Getting chased by the police isn’t fun.
However, in the case of Micha Weinblatt and his goal of selling T-Shirts to his fellow college classmates, getting chased by the police was a risk he was willing to take.
Weinblatt has Duke University to thank for jumpstarting his career.
Attending the University of Maryland in the early 2000s, when it came to college basketball, there was no bigger rivalry for the Terrapins than Duke. The two programs clashed on many occasions and as the rivalry grew, Weinblatt and his friends saw an opportunity.
They decided to print a T-Shirt that read, “F*ck Duke” and as they say, the rest is history.
“We knew the shirt was going to sell, so we made a whole bunch of these shirts and I ran through the dorms selling them out of my backpack,” Weinblatt said. “We were chased by all of the resident assistants and the police because obviously you’re not allowed to sell stuff in the dorms.”
The shirt was so popular that at the next Maryland-Duke basketball game, students wearing the shirt were either forced to leave or turn them inside out because of the FCC-banned explicative that could not be shown on television.
After producing around 500 shirts and selling out rather quickly, Weinblatt had made enough money to launch his brand Crooked Monkey, which after a couple of changes over the years, would turn into one of the biggest custom merchandise agencies that the United States has to offer.
But back in 2005, their business model was much more simplistic. Weinblatt wanted to turn his love for T-Shirts into something he could make money on and that started with a website.
“I and a couple friends got together senior year of college and we wanted to make like a college humor website and a funny T-Shirt website,” Weinblatt said. “This was around the time that Paris Hilton was wearing T-Shirts, Brittany Spears was wearing T-Shirts. T-Shirts were so hot and we were like, we can do better, funnier and cooler looking designs.”
Looking to Expand
With some money and confidence in hand after finding so much success with their anti-Duke T-Shirts, Weinblatt and his friends took their other funny graphic ideas to retail stores in Maryland during the summer of 2005.
With a college degree insight, however, Weinblatt gave himself an ultimatum.
“I was in the middle of getting a five-year joint master’s, bachelors program at Maryland,” Weinblatt said. “During my senior year I took master’s classes and I would have graduated in five years. In that summer, we gave ourselves a deadline. We said either the business takes off in the summer, or I go back to school. So we worked really, really hard that summer.”
With no social media to give them ideas on who to target back in the early 2000s, Weinblatt caught a break. A couple of visits to their competitor’s websites gave him all the information he needed to start approaching retail stores.
“Luckily they had listed what stores they sold to, so that became our target list for where we wanted to sell our stuff to,” Weinblatt said. “We printed out their list, made phone calls and just drove up the east coast to different stores. We put our inventory in our truck and just started driving.”
Learning the Business
It didn’t take long for Weinblatt and his friends to hit a roadblock. Luckily for them, it was only a minor one.
“The first place we went to asked for a line sheet,” Weinblatt said. “We just told them that we had run out of them and we googled what a line sheet was and we came back and realized that it was a catalog. We both made one that night and came back the next day and showed them our catalog.”
What separated Weinblatt’s operation from the rest was that he was not doing any of the printing himself. He and his team created the graphics, marketed their T-Shirts and closed the deals. They did all of that while having a local print shop do the actual printing.
Their original printer was based out of College Park, Maryland.
“We loved him,” Weinblatt said of his first printer. “He was hilarious, but he didn’t show up to work half the time. He was a character, but when we started to grow, we had to find somebody a little more reliable.”
Starting From Scratch
After finding some initial success, Weinblatt was dealt his first giant curveball in 2006 when his main business partner wanted out. Not ready to give up on Crooked Monkey, Weinblatt bought him out and found himself as the only employee remaining in the company.
“When he left, it happened to be that our designer randomly left at that same time, and so did one other employee,” Weinblatt said. “What I saw was a booming business that was dying. My partner left and I was like, well, I still believe in this company. But literally, there was nothing left. It was just me at the time. I still believed in the company, so I told myself I was going to truck through.”
Six months later, Weinblatt’s determination to revive and grow the company paid off.
“I had a showroom in New York that made an intro to Lord & Taylor,” Weinblatt said. “G2 Showroom and they helped introduce us to a lot of clients in the New York area and they got us into Lord & Taylor. It’s a grind. Putting in 10-12 hours a day. In 2006, the whole team collapsed and it was just me. I was carrying it on my back.”
Getting his brand picked up by Lord & Taylor was the big break Weinblatt and Crooked Monkey needed. From there, Crooked Monkey was picked up by the likes of Bloomingdales, Saks and Urban Outfitters and the brand was off and running.
“Once we got into Lord & Taylor, we kind of made a name for ourselves,” Weinblatt said. “What I was thinking at the time was that I believe in this, I love this, it’s my baby and I’m going to see this thing through.”
Weinblatt enjoyed the rebirth of his company up until the market crash of 2008 that hit the retail market hard. With a lot of his boutiques going out of business seemingly overnight, he began to pivot from exclusively funny T-Shirts to more upscale designs.
“We changed our line to shirts that you could wear out but weren’t necessarily message shirts,” Weinblatt said.
He also started expanding into other avenues such as local restaurants in the area.
“Between 2008-14 in Washington D.C. we had a lot of restaurants and local people that would say hey, your shirts are awesome, can you design our shirts?” Weinblatt said. “One by one, that would kind of happen.”
Weinblatt said he remembers when he worked with a local Washington D.C. restaurant in 2012. That experience helped expose him to the custom merchandise business for the first time.
“The first design shirt we ever did was for a restaurant in DC which is still around,” Weinblatt said. “We made these awesome Lincoln T-Shirts. The name of the restaurant was named Lincoln and we took their logo and we designed his election T-Shirts as if Abraham Lincoln was running for office. That’s kind of where people got a feel for what we were. We weren’t just going to print your shirts, but we were going to think about what we’re printing.”
Expanding the Team
Two years later, Weinblatt brought Matt Kustes on board to help grow the business and they dropped their apparel/retail side of the business to focus their attention on branded merch.
“That was in 2014 and since then, the business has really caught on fire,” Weinblatt said.
The origin story is really critical because we see ourselves as a merch agency,” Weinblatt said. “The big thing that we offer really is we say we elevate your brand. And the way we do that is through custom sourcing, design, really good customer service and logistics. And all of that was learned on the retail side.
“We designed shirts and our own brand of apparel. Ryan Seacrest wore our shirts, Miley Cyrus wore our shirts. So we take all of that knowledge of how to build a retail brand and we bring that to our clients. Nobody wants to wear a crappy-looking T-Shirt. You want it to feel good and you want it to look good. So the origin story is really important for where we are today.”
Still today, Crooked Monkey doesn’t do any of the printing themselves. Weinblatt and company have built up a network of printers and embroiderers all throughout the United States and in China. It’s a process that has had their operation running smoothly for years.
“Our network now is extremely strong,” Weinblatt said. “Now we have six printers and embroiderers throughout the country. They are on our slack channel and we’re talking to them every day. We also have factories in China that we’re close with also. Relationships are everything both on the manufacturing side and the customer side. That’s always been the case since we started.”
Overseeing the Fulfillment
While Weinblatt leaves the printing to his six printers, he does have a hand in the fulfillment process. A fulfillment center was created not only to help streamline the process as much as possible but also for Weinblatt to be able to keep a close eye on everything that goes out to their clients.
“For us, it’s really important to own the process,” Weinblatt said. “Which is why we do most of the fulfillment through this joint venture. A lot of the time, we want to be able to add special touches. Whether it’s printing their logo on the box or making a custom box. We just want to have much more control over the fulfillment so we can make sure that it gets out the way it needs to get out.
“Really the way we look at it is as a merch agency just solving a client’s problem. Sometimes they need a rush, sometimes they need a great price, sometimes they need a premium brand, sometimes they need it fully custom, sometimes they need it in 19 different locations at the same time. We’re always asking the right questions in order to provide the right service.”
Adapting and Advancing
After surviving the market crash of 2018 and having to adapt to life after COVID-19, one thing has remained constant within Crooked Monkey and that’s giving their customers more than they bargained for.
“We’re always looking to add value to our clients,” Weinblatt said. “If we’re just doing the regular stuff, we’re not adding value. Because we’re trying to constantly push the envelope, which is why we’ve built phenomenal relationships abroad where we can do custom sourcing stuff. A lot of what we do is full cut and sew. And because we’ve built those relationships abroad, that was really important to us so that we could do more than just print a T-Shirt, which anyone can do. It’s more like, can we design it or can we do something special? Add a woven label, can we make it fully customizable. Because we pushed the envelope on that side to satisfy our customers, we had really strong relationships last year where we could trust our teams in China to bring us what we needed.”
Weinblatt also gave a lot of credit to his team for being able to adapt, think quickly and problem solve during Covid-19 which helped them pivot through the crisis.
Crooked Monkey joined DecoNetwork in 2019 and has enjoyed tremendous success since then. Weinblatt said the decision to join DecoNetwork centered largely around the failure of their previous system.
“Before we were using DecoNetwork, we were using Google Sheets and Asana, which is a task manager,” Weinblatt said. “We were doing that and the process broke at the end of 2019, which is when we joined DecoNetwork. Honestly, our business wouldn’t have been able to grow because we can’t use a stone tablet when you’re scaling as fast as we are. DecoNetwork has really helped us expand and be able to focus on growing the business using the processes that they have already put in place. It makes sure we’re on top of our stuff.”
Weinblatt and his company don’t use DecoNetwork like most on the platform. With Crooked Monkey not doing any printing or embroidery, they use the platform as a free form product. While they aren’t using the platform in the traditional sense, it still serves a vital role in their day-to-day operations.
“The printers and embroiderers we use are so good at what they do,” Weinblatt said. “They’re problem solvers. They’re so good at that and we’re so good at all of the rest.”
Crooked Monkey works fully remote. With employees in the U.S., Argentina, Brazil, and the Philippines, Weinblatt said there’s nothing his team of 18 can’t accomplish. Weinblatt said the company is in a great position right now and continues to see growth with each passing year.
To learn more about Crooked Monkey, click HERE.