Why One Man Came Out of Retirement to Start a Custom T-Shirt Franchise The most inventive franchises can have unexpected starts.

By Jason Daley

This story appears in the February 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Jesse Chehak
Bean, the big dog of Big Frog.

In 2004, Leeward Bean was happily retired. He'd helped build a scientific instrument company, Ocean Optics, and sold it for $50 million. But when a pair of former employees, Christina Bacon and Ron DeFrece, pitched him on an online novelty shop called Uniquely Geek, the science nerd couldn't resist: He agreed to give them seed funding and advice. And soon enough, this little side project would spawn an entire new business for him. It all began when he stopped into Uniquely Geek's south-Florida office one day; the staff had just written 100 nerdy slogans for T-shirts, and wanted to print them all. "I said, bless your heart, you can't do that," remembers Bean. It would be a nightmare -- meeting a silk screener's minimum order for each design, finding space to store it all. Nope. Can't happen. The geeks' response: "Figure it out!"

Bean went down to the International Print Society's trade show in Orlando, and discovered brand new, on-demand technology: a machine that prints shirts. He bought one of the first units available and started making the geek apparel. When a local TV reporter came to do a segment on Uniquely Geek, the team designed and printed shirts for him on the spot. Soon after the segment aired, small businesses, schools and everyone else started calling, asking for short runs of tees and logo pullovers. That's when Bean realized the machine might have uses beyond printing puns about Schrodinger's cat.

So, he rented a 900-square-foot former barbershop in the Tampa area and began doing custom shirts. In its first month, the store grossed $22,000. By 2008, he had three units and began franchising. Now, his company, Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More, has 66 units around the country and 25 more ready to open in 2016. Bean explains how it happened so fast.

Why did you decide to franchise?

I asked my banker if he knew anything about franchising, and he connected me with a franchise broker. The broker showed up one morning to check out the concept and didn't leave till six that night. He said Big Frog was one of the most salable concepts he'd seen -- minimum inventory, daylight hours, minimum square footage and minimal employees. He was selling his brokerage firm and said he'd love to come work with us. That weekend I went home and did the figures and thought, wow, this could be pretty neat, even with the cost of support and training.

Who are your primary customers?

Everyone you talk to is a prospect. Everyone has six or 15 T-shirt ideas in their closet. We have a lot of B2B customers, but schools are probably our single biggest market. With us, a debate team with six members can get shirts. A silk screener would just laugh at that order.

You can get T-shirts on the internet now. Why should someone use Big Frog?

Internet companies Zazzle, CustomInk, and CafePress do a billion dollars in revenue, and we do about $22 million. We look at that as an opportunity. Our product is less expensive because you don't pay for shipping. And there's no help button on the internet. You have to create your own artwork and submit it. People bring images from CafePress to us and we improve them, adding drop shadows and bending letters. And we let them try on the shirts. We'll help design a logo. They can get it the next day rather than waiting. Our business has a snowball effect -- 40 percent of our customers are repeat business and 27 percent are referrals.

Why are you called Big Frog?

We looked at things like T-Shirts Express and T-Shirts By Tomorrow but couldn't get the websites. I was brainstorming with my co-founder Ron, who always called me Big Dog, and we thought that might work, but there was already a Big Dog apparel group. Reflexively Ron said "Big Frog." I thought of all the designs you could do with a frog. Then we were off and running!

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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