May 16, 2008

We interview Carla Rolfe, owner of online shop “Reflections”

TM: When did you decide that t-shirts was your thing?

CR: I never really sat down and thought about it, I’ve just always loved t-shirts. I designed my first one in grade school in the early 70’s, when the cool trend of times was to use iron-letters to make a statement! After I made one, I wanted to make more – and then discovered tie-dying as well. When I was a teenager, a family friend gave me a tee with the logo of her employer (a San Francisco suburb’s daily newspaper), and something about the logo design struck me as so cool, that it instantly became my favorite tee.

TM: How long have you been in the t-shirt biz? And what have you learned?

CR: I first starting selling my designs on posters & calendars in the late 90’s, but I soon discovered that t-shirts were a much better way to have fun! If there is one thing I’ve learned that has really stood out among this business, is that so often what you think is your best work, others will completely ignore. By contrast, something that took you no time at all to create, instantly becomes the hot, in-demand item. In other words, it’s almost impossible to predict what will really catch on. You just design to your heart’s content, and folks will buy what they like.

TM: How did you decide on making family friendly Christian t-shirts?

CR: This is really a great question. When I first started designing Christian t-shirts, I wanted something that both stood apart from the common, somewhat cheesy Christian t-shirts that were available, and also something available in a wide variety of styles, and affordable. Anyone who’s ever shopped in a Christian bookstore or retail outlet where they sell tees, already knows that you’re limited in style selection, limited in design, and WAY too over-priced. I really wanted to create something better and not only better for others that like Christian tees but designs that I would wear myself (and I do!).

The “family friendly” part of the store really refers more to my Just 4 Fun designs. Anyone who loves t-shirts, loves a funny slogan on one. You know, the kind where you see someone wearing it walking down the street or in a mall, and you actually smile when you read it, and remember it. The only problem with a lot of “funny t-shirts” is that they have the kind of slogan on it that is offensive to a lot of people. It’s my supreme delight to make a dent in that market, and offer something else – something cleaner – that any family member could wear, without the potential for offense. Funny t-shirts rock, but CLEAN funny t-shirts rock even more.

TM: Which of your shirts is your absolute favorite?

CR: Wow, there’s an almost impossible question to answer. I’m not sure I have just one favorite, but if I had to pick the top few out of all my designs I’d have to go with SOLD OUT , Livin It and In His Image. Out of all my funny t-shirts, my own personal favorite is Don’t Make Me . That one was inspired by every mother I know, that does it. Everyone who’s seen it comments on someone they know that does it too, and that would love that shirt.

TM: Do your run your label alone or do you have a team?

CR: I do have a team, I call them husband and kids. They’re my quality/fashion control panel of experts. They’re a good crew to bounce ideas off, since they’re all different ages with all different tastes & styles. If they say they love it, it goes in the store. If they all look at me like I have 11 heads and say “uh… I don’t get it”, I scrap it and start over. It works out really well.

TM: Where do you get your inspiration from when it comes to designing t-shirts?

CR: Easy, LIFE! For my Christian shirts it might be the Bible, or a particular topic that is currently being discussed in evangelical circles (church, friends, bloggers, etc.). For my funny t-shirts, I’m totally inspired by everything. Funny things people say & do, or even an off-color joke I read that can be cleaned up and is still just as funny. Believe it or not, I was even recently inspired by a bowl of jellybeans and a funny story I heard as a kid. You can check out the result of that in Jelly Bean Fun.

TM: How has having a Cafepress shop been working for you?

CR: Cafepress has been a real blessing for me. Back when I was designing and creating my own calendars, someone emailed me and said “hey, you really should check out Cafepress”. I did, and poked around a little but for some reason I really didn’t get on board right away. I went back to printing and coil binding my own calendars, handling all the shipping myself (and customer service). Eventually I gave Cafepress another look when I decided I wanted to expand, and have help. For an incredibly reasonable monthly fee, Cafepress does all the printing, shipping AND customer service. This allowed for me to have far more time to both create more and advertise more. I’ve been with Cafepress for a few years now, and I’ve tried the other POD (print on demand) shops, but I like CP the best.

TM: What’s in the works for the future of your label?

CR: Well, Kiefer Sutherland is going to discover my 24 – Do Not Disturb shirt, wear it during the taping of the next 24 episode. Sales will take off in such a way that the entire northern hemisphere will go “wow, did you feel that rush of wind that just ripped through here?!” Okay fine, I can dream big, right? :-) Looking at reality a little closer, I’m just going to keep doing what I do, and hope folks continue to enjoy what they find at Reflections.

TM: What tips could you give to others trying to get into the t-shirt biz?

CR: Two things right off the bat: don’t have unrealistic expectations and assume you’re going to hit paydirt overnight (you might, but more than likely you wont) and be prepared to work hard at what you’re doing. First time entrepreneurs have a tendency to assume that what they’re offering is just going to take off immediately, and get frustrated when that doesn’t happen. Anything worth having is worth working hard for, and the same applies to the t-shirt biz. The competition is brutal, and you have to be creative enough, original enough, and willing to work hard enough to make your mark in the business. Part of working hard if you’re selling online, is to SEO your shop like there’s no tomorrow.

SEO is “search engine optimization” and it makes your shop easy to find, for people looking for what YOU have to offer. There are tons of websites out there that offer free tips on how to do it, and it’s smart advice to follow those tips. As an aside, if you’re in it for the money, it’ll show in the end result of your product. T-shirt designs created by artists who simply love what they do, almost always have a quality to them that the simplistic, profit driven-designs just don’t have. So just do what you love doing, have fun with it, work hard at it, and before you know it, folks are talking about (and buying) your shirts. That’s a really nice thing to have happen.

I’d like to thank T-Shirt for taking the time to feature Reflections, and allow me to answer some really great questions. Now… if anyone knows how I can get a hold of Jack Bauer, please don’t hesitate to drop me a note via email. :-)