You might not be interested in this at all, and I wouldn’t blame you – I don’t read books much, and all those words below really do remind me of what you’d find in one of them books – but if you do want to know how Mr Vintage got going, this is a pretty comprehensive history of how it all went down.
MrVintage was started by a 23 year old Rob Ewan from his bedroom at his parents house. Rob attended Papatoetoe High School (where he won the Watson Trophy, awarded for personality of the year) and held down a number of jobs, including New World, followed by and a stint at University. It all started mid 2004…
After New World, he embarked on a brief ‘working holiday’ in Australia, which may or may not have been sparked by an inability to break up with a girlfriend in a traditional fashion. Break-up complete, he returned without too much of a plan – and uni seemed the sensible option. His Mum was stoked.
So he went to AUT fully prepared to leave with a degree, a beer belly, and a student loan. To help out with the loan, he continued working part time as a merchandiser for a wine distributor. All he really did was visit supermarkets and put stickers on wine bottles. After that he’d go home and ‘surf’ the Internet while his uni mates talked to real girls.
After he’d finished talking to hot babes online, he’d check out TradeMe and eBay. He had a real hard-on for the old t-shirts with retro cartoon prints and the like on them, and as it turned out, so did a few of his mates. With that, he ordered a few hundred dollars worth of t-shirts and chucked them up on TradeMe. His user name was Mr Vintage. Naturally.
He was in the money. Well, he wasn’t quite in the money, but there was one time when he sold a My Little Pony singlet for like $90, which he was fully stoked on. He supplemented this income with another crafty little venture. Ever charismatic Rob would use the free wine he got to persuade all the second hand stores around South Auckland to hold all the old Lacoste and Ralph Lauren apparel.
The Lacoste and Ralph Lauren items were moving well, but with his sister Andrea beginning to complain about the measly 20c she got for washing and ironing each one, he decided to keep the wage bill down and narrow his product offering. More tees, less collars.
Juggling a part-time job with his study and his newfound business venture was proving tough. He was spending just about all his spare time selling his t-shirts on TradeMe, and that soon crept in to his Uni time. He knew that if he was going to capitalise on this opportunity, changes had to be made. With this in mind, the decision was made to end his brief but enjoyable sojourn in to academia, and focus solely on his new business – much to his mother’s displeasure.
Using his ‘Mr Vintage’ username from TradeMe, the following months saw Rob venture in to the unknown: Building a stand-alone website MrVintage.co.nz 1.0 and also began printing a few of his own designs. At this time, he was still operating out of his bedroom at his parents place, but he already had his mind set on bigger things. Growing Mr Vintage to become the leading online t-shirt retailer being the main one.
Finally in 2006, Rob realised it wasn’t cool to still be living with the olds, and promptly moved to a place in Hillsborough with decent basement space and stunning views of the Southern Motorway. It was also a landmark moment, as he hired his first staff member; Andy. Andy was his best mates little brother, and together they shared many a match of backyard cricket followed by a hearty meal of tuna on toast. They also built MrVintage.co.nz 2.0.
With the Kiwiana range growing more and more, in size and popularity, Rob decided to go for it. Little did he know, but he was about to learn his first business lesson in the cut-throat world of licensing. Naively he had produced some t-shirts unlawfully and was ordered to pay the profits made from the t-shirts as well as hand-over any surplus stock. Set back. But at least it was out of the way. With the whole sage over, the boys again looked forward again, and with the close of the year MrVintage.co.nz 3.0 was up and they even moved to a showroom in Parnell. Shit was getting real.
As the pair reflected on the past year, they looked back on; a period of sustained growth, their first busy Christmas rush, and how much Andy’s muscles were growing. What became clear was that there were certainly improvements to be made; they needed to rely on more than Andy’s memory, more staff were needed, and they needed work with some other cool businesses.
Mid-way through the year, Rob decided needed a hand with some marketing. Apparently AUT students would work for free, which Rob thought represented value for money. Pretty much due to lack of literate applicants, Jay was hired on a three-month basis to help out with the marketing. After an inauspicious start that saw a multi-attempted assembly of an office chair, he was hired full-time, and Mr Vintage had a Prince of Marketing (and first genuine chocolate face).
In the year 2008 Mr Vintage t-shirts made it on Shortland Street.
With that off the list, and Shortland Street fans all over the country flooding the website, this chick Amy was hired. She’d just finished her Law Degree, but for some reason she wanted to help sell t-shirts. No complaints.
Things were going well, the website was ticking over and the team had a pretty solid range of companies and nostalgic Kiwi brands on board. At this stage, all the designs were being outsourced and it was a pretty slow process – months would pass without ever releasing a new design. Enter Joe, a graphic designer and illustrator that was fresh out of Design School and a friend of a friend. He was so quiet at first that the guys thought he was typical Gisborne ‘stoner’, but he was just shy and better at drawing than talking. They kept him.
Rob was really excited; Jay and Joe had worked out so well that Rob decided to use AUT almost exclusively as his staff recruitment pool. It was a pretty low risk policy, the students would work for free/peanuts until it became clear they were good enough to warrant a full time position or they’d leave with an extra notch on their CV. It had mixed results.
It was around this time that we made one of our first really ‘topical’ t-shirts, as we worked on a range of ‘Scary Washing Machine’ tees with an old mate of Jay’s, Mike. If you can’t remember what that was, just google it. Mike it funny as, and the dude made the TradeMe Listing (good old TradeMe again) go seriously viral. We moved really quickly on it, and the tees just flew out (with a sizable donation going to a few chosen charities). Great success (lightbulb).
Reaping the benefits of having a full time designer now on-board, Rob really made Joe work for his money and decided that over December they’d release a t-shirt daily over the ’20 days of Christmas’. The only downside was a drop in street-cricket and funnels. Emails were sent out to the database ever day. Some people love it’s convenience, others don’t appreciate it so much – but that’s why it’s a sign up option.
Returning from the Christmas break, it seemed weird to go back to only releasing designs sporadically. The ‘t-shirt of the day’ releases worked well over December. Add to that the rising exchange rate, and the decision was made to stop selling the imported America tees altogether. The Kiwi tees had become more popular in any case, and it wasn’t the mot efficient thing in the world making weekly orders to the US. Size exchanges were a bitch as well.
Amy left, as did the latest raft of Marketing Students; Kav, Cameo and Kyle – interesting story about Kyle, at his farewell dinner he spewed in the middle of the restaurant after one too many pre-dinner funnels. He left with a bang. Their departures were offset with the arrival of Melanie (PR Student), Amelia (Marketing), and Hayden joining the team. Hayden was hired on the back of being Rob’s cousin, and had previously worked part time – he’s famous for his great stories from his nights out, and everybody was looking forward to living vicariously through his tales – another big reason for his hiring.
By this time, there were 6 full time members and any number of marketing/pr/design students in the office. Desks were getting crammed in everywhere and the warehouse got super full – facebook and then twitter were also growing. The table tennis table became a folding table, and the arcade machine was turned off. It became pretty clear that a move to larger premises was in order.
Moving to a larger Grey Lynn space, there was now extra space for a genuine showroom, more office space, a larger warehouse and space for the team’s biggest investment yet – a screen-printing machine. Shortly after, Phil arrived as the specialist screen printer, Rob implemented a real life accounting system, and the business was really starting to look, act, and feel like a grown-up business. Phil had been printing longer than Hayden had been alive, and we took that as a pretty good sign.
There were still the same problems though; someone putting the dribbles from their wee-wees on the floor and toilet seat, and someone leaving the cheese that had squirted out of their toasted sandwich on the sandwich press. It was long suspected but never confirmed that they were the same culprit; but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the sort of person that leaves wees on the toilet may also leave their cheese in the press.
Not long after the battle to rid ourselves of stinky wee wees, we decided it was time to invest in a digital printer. They’re like magic; you can print anything straight on a t-shirt, no screens necessary; Phil wasn’t that impressed, but being able to ‘print to order’ changed the business model for the better.
We’d always wanted to start a new company, and in early 2010, we launched Parinto.com – a brand to showcase our favourite artists and contributors on t-shirts. We enlisted the help of Stephen Richardson to be the creative director, and he was a good addition to the team; always saying stuff like dope and sick. Parinto wouldn’t last long, but the 5,000 diaries would.
Being keen (and excellent) footballers ourselves, we were salivating over the All Whites just being at the 2010 World Cup. An undefeated run featuring draws against Slovakia, Italy and Paraguay wasn’t enough to see us through to the group stages, but it was certainly enough to win the hearts and minds. Rob was away on holiday at the time, but we ran with it and sold more t-shirts than we thought there were football fans in Aotearoa. Cheers Ryan.
Just to make things a little busier, we started a new venture with the guys from grabone.co.nz. They’re the leading group buying site in NZ, and they were really keen to work with us in building a t-shirt site, so grabonetee.co.nz was formed. A new t-shirt each day, at a special price, to a whole lot of people; just made sense really. We’d also just started licensing out our brand to a stationery company that saw our stationery at Whitcoulls and Borders. That was cool.
On September 4, 2010 Christchurch was hit with a 7.1 magnitude earthquake. The scenes were simply devastating. In an effort to raise money for the Red Cross, we released a support t-shirt, raising over $11,300 in just 5 days. We were stoked, but some people weren’t. We learnt a lot through the ordeal, and we decided that for any charitable tees, we would donate all proceeds.
February 22, 2011 and Christchurch is hit with another shock, and although this time it was only a 6.3, the intensity and damage was far worse than the September shakes. We felt compelled to again try and do whatever we could to raise funds for Christchurch, this time raising in excess of $124,000. Though only a small contribution in terms of the damage, the four charities we supported (The Salvation Army, Victim Support, St John & the SPCA) were chuffed with it. The Christchurch tees taught us many things, least of which was that in times of need, New Zealander’s really muck in and help out. We were completely blown away by the support of customers and suppliers alike.
During the early stages of 2011, Rob devoted most of his time to researching the Australian market, with a view to setting up mrvintage.com.au – an Australian version of Mr Vintage, as you might have assumed. Rob first really started thinking about it when he went for an OE early in 2010, noticing the plethora of Aussies running around with flags and southern crosses on their boardies. Rob then set about obtaining licenses, researching brands & videos, and just generally getting in touch with the more nostalgic side of Australian culture.
Mrvintage.com.au was launched on June 14, 2011 – with a whole bunch of Aussie favourites in there; Blinky Bill, Mr Squiggle, Keep Australia Beautiful, and even a flaming Galah. Hopefully the people of Australia think it’s fully sick. See, told you we’d done our research.
Topical Tees. Following on from the Christchurch tees, All Whites, and the Scary Washing Machine before that – a growing part of our business became our ability to react to events and trends really fast; having an in-house design and print set-up was key to this, and our growing reputation meant that people almost came to expect them. In July 2001, Cameron Leslie “finished his set” and we documented it on a t-shirt, naturally. In October, this Levi Hawken video came out – Nek Minnit, we had a range of t-shirt’s after a chat with Levi. I tried many ways of not using a nek minnit gag in there but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s like knowing a meal is really hot and might burn your tongue but just going for it anyway.
After another 4 year wait, the 2011 Rugby World Cup was upon us. Being at our Great North Road location – conveniently right in the thick of the official World Cup walk – turned out to be a masterstroke. Patriotism was at an all time high; Sonny-Bill was turning it up, the Cloud was pumping, and Piri was keeping calm amid all the first-five’s collapsing around him. John Key had a 3-way and we won some Silverware too. We couldn’t print fast enough.
Come December – and our biggest Christmas to date – Rob decided he didn’t need a holiday so we began working on a range for Rhythm n Vines, the New Years Gisborne festival that we’d run the merchandise for. Rob assembled a team of Cousins and Caucasians, took the new t-shirt gun down and even had time to make a video about it with some very festi music in the background.
That year we spent our summer making t-shirts and singlet’s and our winter making hoodies and crews, as well as branching out with new products like Cushions and collaborating with New Zealand artists. It was a hard Winter; March bringing with it the crippling ‘Marmite Shortage’ that would go on to haunt New Zealand Mum’s pantries for over 6 months.
With the changing landscape of New Zealand society in full swing – ‘The GC’ became a thing, Jamie Ridge and Sonny Bill were maybe a thing, and somewhat bizarrely the team at Burger King decided they’d stop cutting BK Chicken’s in half for us – we continued to build long-term relationships with charities like Daffodil Day, Loud Shirt Day, and Pink Shirt Day – any sort of charities that really pushed the ‘Day’ deal, it seems like.
Shortly after getting well and truly swept up with our rowing efforts at the London Olympics, we celebrated the 7th Birthday of Mr Vintage from our Grey Lynn office. We’d previously always forgotten to celebrate our birthday, so the saveloy’s and fish & chips went down extra smooth. Things were going well, but there were issues holding back our growth, chiefly the size of warehouse in accommodating an ever-expanding range (and workforce)… Callan, an old school mate from Papatoe High, had recently joined the team, having grown tired of running a café and people.
We were determined that Christmas that year would be our biggest ever, and to prepare, we began working with a lot of talented local artists. We expanded our range to include products like cushions, calendars, jewellery and key rings (our Kelly Vise range was huge), clocks, art works and books. It worked; Christmas was huge and they ate all the Chocolate Fish key-rings right up.
Having long ago decided that we needed to move, Rob spent a bunch of time trying to find a warehouse and office space big enough for us that wasn’t in Penrose (nothing against Penrose, they have an excellent range of lunch-bars. By the end of February we were on the move, just down the road to 11a McDonald Street, Sandringham…
McDonald Street was bigger – around four times actually, so we filled it up nicely with just enough room for a wall to kick the football at…