and see if you can make it work. If you can, just start. Otherwise, you’ll convince yourself that there is too much to do and that it’s not possible.

It’s amazing the number of random connections I’ve made along the way and how helpful one seemingly small interaction can be.

The other thing I’d say to people is don’t tell yourself you can’t do something simply because you haven’t tried it before. At some point, we all knew nothing about the industry we now work in, but we learned along the way.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I use Shopify for my ecommerce platform and that was a hugely positive decision. It’s incredibly intuitive, which was really important for me since I had no experience with web development or the backend logistics required to run an ecommerce company. I spoke with a few other startup founders prior to selecting Shopify and they all recommended it.

I’m not sure if Excel and Exchange count as tools, but those are probably my most used programs. I’m religious about organizing my email and saving files to subfolders. I learned this during my first job and it allows me to easily retrieve prior information. I use Excel to determine materials costs and project when these will have to be paid. Additionally, every time I update an Excel file, I make a copy of the old version.

Creating a new version each time allows me to go back to prior ones and check assumptions. Also, if the new file crashes, I can use the old one.

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

Podcast - How I Built This with Guy Raz.

My biggest takeaway from listening to these episodes is that most of the founders simply had an idea and just started pursuing it. They didn’t have every detail plotted out before they began.

Book - Shoe Dog by Phil Knight.

I think the most difficult thing during the early stages of a new company is the fact that you inevitably start comparing yourself to other, typically larger, companies. Shoe Dog is a reminder that even giant companies today were once small startups. It’s an inside look at how many times Nike could have failed in its infancy and how long it took for them to grow.

Book - The Originals by Adam Grant.

I just finished reading this and think there is a lot of really interesting information that runs counter to how society typically talks about startups particularly with respect to growth.

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

A couple of things:

1 - Get started.

Whatever it is that you are thinking about doing, figure out what the first step is and see if you can make it work. If you can, just start. Otherwise, you’ll convince yourself that there is too much to do and that it’s not possible.

2 - Talk to as many people as you can that have started their own businesses, even if it’s different from what you’re thinking to start.

There are basic steps / functions every business has to do such as legal formation, funding, accounting and marketing. Other founders are also the most encouraging people you’ll talk to because they’ve been down the path before.

3 - Be prepared to read, learn and ask for help.

There will be things that you don’t know along the way, but you can figure it out or talk to people that know more about that subject than you do. Remember that other people have started and grown their own businesses, so why can’t you?

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

I’m not necessarily in a position to hire, but I’m hoping to need to in the very near future. Additionally, I’m always looking to make connections and speak with people about the retail / apparel industry or entrepreneurship in general. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

Where can we go to learn more?

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

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